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Next Day Rant: Cowboys Drafting LB Vander Esch Looks Pretty Smart Now

Jess Haynie

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Leighton Vander Esch

Last April, the Dallas Cowboys took a lot of criticism for selecting Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft. But one month into the regular season, that pick is looking smarter every week.

The knock on the pick was that the Cowboys already had Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Damien Wilson as starting linebackers. Many felt Vander Esch was too raw to compete for a starting job right away, meaning you spent your first-round pick on a depth and rotation player.

Believe it or not, though, these teams do know what they're doing. They also know things we don't, such as just how fragile a certain 32-year-old linebacker really is.

Dallas didn't take Vander Esch for 2019 and beyond. They knew just how precarious trusting Sean Lee to stay healthy is, and they were proven right almost immediately. Lee got hurt in Week 3 and now could miss several weeks.

But the playing time and starting role aren't all that validates the selection. Vander Esch is playing well, even standing out among his defensive teammates. He's been more noticeable than Jaylon Smith these last two games.

Comparisons were made between Leighton and Hall-of-Famer Brian Urlacher months before he became a Cowboy. When Dallas drafted him, given Rod Marinelli's role on the team, it said that they agreed wholeheartedly.

Leighton was never a luxury pick. The Cowboys saw him as a necessity given Lee's likelihood of injury; a present danger and a future asset wrapped into a single first-round rookie.

Next Day Rant: Cowboys Drafting LB Vander Esch Looks Pretty Smart Now

Dallas Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch

Granted, the Cowboys' need for new offensive weaponry was a valid concern. You could still make the argument that a receiver like Calvin Ridley, who already has six touchdowns for the Atlanta Falcons, would've been a better pick.

But for years, we've seen what happened when Sean Lee misses time. Last year, even with DeMarcus Lawrence terrorizing quarterbacks, the Cowboys' defense looked lost when Lee missed five games.

The Cowboys had a decision to make for 2018; trust Sean Lee to stay healthy or trust that some of your receivers and tight ends would step into the holes left by Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.

I get why Dallas went the way they did. They signed Allen Hurns in free agency to replace Bryant, which at the time didn't look like a bad swap. Hurns didn't have Bryant's cache but Dez hadn't been living up to that reputation or salary for a few seasons.

Nobody expected one of the tight ends to be Jason Witten, but they didn't really have to be. There are only a handful of great TEs in the league at any given time, and other than those 5-6 guys everyone else is a J.A.G.

Dallas banked on the strength of their running game to keep the offense moving. They also added guys like Michael Gallup and Tavon Austin for some fresh talent and new wrinkles. So far, the chemistry hasn't developed as soon as you'd hoped.

Hindsight may say that they needed to do more to replace Bryant and Witten. I won't deny that. But you also can't deny that drafting Leighton Vander Esch has proven to be just as necessary.

Next Day Rant: Cowboys Drafting LB Vander Esch Looks Pretty Smart Now 2

Dallas Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch

I've heard some say "Joe Thomas could be starting right now," but that's another hindsight argument. Nobody knew how good Thomas would look in this scheme back in April. Back then, he was just a journeyman backup from the Packers that we signed for depth.

And really, do we even know how Thomas would look in a starting role? Lighting it up in preseason can mean very little come September. Maybe he'd be great, maybe not, but you had no reason to count on him during the 2018 draft.

Here's another thing you didn't realize was coming; Travis Frederick's absence. If Dallas had their All-Pro center out there, maybe the offensive chemistry would be a lot better right now. Maybe your hopes for Hurns, Swaim, and other guys would have had a better shot at coming true.

You deal with a lot of uncertainties and unknowns in putting together a roster and planning for a season. The Cowboys drafted Vander Esch because they were confident in two things, that Sean Lee was a major liability and that Leighton had some serious upside.

I won't quibble if you still think Dallas should've taken a WR or TE. But if you're still someone arguing that the Vander Esch pick was a mistake, then you're just being stubborn.

The Cowboys used their first-round pick on a guy who is helping them now in a major defensive role and looks like he could be a star for years to come. Even if he never goes to Canton with Urlacher, Leighton Vander Esch could still be a major factor on this team for the next decade.

If you're still not happy with that from a guy taken 19th overall, then you just don't want to admit that you were wrong.



Cowboys fan since 1992, blogger since 2011. Bringing you the objectivity of an outside perspective with the passion of a die-hard fan. I love to talk to my readers, so please comment on any article and I'll be sure to respond!

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2 Comments
  • TxBoss23

    This is what I was saying the night of the draft. On the first night, it hadn’t been reported that Witten was retiring so saying we should have taken a TE in round one is a moot point. Calvin Ridley would have been a solid pick but I think we went the right way. Sean Lee needs to move into the coaching staff after this season. We needed LVE to replace him and it is already paying off.

  • Sean Leonard

    I didnt even know who LVE was until I saw this 6’5 beast at the combine. I said to myself, who is this kid that moves this fluid and was aceing every task. I knew this was the kid Marinelli was waiting for in his Tampa 2. I was also positive that we would get Earl Thomas and the defense could be elite. As we are seeing early on, that Tampa
    Bay defense wouldnt have been without the elite safety play of John Lynch. I am also a conspiracy theorist. I really don’t believe Sean Lee is hurt right now. I still havent seen the particular play when he was hurt. Sean Lee knows LVE is special. He is sitting out on purpose for three reasons. One: LVE is only going to get better quickly with playing time. Two: Jaylon is the next General-in-charge. Putting that onus on Jaylon early in the season can only make this defense better in the long run. Three: Sean Lee gets to save his body for a deep season run.

Game Notes

Cowboys, Colts Week 15 Injury Report

Jess Haynie

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Less Is More For Sean Lee And Cowboys' LBs?

The Dallas Cowboys can clinch the NFC East with a win this week, while the Indianapolis Colts are fighting to stay alive in the AFC wild card race. Only one team can accomplish their goal, and both have some big names on the Week 15 injury report.

We'll begin with the visiting Cowboys, who could be getting at least one star player back while another is already confirmed to miss the game.

Dallas Cowboys

  • TE Geoff Swaim (wrist) - OUT
  • G Zack Martin (knee) - OUT
  • DL David Irving (ankle) - OUT
  • WR Tavon Austin (groin) - Questionable
  • WR Lance Lenoir (illness) - Questionable
  • OT Tyron Smith (neck) - Questionable
  • DE Randy Gregory (personal) - Questionable
  • LB Sean Lee (hamstring) - Questionable

Yes, sadly, Zack Martin will be out tomorrow. The good news is that Connor Williams got the entire week to practice with the starters at right guard. You can read much more about this situation and it's impact on the game here, courtesy of our own Sean Martin.

Also ruled out, as they have been for a while now, are TE Geoff Swaim and DL David Irving.  Swaim is still recovering from wrist surgery but has not been placed on injured reserve, so the team must feel he could be back for the playoffs. Irving could return as soon as next week.

Speaking of returns, Sean Lee may be back on the field this Sunday. It's unknown yet how he'll rotate with Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but Dallas has the luxury of working him in slowly thanks to the play of their young duo.

Tavon Austin could also return this week, creating another new offensive wrinkle. Austin has been injured since the Jacksonville game and has yet to play since the Cowboys acquired Amari Cooper. Not only could Tavon do some interesting things in the offense, but he should bring some additional sizzle to special teams.

While appearing on the injury report, Randy Gregory missed practice this week for "family reasons" according to Jason Garrett. He could still play tomorrow.

Indianapolis Colts

  • G Mark Glowinski (ankle) - OUT
  • LB Skai Moore (neck) - OUT
  • S Mike Mitchell (calf) - OUT
  • WR T.Y. Hilton (ankle) - Questionable
  • TE Ryan Hewitt (ribs) - Questionable
  • S Clayton Geathers (knee) - Questionable

The big name here is Hilton, the star receiver who missed all practice this week with an ankle injury. Indianapolis has not ruled him out, wanting to give Andrew Luck's favorite target every opportunity to play. But it's not looking good, and a bad ankle could limit Hilton's effectiveness even if he goes.

Also hurt among the passing options is starting TE Ryan Hewitt, but he did practice full on Friday and should go. Not playing, however, is starting right guard Mark Glowinski. That means third-year player Evan Boehm should start, who just joined the team in October.

Indy's hurting at safety this week. Not only did starter Clayton Geathers miss the whole week of practice, but veteran backup Mike Mitchell is already ruled out. The Colts would have to rely on undrafted rookie George Odum if neither plays.

Fun fact before we go; former Cowboy Jihad Ward was picked up by the Colts after Dallas included him in their roster cuts to start the season. However, he landed on injured reserve back in October so won't get a chance at revenge.



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Game Notes

Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts

Sean Martin

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Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts

The Dallas Cowboys offensive line depth will be tested as they play for a chance to clinch the NFC East on Sunday at the Indianapolis Colts. Suffering a knee injury last week against the Eagles, Right Guard Zack Martin will not be able to play. In missing his first career start, rookie Connor Williams rightfully returns to the starting lineup as Martin's replacement.

The 50th overall pick from this year's AT&T Stadium hosted Draft has started eight games this season at left guard. Williams' last start happens to be in the last game Dallas lost, a week nine defeat to the Tennessee Titans. This opened the door for Xavier Su'a-Filo to become something of a sensation for Cowboys Nation as the starting left guard throughout the team's current five game win streak.

David Moore on Twitter

Pro Bowl guard Zack Martin has been ruled out of Sunday's game with a sprained knee. Rookie Connor Williams will start in his place.

Zack Martin being unavailable is hardly how Marc Colombo wants to prepare for the Cowboys first road game since week 11. Having both Su'a-Filo and Williams in the lineup will be valuable for the Cowboys moving forward though, as Williams could earn his job at left guard back from the right side.

While he won't nearly be expected to play at the level of Martin, Williams looked poised coming off the bench against the Eagles and helping the Cowboys offense score their final three touchdowns. Williams was on the field for all three of Amari Cooper's scores, as Dallas rushed for 34 yards on 11 carries with him in the game.

Williams flashed some of the traits that made him a top left tackle prospect out of college, flowing to the second level with ease and creating movement with quick feet at the point of attack. The Cowboys have forced him to remain game ready despite losing his starting position by finding a few emergency snaps for him in recent weeks, as well as special teams looks. The team has every reason to believe Williams is an ascending young player still.

The same cannot be said of Su'a-Filo, who simply has to focus on continuing to hold up at left guard again this week. With each passing win, Su'a-Filo's LG spot has become more of a liability in a Cowboys offense in need of a jump-start late in this 2018 season.

Consistent offensive line play is one of the few things that's clearly hurting the Cowboys as contenders in the NFC behind a stellar defense and game breaking wide receiver.

The Cowboys won't be at full strength against the eighth best rushing defense and 15th ranked passing defense in yards per game. With three separate chances to clinch the NFC East starting at the Colts and extending until the end of the regular season, the Cowboys stand to learn all they need to know about the offensive line that will start in the playoffs.

Martin, who's elevated his game to a new level this season despite this lingering knee injury, should be on track to return when the Cowboys come home to play the Buccaneers in week 16.

Tell us what you think about "Zack Martin Out, Connor Williams In at Right Guard for Cowboys at Colts" in the comments below. You can also email me at Sean.Martin@InsideTheStar.com, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!



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Dallas Cowboys

Final Thoughts and Prediction for Cowboys vs Indianapolis Colts

John Williams

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#DALvsPHI: Amari Cooper, Ezekiel Elliott Key to Clipping the Eagles Wings?

Over the last five weeks, the Dallas Cowboys have put themselves in a position in week 15 to clinch the NFC East with a win over the Indianapolis Colts or a loss by the Philadelphia Eagles vs the Los Angeles Rams.

My how things have changed.

Just six weeks ago, the Cowboys were coming off an embarrassing two touchdown loss on Monday Night Football at the hands of the Tennessee Titans and looked dead in the water sitting at 3-5. A month and a half later they are in position to win the division and potentially have little to play for the final two weeks of the season. That's an amazing turnaround. One that should have Jason Garrett in the Coach of the Year discussions.

As we get ready for the Colts on Sunday, let me give you my final thoughts on the week 15 matchup.

Will Key Injuries Tell the Tale?

By week 15 of the NFL season, pretty much everyone is dealing with injuries and most teams are dealing with injuries to key players. The Dallas Cowboys and the Indianapolis Colts are no different.

All-Pro Right Guard Zack Martin has already been ruled out of Sunday's contest, as he's been battling a knee injury for several weeks. It was worsened on Sunday vs the Eagles when he took a bull rush from Fletcher Cox and fell awkwardly. This will be the first start that Zack Martin has missed in his illustrious five-year career. He's been an iron man for the Cowboys at a position that makes it extremely difficult to stay healthy.

On the plus side, it looks like the Cowboys mat get All-Pro Linebacker Sean Lee and Wide Receiver Tavon Austin back for Sunday. Both Lee and Austin will likely be in reserve/rotational roles if they suit up this week, but if they're active, they'll make important impacts to their respective units.

Indianapolis is struggling with an injury to a very important player in their own right as Wide Receiver T.Y. Hilton has not practiced this week. He's dealing with an ankle injury and Colts Head Coach Frank Reich doesn't sound optimistic about his chances of playing.

The Colts will also be missing their Right Guard Mark Glowinski, who has started the last eight games for Indianapolis. Glowinski suffered an ankle injury during the Colts win over the Texans last Sunday. That's a key loss for an offensive line that has played as well as anyone in the NFL this season.

Can the Cowboys Limit Andrew Luck?

The Cowboys defense has been one of the best units in football in 2018 as they've put on a show against really good offensive teams like the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. They'll have another tough test this week against Andrew Luck and the Colts.

According to Pro Football Reference, Luck sits second in the NFL in touchdown passes, sixth in passing yards, third in completions, second in attempts, 12th in quarterback rating, and ninth in QBR. At 7.1 yards per attempt, he sits 22nd in the NFL in and 20th in the NFL in air yards per attempt at 7.3.

Luck has been one of the best passers in the NFL, but he's also thrown the second most interceptions this season. On the flip side, among quarterbacks who have started 13 games, Luck has been sacked the second fewest times. Only Drew Brees has taken less sacks. Luck has only been sacked 16 times in 13 games and has been sacked multiple times in only five games. Over the last three weeks, Luck has taken an average of two sacks a game.

In that four week stretch, the Colts have gone 3-1, and Luck has averaged 321 yards passing, two touchdowns and an interception per game.

The Dallas defense has come on strong and is finding ways to get pressure with four rushers. Taking advantage of the injury at right guard and getting to Luck with their front four is a huge key to the game as it is against most quarterbacks. Randy Gregory and DeMarcus Lawrence are playing as well as any defensive end duo in the NFL this season and I expect that to continue this week.

Big Games from Explosive Duo?

The Dallas Cowboys have been getting huge games from their two most important skill position players; Running Back Ezekiel Elliott and Wide Receiver Amari Cooper. Over the last five weeks, Elliott has averaged 116 rushing yards a game, 55 receiving yards, and at least one touchdown per game. During the same stretch, Cooper has averaged seven receptions for 116 yards and a touchdown per game.

Elliott and Cooper may find it difficult to reach their respective 100 yard milestones against the Colts. As Patrick Conn of WFAA.com illustrates below.

Patrick Conn on Twitter

Colts haven't given up 100 yards to a single rusher. 2-100 yard receiving games vs Texans in first matchup (Hopkins/Coutee). Other than that, no other 100 yard performances

Now, it could be argued that the Colts have only played three games against teams with good to great offenses. The Houston Texans (twice), and the New England Patriots. They went a combined 1-2 in those three games and the defense allowed an average of 32 points per game. The Colts have played better defense over the last seven games than they did earlier in the season. Over the last seven, they went 6-1 and allowed an average of 17 points per game. Of course that stretch of games doesn't feature any offensive juggernauts. They played the Buffalo Bills, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins, Tennessee Titans, and the Oakland Raiders. The best team they played in their last seven games was the Houston Texans and they allowed 21 points. The Cowboys only allowed 16 points in regulation to the Texans.

Only one team on the Colts schedule to this point is in the top 10 in rushing; the Houston Texans. And only one team on their schedule is in the top 10 in passing; the New England Patriots. Again, in three games against those teams, they went 1-2.

They haven't faced an offense this season that is playing as well, and as balanced, as the Cowboys have over the last five weeks.

Rookie Linebackers Dominating

We've all witnessed the standout play of rookie Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, as the "Wolf Hunter" has taken the NFC by storm during Sean Lee's absence. Vander Esch is third in the league in solo tackles this season. The two players in front of Vander Esch are perennial All-Pro Luke Kuechly and the guy who will probably run away with Defensive Rookie of the Year award, Indianapolis Colts rookie Darius Leonard.

Leonard is leading the NFL in solo tackles and combined tackles per Pro Football Focus. He's tied for the lead league among linebackers with seven sacks and is second in the NFL in Pro Football Focus' "stops" metric. Leighton Vander Esch is fourth.

Both linebackers have been huge contributors for their teams, at times taking over games and coming up with big plays to turn the tide. Throw in Fred Warner in San Francisco and 2018 has been the year of the rookie linebacker.

Prediction

Since I've been writing this column, the Dallas Cowboys have enjoyed a bit of a win streak. I haven't always picked them, as you can see in the New Orleans Saints edition of Final Thoughts, but when I have picked the Cowboys, they've made me look smart and I'm going to go with them again this week on the road.

Indianapolis isn't really known as a tough place to play and in the Jason Garrett era, the Cowboys have generally been a really good team away from AT&T Stadium. I believe this game will be a close one, as most have been this year, but I think that Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott continue their impressive string of performances and are able to do enough to keep Andrew Luck on the sideline and limiting his impact on the game. If T.Y. Hilton is limited in the game or unable to go, that gives the Cowboys a huge advantage as they then can focus on touchdown maker Tight End Eric Ebron and we know what Byron Jones does to tight ends.

This is going to be a tough game, but I like the Cowboys to come out on top. Randy Gregory continues his sack streak and they get to Luck multiple times in the game and are able to force at least one turnover. Dak Prescott is efficient and doesn't turn the ball over this week and finds ways to beat the blitz. So, I've got it...

Cowboys 24 - Colts 20

Be sure to leave us your prediction in the comment section. 



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