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Cowboys 2018 draft: Film review of first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch

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Checking the tape to see what Leighton Vander Esch could bring to the Dallas Cowboys.

NFL: NFL Draft Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 NFL Draft ended on Saturday, but we are not done reviewing the draft just yet! In the coming days, BTB will release film reviews on each player drafted by the Dallas Cowboys. This article features first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State.


Prior to the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft, it was reported by DraftAnalyst.com’s Tony Pauline that the Dallas Cowboys were down to Vita Vea, Leighton Vander Esch, and D.J. Moore with their first-round selection. It turned out to be at least partially true when the Cowboys drafted Vander Esch out of Boise State.

The move was seen as a bit of a reach by some analysts. While Vander Esch has a ton of potential due to his athletic measurables, many had his value placed a little later in the first round or early second. Regardless, the members of the Cowboys war room were pounding their fists and giving each other high-fives, so they were definitely excited about the pick.

Over the last three years, the Cowboys are 1-8 when Sean Lee is not in the lineup. It is clear how much better the defense is when he is on the field. Last year, the Cowboys got a gift when Jaylon Smith was able to play a full schedule, but the more snaps he player the lower his production. Now the Cowboys will complete their linebacker corps with the addition of Vander Esch.

Dallas can plug Vander Esch in at MIKE linebacker with Smith moving to strongside linebacker. The trio is definitely the best they have had at the linebacker positions in recent memory. Let’s take a look at some of Vander Esch’s snaps to see what makes him special.

In this play, Virginia is running a dive back towards the left side of the line. Once Boise State’s defensive end blows up the play, Virginia’s running back cuts the play inside. Watch Vander Esch immediately recognize run and then shuffle his feet to monitor the running back, leading to a tackle. Even though he initially follows the action to the offense’s left, he’s quick enough to see the cutback and pounce.

Vander Esch is very good at diving through the gaps and disrupting plays in the backfield. In this play, Vander Esch gets skinny to get through the offensive line and make a tackle for a loss.

Again, as seen here, his instincts lead him to knife through the line. Once he recognizes and sniffs out the play, he shoots out of a cannon, making yet another tackle for a loss. Look at how much ground he covers quickly to get to the running back.

On a 3rd & 1 against Oregon, Vander Esch is faced with eluding a left guard to get in the backfield and make a play to get the defense off the field. With good initial recognition skills, Vander Esch puts himself in a good position to break free from the guard. He does and he makes a big play.

In this clip, we get to see Vander Esch’s ability to tackle in the open field. He squares up the receiver in space and drives through the tackle, forcing a fumble and creates a takeaway opportunity for Boise State.

After recognizing the play, Vander Esch takes an angle to the football where he will have to take on the pulling offensive guard to provide for a better opportunity for his defenders behind him. Instead, Vander Esch’s quickness allows him to fake out the guard and make the tackle.

On this play, Vander Esch blitzes to get after the quarterback. Once the ball is released on a bubble screen, he immediately shifts his attention towards the pass target. His unbelievable athleticism allows him to run down the ball carrier, nullifying a big play for the offense.

In this clip, Vander Esch is deployed in another blitz package. Once the running back steps up and attempts to chop block him, he quickly adjusts his route and gets a big hit on the quarterback.

Vander Esch uses his instincts and lateral athleticism and makes an excellent play here in tight space. Sometimes he can get washed out in traffic, or not use proper technique when taking on blockers, but there is enough evidence to show these are correctable. If he can get stronger at the point of attack to go with his athleticism, he will be a complete player.

Vander Esch’s ability to knife through once he diagnoses the play is very instinctual. Here he leaves his blocker reaching for air as he blows by him.

The clips above show that Vander Esch has a lot of potential mainly due to his athleticism, instincts, motor, and tackling ability. He will have to be stronger at the point of attack and learn to shed blockers when his athleticism doesn’t allow him to get around them.

Vander Esch has athleticism that should translate to a player who has plus coverage ability. His athleticism paired with his instincts should make for a good coverage linebacker in the NFL.

Dallas will use Vander Esch at the middle linebacker position. While there is only one year of elite collegiate production, the Cowboys are getting a player with off the charts athleticism and the ability to get into the backfield to disrupt plays and make tackles. Along with Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, the Cowboys have a trio of athletic players who can run down plays.

Games Watched: Virginia (2017), Oregon (2017), Troy (2017), San Diego State (2017), and BYU (2017).