Dallas Cowboys linebacker Sean Lee is one of the best when he is on the field. Jaylon Smith still has questions surrounding his knee. The rest of the Cowboys linebacking corps is mediocre at best. Is Leighton Vander Esch the answer to the Cowboys questions at linebacker?
Dallas Cowboys middle linebacker Sean Lee is one of the most complete linebackers in the NFL. Unfortunately, Lee has not been able to stay on the field. Lee has never played a full season in his career, including missing the 2014 season due to a torn ACL. Over the last several seasons, Lee has dealt with several soft tissue injuries, which are hard to recover from.
Sean Lee: Complete Linebacker pic.twitter.com/Avsr52DLqE
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) June 12, 2017
Meanwhile, Jaylon Smith has been going through a multi-year recovery for a horrific knee injury suffered in college. Smith missed the 2016 season recovering. He was able to play in 2017, despite the nerves in his knee only being 80% regenerated. This season, Smith appears to be fully healthy and has started every game to date. However, no one knows what Smith looks like post-injury and whether he can hold up to full 16-game season.
The rest of the Cowboys linebacking crop is mediocre at best. There are a lot of questions surrounding the Cowboys linebackers. Thus they drafted Boise State linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch.
Vander Esch redshirted his freshman season at Boise State and was limited by injuries his sophomore season. In 2017, Vander Esch exploded onto the scene as a junior with 141 tackles, adding 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, five passes defended, and four forced fumbles. The Boise State linebacker earned the Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year, Mountain West Championship Game MVP, and first-team all conference in 2017.
Vander Esch is an athletic freak. He ranks in the 88th percentile in speed score, 93rd percentile in burst score, and 91st percentile in agility score. His size/speed combination allows him to excel in both run stoppage and pass coverage. Vander Esch was ranked third overall among 390 linebackers in FBS by PFF. He ranked sixth in run defense and 34th in pass coverage.
Vander Esch demonstrates the speed to close in the flat.
Boise State has produced some impact defenders, including DeMarcus Lawrence of the Cowboys. Is Leighton Vander Esch the next? Off the ball backer. Had a very good combine. Speed and fludity on display vs Oregon. pic.twitter.com/41ca8iXxJY
— Michael Giardi (@MikeGiardi) March 4, 2018
He is also able to read and react to fill running lanes and has the speed to run down running backs.
Leighton Vander Esch- Inside linebacker from Boise State 6'4" 240
Player comparison- Taller Sean Lee
Draft position- 2nd round@EatSleepFF @TylerGheeNFL @CadieuxClayton #LeightonVanderEsch #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/rdylrCgxIn
— John Chapman (@JL_Chapman) March 3, 2018
LB Leighton Vander Esch specializes in shutting run games down. His ability to maneuver in tight spaces, avoid trash & make tackles will be effective day 1. He also has the ability to pattern match & patrol the middle of the field. #Draft
— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) February 17, 2018
LB Leighton Vander Esch THROWIN' IT DOWN pic.twitter.com/vM9fajtBWj
— Boise State Football (@BroncoSportsFB) August 8, 2016
The Cowboys drafted Vander Esch 19th overall in the first round. Unfortunately, Vander Esch missed most of the Cowboys offseason workouts due to an ankle injury suffered in OTAs.
Vander Esch was healthy to start the Cowboys training camp. He came into camp on the Cowboys’ second-team defense, playing at both middle and weakside linebacker. This allowed Vander Esch to be the signal-caller. Because of his ankle injury, Vander Esch started training camp a little behind. But he caught on quickly. He demonstrated his abilities in pass coverage, intercepting and breaking up passes several times in drills.
— Mike Leslie (@MikeLeslieWFAA) August 14, 2018
In Vander Esch’s first NFL game action, he impressed former Cowboys star wide receiver, Dez Bryant. Vander Esch played the second most snaps at linebacker with 32, accounting for four solo tackles.
Unfortunately, Vander Esch suffered another injury, this time a groin strain. He was forced to miss the rest of training camp and preseason.
NFL Regular Season
Vander Esch started the season healthy and as the backup middle linebacker. He only saw 17 snaps in the Cowboys week 1 game against the Panthers. Vander Esch made two solo tackles and an assist in his limited time.
Vander Esch was given the start at strongside linebacker (SAM) against New York Giants in week 2. Ultimately playing in 28 snaps, Vander Esch had a “breakout” game with seven solo tackles. Lee also left the game with cramps and Vander Esch filled in nicely.
So Cowboys first-round pick LB Leighton Vander Esch had 7 solo tackles in only 28 snaps on defense Sunday night against the Giants. That's really efficient. Can anyone do that math?
— Brandon George (@DMN_George) September 17, 2018
Getting the start yet again at the SAM, Vander Esch played in an even higher snap count in week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks. He rewarded the Cowboys’ faith in him yet again with 10 total tackles, eight solo, and one tackle for loss. Vander Esch also demonstrated his run stopping ability and speed.
This was Leighton Vander Esch's best play from Sunday. pic.twitter.com/jM9mT8ysa8
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) September 25, 2018
Lee injured his hamstring against the Seahawks, forcing him to miss a couple of weeks. In Lee’s absence, Vander Esch stepped in, playing 93% of the defensive snaps against the Detroit Lions in week 4. Though it was not his best in terms of counting stats, this may have been Vander Esch’s best game as a pro. Amounting six tackles, five solo, Vander Esch was all over the field. He showed his ability to diagnose and his agility, avoiding blocks to make tackles.
This was Leighton Vander Esch's best play of the game. Sifts through the blockers to make the tackle on the screen. pic.twitter.com/s1TPRBL7rf
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) October 1, 2018
Vander Esch also showed his power, blowing through a block to bring down running back LeGarrette Blount.
Talk about an old-school 90s type of play. I bet Lions FB Nick Bellore (6-1/250) isn't used to seeing many backers bigger than him, but Vander Esch not only brings the AA, but also the rare size to plug holes (6-4/256) too. Awesome job filling & making the tackle from the rookie: pic.twitter.com/mlNF9jUstp
— Brandon Thorn (@VeteranScout) October 2, 2018
One thing I really enjoy about Leighton Vander Esch is that he's a fantastic tackler. This is a really nice play on Golden Tate in space. pic.twitter.com/MqAtwEVavj
— Marcus Mosher (@Marcus_Mosher) October 1, 2018
Finally, Vander Esch showed his ability to recover in pass coverage.
Gets initial pulled toward the LOS by the PA, but look at the recovery by #Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch to retrace and blanket the cross, taking away Stafford's read.
Don't see many LBs that can move like that, especially at that size. pic.twitter.com/C2X5Czz2TA
— John Owning (@JohnOwning) October 3, 2018
Vander Esch had a monster game in the Cowboys week 5 game against the Houston Texans. He led the Cowboys with a huge 14 tackles, 11 solo. Vander Esch helped hold the Texans’ run offense to 88 yards on 31 carries.
The Dallas Cowboys had a lot of questions surrounding their linebacking corp entering the season. Sean Lee cannot stay on the field, Jaylon Smith is just now healthy from a knee injury suffered in 2016 at Notre Dame, and the rest of the linebackers are mediocre at best. Thus, the Cowboys drafted Boise State linebacker, Leighton Vander Esch.
Vander Esch has demonstrated his first round pedigree thus far in the season. Leading the Cowboys in tackles, Vander Esch has become arguably the Cowboys best linebacker. With only five games under his belt, Vander Esch has room to grow. If he continues on his current trajectory, Vander Esch will be one of the best linebackers in the league.
Vander Esch should be rostered in all IDP leagues. He is a must-start every week.