The Dallas Cowboys came away with a solid haul of nine players at their AT&T Stadium hosted NFL Draft. Their first round pick, Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, did not come without some skepticism – especially given the first round slides of Calvin Ridley, D.J. Moore, and Harold Landry.
With Kris Richard taking over as the passing game coordinator in Dallas (serving as Rod Marinelli's shadow in the war room this weekend), Vander Esch can help the Cowboys with his athleticism and size in both pass coverage and against the run.
Only a one year starter at Boise State, LVE is just scratching the surface of what the Cowboys hope he can be in the NFL. With 141 tackles in his final collegiate season, Vander Esch sat down with his new Defensive Coordinator to watch tape of Bears great Brian Urlacher during his pre-draft visit, and now the Cowboys have a LB to mold into their own star.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch: Strengths
At 6041 (6′ 4 1/8″) and 256 pounds, Vander Esch looks the part of an intimidating middle of the field defender. Playing best when freed up to the ball though, Vander Esch is an extremely instinctual player when reading plays and shooting gaps.
Vander Esch will keep his eyes in the backfield to diagnose while still gaining proper depth in pass coverage, and has the ideal twitch to change directions and chase down ball carriers. When given a chance in the hole against backs, LVE rarely misses in stopping the player in his tracks, bringing his 33 7/8″ arms through every tackle.
Not nearly a finished product when it comes to shedding blocks, Vander Esch is productive when beating blockers to the spot with light feet. Playing with this agile but square base, Vander Esch uses his power to lower the shoulder and create negative plays.
This play against San Diego State is one of my favorite from LVE, as he clearly shows no issue “picking through trash” to chase plays on the boundary. This is a trait that will suit Vander Esch very well when asked to line up at either WILL or SAM with the Cowboys.
Vander Esch gives the Cowboys a great ability to match up their linebackers depending on formation or down and distance, as they'll also be playing in support of a very deep defensive line up front.
Another example of Vander Esch's closing speed is seen here. LVE is a heat-seeking missile when he can react to a play in front of him and identify a path to the ball, rarely getting beat to the edge with quickness but rather steered out of plays by larger blockers.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch: Weaknesses
There are legitimate concerns that Leighton Vander Esch will always be a player that looks the part but continuously struggles to finish plays, particularly at this next level. When blockers are able to get into Vander Esch's frame, he is finished.
Relying on his physical traits to get to the ball, Leighton rarely shows desirable play strength against blockers to knock back or disengage. Arriving a step late more times than not because of this, Vander Esch will fail to plug his lane against the rush with the size he's capable of, instead playing upright and being dragged for extra yards on occasion.
As a pass defender, Vander Esch saw far too many receivers catch the ball going past him, creating big plays with LVE chasing behind.
This is a “flash player” that will certainly help the Cowboys defense in 2018 and beyond, but needs to be protected from himself if asked to play all three downs across multiple positions.
Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch: Summary
If you followed along with my coverage leading up to this 2018 NFL Draft, you know I was very critical of Vander Esch as a first round prospect. Most teams had the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in the round though, and the Cowboys locked in on him pretty early.
LVE is a patented Rod Marinelli defender with the traits to match the direction Dallas is going on defense, searching for elite athleticism and reaction ability to create a hard-to-break unit.
The Cowboys are as excited as Vander Esch is to get started, and working with the likes of Lee and Smith will only help Leighton.
These two starters can also help Vander Esch in 2018 by playing as much as possible, as the plan for the Cowboys should still be to see 16 games out of both. If this happens, Cowboys Nation will notice Leighton Vander Esch plenty as a third linebacker to run on the field with fresh legs – bursting through gaps to force tackles for loss and stopping plays from getting to the edge.