Every year since 2014, Draft Day has been a holiday of sorts for me. I request the day off from my job, find a couple of friends, get some food together and enjoy watching 32 NFL franchises attempt to build the future of their team.
The Dallas Cowboys had just come off a disappointing 9-7 season that had fans and analysts across the country pushing for the firing of head coach Jason Garrett and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
America’s Team held the 19th overall pick in the first round. Several names flew through my head as I thought about which rookie I wanted to don the Star in 2018: Vita Vea, Derwin James, Calvin Ridley and Harold Landry just to name a few.
These players all filled glaring needs for the Cowboys. Vea and Landry would cement the defensive line that had seen major improvements in 2017. Derwin James would allow Byron Jones to move back to cornerback and would give new defensive backs coach Kris Richard an amazing slew of talent to use. Calvin Ridley would give the offense a tall, powerful receiver that could learn alongside Dez – prior to his eventual release from the team over the summer.
Vea and James both went before Dallas was on the clock, leading to those of us in the room to argue over whether Ridley or Landry would get their name called. I was pulling for Landry, as I knew he was one of the best defensive talents in the game and our offense would be fine without a cat like Ridley.
One name did not come to mind, however, and that was the name that was announced by Roger Goodell.
“With the 19th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, the Dallas Cowboys select Leighton Vander Esch, linebacker, Boise State,” Goodell said.
First, there was shock. Then, there was disgust. Finally, there was sadness. Over the course of the next hour, I ignored the television and instead went to Twitter to let everyone know how upset I was.
I wasn’t alone, either. Most Cowboys writers, fans and analysts were upset with the pick. It seemed like a stretch.
Surely Vander Esch could’ve been drafted at a lower spot, right? What if they traded back a few spots and grabbed another second rounder? This was the third year in a row I was disappointed with Dallas’ first-round draft pick.
I didn’t like the Ezekiel Elliott pick at the time, but he proved me wrong very quickly, leading the Cowboys to a 13-3 regular season record alongside fellow rookie Dak Prescott.
I still don’t like the Taco Charlton pick. His production has been disgustingly low for a first-round draft pick, tallying four sacks, 25 tackles and a forced fumble in 24 games.
And now Leighton.
I didn’t want to blindly hate the guy, so I went to watch some film, and I found one glaring constant – he played softly. He couldn’t get off blocks, and if he did, he got trucked by the ball carrier. Exactly what the Cowboys needed: another soft defender.
I was unhappy about the pick for the next 5 months. When the season came around, he didn’t start, which I expected as much. Vander Esch’s first start came in Week 4 against the Detroit Lions. The Cowboys were 1-2 heading into the game and were without starting linebacker Sean Lee.
Prior to this game, Dallas was 1-7 in the past three years when playing without defensive captain Lee. That’s how big of an impact he has on this defense. Vander Esch’s six-tackle stat line wasn’t jaw-dropping, but it got the job done. The Cowboys won the game 26-24 and improved to .500 on the season.
In the following week’s loss to the Houston Texans, Vander Esch led the team in tackles with 14. This caught my eye. In Dallas’ second straight game without Lee, Vander Esch balled out.
Through the Washington Redskins game on Thanksgiving, Vander Esch has tallied 93 total tackles, two interceptions with 56 return yards, six pass deflections and two stuffs. He currently leads the Cowboys in tackles, 15 ahead of fellow linebacker Jaylon Smith. He is the NFL’s leader in solo tackles with 72. According to @BobbyBeltTX on Twitter, Vander Esch has only played 73.6% of Dallas’ snaps, making this even more impressive.
He is tied for the lead with safety Xavier Woods in interceptions AS A LINEBACKER. His two interceptions lead safety Jeff Heath, cornerback Anthony Brown and defensive lineman Demarcus Lawrence.
But, the stat lines don’t reflect just how well Vander Esch has played this season. His ability to recognize the play, change directions and make the tackle in open space is incredible. He’s much more powerful than his college film showed, stopping offensive players running full speed in their tracks.
Vander Esch has the potential to be the next General Lee, but hopefully with better hamstring and ACL health. If he can stay on the field, Vander Esch could be the best player wearing the Star for years to come.
So, this is my official statement on the matter.
I was wrong about Leighton Vander Esch.