FRISCO, Texas – Long before the Cowboys made their first-round pick this past April, they had Leighton Vander Esch targeted as a possibility with the 19th overall selection.
Obviously, they liked how he fit into the scheme and how he tracked the ball, which along with his combination of size and speed made him a rather easy choice.
However, if things didn't work out for the Cowboys to get LVE with that pick, they figured the second round would have to be their place to get a linebacker and fill a much-needed void. Most likely, the Colts' Darius Leonard would've been a target. He ended up getting picked at No. 36 overall by Indianapolis, and the small-school sensation has been a tackling-machine for the Colts, leading the entire league with 135 stops, according to the NFL.
If Vander Esch doesn't win the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year honor, it could very well go to Leonard. Of course, Chargers safety Derwin James might have an argument over both of them.
But clearly, the two best rookie linebackers this year are also two of the best overall linebackers in the NFL.
Leonard opened the season on fire, winning the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month award for September. Leonard registered 54 tackles in the first four games, the most by any NFL player in the first month since 1994. Leonard has registered at least seven tackles in every game he has played this year, including a 19-tackle performance in Week 2 at Washington.
Vander Esch was named the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month for November and the Cowboys have the linebacker down for 136 tackles (based off coaches' film), which ties him for the most in team history by a Dallas rookie. Vander Esch also recorded 19 tackles in a win over the Eagles and picked off his first career pass.
Although he didn't begin the season as a starter, Vander Esch has shined in the absence of Sean Lee, who returns this week from his second hamstring injury. Back on Oct. 21, Lee returned to action and started over Vander Esch, but it's unclear if that will be the case this time around.
"We've got to wait and see how it all works out, but just like we had it earlier in the year, you have a chance to rotate some guys and some of those things," defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. "It's a good thing to have. It keeps everybody a little bit fresher and sharper, especially as the season goes on."
That's something Indianapolis doesn't exactly have. Leonard is clearly the Colts' top linebacker while Vander Esch splits time with Lee and Jaylon Smith, who also has more than 100 tackles for the Cowboys this year.
But when it comes to the NFL's youngest crop of great linebackers, it could come down to this 2018 draft, featuring Vander Esch and Leonard. They won't be competing against each other on Sunday literally, but perhaps in the eyes of voters.