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Leighton Vander Esch has become the Cowboys’ forgotten linebacker

Cowboys Rookie Camp Football

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch (55) goes through drills during the team’s NFL football rookie minicamp in Frisco, Texas, Friday, May 11, 2018 (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)


Jaylon Smith won the Cowboys’ Ed Block Courage Award at the team’s charity kickoff luncheon Wednesday afternoon. It was something of a miracle that the linebacker even played last season.

But now, without the AFO drop-foot brace, Smith looks like the All-American he was at Notre Dame before the devastating knee injury in his final game for the Irish.

“When no one ever thought I’d play the game of football again, I was able to play all 16 games last year and contribute at a high level,” Smith said Wednesday. “But I’m back now, so my role has increased tremendously.”

If the Cowboys had seen this Smith before the draft, maybe they wouldn’t have taken Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch in the first round. But Smith’s play also has kept Vander Esch’s absence from being a bigger deal.

The Cowboys’ athletic trainers have seen more of Vander Esch than the coaches have since he arrived four months ago. He injured his ankle and missed the end of OTAs and all of the minicamp. Now, Vander Esch has a groin injury that has kept him out since the first preseason game and could sideline him for the season opener.

“Obviously when they’re missing valuable time, it’s not optimal,” executive vice president Stephen Jones said. “But at the same time, we know what kind of player he is. We know when he’s ready that he’ll be able to help us.

“We feel at least somewhat good that he can join us back here on next Wednesday and be ready to go back to work full speed for the Carolina game. That’s going to be the important part. Can he go and get prepared? If not, we’ll have to be smart about that.”

The Cowboys are in no hurry to rush Vander Esch back, with Sean Lee, Smith, Joe Thomas and Damien Wilson providing star power and depth at the position.

“The great news is that’s a position on our team where we feel really good about our depth, maybe better than we’ve ever felt,” Jones said. “We’ve got six to seven linebackers there that can not only play special teams on the back end, they can actually play linebacker in a game, and we feel good about it.”