By all accounts, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch had a superb rookie season. Has he run into the sophomore slump?
The Dallas Cowboys drafted linebacker Leighton Vander Esch in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft. The pick was panned by Cowboys Nation as wide receivers Calvin Ridley or D.J. Moore were thought to be better need picks.
It is fair to say that the Cowboys front office knew better and made a great pick at 19th overall. Vander Esch had a stellar rookie season that helped Cowboys Nation forget all thoughts about first-round wide receivers not taken.
NFL.com credited Vander Esch with 140 combined tackles,102 solo tackles, seven pass defenses and two interceptions for his rookie year. Amazingly, Vander Esch finished second in solo tackles and third in combined tackles despite only starting eleven games. His competition, fellow rookie Darius Leonard from the Colts and Blake Martinez from the Packers started 15 and 16 games respectively.
Maybe the most memorable moment from Vander Esch’s rookie season was his third-down stop of Eagles running back Corey Clement for a five-yard loss. The Cowboys had just taken a 27-20 lead in the fourth quarter and the Eagles were driving for a response.
Philadelphia made the Cowboys 30 yard line at the two-minute warning of the pivotal Week Ten match. At the snap, two Eagles offensive linemen went to block the Dallas rookie. Vander Esch was able to avoid the blocks and made a shoestring tackle forcing a fourth and seven.
The Eagles went for it and came up inches short on the fourth down try and turned the ball over on downs. Vander Esch’s play helped the Cowboys get a big win over their divisional rival and started a five-game winning streak.
Pro Football Focus rated Vander Esch the 58th overall player for the 2018 season. The two wide receivers Cowboys Nation were hoping for did not make the list. The only rookies higher on the list were Saquon Barkley from the Giants and Derwin James from the Chargers.
Entering the 2019 season, the expectations for Vander Esch and his linebacker running mate Jaylon Smith were extremely high. Pro Football Focus named the duo as the top pair of linebacker teammates in the NFL.
The 2019 season couldn’t have started much worse for Vander Esch. On the first defensive play of the season, he overran a Saquon Barkley fumble that the Giants ultimately recovered. On the second defensive play, he took the wrong hole allowing Barkley to scamper for 53 yards.
Through the first seven games of the 2018 season, Leighton had 54 combined tackles with 42 solo stops. Through the first seven games of the 2019 season, Vander Esch has 54 tackles with only 33 solo stops. In 2018 he started only three of those games whereas he started all seven in 2019.
Maybe Vander Esch is a victim of his incredible rookie season success. Or maybe opposing teams have been able to figure out ways to beat the young linebacker.
The biggest drop-off in Vander Esch’s game has been his run defense and tackling. Both Green Bay and the New York Giants were able to expose some weaknesses in these areas.
Vander Esch earned the lofty expectations placed on him at the start of the 2019 season. There is still time for him to regain the form he displayed as a rookie and re-earn those accolades.