Dallas Cowboys: The Rise of Van Jaylon

Leighton Vander Esch #55 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Leighton Vander Esch #55 of the Dallas Cowboys (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images) /

Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch have become rock stars on this surging Dallas Cowboys defense, earning them the most triumphant of nicknames.

Never in our wildest dreams could we have imagined Jaylon Smith or Leighton Vander Esch would be the players they are, this early into their careers. Yet, here they are, playing linebacker at a level of dominance rarely seen in this league – that applies both individually and collectively.

Smith and LVE have been so dominant they’ve been given the nickname Van Jaylon by a creative group of fans who are perfectly illustrating the duo’s rock-star status.

Their sudden ascension isn’t just shocking because at 22 and 23 years old they’re already the best pairing in the NFL. But it’s most shocking because of where they came from and the odds they needed to overcome to reach their current level.


Leighton Vander Esch, aka “the wolf hunter”, hasn’t always been well regarded in Cowboys Nation. Fans universally booed the 19th overall pick this past April. With roughly one dozen starts under his belt playing 11-man football, LVE looked like an enormous gamble to take in the first round.

But that gamble has paid off and despite not starting a game until the fourth week of this NFL season, LVE’s 102 tackles are fourth overall in the NFL. These aren’t run-of-the-mill stops either. LVE is making critical open field tackles and is directly responsible for the Dallas Cowboys recent winning ways.

Pro Football Focus has LVE as the third best LB in the NFL, rating only behind perennial All-Pro’s Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly. That’s pretty good company to keep.

Jaylon Smith

Jaylon Smith, a man many never thought would play the game again, already overcame long odds just to be able to lift his foot. “Drop foot” or “foot drop” was born of the nerve damage Jaylon suffered when he blew his knee out in his final college football game. By now, we’ve all heard his story a million times so I won’t rehash it again. Catch-up here though if you need a refresher:

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If we’re all being honest, last season looked like Jaylon’s best case scenario. Playing with a brace, Smith was able to move around and be a playmaker when running downhill. He struggled with basic change of direction and lateral movement but considering the circumstances, it seemed about right.

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As we’ve seen 12 games into the 2018 season, he only scratched the surface last season and now appears to be every bit the linebacker he was at Notre Dame three years ago. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Jaylon improved his run-stopping defensive grade from 53.5 in 2017 to 74.4. Additionally, he’s now credited with a defensive stop on 8.4% of his snaps when facing the run.

Smith is no slouch against the pass either. As the primary MIKE, Smith has significant responsibly in both man and deep zone coverage. We’re only 12 games in and he’s already played 88 more coverage snaps than all of last season. He’s earned a 72.2 rating from PFF in this deceptively difficult MIKE role and has yet to give up a single TD.

Jaylon’s, aka “the Predator’s”, most underrated skill is as a pass-rusher. At Notre Dame he graded out as one of the best interior LB blitzers in recent memory. With the Cowboys, he doesn’t blitz a ton but when he does he’s been pretty darn successful in disrupting the passer.  In his 56 pass-rush attempts, he’s pressured the passer 15 times for a 26.8% success rate.

Will Sean Lee pull a Sammy Hagar and mess up the band (I may be dating myself with that reference)? No, because unlike lead singer, there can be more than one (or even two) linebackers in a performance. But we’ll address that next week…

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While LVE is the most reliable tackler on the roster, Jaylon is the most thunderous. Their games complement each other’s perfectly – probably because they both are proficient in all areas of the game. All of this is made possible by their enormous size and rare athleticism. They move like undersized speedsters, hit like thumpers, and cover like safeties. They are truly rock stars.

Behold, the rise of Van Jaylon

  • Published on 12/09/2018 at 13:01 PM
  • Last updated at 12/09/2018 at 12:01 PM