We’re continuing our countdown to the opening game of the Dallas Cowboys 2023 regular season. Each day we’ll present a new player whose jersey number represents the countdown to opening day. Today is number 55.
LB Leighton Vander Esch
Born: 8th February 1996 (27) - Riggins, Idaho
College: Boise State Broncos
Draft: 2018, Round 1, Pick 19, Dallas Cowboys
Defensive Snaps: 882 (71%)
Defensive Stops: 33
Leighton Vander Esch joined Boise State and played linebacker as a walk-on in 2014. In 2015, he played in eight games as a backup middle linebacker and recorded 20 tackles and one tackle for a loss. In 2016, as a redshirt sophomore, he only played six games due to a neck injury.
It was during his senior season when he exploded onto the scene while playing as a Will linebacker for Boise State. He was named first-team All-Mountain West and earned the honor of being Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. For Boise State he ranked first in tackles (141), defensive stops (76) and forced fumbles (4). He also had 8.5 tackles for loss which was second-most for the Broncos and four sacks which was third-most. His total tackles and tackle for loss in 2017 led the nation.
Cowboys LB Leighton Vander Esch disguised this blitz well, not mugging A-gap until after the Commanders began their silent-count procedure. Created confusion on O-line, allowing DT Neville Gallimore to be unblocked on 9-yard sack. pic.twitter.com/VOSfjVinmK— Michael Gehlken (@GehlkenNFL) October 3, 2022
Vander Esch was extremely impressive during the pre-draft process and the writing was on the wall that the Cowboys would take him. In his first year he came out the gate quickly, and along with Jaylon Smith, looked like a part of one of the best linebacker tandems in the NFL. He ended his rookie season earning a Pro Bowl nomination and had the third-most tackles in the NFL as well as being ranked the fourth-best linebacker by PFF.
In 2019, Vander Esch was playing well until he suffered a neck injury that required surgery. He was placed on injured reserve in December and missed the remainder of the year. In 2020, it was good to see him back on field. He looked healthy in Week 1, but his season was quickly halted when he broke his collar bone against the L.A. Rams. He was placed on IR again while he underwent surgery and returned in October.
The team decided in 2021 not to exercise his fifth-year option and he played adequately with no major injuries. The front office decided in the offseason to put him on a one-year deal and play the 2022 season out to determine his future. He did miss four games due to a stinger but was back in time for the playoffs. He still finished the season with 90 tackles (second-most for Dallas) and 33 defensive stops (fourth-most).
DAL has a bit of a miscommunication defending the trips bunch (Wilson/Mukuamu both go with 84) but Leighton Vander Esch put on his cape to defend 2 TB WRs before the PBU.— John Owning (@JohnOwning) January 17, 2023
The fact that LVE picked up Godwin but then fell off to defend Julio is incredible awareness #Cowboys pic.twitter.com/hyuDPM8VpB
2023 Roster Projection:
Once Vander Esch reestablished himself on the defense last year, he looked as though he was ready to bring his rookie level of production back. After the front office made the trade for Johnathan Hankins, he and Vander Esch paired very well to try and put a stop to the oppositions rushing plan.
The injury concerns will always be a red flag for Vander Esch every game, as such this always leaves concerns on linebacker depth. But what he showed last year to become a vital piece of stopping the run makes perfect sense for the front office to sign him to a two-year deal. Let’s see how he can continue to play as the thumper at the middle linebacker position. Maybe if he can prove his health is not an issue, then he could be working toward a Pro Bowl type season.
Projected 2023 Stats:
Defensive stops: 35
The Big Question:
Will Vander Esch be one of the teams top tacklers this season? Answer in the comments.