Dallas Cowboys: Why Leighton Vander Esch can be a star again

(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
(Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

Let me be clear from the start – you’re probably not going to find a harsher Leighton Vander Esch critic than me. From the time the Dallas Cowboys invested a first round pick in the linebacker, thru his standout rookie season, all the way to the current offseason, I’ve been on a quest to point out his shortcomings to Cowboys Nation.

But we’ve reached the point now where Cowboys fans are quite possibly being too harsh on the former Pro Bowl linebacker. They’ve signed him off and reduced him to nothing but a one-hit wonder, destined for the scrap heap. So in typical contrarian fashion, I’m going to make the case as to why we shouldn’t give up on the Boise State product quite yet. And why he can bounce back and have great 2021 season.

It’s not inconceivable to think Leighton Vander Esch can bounce back and a great season for the Dallas Cowboys.

For the sake of housekeeping I need to point out what we all believe to be true: the writing is on the wall regarding Leighton Vander Esch and the Dallas Cowboys. After drafting Micah Parsons in the first round this year, and lucking into “Mr. Steal of the Draft”, Jabril Cox, on Day 3, there’s not much of a future for any of the Cowboys’ veteran linebackers after this year.

Leighton Vander Esch’s rookie season was not a fluke and it’s actually something he can do again.

Jaylon Smith, Keanu Neal, and LVE will all likely be playing elsewhere next season, regardless of how they play in 2021. Unless Parsons and/or Cox disappoint, that’s just the way the roster is shaking out.

So I’m not arguing here that LVE is going to secure a roster spot long-term for the Dallas Cowboys. Too many variables are in play and that’s not the point I’m trying to make. I’m trying to say Leighton Vander Esch’s rookie season was not a fluke and it’s actually something he can do again.

Myth Busting: If he can just stay healthy…

There’s a common myth rolling through Cowboys Nation that LVE is just like Sean Lee in that when he’s healthy, he’s great, but he’s just never healthy. Quite simply, this is a bad take and insulting to the recently retired Sean Lee.

You see, Sean Lee was great when he was on the field. His impact on the defense was enormous and I think we can all remember seeing those weekly graphics on the TV screen showing how terrible the entire defense was with him and without him.

That’s not Leighton.

Leighton Vander Esch has been injury prone like Sean Lee, yes, but the difference is hasn’t been good even when he’s playing. He posted career worsts in multiple categories last year and performed significantly worse than Dallas’ most maligned defender, Jaylon Smith.

Last season we saw LVE miss tackles, get lost in coverage, and make terrible reads. He was bad in all phases and in no way resembled the man who earned Pro Bowl honors as a rookie.

LVE’s rookie season was real

LVE really did have a spectacular rookie season. It wasn’t smoke and mirrors or guesses gone right. It was legit. LVE has an abnormal blend of size and speed (much like rookie Micah Parsons). A man his size is not supposed to move like him.

As a rookie, he avoided blockers, fought through blockers, made good reads, and completed the assignment. His long arms let him control blockers while he diagnosed and those same long arms let him wrap up runners in his inescapable clutches.

He was equal parts finesse and physicality. Did Leighton suddenly get stupid? Did he suddenly forget his reads and forget how to tackle? Did he get old?

The Dallas Cowboys hurt Leighton Vander Esch

Perhaps, more than anything, it was the Dallas Cowboys who hurt Leighton the past couple seasons. In chicken or the egg fashion, was it LVE who led the Cowboys defense to regress or was it the Cowboys poor defense that caused LVE to regress?

Much like the running back position on offense, off-ball LBs are largely at the mercy of those around them. It’s almost impossible to play well if the linemen in front of them aren’t performing well. That’s why smart teams don’t draft those two positions early in the draft (and that’s why I’m often angry at the Cowboys outdated draft strategies).

It should be no coincidence the Dallas Cowboys were terrible at defensive tackle the past two seasons and Jaylon Smith and Leighton both simultaneously regressed. Linebackers play off the big men in front of them and even the best struggle when the guys in front struggle.

This also explains some of the boneheaded decisions of the two linebackers as of late. After repeatedly getting smacked in the face by terrible line play in front of them, we’ve seen Jaylon and LVE both change the way they approach the game mentally. LVE (and Jaylon) has been playing a bit of hero-ball and guessing rather than sticking with his assignments and maintaining gap responsibility.  He didn’t suddenly get dumb. He’s adapting to the losing environment.

Additionally, the scheme changes that happened last season only made things worse. LVE, much like everyone else, struggled in his new role. The coverage assignments were unclear and sometimes more demanding.

That should all change this year as the Dallas Cowboys move back to a scheme thier personnel is comfortable with.

"“I’m going back to pretty much my old role from the first two years,” Leighton said. “Which I think is what it should have been last year, but I think it’s going to be a lot more familiar to what we were used to doing, which is running and hitting and making plays and having fun.”"

Consistent health may be key

Consistent health should also play a role in LVE’s ability to bounce back. The past two seasons Leighton has had trouble holding off blocks and bringing down tacklers. At age 25, it’s not like he’s physically declined. In fact, he has yet to reach his athletic prime.

But much like you and I feel coming off a sickness, LVE isn’t exactly in peak shape coming off injuries. He may be medically cleared but he’s coming in cold and not as strong or in shape as he’d be if he’d been working out the entire time.

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Consistent health could be the only thing keeping Leighton from getting that missed tackle percentage back down to his rookie numbers. The slightest bit of strength, energy, and power could make all the difference.

If Leighton can stay healthy throughout training camp, he may get a chance to show us. At full strength, playing in a familiar system again, and getting competent blocking in front of him, we may be able to see that star rookie linebacker again.

The last thing working in LVE’s favor is the inevitable load management. The Dallas Cowboys don’t need Leighton to play 90% of the snaps in 2021. Heck, they don’t need him to play 50%. By splitting snaps, LVE will stay fresher and likely healthier. This all bodes well for more efficient snaps in 2021.

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I actually EXPECT LVE to have a great 2021 season. I don’t think he’ll be quite as good as he was as a rookie, but I think he’ll look much closer to that (in a part-time role) than he did the last two seasons.

  • Published on 06/29/2021 at 12:50 PM
  • Last updated at 06/29/2021 at 12:52 PM