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How Leighton Vander Esch will fit into the Cowboys 2018 defense

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Some say the Cowboys reached for Leighton Vander Esch. What will he do in 2018 to change that narrative?

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Prior to the draft, it was reported by Tony Pauline of DraftAnalyst.com that the Dallas Cowboys were targeting either Vita Vea, Leighton Vander Esch, or D.J. Moore with the 19th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Once Vea was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with the 12th pick, the Cowboys’ decision was reportedly down to Vander Esch or Moore.

Dallas had been extremely high on Vander Esch throughout the entire pre-draft process. And when the decision came down to improving an up-and-coming defensive unit or drafting a wide receiver, Dallas went with the former.

With Vander Esch, the Cowboys are getting a player who will enter a good situation with a young and promising defense; a defense with significant talent at each level. There were glimpses of a solid group at linebacker last year with Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith, and Anthony Hitchens. However, Hitchens left in free agency.

On tape, Vander Esch is an elite athletic talent at the linebacker position. He is extremely quick and fluid with his movements. He may have relied on his athleticism a little often at Boise State, but his combination of instincts and athletic ability pairs to make a linebacker who can play either weak side or middle linebacker from the get-go.

And with his size at 6-foot-4, 255 pounds, Vander Esch has the ability to cover tight ends while his athletic ability will allow him to track running backs in the passing game. NFL defenses are transforming. Due to this, linebackers are asked now more than ever to play in coverage. This is another area where Vander Esch can help the Cowboys immediately in 2018.

The Cowboys were huge fans of Vander Esch weeks leading up to the draft, but the critique of the draft pick was that the Cowboys reached for the linebacker. Because he is still quite raw and there are certain things he did in college that he will not be able to do in the NFL, some believe that Vander Esch is far from a finished product. Rod Marinelli even said himself that it is Vander Esch’s “potential” that is so appealing. So how does that sit with Vander Esch’s prospects for the 2018 season?

Barring any injuries, the Cowboys look to head into the 2018 season with their most talented group at the linebacker position in quite some time. Lee has another offseason to get his conditioning in and strength up in hopes of a mainly-healthy season. Smith is now practicing without a brace and looks the best he has looked in about two and a half years.

And just because Vander Esch was the Cowboys’ first-round pick does not exactly mean he has to play every snap, but expect the Cowboys to deploy him right away and go through some growing pains with him. For the most part, you can expect a rotation of Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith playing opposite Sean Lee. In three-linebacker packages, they should all be on the field together. Newly-signed Joe Thomas and veteran Damien Wilson will likely provide the primary depth.

Expect the Cowboys’ defense to be much more aggressive in 2018. With the addition of Kris Richard as the Cowboys’ defensive backs coach, the secondary will be more takeaway-minded. Chidobe Awuzie, Jourdan Lewis, and Xavier Woods all made huge leaps in their rookie seasons. With experience and another offseason under their belts, they are in line to make another step in their progression.

Not only that, but the Cowboys could potentially get Randy Gregory back to work on a talented defensive line. An improved defense as a whole should free up each linebacker, leaving more opportunities for Vander Esch to make plays and become more comfortable with the nuances that come with playing in the NFL and in this scheme.

As mentioned earlier, Vander Esch is far from a finished prospect. His initial contact and engagement with offensive lineman is not polished. He relied too often on athleticism to beat offensive lineman. By working in an NFL conditioning program, Vander Esch will be able to get stronger, and his problems with shedding offensive lineman will be more on technique rather than overall strength.

This was Vander Esch’s biggest weakness on tape. However, he has the makings of a prolific linebacker with the ability to rack up tackles and create some takeaways as well. On top of Vander Esch’s production at Boise State, he was the leader of their defense. He has the “Right Kinda Guy” mentality the Cowboys have invested in over the past few years under the Jason Garrett coaching era.

Dallas has not had a spectacular defense in quite some time. Because of how much talent they have across the field, they could very well boast a top-ten unit in 2018. A player like Vander Esch enters a situation that is perfect for him. He even said Dallas was the perfect place for him:

“I had my fingers-crossed. I feel like I fit in the best here. I felt like I was the perfect piece to the puzzle. I don’t think I could fit into the defense any better.”

Dallas has done an excellent job of hitting on their first-round picks over the past decade or so. Because of the fit he has in this defense and the type of talent and motor he will bring to this linebacker group, expect Vander Esch to come in, produce in a variety of ways, and prove his first-round draft status.