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Rookie sensation: Leighton Vander Esch has been exactly what the Cowboys have needed

The rookie is playing at an extremely high level.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

How wrong could we have been?

Last April, the Cowboys had a difficult problem to solve on their hands: which position do they address with their first pick of the 2018 NFL Draft? The need for a go-to receiver was evident, and the likes of Calvin Ridley of Alabama and D.J. Moore of Maryland were just two intriguing options on the board that teams felt were worth day-one selections. Giving Dak Prescott a new weapon to utilize along Ezekiel Elliott was certainly a tempting thought.

Offensive guard was also an area of concern: Jonathan Cooper had some nice moments in 2017, but the Cowboys watched him ink with the 49ers. Moving La’el Collins back inside wasn’t in serious consideration, so many pondered whether or not Dallas would grab a lineman on day one. Will Hernandez and James Daniels were a pair of lineman on the board when the Cowboys came on the clock, but they opted to pass.

Then, of course, linebacker. It’s no secret that Sean Lee is among the best in the NFL at his position, but it’s also no secret that the Penn State product has had serious trouble with staying on the field. When Lee, The General of the defense, went down with injury, the rest of the defense would seemingly collapse. Selecting a linebacker in the first-round was a big topic of debate leading up to the draft.

The position was headlined by Georgia star Roquan Smith, a linebacker that plays sideline-to-sideline with the potential to be a stud on the NFL level. Smith, though, was highly coveted and did not make it out of the top ten. The other linebackers that were getting first-round consideration were Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch, Virginia Tech star Tremaine Edmunds, and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans. Vander Esch was the underdog — an eight-man football star in high school before blossoming into a force in Boise. Edmunds had NFL pedigree in his family and went to a big-time football school. Evans was the blue chip prospect that signed with Alabama and was apart of a National Championship defense in Tuscaloosa. They were all intriguing prospects in their own ways, but were either one a fit for the Cowboys? (For clarity, Edmunds ended up being drafted three spots ahead of the Cowboys pick).

Thoughts were mixed heading into the draft. The Cowboys, however, were sold on Leighton Vander Esch - and reports stated that fact leading up to the day LVE heard his name called. The draft, of course, was held in AT&T Stadium, so Vander Esch was greeted by his home fans when the draft pick was announced; unfortunately, if you recall, many fans were disappointed in the selection.

In fact, some national analysts questioned the pick — such as ESPN’s Mel Kiper, who called the selection a “reach”.

The Cowboys reached at No. 19. They could have had Calvin Ridley, the top wide receiver in this draft. They could have had Alabama inside linebacker Rashaan Evans, the No. 23 player on my Big Board. Instead, they went with Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, who had one great season and a great combine. Is he a one-year wonder? I ranked him No. 37 overall in this class. Sure, linebacker was one of the Cowboys’ top needs, but this is a reach.

Despite the mixed feeling about the pick, the majority of fans understood that selecting a linebacker in that spot made logical sense. Lee has been hampered by injuries throughout his career and Jaylon Smith was a huge question mark through two seasons. Would Vander Esch be able to fill a hole in this defense?

Vander Esch answered that question rather quickly. In his second professional game, the Boise State product made seven total tackles — all of which were solo — and seemed to be the only player on the field to be able to tackle fellow rookie sensation Saquon Barkley in the open field. Although he only saw twenty-or-so snaps, it was easy to tell that there was something intriguing about this rookie defender.

The next week, Vander Esch saw his opportunity get even bigger, as Sean Lee went down after aggravating his hamstring in week three versus the Seahawks. In that game, Vander Esch showed us a little bit of what he is capable of — leading the team with ten total stops in the loss. From there, the rookie began to take off.

NFL: Washington Redskins at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

In year’s past, the defense would fall apart without Sean Lee on the field — but it has been a different story this season. The development and rise of Leighton Vander Esch has been remarkable.

As of this week, Vander Esch has made 102 total stops, good for fourth most across the entire National Football League — and a whopping 77 of them have been solo! The rookie’s long arms and wide frame allows him to wrap up just about any ball carrier he gets his hands on, making things even easier for the other ten defenders on a very impressive unit. LVE is a unique linebacker in the sense that he can play sideline-to-sideline and almost make it look easy.

John Owning of SportsDay wrote a great piece detailing why Vander Esch has been the best rookie linebacker in the NFL this season, and LVE’s ability to play sideline-to-sideline is a big aspect.

The Wolf Hunter quickly diagnoses plays, which allows him to quickly react and fly to the football as soon as the ball is snapped. His instincts are insanely good for someone that lacks a ton of overall football experience — much less NFL experience. You would never guess that this guy was playing eight-man football in a small town in Idaho just four short years ago.

Though Vander Esch’s play has been a hot topic in Dallas, one can argue that he still isn’t getting the credit he deserves. Earlier this week, ESPN’s Jeff Legwold ranked the top ten rookies in the NFL this season. Vander Esch came in at number seven. LVE was not only left out of the top five, there were three defenders ahead of him.

There is certainly some to debate there. There is no denying that Derwin James, Darius Leonard, and Bradley Chubb have all had impressive seasons, but Vander Esch’s play — on an elite defense and a team vying for a divisional title — has been eye-popping.

Pro Football Focus took note of Vander Esch’s performance this season, ranking him as the third-best linebacker in football. Obviously, PFF is not the be-all end-all, but it’s still interesting to see LVE up with the likes of Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly.

No matter where exactly you have Vander Esch on your linebacker rankings, it is clear just how talented the rookie is. He has been one of the most important players on this Cowboys team, and he — along with running mate Jaylon Smith — has shored up a hole on this defense. LVE flies to the football, displays incredible instincts, and even earned the NFL’s Rookie of the Month for his play in November — which included interceptions on Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan in consecutive weeks.

The Cowboys are in prime position to win this division and possibly make some noise in the NFC, thanks in large part to the defense and their young star. In order for that to happen, though, Vander Esch will need to continue his impressive play.

If this season has shown us anything, Leighton Vander Esch is ready for any challenge he encounters.

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