With free agency looming in March, roster turnover isn’t far away. However, the majority of the 2019 roster is already in place. In the coming weeks, DallasCowboys.com will feature players who are currently under contract for next season, analyzing their past season and their future prospects.
Today, we continue the series with linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
What’s Been Good: Is it unfair to say that everything about Leighton Vander Esch’s rookie season was good? Keep in mind that the Cowboys’ decision to draft him No. 19 overall in the 2018 NFL Draft was widely criticized. Vander Esch entered the league after just one season as a starter in 11-on-11 football. And yet, when Sean Lee’s hamstring injury forced him into the starting lineup last September, he didn’t miss a beat. Vander Esch didn’t start his first game until Sept. 30, but he finished the season with 176 tackles – the most on the team by a wide margin. He was solid through his first month as the starter, but he hit his stride in November. Against Philadelphia, he managed 19 tackles, an interception and a pivotal tackle for loss. One week later, he hit Atlanta for 12 tackles, three pass breakups and another interception. His efforts were enough to earn him a Pro Bowl selection – not to mention a nationwide reputation as “The Wolf Hunter.” Not bad for a guy who was widely doubted as a top-20 draft pick.
What’s Been Bad: By any objective measure, Vander Esch’s rookie season was a rousing success. That doesn’t mean he can’t improve, though. The last game of the season proved as much, as the Dallas defense played one of its worst games of the season in a 30-22 loss. Vander Esch finished with 10 tackles, but he and Jaylon Smith were regularly thrown off by the Rams’ blocking scheme. By the end of the night, L.A. had run for 273 yards, making the Cowboys’ highly-praised linebacker duo look pedestrian in the process. It’s not especially concerning. Vander Esch just turned 23 a month ago. But it is worth remembering that he’s got room for improvement.
2018 Highlight: It was already mentioned above, but it’s hard to undersell Vander Esch’s performance on Nov. 11 in Philadelphia. The night marked just his fourth NFL start, as Sean Lee was once again sidelined with a hamstring injury. It’d be impossible to guess that from watching him, though. Vander Esch picked off Carson Wentz on the third possession of the game, and his performance only went up from there. He made 19 tackles on the night, routinely stymying the Eagles’ attempts to get onto the scoreboard. But no play was bigger than his tackle in the fourth quarter. The Eagles held the ball, trailing 27-20 with 2:00 to play in the game. Facing a 3rd-and-2 from the Dallas 30-yard line, Wentz looked for Cory Clement on a screen pass – only to watch Vander Esch fight through two blocks and make an absurd tackle for loss. It was an All-Pro caliber play, and it forced the Eagles into a 4th-and-long. It’s not an exaggeration to say Vander Esch was instrumental in helping the Cowboys retain the lead.
What’s Next: Few people were expecting Vander Esch to excel this quickly, but it’s not hard to see the future from here. Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith played like one of the top linebacker duos in the NFL last season, and there’s no reason to believe they’re going to let things drop off now. If anything, Vander Esch’s success has raised questions about what to expect from Sean Lee. The longtime veteran battled injuries once again last season, and there’s been plenty of speculation that 2018 was his last season with the team. With a couple of months to weigh their options, it sounds like the Cowboys intend to bring Lee back – though it’s an interesting guess what his role will be. Vander Esch made the Pro Bowl starting in Lee’s place, and it sounds unwise to take him off the field. If anything, the youngster’s emergence has given the Cowboys quite a bit of depth at linebacker, as Lee can provide quality backup for Vander Esch and Smith.
Through all the twists and turns of 2018, there might not have been a more pleasant surprise than Leighton Vander Esch’s Pro Bowl effort in his rookie season.
Bryan Broaddus’ Bottom Line: Give this front office and coaching staff a lot of credit for the selection of Leighton Vander Esch. They had a clear understanding and vision for the player. I wasn’t as high when I studied Vander Esch initially but Dane Brugler convinced me during the process to study later games on him and he like the scouts were correct. I had concerns that even with his size there were snaps where he wasn’t as physical as he needed to be at the point of attack but that’s wasn’t a problem as he transitioned into the NFL. He did an outstanding job of playing off blocks while using his hands. The learning curve for linebackers is generally steep but not for him. His grasp and understanding of the scheme and what opponents were trying to do to him was never an issue. Paired with Jaylon Smith this combination has a chance to be rock solid for years to come.