After the completion of the 2017 season, the Dallas Cowboys entered the offseason knowing they had to upgrade the linebacker position. They would’ve liked to retain Anthony Hitchens, but knew he would likely receive more money on the open market than they could afford. That’s why they turned their attention to the NFL Draft and used their first-round selection on Leighton Vander Esch, the former Boise State LB.
As soon as Leighton Vander Esch’s name was announced on April 26 in the first-round of the 2018 NFL Draft, questions began to surface about where the young ascending LB would play for the Cowboys?
This of course is totally normal. Everyone would like to know exactly how these incoming rookies fit in with the current roster, especially for high draft picks. These are the players that are expected to start right away, which in Vander Esch’s case may be true. But, if you read anything into how he’s being utilized so far in Organized Team Activities (OTA’s), that might not be the case.
Personally, I don’t read too much into the OTA practices right now, because the coaching staff is still trying to get a feel for these new players coming in and how to get the best out of them. Things will be much more telling once the pads finally come on, but for now it’s fun to speculate.
As things stand right now, Sean Lee (WILL), Jaylon Smith (MIKE), and Damien Wilson (SAM) are the starting linebackers with Leighton Vander Esch playing as the second-team MLB. I wouldn’t expect that to change much anytime soon unless Vander Esch can get up to speed quicker than expected.
We all know that it takes a little while for rookies to not only learn the playbook, but adapt to the speed of the NFL. That might keep Vander Esch from starting right away, but it’s not necessarily bad news.
I actually really like the starting trio of Lee, Smith, and Wilson to start the season with Vander Esch playing the role vacated by Anthony Hitchens as a rotational player and insurance policy. That would allow him to dip his toes in before being thrown to the wolves. It sounds like a win-win for the young LB and the Dallas Cowboys.
But, we all know it’s going to come down to starting the right three linebackers to help the entire defense play at their best. That could mean Jaylon Smith is asked to move to the strong side and Vander Esch takes over as a starting middle linebacker.
As I said earlier though, this is all speculation at this point, but still intriguing nonetheless. This will continue to be a work in progress and we may not know exactly who will start on opening day until the defense finally steps on the field. But, one thing is for sure… the Cowboys could have a very good trio of LBs this season.