The first round of the 2018 NFL Draft seemed to be a forgone conclusion for the Dallas Cowboys. With the heated departure of former NFL All-Pro wide receiver Dez Bryant and the troublesome acts of Terrence Williams, it made perfect sense for the Cowboys to draft the speedy and sure-handed wide receiver Calvin Ridley from the prestigious Alabama Crimson Tide with the 19th overall pick.
However, the Cowboys’ front office elected to draft a 6-foot-4 255 pound linebacker from Boise State University, and over a year later, their move is celebrated.
Leighton Vander Esch had the weight of the world on his young shoulders when he was called upon to be one of the moving bodies displayed on the Dallas Cowboys defensive unit. His talents were misunderstood because he came from a college where few players have had success on the professional level, but Vander Esch proved he belonged in the NFL.
“The Tackling Dutchman” slowly became a rising commodity for the Dallas Cowboys throughout the 2018-19 NFL season.
At the beginning of the season he played backup to Cowboys starting linebacker and defensive anchor Sean Lee. Unfortunately, Lee’s rigid history of injuries plagued him throughout the season and the Cowboys’ coaching staff made the tough but bold decision to start Vander Esch alongside rising star Jaylon Smith during the midway point of the season.
Vander Esch spent numerous hours on and off-the field as Lee’s protégé. Lee took Vander Esch under his wing and mentored him from the time he signed on the dotted line to become a Dallas Cowboy.
“He’s just incredible. Unbelievable football player,” Lee said back in November of 2018. “Great guy and great teammate. To be able to do what he’s done as a rookie is incredible. Just the instincts, the athleticism he plays with and the preparation he puts in. He’s a great player and he’s going to be on to great things because he continues to play. I think every game he has played he found a way to improve, and he’s a natural. The guy is a natural football player. Whether it comes to his instincts or his athleticism he’s been able to improve game in and game out. He picks himself up quickly. He’s an incredible athlete and he’s on his way to having an incredible career. It’s fun to watch how he works and it’s been a blessing to be around a rookie who cares like he does and works like he does.”
Lee’s positive influence and presence during practices, film sessions and games helped LVE become a better version of himself at a rapid pace. At the time of his insertion into the starting lineup, Vander Esch was already leading the team in tackles and had put up additional numbers placing him inside the top 3 for linebacker production with the likes of Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly.
LVE finished out his rookie campaign in style racking up numerous accolades and honors. During his rookie season, he compiled 140 total tackles, 102 solo tackles (2nd among linebackers), 38 tackle assists, two tackles for loss, one quarterback hit, two interceptions and seven pass deflections (2nd among linebackers).
Vander Esch’s outstanding performance throughout the season earned him his first NFL Pro Bowl selection, Second-Team All Pro selection and the Pro Football Writers Association All-Rookie Team selection. His biggest moment of the season came on November 11, 2018 when he compiled 13 total tackles, one tackle for loss and one huge interception that eventually led the Cowboys to a 27-20 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.
Vander Esch has put himself in a great position to build on his over-the-top rookie season with the Dallas Cowboys. The leadership of Sean Lee, Jaylon Smith and others on the defensive side of the ball gives Vander Esch numerous chances to grow into a more lethal weapon on a daily basis.
Based on his numbers, the rookie ranked third in the NFL in total linebacker performance last season and he has the potential to be the next big name in the NFL alongside the other household names in the NFL at the linebacker position.
His rookie season proves he has what it takes and now his upcoming sophomore season will give fans validation on just how good he can really be now that opponents know he’s a viable threat. Either way LVE isn’t fazed by the pressure. He just wants to play football.
“I’m just having fun out there,” Vander Esch said. “I just love running around on the field, making plays with everybody and communicating with Jaylon Smith. There’s nothing else better, it’s your lifestyle and you’re getting paid to play football. There’s absolutely nothing to complain about. Just go out there, do what the coaches ask and have fun.”
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