A high upside linebacker with question marks coming out of college. An impressive start to give fans hope for their future on the team. Then injuries and decreased performance derailed any belief that they could be a perennial Pro Bowler.
Who did you have in mind when you read the previous paragraph, Leighton Vander Esch or Jaylon Smith? The truth is that both of these players have had remarkably similar careers to this point. In 2018, the Cowboys had two top-eight linebackers according to Pro Football Focus. The impressive aspect was those two players were under the age of 24.
Fast forward three years later, where the Cowboys are declining the fifth-year option for Leighton Vander Esch shortly after selecting a linebacker in the first round of the draft. Things have drastically changed since 2018.
Is it possible for Smith and Vander Esch to regain some of that momentum and return on the lofty expectations Dallas fans once had for this pair? With Smith at 26 and Vander Esch at 25, of course it’s possible. As seen below, a majority of linebackers reach their peak after the age of 26.
However, after two straight seasons of declining performance, reaching a higher peak than 2018 would require a drastic turnaround. We will look at each player individually to examine their potential of a return to dominance.
Regardless of how you feel about Jaylon Smith, all fans can agree that the “project” the Cowboys undertook in drafting him did not pan out as most had hoped. While 2018 made it appear as though Dallas had struck gold with their second-round pick, recent seasons have suggested differently.
Since 2018, Smith’s Pro Football Focus defensive grade dropped from 84.1 to 70.2 in 2019, before plummeting to 54.2 in 2020. This makes sense considering that Smith’s pressures on the quarterback, tackles for loss, receiving yards allowed, yards allowed after the catch, and penalties committed have worsened since 2018.
Defending against the run has to be the most baffling aspect of the linebacker’s game. From 2017 to 2019, Smith consistently improved in his ability to stop the run. With an incredibly low 6.6% missed tackle rate on rushing plays, Smith finished as the eighth-best run-stopping linebacker in football in 2019. However, behind one of the worst average depth of tackles on run plays in 2020, Smith finished as the 14th worst linebacker against the run.
This is not to say that last season was all bad for Smith. He finished with a decent tackling grade, consistently improving his missed tackle rate since 2017. This is in addition to the fact that, when he was targeted, Smith was among the best linebackers in passer rating allowed.
To summarize, Jaylon Smith will likely never reach that illustrious 2018 level of production again. However, there is a clear path to success. If Smith can reverse the unexplained poor performance against the rush in 2020, paired with his decent tackling ability, he could become a threat off the edge.
Don’t expect the linebacker to pay off on the generous contract he was rewarded, but becoming a serviceable linebacker behind the hopeful prospect in Micah Parsons seems to be a somewhat realistic ceiling. While Jaylon Smith’s peak is likely behind him, that does not mean he cannot provide value. If we set aside our disappointment and simply hope for a league-average linebacker, the pathway exists if Smith improves.
Leighton Vander Esch
The linebacker out of Boise State is a more curious case. At 25-years-old, having already made a Pro Bowl, there is an 83% chance that Leighton Vander Esch has yet to reach his full potential. But based on last season, the prospect of Vander Esch becoming a league leader seems bleak.
Over the last two seasons, Vander Esch’s missed tackle rate has been among the worst in the NFL, and his tackles per game have similarly decreased despite playing a larger percentage of his snaps in the box. This has led to a consistent decline in his defensive grade from 2018 to 2020.
If there is one area where LVE needs to see improvement, it is in coverage. Last season, LVE posted his worst career numbers in stats such as reception percentage allowed, penalties in coverage, yards per reception allowed, and pass breakups. This decrease isn’t as problematic as it may seem, considering the Cowboys are relying on LVE less to cover pass catchers.
The decline was not as drastic for Vander Esch in 2020 as it was for Jaylon Smith. LVE managed to improve his rush defense and tackling grade. This is in addition to the linebacker finishing with the second-best pass-rushing grade among all linebackers, albeit on limited attempts.
The most concerning factor for Vander Esch has not been his ability on the field but rather his inability to stay on it. After two straight seasons playing ten games or less, fans are left wondering if they are dealing with another Sean Lee. In 2021, LVE has to shed the label of being “injury-prone” before we can assess his future with the team.
Between Vander Esch improving in some key statistical categories and the probability of a Pro Bowl linebacker seeing improvement after the age of 25, LVE has likely not reached his peak. Cowboys’ fans should not give up on the linebacker from Boise State just yet. However, with his fifth-year option being declined, Vander Esch will have to quickly improve to stay on the team.
One source of optimism can be taken away from the two linebackers posting their worst season yet- it statistically should not have occurred. Considering that both players have already made a Pro Bowl and are still under the age of 27, LVE and Smith should have improved last year. At the very least, we should not have seen a drop-off as drastic as 2020.
We can’t place all of the blame for last year’s defensive ineptitude on Mike Nolan. However, it is curious as to why two players with bright futures posted well below league average defensive numbers in 2020.
Whatever the reason for the decline, Mike Nolan or just horrible luck, 2021 is a pivotal year for these two. We will have a much better idea about the potential of Smith and Vander Esch after watching them play under Dan Quinn. Have these two have reached their peak? We will all know very soon.