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Leighton Vander Esch grades out the highest of all first-round rookies

Guess which first-rookie graded highest overall?

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NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When the Dallas Cowboys selected Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick, there were many fans who weren’t too pleased with the decision. Of course, the biggest reason is likely that we all had some other guy in mind for that pick as our draft rankings are never the same. Maybe you were a Calvin Ridley or D.J. Moore guy who wanted the team to revamp the wide receiver group with one of the top college pass catchers. Maybe you wanted the team to select one of the several offensive linemen who were on the board. Or maybe you just didn’t think Vander Esch was worthy of being selected that high.

While all three of those reasons may have seemed reasonable at the time, the last one can now be buried deep in a hole somewhere. Vander Esch was definitely worth it. In fact, what if we told you he was a top five pick? Well, that’s presumptuous and we wouldn’t say that right now, but we will say this - according to the grades from Pro Football Focus, Vander Esch is the highest-graded player of all the rookies selected in the first round.

Vander Esch narrowly edges out safety Derwin James for the top spot. Many believed the Los Angeles Chargers got a great steal when James was still available at pick 17 and not much has happened to change that. James has had a great season with 99 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and three interceptions on the year.

But Vander Esch looks like a steal himself as he’s had quite a season. He has 131 tackles on the year with two interceptions to go with them. And he’s done this despite a more limited role early in the season where he wasn’t logging quite as many snaps. The injury to Sean Lee has thrust him into the starting weakside linebacker spot and he’s been killing it ever since.

Vander Esch has been making big plays for this Cowboys team all season. He is a super-athletic player who has been great against the run, but also really tough in coverage. He ranks first among all rookie linebackers in run defense grades and pass coverage grades. And it’s not just that he’s a reliable tackler, but the fact that he has an uncanny ability to make his tackles count. He ranks second in the league among rookies in defensive stops. And no play was bigger than the tackle that helped shift the changing of the guard in the NFC East.

Whenever rookies have upside, it’s easy to make comparisons to other NFL greats. For LVE, Brian Urlacher’s name came up a lot. While that’s a hard sell to make before a player has ever played his first NFL game, we now have almost a full season of games to judge by and Vander Esch looks like a future star in this league because he’s pretty darn good right now.

Kuechly went on to be an All-Pro his sophomore season and has made the Pro Bowl that year and in ever year thereafter.

The Cowboys are no strangers to rolling the dice on players with high-upside. Their roster is filled with them. Vander Esch had a big season his last year at Boise State, but it was his only season as a starter and many wondered if they had seen enough to buy into the idea he would be a great NFL player. Well, the Cowboys bought into it and it’s worked out pretty well for them. That’s definitely something worth howling about.

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