FRISCO, Texas – Leighton Vander Esch quickly learned the value of versatility playing eight-man high school football in Riggins, Idaho.
"You couldn't come off the field. You had to play both ways," he said. "You got in shape real quick, but it was good. You really learned how to open-field tackle."
So it's no surprise the Cowboys' first-round draft pick is willing to play any linebacker position in Rod Marinelli's 4-3 defense, even though he's most familiar with the middle spot.
"They could rush me off the edge if they wanted to. They can throw me anywhere," he said. "But I feel like middle is my prime position and I'm familiar with that. I've been playing that my whole career at Boise (State). Wherever they throw me, I'm going to get the job done."
The Cowboys agree. Team officials never felt tempted to trade up in Thursday's first round, Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones said, and they were pleased to see Vander Esch still there at No. 19.
He fills an immediate need from a numbers standpoint. Former starting middle linebacker Anthony Hitchens is now a Kansas City Chief. Defensive captain Sean Lee missed the better part of four games last year. And although the Cowboys are confident Jaylon Smith will continue to progress physically in his second year back from a major knee injury, Vander Esch gives them options at multiple spots.
"We feel like he can play both the MIKE (middle) and WILL (weak side) spot, and in our defense he could play the SAM (strong side) spot as well," head coach Jason Garrett said. "Best suited probably for MIKE but has the physical traits to play WILL. Often times we're in situations in base defense or in nickel defense where we're playing three linebackers for those two spots.
"Having a front-line player, also having depth, being able to play the different situations, he fits all of that stuff."
Jones compared the 6-4, 255-pound Vander Esch to former Cowboys starter Rolando McClain, a big middle linebacker who had the range and instincts to make plays moving forward or dropping into coverage.
"That's why we pictured him as a unique fit for our philosophy on defense," Jones said.
Vander Esch refuted published reports before the draft regarding potential medical concerns, saying he had no neck or stinger issues at Boise State. Jones said the Cowboys' medical grade on Vander Esch gave no concerns about drafting him in the first round.
A former walk-on at Boise, Vander Esch did not become a starter until his junior season a year ago. The Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year tallied a conference-best 141 tackles, and the Cowboys believe he can catch on quickly.
"He knows the game well. He can learn the game well," Garrett said. "We're hopeful that he can make a big impact right at the outset."