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.
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.
"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
— Sean Martin ✭ (@SeanMartinNFL) April 27, 2018
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 ✭ (@SeanMartinNFL) April 27, 2018
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.