Mac Engel

Emergence of Leighton Vander Esch will wind up forcing Sean Lee off the Cowboys

Rookie LB Leighton Vander Esch discusses Cowboys upset win in Atlanta

Dallas Cowboys rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch talks about the team's 22-19 upset win against the Atlanta Falcons.
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Dallas Cowboys rookie linebacker Leighton Vander Esch talks about the team's 22-19 upset win against the Atlanta Falcons.

Sean Lee stood in the locker room wearing a suit and tie while his teammates celebrated a victory in Atlanta, and his replacement fielded questions from an adoring media.

This transition can often be hard to watch, but this is how it goes.

Ask Tony Romo.

We all have a replacement.

The Cowboys selected Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with the 19th pick in the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft not to replace Sean Lee immediately, but that much has happened.

Lee is currently on the shelf with yet another injury, and LVE is a player. The type of player who wins games.

Lee is expected to return at some point this season, and he is under contract for one more year, but it’s becoming apparent LVE has reduced Lee’s time as a Cowboy.

Many scouting departments should wonder how LVE fell to the 19th pick of the first round; this has all of the makings of a classic draft day screwups.

“I don’t think about that; I wanted to be here from Day 1 and I am absolutely happy and thankful to be a part of this,” he said after the Cowboys’ 22-19 win over the Falcons. “I don’t think about things like this. That’s in the past. At the time, I ended up being where I wanted to be. It didn’t matter what pick I was, I wanted to be here.”

LVE can tackle anything, and with his long arms on his 6-foot-4 frame sheds blockers quite easily. He also seemingly knows where the ball is going.

In the Cowboys’ win at Philadelphia last week, he made the game’s biggest play; on Philadelphia’s potential game-tying drive, he beat two Eagles’ blockers to tackle a receiver and turn a big play into a loss.

Against the Falcons, he had his second interception in as many games. His interception in the fourth quarter set up a short field, which the Cowboys used for their second touchdown of the game and a 19-9 lead.

Coincidentally, the opposing player involved in the play came on a pass that deflected off the hands of a fellow rookie, Falcons’ receiver Calvin Ridley. Ridley is the receiver a lot of Cowboys fans wanted over LVE; Ridley was the 26th overall pick.

“I was going to make the tackle but he happened to tip it,” Vander Esch said. “It was right place at the right time.”

LVE also had eight tackles, three pass breakups and hit Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan once.

One week after LVE was finally put on the ballot to make the Pro Bowl, he should now be a candidate to win the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year award.

The following required a double and a triple check but the Dallas Cowboys have never had a player named the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Let me repeat that: the Dallas Cowboys have never had a player named the Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Randy White, Bob Lilly, Darren Woodson, DeMarcus Ware, Cliff Harris, Chuck Howley, Mel Renfro, Lee Roy Jordan, and other good players were all rookies with the Cowboys.

Technically, per the Cowboys, the only Cowboy to win any NFL defensive player of the year award was linebacker Robert Jones in 1992 by the UPI. The UPI that no longer exists.

LVE is not the leading candidate right now to win a Defensive ROY award; go with guys like Bradley Chubb of Denver and Derwin James of the Chargers first, but Vander Esch should be a part of the discussion.

And, as hard as it was to watch, he’s all but forced Sean Lee out.



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