The phones are ringing in North Texas as the team begins wrapping OTAs in preparation for mandatory minicamp, but there's nothing cooking right now. Thus far, the only trade the Dallas Cowboys have made this entire offseason was during the 2021 NFL Draft, when they swapped spots with the Philadelphia Eagles and moved down from No. 10 with the goal of acquiring linebacker Micah Parsons -- which they did. They'd then double down at the position by selecting Jabril Cox in the fourth-round, two picks that send a clear-and-present message to incumbent starters Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith but, at least for the moment, neither are expected to be shipped out of Dallas.
The Cowboys have in fact received varying levels of trade interest in both, sources tell CBS Sports, but at different points this offseason and to differing degrees. As noted by Jane Slater of NFL Network on Wednesday, calls from other teams regarding Vander Esch have been rebuffed by Jerry Jones and Co. at every turn, with head coach Mike McCarthy placing a considerable value on his presence in 2021. This is deepened by the , and the reality that until Parsons and Cox show what they can do at the NFL level, it pays to have a talented starter in Vander Esch on the roster.
"Whether it's Jaylon, who obviously we have signed, or a guy like Leighton, who we know is going to be coming up for a contract -– you want to have depth there," said team exec Stephen Jones this offseason.
Vander Esch's fifth-year option was declined immediately following the draft, due to both cost and the team's aforementioned draft haul at the position, thrusting him into the contract year to come. As for Smith, Tony Romo in the hopes of regaining his Notre Dame prowess, it's a similar situation -- in that the Cowboys prefer to keep him around at least until they find answers to two pressing questions:once owned by former Pro Bowl quarterback
- Can Cox (Smith's direct competition in skill set and expected role) make Smith disposable as a starter?
- Or can Smith outperform Cox and beat back any ideas of moving on from him in 2021 or 2022?
It helps Smith's leverage that by keeping him on the roster in March, the Cowboys guaranteed his 2021 base salary of $7.2 million, but that wouldn't preclude them from trading him at some point before the NFL deadline in October if the answer to question No. 1 is a resounding "yes" and a team offered up a good return. It feels like both of those things would have to occur in tandem, or else the Cowboys would be fine with keeping Smith for both depth and insurance -- quite aware of the durability concerns on Vander Esch and also an up-and-comer like Luke Gifford (who's had his share of injury as well in his otherwise promising development as a rotational piece).
But if Smith doesn't show a gargantuan step forward this season in his own development, his $11.8 million cap hit in 2022 becomes much too jagged of a pill to swallow. That puts a trade possibility back on the table, as well as an outright release when considering the pre-June 1 numbers are equal either way. In either scenario, the Cowboys would be forced to eat $6.8 million in dead money but net $5 million toward their salary cap. And if they wait until post-June 1 to pull one of those triggers in 2022, the dead money hit drops to just $2.6 million while the savings toward the cap buoy to $9.2 million.
Also consider the Vander Esch portion of Smith's leverage or lack thereof at that point, because if Vander Esch proves he can remain healthy for the long haul, his ability on the field could trump that of even an emboldened Smith, making the latter a casualty for the purposes of clearing money to re-sign the former to a long-term deal -- as leader of a three-headed LB hydra that includes Parsons and Cox as his cohorts.
"Physically, right now, I feel good," Vander Esch told media in January. " ... I'm moving on to the next chapter and that's getting ready for the coming season. Just putting everything behind me -- how this past season went and I'm looking forward to making the most out of this coming season, training, and getting better physically, and getting better mentally. [I'm] meeting with the coaches and talking about things, looking at film and just keeping my mental side of the game up to date so we can get an early jump on this coming season."
And when it comes to the dark cloud of injury that now hovers above his NFL career, Vander Esch explains how he battles the frustration, and how takes exception to the narrative that he was injury-prone in his days at Boise State.
"That's the thing, I've never really dealt with injuries honestly, like even at Boise, I never really had injuries," he said. "I know a lot of people said I had neck issues at Boise and that was never, ever the case. ... I took that hit last year in 2019, and that messed up my neck for a little bit. And then my collarbone, and then the high ankle [in 2020].
"The only significant injury I had was my neck last year and I had surgery, and I've had nothing but great things happen after that as far as feeling good from that surgery. I [have never] felt better about my neck, and I haven't had any problems since. And then my collarbone wasn't like a snapped collarbone. I just cracked it and that's why I came back so soon.
"They plated it and it was good, stronger than my other one. And then I can't control anything about anyone fricking rolling on my ankle. It's not like I'm running down the field and I pull a hamstring. I haven't had muscle problems. I haven't had any of that."
All of this is accurate, in all fairness to Vander Esch, but the reality is the reality and as Hall of Fame coach Bill Parcells once famously noted: the best ability is availability. Suffice it to say, it's a pivotal year for both and the Cowboys are eager to see how it all plays out on the field. So, for now, they've opted to wave off trade interest in both Vander Esch and Smith. Of course, one phone call that blows the Cowboys away could change all of this, but they don't expect that to arrive. What they do expect, however, is for time to tell them who deserves to stick around and who doesn't, and the front office will take from there.
For Smith, who infamously said to "watch the film" in regards to defending his rollercoaster 2020 season, it bears mentioning how the Cowboys did and it led to the acquisitions of not only Parsons and Cox, but also the signing and conversion of veteran defensive back Keanu Neal to linebacker -- (and in reuniting with Dan Quinn, who has roster loyalty to neither Vander Esch nor Smith).
"I think when you talk about Cowboys ownership, it's about them doing their jobs on adding talent to make the team better," Smith said in May of the team's linebacker moves. "For me, I'm blessed to have this opportunity. And Micah is going to do some great things. He's little bro.
"We're all rocking. Leighton is looking great. Keanu -- all the new guys coming in, it's just an amazing linebacker room. And we're going to grind. We're going to work.
"And we're going to do what we got to do to get ready to have a great season and a great defense."
That's the plan, but with so many chefs in the LB kitchen, it seems inevitable someone eventually won't be invited back to the pot luck; and it'll be whomever decides to bring the cups and ice instead of an actual dish for the defense to feast on.