Dallas Cowboys pick Leighton Vander Esch in NFL Draft Round 1
Playing eight-man football in high school helped Leighton Vander Esch develop his open-field tackling. There's plenty of room to cover in those games.
He then walked on to the Boise State football team and developed into a standout linebacker in his lone season starting last year. Now Vander Esch finds himself playing for America's Team. The Dallas Cowboys used the 19th overall pick on him during the first-round of this year's NFL Draft that started Thursday night at AT&T Stadium.
Thursday capped an improbable journey from a 400-person town in Idaho to the world's richest sports franchise.
Vander Esch played his high school football at Salmon River High School in Riggins, Idaho, a town about three hours north of Boise. He played quarterback and middle linebacker on the eight-man team before embarking on a college career that began as a walk-on at Boise State.
Vander Esch became a starter last season and didn't disappoint. He was credited with 141 tackles with three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in 14 games. He also had three interceptions and declared for the NFL Draft a year early.
"It’s been an incredible journey this far, with my support system back in Riggins (Idaho) and my family, my high school coach Charlie (Shepherd)," Vander Esch said. "Having him as a coach through high school, and pretty much through junior high and elementary, pretty much the whole time, we really grew a relationship. He taught me a lot about eight-man ball and he really helped me as a football player playing both sides of the ball.
"I always had to be on the field no matter what. You couldn’t come off the field because you had to play both ways. You got in shape real quick. It was great, and you really learned how to open-field tackle."
The knocks on Vander Esch is starting for only one season in college and an injury he sustained a couple years ago. But the Cowboys view him as an ascending prospect and had him undergo a final medical test Thursday morning before drafting him.
Vander Esch refuted reports that he had a stinger in college, saying he's been healthy.
"I haven't had any neck injuries," Vander Esch said. "I've had no issues. I'm ready to go."
Vander Esch has worn a neck roll since high school, but said he's done so because he's comfortable with it, not for any medical reason.
Vander Esch becomes the first linebacker drafted by the Cowboys in the first-round since Ohio State's Bobby Carpenter in 2006. And Vander Esch certainly didn't hold back his expectations coming to America's Team.
"We've got Super Bowls to win. A lot of them," Vander Esch told the NFL Network minutes after being drafted.
The Cowboys' defense is excited about the selection, particularly fellow Boise State products in DeMarcus Lawrence and Tyrone Crawford.
"BOISEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE," Crawford posted on his Twitter account afterward.
Vander Esch knows of only one other player in the NFL who played eight-man growing up — Denver Broncos center Matt Paradis who is from Council, Idaho.
The NFC East bolstered its running back corps when the New York Giants selected Penn State's Saquon Barkley with the second overall pick. He'll join the Cowboys' Ezekiel Elliott as top-five picks in the division.
And Elliott is on board with it.
"Can’t wait to see you twice a year lol @saquon," Elliott posted on his Twitter account shortly after the Giants' pick.
Barkley had been considered by many as this draft's top prospect. He topped the 1,000-yard mark in each of his three seasons with Penn State, including scoring 18 TDs on the ground as a sophomore and a junior.
The Giants went with Barkley, something that should've pleased Cowboys' defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence.
Lawrence made it clear that the Giants shouldn't draft a quarterback hours before the draft, saying Eli Manning is just fine. Lawrence posted a couple photos of him applying pressure to Manning in a tweet that went viral.
Lawrence had a point. Of his five career games with more than one sack, one happened in the season opener a year ago vs. the Giants when he was credited with 1.5 sacks against Manning. In the second meeting last December, Lawrence didn't record a sack but the Cowboys' coaches credited him with 10 quarterback pressures.
Lawrence, 26, had a career year in 2017. He finished with 14.5 sacks and 52 QB pressures, and was given the franchise tag that will pay him $17.143 million in 2018.