Yesterday, Pro Football Focus, a site that watches the film and hands out grades on each individual player in the NFL, released it's top five overall grades at linebacker for the 2018 season. Not that we should be surprised, but Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith both appeared on this top five list.
We see it every Sunday, so we know how good they've been from a Dallas Cowboys context, but being on a top five list with Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly should tell you that we are watching something special happening. Wagner and Kuechly have long been considered two of the best linebackers in the NFL and both have been rewarded with Pro Bowl and All-Pro selections, deservedly so.
There is only one other team that features two linebackers in Pro Football Focus' top 10 and the is the Carolina Panthers with Kuechly checking in at number two and Thomas Davis at number 10. The Cowboys and the Panthers are the only teams to have two linebackers in the top 15 at their position as well.
We're watching something special, even if we don't truly appreciate it. Ever since Rod Marinelli took over this defense, I've been patiently, and at times not so patiently, waiting for this team's version of Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs. Finally, we may have it.
What's amazing about what these two are doing, is that they're doing it at such a young age, with very little experience. Leighton Vander Esch is a 21-year-old rookie who just played his 15th NFL game after starting for only one season at Boise State after he walked on because as an eight-man football player he got zero scholarship offers. Jaylon Smith is 23, has had to overcome that devastating Fiesta Bowl knee injury he suffered at the end of his college career. He spent his rookie season in 2016 rehabbing and 2017 playing mostly as a part-time player before taking the reigns at middle linebacker this season.
The results have been spectacular and they're a duo that hasn't even reached the limits of what they're capable of and that should scare the rest of the NFC.
On the season, Leighton Vander Esch is third in total tackles and second in solo tackles, according to Pro Football Reference. Vander Esch's two interceptions has him tied for fifth at the linebacker position. The rookie is also third in the NFL in stops, which are recorded by Pro Football Focus as a “play that results in a loss for the offense.” Vander Esch is in the Defensive Rookie of the Year discussion, which should say a lot about the way he's played.
Jaylon Smith is 13th in the NFL in solo tackles. Among linebackers, Jaylon Smith is tied for seventh in the NFL with four sacks and is 12th in the league with 15 total pressures, per Pro Football Focus. Jaylon ranks 16th in the NFL in PFF's stops statistic.
By many measures and when you watch the games or any all-22 film, you see an explosive, athletic, and fast duo that has wrecked opposing game plans all season long. You can see why the Dallas Cowboys were willing to make Sean Lee a healthy inactive in a win and clinch game. It also makes it hard to believe that either of these guys didn't make the Pro Bowl.
Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch are a big part of the reason that the Cowboys defense is playing as well as it is this year, and if this year is any indication, the Cowboys will be fielding a really nice defense for a long time coming.