When the Dallas Cowboys selected Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State in the 2018 NFL Draft, many Cowboys fans were beside themselves, myself included. By no means have I ever shied away from admitting that. I was wrong. Completely, utterly, almost hilariously wrong. I was worried about Vander Esch’s neck, and the reports that surfaced in the days leading up to the draft that as many as 10 teams had scratched him from their boards altogether as a result. I was sick of the Cowboys obsession with Boise State players, though some of them have actually turned out to be quite good. All in all, I wanted a true and immediate impact player. I just didn’t realize that’s exactly what Dallas was drafting at the time.
Leighton Vander Esch is second in the league with 63 solo tackles this season. He currently sits a single solo tackle behind Darius Leonard of the Indianapolis Colts for the lead. Impressive, right? But what if I told you Vander Esch has accomplished this feat in 145 fewer snaps than Leonard? That changes the discussion completely.
Here’s the top 5 solo tacklers this season:
1. Darius Leonard
64 solo tackles, 544 snaps
2. Leighton Vander Esch
63 solo tackles, 399 snaps
3. Antoine Bethea
61 solo tackles, 640 snaps
4. Cory Littleton
59 solo tackles, 593 snaps
5. Luke Kuechly*
57 solo tackles, 593 snaps
5. Kiko Alonso*
57 solo tackles, 669 snaps.
*Denotes a statistical tie
Presently, LVE has played in approximately 70% of Dallas’ total defensive snaps, seeing more time whenever Sean Lee has found himself on the shelf nursing yet another nagging hamstring injury. With just four starts on the season, some may be tempted to remove him from real Defensive Rookie of the Year status but those numbers have to mean something. 399 snaps, 76 total tackles. Do the math. Just 12 of his tackles on the season have been assisted.
He also has 3 passes defensed and an interception to his resume. There’s no one else in the list above who can say that.
When Leighton Vander Esch was drafted, the belief was that he would spell either Jaylon Smith or, in time, Sean Lee if ever the Cowboys highly talented, oft-injured linebacker was, well, injured. But when Jaylon Smith arrived in camp and looked vastly closer to the player he’d been at Notre Dame and not the guy they saw last season, Dallas’ plans changed; Vander Esch became more than an insurance policy, he became Lee’s eventual successor.
He proved as much on Sunday Night Football in Philadelphia when he recorded 13 tackles, including a critical stop on third and two for a five yard loss, and intercepted Carson Wentz on the way to a 27-20 Dallas win. Leighton Vander Esch is a tackling machine, and as his numbers show, when he gets his hands on you, more often than not, it’s over. Regardless whether or not Sean Lee’s days in Dallas are now numbered, the prospect that is LVE can no longer be ignored.
I was wrong, Dallas. This kid is phenomenal.