Dallas Cowboys

Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith are more than filling in for Sean Lee

Dallas Cowboys linebackers Leighton Vander Esch, left, and Jaylon Smith celebrate a tackle against the Lions on Sept. 30. They are tied for the team lead with 50 tackles each through six games.
Dallas Cowboys linebackers Leighton Vander Esch, left, and Jaylon Smith celebrate a tackle against the Lions on Sept. 30. They are tied for the team lead with 50 tackles each through six games. Special to the Star-Telegram

Dallas Cowboys’ rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch isn’t sure people believe him that he learned to become a supreme tackler during his 8-man football days in high school.

More space to run with fewer players on the field forced Vander Esch to make it count when he got his hands on a runner.

“People can believe me if they want to believe me, but I know the majority probably won’t because they probably overlook 8-man football. I know that taught me a lot, being able to make plays in space,” said Vander Esch, who will make his fourth start when the Cowboys’ play the Redskins in Washington at 3:25 p.m. Sunday. “That’s one of the things I’ve always prided myself in is just being a sure tackler.”

He leads the team with 50 tackles and has been a huge tonic as replacement for Sean Lee, who has missed the previous two games with a hamstring injury. Lee expects to practice this week and will play Sunday if he’s healthy. The Cowboys after an off week before resuming Nov. 5 for a Monday Night game against the Titans at AT&T Stadium.

The way Vander Esch has played, however, makes Lee’s hurried return much less of a concern than in previous seasons.

Along with Jaylon Smith’s emergence as a fully healthy middle linebacker, Vander Esch has helped not only provide stable depth but two potential star players.

“He’s one of those guys that you’re privileged to coach, the approach he takes every day, the positive impact he has on his teammates, just how he goes about it,” Cowboys’ coach Jason Garrett said.

Jaylon Smith discusses the Dallas Cowboys' defensive performance in the season-opening loss to the Carolina Panthers.

Both linebackers are always quick to credit Lee for his help from the sideline and voice their deep respect for Lee’s leadership but they also know they are the future of the Dallas’ defense. And when Vander Esch isn’t praising Lee’s help, he’s heaping it on Smith, who shares the team lead in tackles and has five quarterback hits. Smith, who is in his second season as a starter after missing his 2016 rookie season because of surgery, is rated the 10th best linebacker through six games by Pro Football Focus. Vander Esch is currently No. 2 with an 86.4 rating.

“It’s not just what he does on the field, it’s his preparation in the film room … and helping me along,” Vander Esch said of Smith. “He’s running the huddle out there on the field. He’s communicating the play to everybody. And obviously we’re a team out there, we’re linebackers, we’re helping each other get lined up, we’re helping everybody else get lined up. He helps me be able to help him help everybody else.”

Neither hide their ambition for their careers or the pride in their games. Lee, of course, also exudes confidence. But the two youngsters — Vander Esch is 21 and Smith is 24 — still carry the swagger of players still trying proving themselves. And so far, there is no doubt they are.

“He’s extremely driven, he wants to be known as one of the best linebackers in the NFL,” Vander Esch said of Smith. “I have absolutely no doubt he’s going to be there. I just look forward to playing with him for many years to come and making an amazing duo out of it.”

Of course, Smith could say the same thing about Vander Esch.

“I’ve always had high expectations for myself. I’m not going to settle for anything less,” Vander Esch said. “I’ve got to give the credit to all the coaches, the players around me. I mean, Jaylon and Sean they’ve helped me a tremendous amount. The linebacker group we’ve got is one of the best in the NFL. How close we are, we’re all brothers, we love playing with each other, just making plays and feeding off each other on gamedays. It’s been an absolute blast so far, but it’s still early in the season and I’ve just got to be consistent every single week.”

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