Golden: Cowboys don’t make a splash but fill a need with Vander Esch


When asked about moving to the Metroplex from Boise, Idaho, new Dallas Cowboys linebacker Leighton Vander Esch whiffed 30 minutes in to his professional career.

“Personally, when I would compare Boise and Dallas with each other, I think Dallas is just a little bit bigger scale than Boise,” he said. “So that excites me.”

Forgive the young man for being a bit uninformed on Texas geography. I’m sure the Cowboys are just fine as long as he can cover sideline to sideline and down the field in one stretch of land inside AT&T Stadium on Sunday afternoons this fall.

If Dallas Cowboys’ fans have their way, the latest first-round draft pick will go down as one of the m0st productive three- name players in league history, not on the perennial Pro Bowl level of Maurice Jones-Drew but hopefully much better than former first-round bust Darrius Heyward-Bay.

With Florida State safety Derwin James available a couple of spots ahead of Dallas’ No. 19 picks, the Cowboys opted to stay put and grab Vander Esch who played eight-man football at Salmon River High School and began his college career at Boise State as a walk-on. Coach Jason Garrett had never heard of the eight-man concept. Vander Esch explained it as a 3-4 defense with a safety over the top.

“The linebackers run to the outside to cover the receivers,” he said.

Makes sense. It was his ability to make plays in open space that attracted Dallas from the beginning. Subsequent workouts with Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli convinced the braintrust he was the right guy to pair with current linebackers Jaylon Smith and Sean Lee, the defensive captain who has already settled into the role of mentor to the young charge.

“Sean is a special player and a special person,” Garrett told me. “He has such a vast knowledge of the game and he is eager to share it with young players. That can only help us as a team.”

Fire trucks were called to The Star in Frisco late Thursday night to investigate what was described by a staffer as an “electrical smell” soon after Vander Esch was picked. They found nothing dangerous. Owner Jerry Jones believes LVE — get used to that one — will bring some needed spark to this defense. The Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, who had 5.5 tackles for loss and four sacks and one interception his senior year under former Texas assistant Bryan Harsin, sees himself as a middle linebacker but the coaches believe he can play as one of two backers in the nickel if needed.

With athletic tight ends in the NFC East like New York’s Evan Engram, Washington’s Jordan Reed, and Philly’s Zach Ertz, the ability to defend down the field, particularly the skinny post route between the linebacker and safety, can make or break a defense in this division.

Vander Esch, listed at 6-foot-4, 256 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, was the highest player on Dallas’ board when it came time to pick, according to VP Stephen Jones. He is similar in size to Chicago Bears great Brian Urlacher. If only he can give the Boys anything close to what Urlacher gave Chicago.

“We just think we got a really good football player,” Garrett said. “We worked him out here and went to Boise to work him out. Maybe his best quality is his ability to defend the pass…He came up the hard way and became one of the best players in their program.”

Boise players don’t often go early in drafts but several have carved out solid careers, among them former Dallas cornerback Orlando Scandrick and current defensive ends Tyrone Crawford and Demarcus Lawrence.

“It’s how we’re wired (at Boise),” Vander Esch said on a conference call. “We’re all hard-nosed guys who like to get to the football.”

With Anthony Hitchens leaving for Kansas City, the Cowboys had a need at the position and when you consider that Lee and Smith have battled assorted injuries over the years, it made some sense even if the pick wasn’t as sexy as grabbing James or even Maryland wideout DJ Moore, who went to the Panthers.

Jerry said he received at least one offer to trade for a later pick but wasn’t interested. He also said, for what it’s worth, that he never considered moving up. When Green Bay traded up to move to the No. 18 spot, there were some nerves in the war room because the Joneses had heard the Packers were in the market for a linebacker. Green Bay ended up selecting Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander.

And what of the stories of a Vander Esch neck injury/stinger that were floating around? Much ado about nothing according to all parties involved.

We’ll find out in a hurry if he was worth it because the Cowboys aren’t deep at the position.

He says he’s ready to wreak havoc.

And hopefully ready to polish up on his Texas geography.



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