One of the Dallas Cowboys’ top defensive players could be gone in a year. The team has decided not to pick up the fifth-year option on Leighton Vander Esch's contract, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent after the 2021 NFL season.

Dallas had the option to pay Vander Esch $9.1 million for the 2022 season. The linebacker has a $2.095 million base salary in the fourth and final year of his rookie contract.

The two sides can still agree to a long-term contract before next year’s free agency period.

The first-round of this past week’s draft was an indication that the Cowboys wouldn’t pick up Vander Esch’s option. Dallas selected Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons with the No. 12 overall pick.

In his rookie season, Vander Esch looked like he might become a cornerstone of Dallas’ defense for the next decade. The linebacker was a 2018 Second-team All-Pro selection with 140 tackles and two interceptions.

Injuries have limited Vander Esch to just 19 games over the past two seasons. The 25-year-old has a career-low 60 tackles and one tackle for a loss in 2020.

The Cowboys gave linebacker Jaylon Smith a five-year contract extension worth nearly $64 million two years ago. Veteran linebacker Sean Lee retired shortly before the 2021 draft.

Dallas signed Keanu Neal in free agency. The former Atlanta Falcons safety will play linebacker for the Cowboys, according to new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn.

The Cowboys selected six defensive players, including two linebackers, in the first four rounds of the draft. Only four teams surrendered more points than Dallas last season.

Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones