Leighton Vander Esch isn’t a household name in this part of the country outside of #DraftTwitter and a few insomniac fans of late night west coast football. That is going to change over the next couple months as the Boise State linebacker continues to rise up draft boards, a process that officially started with his fantastic combine performance last weekend. CBS Sports recently released a mock draft where they gave LVE to the Titans at pick 25 and I would expect him to continue to be slotted somewhere around the end of Round 1.
I mentioned Vander Esch’s combine performance as one of the primary reasons that he is now being considered a possible first round pick and you can see why when you look at his spider graph from mockdraftable.com.
The testing results leave little doubt about whether Vander Esch has the physical tools to be a star in this league. In fact, he matches up pretty closely with the best inside linebacker in football right now, Luke Kuechly.
Kuechly vs Vander Esch
|Weight||242 lbs||256 lbs|
|Arm Length||31"||33 7/8"|
|Bench Press||27 reps||20 reps|
That’s not to say that Vander Esch = Kuechly, but the physical gifts that have allowed Kuechly to become the best inside linebacker in football are present in Vander Esch as well.
We will get to how those traits translate to the field shortly, but LVE has an interesting origin story that fits a profile that we’ve seen Jon Robinson attracted to in past drafts.
He grew up in Riggins, Idaho, a town of about 400 near the Oregon border. Vander Esch played 8-on-8 football for Salmon River High School because the school was too small to field an 11-on-11 team (they had a graduating class of 11 total students last year). He played quarterback and middle linebacker on the football team while also starring in basketball and track. Salmon River won back-to-back state titles in both football and basketball in Vander Esch’s junior and senior seasons as he dominated on both the field and the court.
Despite his high school achievements he largely went unnoticed by college scouts, eventually deciding to head to Boise State as a preferred walk-on — not unlike Jon Robinson’s first draft pick, Jack Conklin. After a redshirt season he spent two seasons getting limited playing time as a backup linebacker and standout special teamer before finally earning a starting role in 2017.
Vander Esch was simply dominant once he reached the starting lineup, stuffing the stat sheet with 141 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 3 interceptions, 5 passes defensed, and 4 forced fumbles over 14 games for an 11-3 Boise State team. He was the heart and soul of the defense, capping off his career with a 12 tackle, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 1 forced fumble performance in a wild 38-28 win over Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. He was a two-time Mountain West All-Academic team selection in 2015 and 2016 before winning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in his final season in Boise.
It’s a steep climb from a skinny 6’-4”, 200 kid playing 8-on-8 football in rural Idaho to a combine dominating potential first round pick, but that’s where Leighton Vander Esch finds himself today. In addition to his prolific production and immense physical traits, he also offers a personality that coaches rave about. He reportedly impressed teams during his interviews during combine week, further tightening his grip on a first round grade.
That path of lightly recruited high school player who worked hard to get to the top of the college game is one that we’ve seen Jon Robinson attracted to over the past couple years. I mentioned Jack Conklin above, but others that fit that mold include Kevin Byard, Corey Davis, Taywan Taylor, and Jonnu Smith. Of course, he’s also selected a few guys who were former elite recruits like Derrick Henry and Adoree Jackson, but the scrappy, came from nothing guy seems to be more common here than most other NFL teams. Its part of a culture that Robinson has been intentionally crafting since he arrived in Tennessee prior to the 2016 season and Vander Esch would fit right in to that mold.
None of his back story or measurables really matter without the ability to translate it to the field. I went back and watched four games from his 2017 season at Boise State to get a feel for him as a player. I found a player that started the season looking like a physically gifted player who was still adjusting to being a full-time starter, but steadily improved throughout the season. He finished his college career with his two best games as a Bronco.
The first thing that I noticed when watching him was his size and strength. At over 6’-4” tall, he’s abnormally tall for a linebacker and he shows the ability to take on offensive linemen in the hole without getting blown back. He has outstanding stopping power behind his tackles. When he hits a ball carrier he very rarely gives extra ground.
Here you can see a little bit of that. The first thing I like about the play is that he’s able to knife through the attempted block by the left tackle by running straight through his inside shoulder. He then finishes the back on contact for a short loss.
Here is another good example of his power at the point of attack. This is a 3rd and 1 play and Oregon is trying to block him with the back side tackle, but LVE does a good job of reading the play right away, taking on the block and working through it to fill the hole and make the stop short of the first.
One more example of his excellent power. This time he’s on the play side on another 3rd and 1 situation. He reads the play immediately and attacks the center’s block, pushing him back in to the backfield before finishing off the play with the tackle. The fun thing with Vander Esch’s tape was seeing him get more comfortable and quicker to diagnose plays as the season went on. That bodes well for his growth at the NFL level as he masters a defense and unlocks his immense physical tools.
Vander Esch shows really outstanding play speed when he gets moving downhill as you can see on this next rep. Watch him quickly read and then burst up field to make the tackle in the backfield. He moves at a completely different speed than most of the other players at times. He’s also an excellent open field tackler. You don’t see him miss very often and as I mentioned above, he rarely gives up yards after contact.
While he was mostly very strong against the run, he wasn’t perfect. Here is a pet peeve of mine that he showed on tape consistently. He has a bad habit of dipping his shoulder — and therefore his eyes — when taking on blockers rather than attacking with his hands to stack and shed. That technique led to him taking himself out of plays from time to time as this play shows. You can see him attack the lineman with his shoulder, trying to blow him back in to the ball carrier, but instead he makes it easy for him to be sealed inside.
That’s something that can be coached at the next level, but it did show up enough that it is worth mentioning when considering his game.
Vander Esch was also sometimes used as a pass rusher for Boise State and he was pretty good at it. He mostly won with power as a blitzer as you can see here as he rushes the A gap and pushes the center back in to the face of the quarterback.
In coverage, Vander Esch did a little bit of everything for Boise. This play shows good football instincts as he sits looking for the running back leaking out, but then fires in to the backfield as soon as he sees the quarterback start to leave the pocket. Again, you can see his speed here as he closes the 10-yard gap between him and the QB in almost no time, forcing the throwaway on 3rd down.
Here is some more of his athleticism on display. This is a clever play design by Oregon as it looks like an outside zone run to the wide side of the field, but they pull back and throw a tunnel screen to the short side. Vander Esch initially flows to the run look before peeling back and running all the way back across to drag down the receiver and prevent what could have been a huge gain.
As a coverage linebacker LVE has a few special qualities that should help him at the next level. This rep isn’t going to look like much as Vander Esch is sitting in zone and the quarterback ends up overthrowing his receiver on the deep dig, but I think this incompletion is due, at least in part, to Vander Esch. At 6’-4”+ with a 39.5” vertical and long arms, he’s a nightmare for quarterbacks throwing over the middle. Former Titans quarterback Chris Simms talked about how much he hated throwing against long, tall linebackers on his latest Simms & Lefkoe Podcast (a good listen) because of their ability to tip balls that other linebackers couldn’t get their hands on. He was talking specifically about Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, but LVE offers the same problem. You can see him leap up on this one and the quarterback knows he has to get it over Vander Esch to drop it in and it leads to an overthrow.
His speed allows him to be effective running sideline-to-sideline covering swing passes to backs as well. Here he’s tracking the back the whole way. Once the QB turns his shoulders to the sidelines, LVE explodes up field and puts a big hit on the back to jar the ball loose. This rep shows his excellent ability to tackle in space as well. He very rarely misses in the open field.
It was tough to find good clips of him in coverage down field due to lack of All-22 film availability, but you can see the athleticism here as he sees the tight end release up the seam and takes off downfield in his hip pocket.
This is the best rep I could find of him in man coverage downfield and it is pretty impressive. He patiently reads the route and then turns to carry the tight end up the seam. You can see at the very end the tight end breaking out for a corner route, but LVE is right in his hip pocket.
Overall, it is pretty clear to see the traits that make him a possible first round pick on tape. There were a few issues though. He ducks his head and attacks with his shoulder too often as mentioned above. He also was a little bit slow to recognize play action at times, though that got better as the season progressed.
Between the physical ability, character makeup, and tape I would say that late first round is probably about right for Vander Esch. He’s still a pretty inexperienced player having just played 11-on-11 football for one season as a starter, but that only makes his production in 2017 all the more amazing to me. He strikes me as a hungry player who will take the underdog mentality that led to him walking on at Boise State to the NFL and that should serve him well. He profiles as a true 3-down linebacker who could be a staple of the Titans defense for years to come, something we haven’t had in Tennessee quite some time. If he’s there at 25 when the Titans go on the clock, I would expect him to be in the conversation for Jon Robinson and company.