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Leighton Vander Esch Graded Best Rookie Linebacker Since 2014

John Williams

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Leighton Vander Esch Lands on List of NFL's Top 10 Rookies

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. https://t.co/TeULZK8Bzk

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.



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.

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Cowboys RB Mike Weber’s Injury Scare Continues Concerning Trend

Jess Haynie

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Mike Weber

Rookie RB Mike Weber had a brief scare earlier this week with a knee injury in practice, but thankfully the MRI came back with a good report. However, as he fights to have a future with the Dallas Cowboys, this health incident is a concerning reminder of Weber's recent history.

One reason that Weber fell to the seventh round of the 2019 NFL Draft was due to battling injuries during his last two years at Ohio State. He lost his starting job in 2017 due to ongoing hamstring issues and also had to miss time last year because of a foot strain.

Carrying the load for the Buckeyes is a far different workload than being second or third on the Cowboys' RB depth chart. But this latest scare happened in early May, just two weeks after Mike joined the team and well before the more strenuous activities of an NFL offseason.

A practice injury can cost you just as badly as one that happens in a game. And with Dallas already thin at RB, it could leave them severely shorthanded if it occurs during the regular season.

Many have projected that the Cowboys' RB group in 2019 would have Ezekiel Elliott as the obvious starter and then rookies Weber and Tony Pollard behind him. While Pollard was drafted three rounds ahead of Weber, he's not built to take a large number of carries if Zeke were to go out.

If Mike Weber does make the team, he would be expected to take a sizable role if something bad happen with Elliott.

Mike Weber

Dallas Cowboys RB Mike Weber

The "injury prone" label is disastrous for any athlete, but especially a guy with no real claim to a roster spot. If Weber causes concern in the front office about his durability, they may go a different way at final cuts.

Remember, Mike's not just up against Pollard and Darius Jackson for a roster spot. There are still plenty of veteran free agent running backs out there that Dallas could turn to if they're not confident about their young prospects.

This isn't too say that one scary moment in May, which ultimately didn't amount to much, is reason to cut bait with Mike Weber. But when you stack it up with his injury history in college, it does make you wonder how he'll do over the course of an entire NFL season.

Hopefully, Weber bounces back from this and has a great summer. Former Buckeye RBs have treated Dallas well the last few years, and it'd be fantastic if Mike can provide the same solid solid depth that Rod Smith did.

But this latest news is just a reminder of why Dallas can't rest easy at running back just yet, and why they may still have another move to make to prepare for 2019.



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Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith Graduating From Notre Dame

Kevin Brady

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Sean's Scout: Jaylon Smith Returns Cowboys to NFC East Prominence in Win Over Bucs

The 2019 season is right around the corner for the Dallas Cowboys, with OTA's and training camp getting ready to kickoff in the coming weeks/months.

Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith made the most of his offseason, going back to Notre Dame to finish out his college degree. Smith is set to graduate from Notre Dame this Saturday, and will walk to earn his degree in Film & Television.

Smith talked to DallasCowboys.com's David Helman about why it was so important for him to graduate and finish what he started at Notre Dame. 

“When I left after my junior year, I promised my mom that I would go back and finish...Finishing my third year with the Cowboys, it was time.” - Jaylon Smith

Michael Bertsch on Twitter

2,025 @NotreDame undergraduates will receive degrees during Commencement Weekend. That contingent includes @thejaylonsmith Yes, the current @dallascowboys & former @NDFootball All-American linebacker, who took 21 credits this spring #4for40 #GraduatingChampions #CEV

Smith continues his leadership on and off the field, and we all send our congratulations to the Cowboys starting MIKE linebacker!



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Ezekiel Elliott Snubbed from Top 25 Players Under 25 List

John Williams

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Should Cowboys Start Preparing for Life Without Ezekiel Elliott?

On Tuesday, Pro Football Focus published it's Top 25 Players Under 25, with Dallas Cowboys Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch one of only three linebackers on the list. Oddly, one of the best players on the team was absent from this same list; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott.

The running backs they included were Kareem Hunt, Saquon Barkley, and Alvin Kamara. Pro Football Focus has been very open about their dislike of Elliott's 2018 season, ranking him 30th in the NFL according to their player grades.

Elliott has won the NFL's rushing title in two of his three seasons and likely would have won it in 2017 had he not been served with a league-mandated six-game suspension. Elliott ran for nearly 1,000 yards in the 10 games he played, which put him in 10th place in rushing in 2017. Le'Veon Bell led the NFL in rushing that season with 1,291 yards. Using some basic arithmetic, I've discovered that Elliott finished just 308 yards off the league lead in six fewer games.

https://twitter.com/PFF_Cowboys/status/1128700802422517761

Despite being the most productive back in the NFL in his first three years in the NFL, Elliott gets knocked because he sees such a high volume of carries and targets from the Dallas Cowboys offense.

On Wednesday, Mark Chichester of Pro Football Focus talked about the players who just missed the cut. Here's what he had to say about Ezekiel Elliott.

"There’s no doubt that Ezekiel Elliott is one of the top players at his position, but it’s hard to overlook the fact that his production is, in large part, thanks to the offense that Dallas has built around him. Over the last three years, Elliott ranks first in rushing attempts (868), rushing yards (4048), rushing yards after contact (2567) and first down conversions (219). However, his three-year rushing grade of 80.2 ranks ninth among the 36 backs with at least 300 attempts in that span, while his 0.119 missed tackles forced per attempt ranks tied for 27th among the same group." 

Mark Chichester - Pro Football Focus

Ezekiel Elliott is one of the best running backs in the NFL, if not the best. There can be an argument for Todd Gurley or Le'Veon Bell, and maybe even Saquon Barkley, but if you aren't including Ezekiel Elliott in the discussion, the discussion is a bit flawed.

For three years, under Scott Linehan as the offensive coordinator, every team in the NFL knows that Elliott is going to get the ball and get the ball a lot. Primarily on first downs. Yet, Elliott continues to be productive and grind out his yards, even against heavily stacked fronts.

I understand the argument that Elliott wasn't very efficient with his touches in 2018, but when you are the primary focus for opposing defenses, it makes it difficult to be efficient. Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamar had the benefit of being coached by Andy Reid and Sean Payton who are considered creative offensive minds. Saquon Barkley had the benefit of Odell Beckham Jr keeping safeties honest.

While the Cowboys had Amari Cooper, the passing game still doesn't get near the respect that the Cowboys run game gets from opposing defensive coordinators. With Kellen Moore on board and the talk about presenting multiple formations for opposing teams to figure out, the Cowboys offense could get more creative in 2019.

Heading into his fourth year in the NFL, it's amazing that Ezekiel Elliott apparently still has something to prove to some out there. After winning rushing titles in two of his three seasons and averaging right around 100 yards a game, Elliott still doesn't get the respect he deserves from national observers.



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