Leighton Vander Esch entered the 2020 season with high expectations not simply for his production, but for his health. The former first-round pick suffered a season-ending neck injury in 2019 that required surgery to repair, and repeatedly noted how great he felt ahead of this year’s opener, but a fractured collarbone suffered early on against the Los Angeles Rams has since seen him sidelined on injured reserve. He’d undergo a procedure to fix that issue as well, and had at least a minimal chance at returning against the New York Giants in Week 5, but the Dallas Cowboys decided to err on the side of caution and sit him an additional week. 

With that added week of rest and an additional day granted by virtue of the Cowboys readying to play on Monday night, Vander Esch will fully participate in practice leading into the battle with the Arizona Cardinals, per head coach Mike McCarthy. He’ll take on full contact as well and, barring any setbacks, Vander Esch is likely to return to action this week — sources tell CBS Sports. 

His potential return couldn’t be more timely, to say the least, or impressive when considering the original timeline was 6-8 weeks.

The Cowboys are set to face off against a dangerous Arizona offense that features former Rookie of the Year Kyler Murray and four-time All-Pro wideout DeAndre Hopkins. Murray, who was named NFC Offensive Player of the Week for his role in dismantling the New York Jets, is a dynamo at the quarterback position. His mobility presents a massive threat to a Cowboys defense who routinely struggles with mobile QBs, and applies added pressure for the Dallas secondary to be immaculate in coverage in extended windows against Hopkins, who has already amassed 528 receiving yards on 45 targets in five starts. They’ll also have to contend with Kenyan Drake out of the backfield, adding to the degree of difficulty for a defense that’s had some serious trouble attempting to stop the run. 

Vander Esch being plunked back into the meat of the unit gives the Cowboys their defensive quarterback and while veteran Joe Thomas mostly played well in his absence, he’s begun tapering off as of late. 

Jaylon Smith, however, had a stellar game in the win over the Giants and reuniting him with Vander Esch should keep his good times rolling. The team swapped his role with Vander Esch this offseason — moving Smith to WILL (weakside) and Vander Esch to MIKE (middle) — and the absence of the latter has been felt in a major way, along with that of Sean Lee, who remains on injured reserve (sports hernia) for several more weeks. The team activated undrafted rookie Francis Bernard last week, but he’s been a nonfactor in helping the Cowboys fill the hole in the middle of their defense. Mostly relegated to special teams duty, Bernard saw just a handful of defensive snaps in spelling a fatigued Thomas last week.

Vander Esch will get yet another chance to prove his durability and value to the Cowboys starting in Week 6 — assuming no issues crop up in practice — desperate to also get back to the level of play that made him both a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro as a rookie in 2018. For the statistically worst defense in the history of the franchise, seeing the cavalry mounting up for a return (which will soon also include the return of Randy Gregory to live games) can only fuel a wry smile. 

Things are looking up defensively, after having been forced to look down for the first five weeks. 

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