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.
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.
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.