Cowboys' Leighton Vander Esch still absent from practice with illness, 'all hands on deck' if he's unavailable vs. Jets

There's another concern looming for the Dallas Cowboys at the moment, and it's one they're hoping resolves itself quickly. This time it's in the form of linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who showed up to the team's facility in Frisco, TX on Wednesday for practice, only to then leave with an illness. 

He'd miss the first practice of the week in preparation for the New York Jets in Week 6, and wasn't well enough to participate on Thursday, either. Vander Esch was at the facility to do some minimal work ahead of practice -- which is promising -- and the Cowboys are hopeful he'll be fine to make the trip to MetLife Stadium this weekend. In the event his illness lingers, however, head coach Jason Garrett says it'll be "all hands on deck" should the second-year phenom be absent.

That would involve more snaps from veteran Sean Lee and likely at the WILL (weak side linebacker) role he's spent much of his career playing before being moved to SAM (strong side) with the emergence of Vander Esch in 2019. You could also pencil in more reps for veteran Joe Thomas, who has looked markedly better than Lee at many points this season. 

It might also see rookie Luke Gifford make his NFL debut, after battling back from preseason injury but having been inactive the first five games. Gifford has already had several practices wherein he's participated fully -- meaning his injury is definitely behind him.

Friday will be a key day in determining the availability of Vander Esch, but such is the case for at least two other key players as well.

The Cowboys took to the practice field on Wednesday looking to again reboot after suffering a second consecutive loss -- this time at the hands of the visiting Green Bay Packers -- in a game that saw them absent All-Pro left tackle Tyron Smith and having starting right tackle La'El Collins battle through a back issue, only to leave the game early with a knee injury. Collins received good news on Monday when an MRI showed no major damage to his MCL, and Smith is out of the walking boot worn for his high ankle sprain; and moving around well. The latter wants in against the Jets and the Cowboys are optimistic both will play, but neither has yet practiced this week.

Instead, both are continuing rehabilitation with the team hopeful they -- and Vander Esch -- can participate on Friday.

The expectation remains Smith will play against the Jets, according to sources, but that's also still to-be-determined as the team exercises extreme caution this week in gauging his status. And while Collins dodged a major knee injury, he's still battling a back issue that caused him to struggle against the Packers edge rushers. If one or both are unable to play, it'll again be backup swing tackle Cameron Fleming seeing time on the left edge while the Cowboys determine if undrafted rookie Brandon Knight can hold down the fort on the opposite side. Knight was serviceable when he entered the game against the Packers, but Fleming had one of the worst games of his NFL career.

The Jets pass rush is nothing to write home about -- having only six sacks this season -- but the Cowboys can't afford to take anything or any team for granted right now. If Smith, Collins and Vander Esch can play, you can expect them to suit up and try to prevent a three-game slide with a key NFC East battle against the Philadelphia Eagles looming in Week 7.

There are star players on the Jets side of the table already set to miss the contest, albeit not Sam Darnold, as both sides work to field the best 46-man roster they can on Oct. 13.

Stay tuned. 

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