In 2018, the Dallas Cowboys thought they were set at linebacker for years to come. Jaylon Smith was the sixth-ranked linebacker in the league according to PFF. He anchored the middle linebacker position for the majority of the season and would be named to a Pro Bowl one year later.
Leighton Vander Esch took no time introducing himself to the league. As the fifth-ranked LB in 2018 according to Pro Football Focus, he was not only named to the Pro Bowl but was a second-team All-Pro player. The future was bright for the Cowboys' young linebacking corps.
At least, that's what most thought. Soon Jaylon Smith would see his production decline before being cut from the team after week four of the 2021 season. Vander Esch struggled with injuries over the next few years. Even when he was in, the 2018 flashes of brilliance were clearly gone.
But in 2021, those flashes appeared again. For the first time in three years, LVE played as he did in his rookie season.
Vander Esch’s end-of-season stretch was top 10 at the position over the last 11 weeks
Two points must be established before addressing LVE’s play over the back half of 2021:
- There is no guarantee this continues moving forward.
- Injuries are still a problem with Vander Esch.
These are the two things that could derail Vander Esch’s 2022 campaign. Last year was the first time since his rookie year that he exceeded 700 snaps, and seasons such as these might be the exception rather than the rule moving forward. Also, while he did play great after the bye week last season, no one can presume this is how he will perform in 2022.
With that said, it is safe to say that 2021 was a genuinely great season for LVE.
Before the bye week, he should have been a cut candidate. In weeks one through six last season, he was the 76th ranked LB in the NFL by PFF grading. That is out of 88 qualifying linebackers. It was worse than 2019 or 2020.
But then the switch flipped. In weeks eight through 18, which is after the Dallas bye week, he was the ninth-ranked interior linebacker in the league according to PFF. In 11 weeks, which is a solid chunk of the season, he was better than names like De’Vondre Campbell, Demario Davis, Bobby Wagner, Jordan Hicks, and Anthony Barr. In case you were wondering, Micah Parsons was the number one ranked linebacker over this period.
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And that is part of the reason Vander Esch succeeded after the bye. The defensive interior, edge rushers, and Micah Parsons, all elevated their game. This took pressure off LVE from having to chase the running backs from sideline to sideline. Instead, his job was to simply finish off the play when the offense made it to the second level. He also saw an easier time in coverage with the other secondary players sticking to their man.
But as of right now, all you know is that PFF believes LVE played well. To actually prove it, here are Vander Esch’s stats in the back half of 2021 compared to his rookie season. Without knowing which is which, who would you say is better?
- Option one: 7.4% missed tackle rate, 2.2 run defense stops per game, .5 pressures per game, 3.5 tackles per game, 70.7 passer rating allowed on 23 targets, and 0 penalties
- Option two: 9.2% missed tackle rate, 3.9 run defense stops per game, .3 pressures per game, 7.8 tackles per game, 98 passer rating allowed on 94 targets, and 1 penalty
Option two is rookie year Vander Esch and option one is LVE during the back half of 2021. Vander Esch in 2018 was a more active player and was forced to make more plays. Consequently, option two finished with higher counting stats. But during the end of last season, LVE was the most efficient he has ever been. His missed tackle rate, ability to rush the passer, and defense in pass coverage all significantly improved.
And that should be the biggest takeaway from Vander Esch’s most recent campaign. Despite what his rookie year might have promised, he is not a volume linebacker like Luke Kuechly or Bobby Wagner. That is his weakness. If the rest of the defense is playing poorly, Vander Esch will not be the one to step up and takeover.
But if he has support, especially on the defensive line, he can succeed. As long as his job is just to clean up the play, Vander Esch can be a great linebacker. If the defensive line can force the play inside and prevent the guards from getting to the second level, LVE will shine and finish the play. He is a good linebacker when supported, but he probably won't take over the game anytime soon.
That is where the question marks arise for 2022. Can the rest of the team aid Vander Esch and play close to the level they did last season? If so, LVE could make a run at a second Pro Bowl due to his incredible efficiency during the back half of last season.
But not only does he need the defense to repeat on a pretty spectacular season, but he also needs to stay healthy. He has two injury-riddled seasons in his four-year career and is now on a prove-it deal right after he played all 18 games in 2021. There is no guarantee he experiences the same durability this year.
So, throw LVE into the group of question marks that will decide how the 2022 Dallas Cowboys’ season goes. While the magic of Vander Esch’s first year in the league has faded, his performance last season inspired hope. Just enough hope for him to receive a one-year contract with the team. Just enough hope for fans to get excited about the “what ifs.” This is what the offseason is all about, hope.