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NFL Draft

What Drafting Leighton Vander Esch Means for Cowboys LBs Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith

Sean Martin



What Drafting Leighton Vander Esch Means for Cowboys LBs Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith

With the 19th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys stayed true to their intentions of drafting Boise State Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch. Doing so with both WRs Calvin Ridley and D.J. Moore available, along with DE Harold Landry, the Cowboys faithful in attendance voiced their displeasure over the team's first pick being seemingly predetermined.

The chances of Vander Esch coming off the board before the Cowboys came on the clock was slim. The exact opposite should be said about both Ridley and Landry - although the Boston College pass rusher remains available entering Friday's second round.

The Cowboys own the 50th overall pick in the second round and 81st overall in the third, preparing to address their team needs at guard and wide receiver on day two. While doing so is certainly important, Thursday night was about not allowing the upcoming 2018 season to be derailed in similar fashion to last year - lack of depth to compensate for injuries in Dallas.

Enter Leighton Vander Esch, the Cowboys insurance plan for both 31-year-old WILL LB Sean Lee and MIKE Jaylon Smith.

Vander Esch is undoubtedly a Rod Marinelli guy, and Cowboys Nation knows all too well the level of play Marinelli gets from his defense without Lee on the field. Preparing for life without Lee is something the Cowboys needed to do in this draft, but doing so in the first round carries further implications.

Sean Martin ✭ on Twitter

Vander Esch's impression of Rod Marinelli - "That guy is awesome. He's one of the coolest guys I've met". Says Rod told him he could be Brian Urlacher

Two years ago, with the 34th overall pick, the Cowboys drafted Jaylon Smith. The pick immediately set the Cowboys back, as Smith was not ready to play at any point in 2016 - debuting on opening night in 2017 only to struggle heavily through his first NFL games. In getting Smith on the field, the Cowboys climbed one mountain, and are in the process of ascending another by finally tapping into his full potential.

Smith ended his 2017 season on a high note, but didn't quite reach the peak of the Cowboys path towards stability at linebacker. With the 19th overall pick, they veered off this path to create a new challenge for themselves - become the team that Leighton Vander Esch reaches his full potential with.

Vander Esch tested as an freakish athlete at the Scouting Combine, blowing teams away without pads in a similar way to how LVE produced at Boise State. A one-year starter for the Broncos, playing with range and instincts is no problem for Vander Esch.

The Dallas Cowboys simply can't afford another season with more excuses than execution, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. Thanks to last year's draft haul, Marinelli's unit has a ton of promise, and adding another one of his guys only solidifies the overall depth of the Cowboys.

Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith aren't depth players, and if you are among the waves of Cowboys fans upset about Vander Esch being the pick, your hope is that they are blue chip starters for 16 games next year.

This would allow Vander Esch to develop without added pressure in 2018. A linebacker that needs to work on his ability to avoid blocks and take on bigger linemen, this Cowboys rookie will get plenty of opportunities to bang heads with the likes of La'el Collins, Tyron Smith, and Zack Martin.

These practice reps will be just as important to Jaylon Smith, and whichever players earns more snaps alongside Lee will get them. The Cowboys view Jaylon as a player that will be here for a long time, and obviously feel the same way as of last night about Leighton.

At least early in his NFL career, Vander Esch projects best as a WILL linebacker. The Cowboys relying so heavily on two linebacker sets, having multiple players on the field that can play with the traits of a true WILL is ideal.

Vander Esch needs to be protected against defending at the point of attack and freed up to shoot gaps with great burst and finishing ability.

Sean Martin ✭ on Twitter

It's going to be awesome, playing with a guy like him. He's going to hold me accountable and I'll hold myself the same." - LVE on #Cowboys teammate Sean Lee

LVE may very well never be Brian Urlacher, and the Cowboys should be fortunate he won't have to. Their linebackers of the present and future are on this roster now, and Leighton Vander Esch may be just the depth piece needed for Dallas to keep their core together past 2018.

The Cowboys would be quick to move on from the top coaches they've put on the hot seat for this season if they miss the playoffs once again. That outcome would truly be a disappointment for everyone in the organization.

Last night was not a disappointment. With as many as nine picks still to make, the Cowboys came away from the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft with a player they're excited about - Vander Esch sharing the same enthusiasm for representing America's Team.

Sean Martin ✭ on Twitter

The @dallascowboys draft Boise State Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick in the 2018 #NFLDraft.

An ideal landing spot for a player ready to get to work, the Cowboys defense is better as of this morning than it was at any point last season. Even when Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee were on the field together, they were better than at previous weeks of the same season.

Coming away from the first round of this draft without a wide receiver may very well prove a mistake for the Cowboys. Not finding their left guard of the future at 19th overall could be as well. Keeping both of these needs in the back of their heads while also being an injury away from collapsing on defense is truly reckless though.

It is this methodical approach to building through the draft that the Cowboys are determined to push forward with, doing so in just a few hours.

This year's team motto in Dallas is "Respect". You have to respect a team learning from their mistakes and doing everything they can to right them, as the Cowboys will need Leighton Vander Esch to develop into the versatile player that even his biggest critics know LVE can be.

Tell us what you think about "What Drafting Leighton Vander Esch Means for Cowboys LBs Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith" in the comments below. You can also email me at, or Tweet to me at @SeanMartinNFL!

Born January 28th, 1996- Cowboys Super Bowl XXX. Point Boro Panther, Montclair State Red Hawk, and most importantly a proud member of Cowboys Nation! I host "Upon Further Review" on 90.3 WMSC FM and every Friday from 1-4 PM ET. Twitter: @SeanMartinNFL.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Michael

    April 27, 2018 at 11:05 am

    I don’t really agree with this pick. For one he has only 1 year as a starter in college, and two he has a neck issue. Even if he doesn’t end up a 1 year wonder he could re-injure his neck and possibly end his career, I hope that doesn’t happen, but it is an issue to worry about. What is it with this so called “great front office”? Why waste a pick on some one with injury issues. This makes no since to me.

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NFL Draft

Cowboys Draft Target: Kentucky CB Lonnie Johnson Jr.

Kevin Brady



Cowboys Draft Target: Kentucky CB Lonnie Johnson Jr.

Since Kris Richard has taken over the back-end of the Dallas Cowboys defense, they have clearly shown a bias towards a "type" of cornerback. Richard, looking to build this Dallas unit in a similar form to his Seattle teams, has prioritized long corners both in height and arm length.

As his responsibilities within the organization increase, it's only fair to expect Kris Richard to have more say in who the Cowboys' defense acquires in terms of talent. This means we should anticipate more defensive backs who fit his type, such as Kentucky Wildcats cornerback Lonnie Johnson Jr.

The Player

So why does Lonnie Johnson fit the mold of what Kris Richard tends to look for? Well, for starters, he is 6'3" and 206 lbs with 32 1/4" arms. He's a long corner with excellent size and the trait profile which indicates he could be the perfect candidate to play cornerback in Dallas.

But while he might look great on paper, the tape is always the most important factor for evaluating and projecting talent. And, for Johnson, the tape isn't all-that great. Despite his length, Johnson struggled mightily in press-man coverage at Kentucky. Too often he is late or ineffective with his hands, leaving him susceptible to being blown by by the opposing receiver. He often loses balance due to poor footwork, and is rather average with his hips and quick change of direction.

Where Johnson was his best in college was in zone coverage, playing his deep third of Kentucky's cover-three look. Rarely did he allow receivers behind him in zone coverage, and displayed good instincts when deciding whether to jump routes or play more conservatively when playing in that deep third. He was not nearly as comfortable underneath, and Kentucky didn't ask him to play in that role too often. Because of how big he is, Johnson is able to contest at the catch point regularly, yet he only deflected 9 passes in 2 years.

What gives me the most hope for Lonnie Johnson as a prospect (besides his length) is his Senior Bowl performance. Johnson impressed daily at the Senior Bowl, looking more comfortable in man coverage and playing much better in his press technique.

Was this Johnson becoming more comfortable over time and a sign of things to come at the next level, or was it an anomaly that we shouldn't read too much into? The answer to that question is up to the individual teams, but his combine performance will play a huge role in how those teams answer.

The Fit

As I've discussed already, Lonnie Johnson Jr. fits what Kris Richard tends to look for in his cornerbacks. He is long, tall, and relatively athletic, making him a clay piece for a coach like Richard to develop.

The question is, however, how much development can really occur? The highs for Johnson are rather high when he maximizes his natural abilities on the field. But too often he is sloppy in technique, or looks lost in man coverage. Whether or not Richard can "fix" Johnson completely may never be seen, but teams (especially this one) could fall in love with him as a prospect for what he can become if it all comes together.

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NFL Draft

Cowboys Draft Target: Oklahoma Sooners RB Rodney Anderson

Brian Martin



Cowboys Draft Target: Oklahoma Sooners RB Rodney Anderson

NAME: Rodney Anderson

SCHOOL: Oklahoma


POSITION: Running Back

CLASS: RS Junior

JERSEY: No. 24


HT: 6'1"

WT: 219

D.O.B.: 9/12/96


Rodney Anderson || 2017-18 Highlights ᴴᴰ || Oklahoma

Rodney Anderson || 2017-18 Highlights ᴴᴰ || Oklahoma Like, Comment, and Subscribe for More! Follow my Instagram: @szhighlights Songs: - "Don't Know Me" by Trae Tha Truth - "Better Days" by Trae Tha Truth I do not own any of these highlights or music clips.

Before we get into the player, we should really try to get to know Rodney Anderson the person. He attended Katy High School in Katy, Texas, one of the powerhouse HS football programs in the state. He was a four-star recruit who received offers from Auburn, Baylor, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma. He originally committed to Texas A&M, but changed his mind and decided to go to Oklahoma instead. He had an up-and-down career on the football field at Oklahoma because of injuries, but did graduate with a degree in Arts and Sciences in May 2018 and is pursuing his Master's in Human Relations.


Rodney Anderson has the ideal size and athleticism to become a featured back in the NFL. He shows good patience and vision on film to allow his offensive lineman to secure their blocks before sticking his foot in the ground and exploding through the hole. He runs behind his pads and shows good strength, loose hips, and balance to run through arm tackles. More than capable of picking up those "dirty yards" and is surprisingly slippery as a runner in the open field.

Anderson is capable of playing in a power scheme or a zone heavy scheme like the Dallas Cowboys deploy. He has been featured in a number of rushing concepts including gap/power, read action, and power sweeps. His talent also carries over to the passing game. He possesses soft hands and looks natural catching the ball both out of the backfield and down the field as a receiver. Solid in pass protection, but this is an area of his game where he can improve.


The biggest negative about Rodney Anderson is his injury history at Oklahoma. He is basically a one-year wonder because of three separate season-ending injuries, but bad things happen in three so maybe that's behind him. Durability will be a question mark entering the NFL though.

His vision is sometimes questionable, especially on inside and outside zone reads. Has a tendency to to try to bounce runs to the outside too often or cut back too quickly. Shows good explosiveness, but only average burst through the hole. Seems to have adequate long speed on tape, but is 40 yard dash time will be heavily scrutinized if he's able to run at the NFL Scouting Combine.

In the passing game he needs to improve his route running and pass protection if he wants to be a three-down back in the NFL. The talent is there, just not the production and consistency. Will also have to prove he can be productive against stacked boxes at the next level since he rarely saw any in college due to Oklahoma's spread offense.

Cowboys Fit:

If the Dallas Cowboys are looking for a running back capable of being a featured back in the NFL, while also spelling Ezekiel Elliott from time to time, then Rodney Anderson is there guy. His combination of power, balance, explosiveness, and scheme diversity could come in handy as their RB2. Not only would he provide a good insurance policy if the unthinkable were to happen to Zeke, but he could take over if they decide not to give No. 21 a contract extension.

There is a lot to like about Rodney Anderson's game and his ability to contribute in the running and passing game, but he is not by any means a clean prospect. Despite his immense talent, his injury history and lack of consistency in college is bothersome. But, as a mid-round pick the reward far outweighs the risks. Paired with Elliott, the Cowboys could have a formidable one-two punch in their backfield and could pound opposing defenses into submission.

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NFL Draft

Cowboys Draft Target: South Carolina WR Deebo Samuel

Kevin Brady



Cowboys Draft Target: South Carolina WR Deebo Samuel

Our search for a new pass catcher for the Cowboys in this years' draft class continues, this time with a wide receiver.

South Carolina's Deebo Samuel put himself on the map with a strong Sophomore season, but fell off a bit due to a severe leg injury early in 2017. After a strong 2018 campaign, and an impressive performance at the Senior Bowl, Samuel has played himself back into early Day Two draft discussions.

The Player

I don't know that anyone "won" Senior Bowl week more than Deebo Samuel did this January. Samuel, who had to deal with some poor quarterback play throughout his college career, didn't get much of a break in that department either at the Senior Bowl. But, he did show out every day at practice, and seemed to go viral on Twitter at least once a day.

During his actual collegiate season, Samuel finished with 882 yards and 11 touchdowns on 62 catches, solid production especially coming off an injury and playing in a limited offense. Initially in the NFL, Samuel is going to make his money in the slot. He's a shifty yet explosive receiver type than can quickly beat defenders with his speed. He's not the speedster than someone like Marquise Brown is, but he is explosive enough in his own right, especially in terms of short-area quickness.

Samuel isn't someone who will go up and grab the ball consistently, or even make up for inaccurate throws as often as some others might be able to. But he does have reliable hands, and his ability to get open quickly and create separation should give someone like Dak Prescott easy windows to find him in for completions.

What makes Deebo Samuel so fun for me to watch, though, is his ability after the catch. Despite his lack of size, Samuel is tough as nails, and rarely defers out of bounds or avoids contact. He's built well enough to withstand that contact as well, and when he gets free, he's hard to catch and bring down.

The Fit

Drafting Deebo Samuel 58th overall would be a heck of a haul for the Dallas Cowboys. In need of another playmaker in the passing game, the Cowboys could make immediate use of Samuel's talents in 2019, specifically as a slot receiver.

As has been mentioned ad nauseam, it seems unlikely that Cole Beasley will be returning to the team this season, which makes the need for a slot wide-out that much greater. Samuel has big play ability from the slot already, and has traits which project him to potentially work outside as well. If he tests well enough at the combine, reps on the outside could very well be in his future.

Samuel should be on every Cowboys fans' shortlist of draft targets in the second round this year.

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