If Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch plays a dozen or so seasons at the same level as his rookie campaign, he will likely find himself in the Ring of the Honor with a solid shot at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yeah, he was that productive last year, not only setting a franchise mark for first-year tackles with 140, but finishing second in the entire NFL with 102 solo stops.
Those lofty numbers led to a Pro Bowl nod, and in a vote of his peers during the offseason, the first-round pick was tabbed the league’s 74th best player.
That is, of course, fantastic news for the Dallas defense, making fans booing of his draft announcement the most distant of memories. Here’s the thing, though: There’s so much more upside, likely more so than the majority of young NFL players.
All those tackles and gaudy numbers from last season are all the more impressive considering he barely played 75 percent of the team’s defensive snaps. Imagine if, like most weakside linebackers, he never came off the field, which is likely the case moving forward. There’s no telling how ridiculous the numbers could be.
And as evidenced through the first three games, Vander Esch is going to be more involved in the pass rush this year, going to be blitzing more, going to be causing more havoc in the backfield. His season thus far included 21 tackles, 14 solo, one quarterback hit – after having just one all of last season – a forced fumble and his first career half-sack. Oh, and he added two passes defensed while playing 90.4 percent of the defensive snaps. On a given play, there was really no telling where the Boise State product would be when the whistle blew. Could be chasing the quarterback or 40 yards downfield in coverage.
Cowboys linebackers coach Ben Bloom made an interesting comment during training camp, saying of his 23-year-old phenom, “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.”
When asked a few days before the opener to be more specific, Bloom said, “There were instances when we were in zone of him being 10, 12 yards deep, and there’s a pass underneath. And he was making some incredible plays when, if he was positioned better or read the quarterback better, it’s an easier tackle. There was some sloppiness early with the reads, his feet not as clean as they could be. His ability to recover, though, was really impressive.”
Bloom went on to say that if Vander Esch is in better position, that’s when he can use his brute strength and athleticism to aggressively try and force turnovers, strip fumbles, make more disruptive tackles. At the conclusion of last season, like all the position coaches do, Bloom went back and watched every snap of the campaign and graded each game. And while he doesn’t like the word ceiling, there’s still plenty to improve upon.
“He’s capable of playing at a really high level no matter what we ask of him, be it zone, man, blitzing, reacting to the run game, his technique,” Bloom said. “He’s just so coachable and has improved so quickly. Another trait that’s really been impressive is while he doesn’t make many mistakes, when he does make one, he knows why. I think the obvious goal is All-Pro and being the best in the league.”
There is no reason to think Vander Esch can’t reach those lofty expectations, and sooner rather than later. His rookie season was, in Bloom’s word, “accelerated,” when fellow linebacker Sean Lee went down with a hamstring injury in Week 3. After playing 17, 28 and 33 snaps in the first three games, not even 40 percent of the defensive plays, the kid from too-small-for-state-maps Riggins, Idaho, was thrust into a starting role. Still, the moment was never too big.
“Everything happened really fast last year,” Vander Esch said. “I was completely confident in my abilities and trusted myself in whatever role I was called to do. Just doing what the coaches asked of me, not worrying about outside noise or pressure, not worrying about any of that. Just focus on myself and what I can control, my ability, my confidence and just go out there and get it done.”
As for the numbers and the accolades, not to mention shattering Dexter Coakley’s long-standing rookie mark for tackles, that’s more for others to discuss than the humble young man who is as comfortable hunting (his nickname is the “Wolf Hunter”) or fishing than roaming the gridiron.
“Obviously you take pride in that,” Vander Esch said. “As high as I set the bar for myself, I didn’t have a certain number of tackles in my head for a goal, but I always set the bar pretty high for myself. I just do everything I possibly can to put myself in position to make plays, and if I do, tackles are going to come.
“I don’t worry about how many tackles I get per game or interceptions on the year, or whatever. I just know that if I prepare like I should, I trust my abilities and instincts to make plays. And prepare every single week like it’s your last one.”
It’s rare to hear a football player called a natural. They may have natural ability, say an explosive first step, being able to change direction on a dime, maybe even some natural strength, but while other athletes are so often described as “a natural,” not so much in football.
And that makes sense. Think about how much more time and effort goes into preparing for a football game than any other sport. Baseball players are basically only playing games after spring training whereas NFL players are putting in 80, sometimes 100-hour weeks to prepare for three hours.
Vander Esch is definitely one of those unique instances, though. The only football he played before Boise State was of the smaller eight-man variety in high school, and his best position was quarterback. Even with the Broncos, he only started his junior year, his final campaign there.
In terms of 11-on-11 snaps, no player in the NFL has less experience, yet he already looks like a seasoned veteran. Even last year he went from limited snaps to having arguably his best game of the season in a month.
“Maybe, yeah, I think he has some natural linebacker in him,” Bloom said. “There are natural instincts that can really help a linebacker make a lot of plays and he has all of them: talent, height, speed, movement skills. Sometimes it’s as simple as see this, do that.”
The best advice, perhaps not surprisingly, Vander Esch received during his rookie campaign was from Lee. From the first OTA session, it was difficult to watch a practice, workout, meeting, just players walking to the bus or plane and not see the trio of Jaylon Smith, Lee and Vander Esch talking with one another. They developed a tight bond in just a season’s time, to the point of being able to know what the other is going to do on a given play.
As for the advice, “Be my own player. If something is working for you don’t try and change yourself. Just because it works for someone else doesn’t mean it works for you,” Vander Esch said. “That’s one of the strongest pieces of advice I’ve received from anyone ever. If it works for you, be you, be the player you are. Don’t change because it works for someone else. Just focus on what you are good at.”
This was quite the offseason for the linebacker. His grandfather passed away in the spring and he married his college girlfriend, Madalynn Tucker, in July.
“My grandfather being able to come here for a game last year and seeing me realize my lifelong dream of playing in the NFL, that was pretty special. Another year and we wouldn’t have had that chance,” Vander Esch said. “He was at all my high school and college games, and he and my grandmother, they both always told me, when I talked to them or were leaving their house, they always said to do your best. That’s something I’ve taken with me my entire life.”
The rest of his offseason, beside minicamp and OTAs, was a combination of lifting more weights with a focus on his upper body and shoulders, hanging with his family and his dog Thor and, of course, like always, enjoying the outdoor life of Idaho. There was also a trip to Alaska, where his father runs a bear and wolf hunting business. In fact, Cowboys executive vice president Stephen Jones joined him there for some hunting.
“It was really relaxing. No school, no spring ball. You have time to get your mind off football,” Vander Esch said. “I went back to Idaho, hung out, enjoyed the mountains and the outdoors. It was so peaceful. That’s an important part for players, having time to get your mind off football completely and totally enjoying what you enjoy away from the game. You just have to make sure to take care of your body in the process.”
Among the coolest moments of Vander Esch’s debut pro campaign came at the conclusion, at the Pro Bowl, when he was able to spend a lot of time with a Hall of Famer with whom he has often been compared, Brian Urlacher. The two posted a photo of themselves on Instagram and enjoyed several conversations, about football and otherwise, throughout the week.
Urlacher spoke of the comparisons, joking, “Yeah, we’re both tall, white guys. It happens,” before turning serious.
“It’s tough,” he says. “It’s not fair to him. The same thing happened to me when I was in Chicago my first couple of years. They compared me to [Dick] Butkus. It’s not fair to him or the other guys, and I hadn’t done anything. But all you can do is embrace it and set your own standard.
“(Leighton) is amazing. He’s got so much ability. Watching him in practice, you can see the way he moves. He’s already good but he’s going to get even better and be really good. He’s going to get better and better.”
For Vander Esch, the experience was magical.
“When I was little, I remember thinking how much bigger he was than everyone else. He looked like a D-lineman playing linebacker,” he said. “We hung out the entire week, which was really cool. He was a phenomenal dude. It was an absolute dream come true to meet him and then pick his brain and learn what he knows about football. It meant a lot to me just to be around him and hear what he has to say. I attached myself to him the entire week.”
If Urlacher is a regular visitor for Pro Bowl week in Orlando, the two should be having quite a few reunions in the Januaries to come because Vander Esch is just getting started on what should be a memorable career.
And who knows, if he stays healthy, maybe one day he’ll be joining Urlacher somewhere else. Like Canton.