FRISCO, Texas -- It was one of a hundred red zone plays you see the Cowboys attempt over three weeks in training camp. What happened afterward was more intriguing: a meeting between newly-acquainted competitors.
Leighton Vander Esch (23 years old, fresh off a Pro Bowl rookie season) and Jason Witten (37 years old, 11-time Pro Bowler back from a 10-month retirement). Witten had seen an outside look from Vander Esch in coverage and buzzed inside for a catch.
"He just asked about the route, what I was doing," Witten said. "He hasn't gone against me, but I haven't gone against him either. … It's a different style going against him because he can cover a lot of ground.
"He's a student of the game. He wants to know what you're thinking on certain routes. There's a reason why he's had success like he has."
Youth aside, Vander Esch made NFL life look easy for much of last season. The 2018 first-round pick stepped into the starting lineup for an injured Sean Lee and became the first Cowboys rookie defensive player in nearly 40 years to make the Pro Bowl (Everson Walls, 1981).
He set a rookie team record with 176 tackles, the fourth-most in franchise history for a single season. With Jaylon Smith emerging at middle linebacker and Lee back for a 10th season, the Cowboys have one of the league's most talented linebacker trios.
Vander Esch isn't satisfied. Ask him how he improves on one of the best rookie seasons this flagship franchise has ever seen, and his answer is succinct: "Everything."
"I'm going to keep harping on it: I'm always trying to improve my game no matter what it is – the run game, the pass game, getting off blocks," he said. "You're never going to have a perfect game and you're never going to be perfect."
As Witten noted, the 6-foot-4, 256-pound Vander Esch has uncommon range and quickness for a man his size. But this offseason he focused on building his upper-body strength to shed blocks and more quickly pursue tackles.
Then there's the recognition game. At linebacker, a split second or a single step can make the difference between a tackle or stripping the ball. Improving his pre-snap reads – largely a byproduct of experience – can put him in position to make even more plays.
"As a linebacker you've got to cover man and zone, you've got to play the run, you've got to blitz. You're asked to do a lot of different things," linebackers coach Ben Bloom said. "So for him, it's just looking at all those aspects of his game and getting better.
"He made some great tackles last year that I think if you asked him and me they could have been easier tackles because of stuff that happened earlier in the down. But he's so competitive and he's so talented you make great plays. So it's about kind of taking the next step – cleaning up his feet, cleaning up his reads and being even more productive. That's what he wants, and that's why he's great."
The next day in camp, Vander Esch got a pass breakup against Witten in coverage.
It's been an entertaining battle between two new teammates: far apart in age, similar in approach.
"I've been really impressed," Witten said. "Not too many guys have that size and speed. But more than anything he's very instinctive in how he plays. That's kind of line one for a linebacker."