From Riggins, Idaho to America’s Team: Leighton Vander Esch reflects on his journey
It’s time to get on board.
If you were one of the many who hissed and booed when the Dallas Cowboys selected linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th overall pick in April’s NFL draft, it’s way past time to get on the rookie’s bandwagon.
Vander Esch had a star-making night in the Cowboys’ 27-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles Sunday that included his first-career interception, a game-saving tackle for a loss on a huge third down and a team-leading 13 tackles. He was a game-changing presence..
“We played an overall good game tonight on all levels,” Cowboys’ defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence said. “Our rookie linebacker stepped up to a whole different level and I am just proud to see him bring out his full form. I don’t even think that is his full form yet, to be honest, just glad to see him getting his feet under him and loving the game, too.”
That’s just it. Vander Esch has stepped into Sean Lee’s shoes and the defense is not only not taking a step back, but you could argue the rookie is matching Lee’s productivity, despite the serious gap in experience.
Vander Esch has meshed well with Jaylon Smith. Vander Esch leads the team with 77 tackles, including 62 solo tackles. Smith, who is second with 71 tackles and 47 solo. The biggest solo tackle of the season came with the Eagles trailing by a touchdown on 3rd and 2 after the two-minute warning. Vander Esch fought off two blockers to trip up Corey Clement in the right flat for a five-yard loss. Dallas took over on downs on the next play.
“I knew they were going to try something kind of nifty,’ Vander Esch said. “They tried that screen, so I knew that was coming. I just put myself in position to make sure I was on the side to turn it back if anything and just made the play.”
Vander Esch was stoked after the stop, getting up and emphatically fist pumping into the cool Philly air.
“I have high expectations for myself and I’m going to put myself in positions to be successful as soon as I need to be and this is just how it is happening. I have to be able to step up,” he said.
Vander Esch quickly earned the respect of his defensive teammates during training camp by showing a desire to learn and commit to the job. That respect has grown to the whole team, and perhaps a bunch of disgruntled fans from April.
“Just seeing [Nos.] 55 and 54 and all those guys just running around and making plays,” Quarterback Dak Prescott glowed. “Everything that Leighton has been doing is special. He’s going to be a special player in this league for a long time.”