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LB Leighton Vander Esch Returns to Practice, How Much Should He Play at Panthers?

For the second year in a row, the Cowboys have high expectations as a team despite not expecting much of an impact from their first round pick. Last year’s 28th overall selection, Michigan Defensive End Taco Charlton, has progressed nicely entering year two – something the Cowboys are hopeful will happen at a much faster rate with Combine standout Leighton Vander Esch. Their 19th overall pick out of Boise State, the athletic linebacker only appeared in the Cowboys preseason opener before sitting out the remaining three games with a groin injury.

Kate Hairopoulos on Twitter

Rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch went through full practice and said he’s 100 percent after missing time to a groin strain. “It feels awesome to be back out there” he said. “Just working on getting back in shape just a little bit.

The Cowboys have been understandably cautious with Vander Esch, as groin injuries can linger throughout a season. According to LVE himself though, he’ll presumably be available to play on Sunday against the Panthers.

Going back to fan and media reactions from April 26th, when the Cowboys made Vander Esch the first player to be drafted in his new home stadium, is an exercise in futility well beyond the scope of what Leighton currently means to the Cowboys defense.

At the time, despite being criticized for the pick, the Cowboys had too big of a need at linebacker to ignore.

Three days away from playing a meaningful game, the Cowboys can feel much better about their linebackers even without Vander Esch. Jaylon Smith has emerged as a healthy starter that should prove very difficult to take off the field, and the same is of course said about team captain Sean Lee at the moment.

Veteran Damien Wilson is also expected to start at SAM linebacker, where solid depth pieces like Joe Thomas and Justin March-Lillard could also see time.

Point being, the Cowboys don’t need to rush Vander Esch into anything this week, but should be looking to steadily work the rookie into MIKE linebacker duties. This is ultimately what Vander Esch was drafted for, and it will take time for the Cowboys to be comfortable with a player as raw as Leighton starting at this position.

Sean Martin ✭ on Twitter

Round 1: LB Leighton Vander Esch – Boise State “When given a chance in the hole against backs, LVE rarely misses in stopping the player in his tracks, bringing his 33 7/8″ arms through every tackle.” https://t.co/idoqIwvzXg

New Cowboys Passing Game Coordinator Kris Richard will have his say in not only the team’s secondary, but the deployment of the linebackers, which could turn Vander Esch’s strong coverage skills into a legitimate weapon for the Dallas defense.

Given the match ups the Carolina Panthers look to create with Christian McCaffrey and Greg Olsen, the Cowboys could very well be expecting Vander Esch to play just as many snaps as Smith or Lee.

The fact that this doesn’t have to be the case for Dallas if they don’t choose to is a great sign however. The Cowboys should be very pleased with the progress of their linebackers this offseason. While it’s fair to be skeptical of their own evaluation of the roster prior to drafting LVE for need in the top 20, this is still a player that will help them throughout his first season.

It will take the Cowboys playing LVE to his strengths and protecting him early in the season a bit, something this groin injury (a thing of the past now) helps them do. The most recent pride of the Boise State Broncos to end up on America’s Team starts his journey towards truly earning the star this Sunday.

Tell us what you think about “LB Leighton Vander Esch Returns to Practice, How Much Should He Play at Panthers?” in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!

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Sean Martin

Written by Sean Martin

Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and wmscradio.com every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

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