Leighton Vander Esch Graded Best Rookie Linebacker Since 2014

It’s been quite a year for Dallas Cowboys Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.

Heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, Vander Esch was seen as a late first and early second round pick by most draft analysts and many believed that he was most likely a second rounder. Primarily because he had only one season at Boise State as the starter.

The week of the draft, however, rumors began circling that the Dallas Cowboys were very high on the linebacker as a potential replacement for Sean Lee. So they made him the 19th overall pick. Though he didn’t make an immediate impact, starting the season as a rotational player behind Lee and Middle Linebacker Jaylon Smith, Vander Esch took the NFL by storm when inserted into the lineup full-time in the wake of Sean Lee’s injury.

After not playing more than 50% of the defensive snaps the first three weeks of the season, the rookie first-round pick played more than 80% of the defensive snaps in 11 of the next 13 games. He only played 50% in week 17 after the Dallas Cowboys had already locked up the NFC East.

Pro Football Focus, who grades players based on film and statistical analysis, had Leighton Vander Esch as its highest graded rookie linebacker of 2018. Higher than Defensive Rookie of the Year Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts.

According to Pro Football Focus’ player grades, Vander Esch was the fifth highest rookie grade at the position since they began grading players back in 2006.

With the Dallas Cowboys adding reinforcements to the defensive line in Christian Covington, Kerry Hyder, Robert Quinn, Trysten Hill, it’s going to make Vander Esch’s job a lot easier.

PFF DAL Cowboys on Twitter

Leighton Vander Esch’s defensive grade of 85.7 was the highest among rookie LBs this past season. The last rookie LB to have a grade higher than LVE was Chris Borland in 2014. LVE has the 5th highest rookie LB grade since PFF started tracking stats (2006). #CowboysNation

The sky’s the limit for Vander Esch heading into his second season with the Cowboys. He’s now the starter at weakside linebacker and will make a formidable tandem with Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch led the Dallas Cowboys in interceptions with two, combined and solo tackles, was fifth in passes defended with seven, and played the sixth most defensive snaps on the team.

Yeaterday, he was named to Pro Football Focus’ top 25 players under 25.

PFF DAL Cowboys on Twitter

Leighton Vander Esch makes PFF’s top 25 NFL players under 25 for 2019 LVE was one of four LBs who earned grades of 80+ in both run defense and coverage.

Leighton Vander Esch was selected to the Associated Press’ All-Pro Second Team in his rookie season. With only two full-time seasons playing 11-man football (one at Boise State and one with the Cowboys), Vander Esch looks to be a player who has even more potential than what he showed in 2018. Heading into his second season he’ll have a better feel for NFL offenses and the physicality at the professional level of the game that should allow him to take his game to an even higher level.

That’s bad news for the opponents on the Dallas Cowboys schedule.

This fall, the Wolf-Hunter is coming.

What do you think?

John Williams

Written by John Williams

Dallas Cowboys optimist bringing factual, reasonable takes to Cowboys Nation and the NFL Community. I wasn't always a Cowboys fan, but I got here as quick as I could.

Make sure you check out the Inside The Cowboys Podcast featuring John Williams and other analysts following America's Team.


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