When the 2018 draft rolled around, you can bet nobody saw the pick of Leighton Vander Esch coming in the 1st round. When it did, however, disappointment spread throughout the Dallas Cowboys fan base, seeing as he wasn't an ideal selection, but sometimes you stumble across a rose in the concrete.
After hearing his name called on draft day, the Cowboys newest linebacker didn't waste any time making his intentions and expectations known. “I'm excited to get in there with the guys and work every single day to make sure we can put ourselves in position to win Super Bowls because it's the ultimate goal,” Vander Esch said.
He wouldn't start until week 4, but his impact was felt immediately. Combining for 30 tackles in his first three career starts and helping the Cowboys to two victories. It was clear if you watched the film just how naturally gifted he was as a tackler, earning one of his nicknames “The Tackling Dutchman” almost instantly.
Weeks 9-11 is where the rookie sensation probably had his best stretch of 2018. Not only did he combine for 30 more tackles and help the team rack up two more victories like his first three starts, but a new dimension of his game came to the forefront. Vander Esch would show off his coverage skills against running backs and tight ends, getting his only two interceptions and five of his seven passes defended for the season. The ability to stop the run is paramount obviously, it makes offenses one dimensional, but having a linebacker with coverage skills in a passing league gets you a long way.
What also couldn't be denied was his on-field chemistry with Jaylon Smith. With Sean Lee still battling hamstring issues, this gave the 1st round pick more time to gel with his counterpart. It worked so well that not only were they making a case to be crowned the best linebacker duo in the sport, but they were the only set of teammates to rank in the top 15 in total tackles. Highly impressive wouldn't you say?
Vander Esch would have his new best buddy right beside him every time he did his signature wolf howl after a big play. It might seem insignificant to some, but football is the ultimate game of unity, and with this kind of support from a teammate, it certainly helped with the maturation process that all rookie players go through. Iron Sharpens Iron.
“The Wolf Hunter”, as he's known now, would appear in all 16 games, starting 11. Tallying 140 tackles (102 solo) and two interceptions. These numbers were good enough to garner him Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors, as a rookie, putting to bed all the doubters.
Going forward a huge advantage Vander Esch will have is learning under Sean Lee. The Cowboys mainly operate out of the nickel package, with two linebackers on the field, that will be Jaylon Smith and Vander Esch. Lee will rotate in for Vander Esch when it's called upon but the two young bulls will be the primary linebackers in this set. Lowering Lee's snap count will prolong his career and allow Vander Esch to draw knowledge from the well so to speak. This is something that will be paramount in his continued growth.
The Cowboys saw something in Leighton Vander Esch, and it's paid tremendous dividends so far. They would finish 7th in total defense in 2018 and became a unit the team could depend on, unlike years past, with the rookie phenom being a major link in the chain. He's a throwback linebacker with his physicality, but with coverage skills also in his toolbox, as mentioned earlier, his game adapts well in today's NFL.
The second-year pro is currently dealing with a pelvic injury that kept him out of OTA's, for precautionary reasons. Nonetheless, the future is bright for the kid from Idaho. With Jaylon Smith beside him, and hopefully a healthy Sean Lee, the Cowboys will have a dominant linebacking core in 2019.