The Boise State product had a huge senior year. Was it enough to sneak into the first round?
The Sports Quotient’s annual Draft Preview series is back! Over the course of the eight weeks leading up to the 2018 NFL Draft, we will take a look at the top prospects at each position. This week, we dive into the linebacker position. Today, we’ll take a look at Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State.
Vander Esch’s career started out in a completely different direction than most high school athletes. He attended Salmon River High School in Riggins, Idaho, but only played 8-on-8 football because the school didn’t have enough players for 11-on-11. Vander Esch also ran track and played basketball, winning two state championships. Due to the level of play in high school, Vander Esch wasn’t recruited for Division I football but was a preferred walk-on at Boise State.
At Boise State, Vander Esch had a slow start over his first three years. He was redshirted his first year and saw limited playing time his redshirt freshman year. He appeared in 12 games but only recorded 20 total tackles. His redshirt sophomore season was short-lived, as he only played in six games due to a knee injury.
Fully healed from his injury, Vander Esch finally made the starting lineup his redshirt junior season and made the most of it. He recorded 141 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles. In the Mountain West Championship game against Fresno State, Vander Esch brought home Defensive MVP honors after racking up 16 total tackles and a game-sealing interception. After a successful season, Vander Esch was also named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year and First-Team All-Mountain West.
Vander Esch was a name to watch going into the NFL Combine, and the results only helped his draft stock. He measured in at 6‘4 and 256 pounds, which put him the 94th percentile among all linebackers in the draft. Along with the physically measurable, Vander Esch showed the athletic ability to compete at the next level.
What stuck out the most during the combine, and on film, was Vander Esch’s agility. In the three-cone drill, 20-yard shuttle, and 60-yard shuttle, he ranked in the top five among all linebackers that competed.
In the Las Vegas Bowl against Oregon, Vander Esch was around the ball on what seemed like every play. He really showed off when defending the run. According to Pro Football Focus, Vander Esch had the highest run-stopping percentage among 2018 Draft eligible linebackers at 15.9%.
In the play below he does a great job at shooting the inside gap at the snap of the ball. With his speed, he’s able to take on #58’s block and make a tackle at the line of scrimmage short of the first down.
In another play later in the game, Vander Esch makes a very similar play in the same situation. The quarterback gives the ball up on an option play, but Vander Esch jumps into the B-gap immediately and takes on the blocker without giving up ground. Vander Esch is also able to secure the tackle in the backfield.
Being a reliable tackler is something Vander Esch prides himself on. When he gets a hand on the ball carrier, they usually go down quickly. Not only can Vander Esch tackle well, but he rarely gives up yards after he makes contact.
The right guard is supposed to get to the second level to block an incoming Vander Esch. Unfortunately for San Diego State, he recognizes the play immediately, avoids the block, and shoots into the running lane quickly.
On one of my favorite plays against Oregon, Vander Esch shows off all his skills at one time.
Playing in the middle of the field, Vander Esch has the assignment to cover the running back out of the backfield. At the snap, he mirrors the movement of the back but still keeps his eyes on the QB. Once the throw is made, Vander Esch uses his speed to close the gap on the target. Number 20 is able to make the grab and turns to see Vander Esch coming and looks like he tries to make a move. But Vander Esch makes a great open field tackle while also forcing a fumble. Everything he does on this play shows NFL scouts just the kind of linebacker Vander Esch is.
As stated above, Vander Esch has only been around 11-on-11 football for three years and only been a starter for one, so he’s still learning. One of the biggest areas of concern is his play strength. Vander Esch has such good instincts and play speed, but when a blocker gets to him, they basically wipe Vander Esch out of the play.
On this play against San Diego State, Vander Esch reads the play well and looks like he could go down the line and make a tackle after a short gain. But #74 gets to the second level and seals him off from filling the hole, allowing the running back to score. This is especially troublesome when you factor in the size and speed NFL linemen have and how easily this could happen at the next level if not coached up.
Vander Esch also has a tendency to dip his head when running up to the line. This causes him to miss easy tackle opportunities.
On these two plays, it looks like Vander Esch reads the play perfectly and is going to make a great tackle for a loss but at the last second dips his head and shoulder and misses a perfect opportunity. In the first play against BYU, it seems like Vander Esch is so eager to take on the blocker he loses focus on trying to make a tackle. He slides perfectly into the gap, but the running back takes an easy sidestep and makes his way upfield.
On the second play, I’m honestly confused about what happens with Vander Esch. The offensive tackle down blocks on the defensive linemen, leaving a lane for Vander Esch to fill and make a tackle. For whatever reason, he dips his head down and looks to dive down on a blocker while the back just runs right past him.
The elite linebackers in the NFL are great at stopping the run as well as the pass. Vander Esch is serviceable in coverage but could use improvement nonetheless. He’s fluid in his movements and when dropping back into coverage, but there are times he gets fooled with his eyes in the backfield.
This is an example of when keeping your eyes on the QB hinders a linebacker in knowing where his assignment is. The Wyoming QB fakes the handoff to the running back and also a sweep to the receiver. With Vander Esch’s eyes following the ball, the fullback sneaks through the line on a wheel route and makes a catch for a big gain.
Scouts are going to love Vander Esch’s instincts and run stopping ability. In only one year as a starter, he was the leader on the Boise State defense, as evidenced by his 141 total tackles. He’s one of the best linebackers in the draft class against the run, but to bring his game up to the next level his skills in coverage need to improve. His play speed will also need to improve to keep up with NFL skill players, but Vander Esch should be the type of player NFL teams love to have on their roster.
Vander Esch is considered a borderline first-rounder who could potentially slip to the early second. Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds and Roquan Smith out of Georgia are the most balanced linebackers, with Vander Esch slipping in behind them. The other linebackers that should be taken in the first are more edge rushers, but that is a coveted position in the NFL.
The Buffalo Bills are an interesting team to land a linebacker at the 21st or 22nd pick, but they are considered as a team looking to trade up for a quarterback.
Based on NFL mock drafts, few team-player connections are stronger than the Steelers to Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch — and his family’s bus. @AlexMarvez explains: https://t.co/b6osCdZO30 pic.twitter.com/0qEyuFldKf— Sporting News (@sportingnews) March 25, 2018
The three teams that could use Vander Esch the most are the Tennessee Titans at 25, the Pittsburgh Steelers at 28, or the Philadelphia Eagles at 32. The recent NFL.com mock drafts have the Steelers snagging the Boise State standout. This makes the most sense with the history of defensive drafts the Steelers have had and with the uncertainty around Ryan Shazier’s injury.
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