Is Leighton Vander Esch already one of the best linebackers in the NFL?

The Dallas Cowboys have long been known for their offensive stars, but inside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is making his name in Big D.

For the past several seasons, the Cowboys’ defense has gone as far as Sean Lee has taken them. In 2017 alone, the team’s numbers were down all across the board when Lee wasn’t in the game. You can make a strong case that Lee’s five-game absence in 2017 is what caused Dallas to miss the playoffs. They were just never able to find a suitable replacement.

Heading into the 2018 season, the Cowboys wanted to be prepared if and when Lee went down again with an injury. Instead of trying to draft and a develop a later round linebacker, Dallas wanted a player who could step right in and give them production at linebacker, even if it meant spending a first-round pick.

That simple reason is why the Cowboys decided to select Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall selection in the 2018 NFL Draft. When Dallas made that selection, there was a lot of criticism for the pick, including from myself. The Cowboys needed a receiver and had to the opportunity to take any receiver in the class. Instead, they drafted the third off-the-ball linebacker in this class. That move is starting to pay off in a big, big way.

According to Pro Football Focus, Vander Esch is their No.3 rated off-the-ball linebacker among qualifying players. While that grade is stunning in itself, it is even more mind-blowing when you add some context to it. Vander Esch’s game against the Saints was just the 21st start of his 11-man football career.  To say that he is inexperienced is quite the understatement.

That is why the Cowboys are so excited about their young linebacker. Despite being so inexperienced, Vander Esch has already become one of the league’s best linebackers. Today, I want to examine why Vander Esch has had so much success this season and what his ceiling may be as an NFL player. Let’s examine a few plays from his last few games that separate him from the rest of the league.

One of the things that I appreciate about Vander Esch is his tackling ability. We can talk about his speed, power, and coverage ability (and we will), but if you can’t tackle, none this matters. Vander Esch’s tackling ability was one of my favorite things about him coming out of Boise State. He’s not an overly physical tackler, but he is reliable. We are seeing that skill set translate to the NFL already.

Take a look at this tackle against Alvin Kamara of the Saints last Thursday Night. Kamara is one of the most dangerous players in the open field, and Vander Esch was able to bring him down with ease. It wasn’t flashy nor did Vander Esch hit him with a lot of power. But it was an effective tackle that got the Cowboys off the field.

Earlier in this piece, I talked about how inexperienced Vander Esch is as a player. That led to some pre-draft questions about his instincts. We know that he’s a great athlete and has incredible size, but the linebacker position is so much more than being big and fast. Throughout the last few games, you are starting to see Vander Esch read plays significantly quicker. Look at this tackle Vander Esch makes on Mark Ingram on third and short.

Vander Esch was able to read where the play was designed to go, beat the block and stopped the running back dead in his tracks. This looks like the type of play that Sean Lee would have made earlier in his career. These plays don’t always make the highlight reel, but end up being the difference in winning and losing.

While instincts are incredibly crucial for the position, speed and athleticism still matter in the NFL, especially at the weakside linebacker spot. That position is now forced to play in space more than ever. Luckily for Vander Esch, that has never been a problem in his career. On a critical third-down play on the final drive of the game, Vander Esch made arguably the most important play of his career.

As you can see from above, Vander Esch was able to get in front of both blockers and make the tackle on the running back in space for a big loss. Without his tackle, the Eagles likely get the first down and would have put themselves into a position to tie the game. It was this play by Vander Esch that may have saved Dallas’ season.

One of the things that a linebacker in today’s NFL has to be able to do is defend the pass. In Dallas’ scheme, they will be asked to drop into zones quite frequently. Both he and Jaylon Smith can do this with ease due to their athleticism. However, what takes more skill (and is more valuable) is the ability to play man coverage, especially against athletic tight ends.

That is a skill set that I didn’t initially see from Vander Esch in college. For the most part, he was a sideline to sideline player who often blitzed on passing downs. But in the NFL, Vander Esch is showing how he can use his incredible size and length to defend in man coverage.

Take a look at this play by Vander Esch against tight end Austin Hooper of the Falcons. This whip route is a staple of the Falcons’ offense and usually produces a touchdown if the throw is on time. Notice how Vander Esch never panicked on this route and how he was able to use his long arms to knock away to pass. This is one of the best plays in man coverage from a linebacker that you will see all season.

I could go on and on showing different plays from the last few games that may help paint a clearer picture about Vander Esch and his ceiling. But allow me to make my stance clear. Vander Esch is already one of the league’s best linebackers. Considering his age and athleticism, you can make the case that he is the most valuable linebacker in the league after Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly. Vander Esch has a rare skill set that is ideally suited for today’s NFL, and with more experience, his game should only improve.

Vander Esch should be a lock to make the Pro Bowl this season, despite only starting seven games so far and it wouldn’t be a shock to see him get votes to be on the All-Pro team. It sounds crazy even to type, but this is where we are with the Cowboys’ rookie linebacker. Vander Esch went from a “questionable” first round pick to a potential All-Pro player and fan favorite in eight months. Quite the story.

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