The bright lights of Dallas are a stark difference from Riggins, Idaho, from where Cowboys first round pick Leighton Vander Esch hails. Indeed, the population of Riggins is 406, which could squeeze into a few sections at vast AT&T stadium, the venue that will host Vander Esch for the foreseeable future.
Riggins is a small town on the west edge of Idaho’s panhandle, about three hours from Boise. At Salmon River High School, the school Vander Esch attended, just 10 others graduated alongside him.
Vander Esch’s story is one of the more interesting ones in the 2018 NFL Draft. The Boise State product played eight-man football in high school, because his school didn’t have enough students to play 11-man ball.
From high school, Vander Esch walked onto Boise State’s football team and quickly climbed the ranks to become a team captain by his junior year. That season, his 141 tackles, four sacks and four forced fumbles made him 2017 Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year award recipient
Now, Vander Esch finds himself in Dallas, where he will be donning the classic blue star as he looks to help America’s Team regain its past form.
“I mean there’s a lot to live up to and I’m gonna do just that and more,” Vander Esch told Deion Sanders after he was drafted. “We’ve got Super Bowls to win. A lot of them.”
The Cowboys believe they have selected the right player to work towards that goal and it won’t take long for him to make an impact.
Jerry Jones compared Vander Esch to Rolando McClain, who starred at middle linebacker for the Cowboys in their 12-4 2014 season, before off the field issues forced him off the team. McClain’s athleticism and instincts made him a valuable contributor defending the pass.
“(He reminds me of) Rolando McClain as far as being able to cover the gaps as well as drop back and get to the windows and basically have the span and the instinct to give us the pass defense we want,” Jones said.
Vander Esch possesses impressive physical traits, which he displayed at the NFL Scouting Combine. He stands at 6-4, 256 pounds, two inches taller and ten pounds heavier than both Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys’ two other starting linebackers. At the combine, he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.65 seconds, faster than McClain’s time, and posted a 39.5-inch vertical jump, which was tied for second among this season’s linebackers.
Vander Esch’s potential to be versatile makes him enticing at the linebacker spot. Today, the best tight ends are too big for safeties to cover, and too fast for most linebackers. Each of Dallas’ NFC East opponents has a player like this; Washington’s Jordan Reed and Philadelphia’s Zach Ertz are established studs, and New York’s Evan Engram gained 722 yards in an impressive rookie campaign. Vander Esch’s combination of size and speed can be the antidote to these threats.
“He can make plays in the box, he can make plays in space,” Jason Garrett said. “Maybe his best quality is his ability to cover the pass. He is a big-time defender both in zone and as a man-to-man cover guy.”
In a league that values malleability more than ever, Vander Esch’s skill set has immense value. Garrett said that he could envision Vander Esch playing any of the three linebackers spots in Rod Marinelli’s 4-3 defense. But the 21-year old may also be asked to split out and play the nickel, a spot where his impact can really be felt.
In the nickel, the Vander Esch will be tasked with covering tight ends the size of the 6-5, 250 pound Ertz, and speedy slot receivers. If he can stop both, he will be indispensible on third downs.
The Cowboys already have two linebackers that they’re invested in. Lee made two Pro Bowls in his eight seasons with the team, and Smith was a second round pick in 2016.
Vander Esch sees himself fitting in with both of them.
“I don’t think I can fit in any better,” he said. “I think the linebacker corps is awesome, and I am so pumped to get in there and start working with those guys.”
While Vander Esch has impressive tools, he started at Boise State for just one year, making him one of the draft’s more raw prospects. Another potential concern is his health.
Vander Esch missed some time in college with an apparent concussion, but was cured after seeing a chiropractor. He wears a neck brace, but has been doing so since high school, before the injury. Reportedly, five teams flagged him for the injury before the draft, but Vander Esch is confident that his medicals are completely clean.
“I don’t know where any of that came from,” he said. “I never had a stinger. They had it down as that. I haven’t had any neck injuries. I don’t know if it was people wanting to start stuff come the week of the draft, but I have had no issues. I am ready to go, and I am completely and totally healthy. I am ready to get this thing rolling.”
Jerry Jones also is not concerned at all. Team doctors, team trainers and independent doctors all gave him the requisite grade to be taken in the first round.
Of course, Jones and the Cowboys have no issues taking risks on players with questionable medical histories. Smith, who Vander Esch will be playing alongside, was once considered to be a top-10 pick before severely injuring his knee in his final college game. While some expected Smith to fall into the middle of the draft, Jones snagged him early in round two. The third projected starting linebacker, Lee, has played 11 or fewer games in three of the past five seasons, and will be 32 by the time the season starts. While the talent is there at linebacker, one cannot help but be dubious that all three will stay healthy.
The Vander Esch pick fills an area of need, and the Cowboys selected a player that should adapt well to the NFL. Now, the kid from Riggins will have to perform on the field to win the hearts of America’s biggest fan base.