Dallas Cowboys: Where does Leighton Vander Esch fit?

(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images) /

In one quick offseason, the Dallas Cowboys are suddenly flush with talent at the linebacker position. Not only did they sign former first round pick Keanu Neal in free agency (who’s a confirmed LB), but they drafted Micah Parsons in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft.

As if that wasn’t enough, the Cowboys doubled down and picked up Jabril Cox, arguably the best coverage linebacker in the class, later in the draft. That’s a lot of players to have on a roster considering the Cowboys play with their nickel personnel 60-70 percent of the time.

Armed with twice as many players than starting posts, it’s going to be interesting to see how everyone fits the defense. Which brings us to fourth year linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.

The Dallas Cowboys are going to have a tough time getting snaps for Leighton Vander Esch this season.

When looking at the linebacker position, it’s clearly a changing of the guard here in Dallas. After drafting Parsons and Cox, they represent the future of the LB position. The two players aren’t just supremely talented but they complement each other’s game as well. That’s probably why we’ve seen them paired together so much in mini camps.

this isn’t like the Sean Lee situation from yesteryear, either.  Lee was good when he was heathy. LVE isn’t even good when he’s healthy.

Based on Jaylon Smith’s salary, decline in play, and the the trade rumors swirling about (if you believe them), this is probably Jaylon Smith’s last season in Dallas. That applies for LVE as well since the Cowboys have declined his option, preferring to make him a free agent sooner rather than later.

The Dallas Cowboys are certainly going to use both of their veteran linebackers, but the question is how much. Neither player performed well in 2019 or 2020, so there’s little reason to think they will in 2021. If Dallas drastically improves their line play in front of them, improvement is possible, but even that may not be enough to warrant a ton of snaps.

For as much as he struggles, Jaylon Smith has a bit of swiss army to his game. He’s played WILL and MIKE quite a bit and has the skill set to play SAM as well (somewhere I think he’s best suited). But LVE not so much.

With his length and athleticism, LVE projects best at MIKE. The Dallas Cowboys spoke of their desire to get him in the middle for quite a while too. The only problem is LVE needs to be kept clean to be of any use. He struggles getting off of blocks (even more than Jaylon) and he’s been absolutely abysmal in coverage. For as bad as Jaylon has been in coverage, LVE has been considerably worse.

LVE misses more tackles, allows more passing yards, higher completion percentages, and plays less snaps. In fact, LVE has played under 50% of the snaps each of the past two seasons. So this isn’t like the Sean Lee situation from yesteryear, either.  Lee was good when he was heathy. LVE isn’t even good when he’s healthy.

Based on all recent words and actions, we can see that Dan Quinn is going to give Keanu Neal a ton of snaps in 2021. Neal will play both base and nickel and will likely take the most snaps of the bunch. The Cowboys will also feel obligated to give Parsons as many snaps as possible. They could give him some EDGE snaps, but the kid is going to see a lot of off-ball snaps.

The Cowboys also seem hesitant to use Jaylon and LVE together at the same time. The two players share many of the same weaknesses and pairing them a third season is a recipe for disaster.

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So what does 2021 hold for LVE? 

A part time role rotating largely with Jaylon Smith. Whether they both play MIKE or LVE rotates with Neal at WILL in those base packages (30% of downs), it’s clear neither player will be earning a ton of snaps. I’d be shocked if even a fully healthy LVE will exceed his snap percentage from either of the past two seasons.

Ranking the Dallas Cowboys linebackers in 2021, it appears Leighton Vander Esch is LB4 at best. He’s firmly behind Parsons and Neal in the pecking order and based on his last two seasons, he’s well behind Jaylon as well. He’ll probably edge out Cox this year (Cox needs to work on his tackling) but that’s about as much as we can hope for from LVE this season.

Related Story. Leighton Vander Esch is definitively worse than Jaylon Smith. light

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It really doesn’t matter if Dallas is showing a 3-man front base defense or not (the fourth LB is basically an EDGE player anyway), there aren’t enough snaps to go around and LVE will have to play in a platoon at either WILL or MIKE.

  • Published on 05/31/2021 at 18:26 PM
  • Last updated at 05/31/2021 at 18:26 PM