Leighton Vander Esch Scouting Report By Charlie Campbell
Big inside linebacker
Natural in zone coverage
Follows a quarterback's eyes
Disrupts throwing lanes
Natural in space
Above-average height and length for a linebacker
Tough run defender
Can go sideline-to-sideline
Twitchy for a thick linebacker
Fits a 4-3 or 3-4 defense
Fits as a 3-4 inside or outside linebacker
Always around the ball
Quick to the flat
Needs to improve at taking on blocks
Can be overaggressive
Summary: Every year in college football, there are some players who come out of nowhere to become NFL prospects. That was the case in 2017 with Leighton Vander Esch of Boise State. As a freshman, he had 20 tackles, and then was limited to 27 tackles in six games in 2016 because of injuries. As a junior, Vander Esch exploded to be one of the best linebackers in the nation. He totaled 141 tackles with 8.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, four passes broken up, four forced fumbles, and three interceptions on the year. After his tremendous season, Vander Esch decided to skip his senior year to enter the 2018 NFL Draft.
There is a lot to like about Vander Esch for the NFL. He looks like a future starter as an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense or as Mike - middle - linebacker in a 4-3. Given that Vander Esch is a 1-year wonder, it might help him to start out his career as a rotational backup before becoming an every-down starter. However, Vander Esch does have the skill set to become a good three-down starter in the NFL.
In pass coverage, Vander Esch is very impressive. He is natural in zone, possessing fluidity in space, some twitchy athleticism, and an ability to redirect and get depth in his drop. Vander Esch is quick to move around the field with good awareness. He is also intelligent and adept at following the quarterback's eyes to disrupt throwing lanes. With his instincts, Vander Esch always seems to be in the right place at the right time, which leads to him producing a lot of splash plays. Vander Esch would be a very good fit as a Tampa 2 middle linebacker who can run down the middle seam in coverage. He also should be a good contributor to covering running backs and tight ends in man coverage.
While his coverage skills should make him a future starter in the NFL, Vander Esch also is a dangerous blitzer. He uses his intelligence and awareness to find openings and then uses his excellent closing speed to chase down the quarterback. Vander Esch could be a nice contributor to the pass rush with his natural blitzing skills.
As a run defender, Vander Esch uses his sideline-to-sideline speed and good diagnosis skills to always be around the ball. He is a good form tackler and can handle bigger backs due to his thick build. Vander Esch can be overly aggressive at times and overpursue. Aside from being more disciplined, he needs to improve at taking on and shedding blocks for the NFL. Considering his lack of experience, it isn't surprising that Vander Esch needs to improve on that. Another concern around him is durability and avoiding injury in the NFL.
A survey of team sources found that Vander Esch is expected to be a second-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. It isn't out of the question that he sneaks into the end of the first round, but he probably won't get out of Round 2.
Player Comparison: Sean Lee. Vander Esch reminds me of a taller version of Lee. Lee (6-2, 245) was a second-round pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. He has been a solid linebacker for the Cowboys as a good pass-coverage contributor while being a solid run defender. Lee also has suffered from durability issues in his career. As a pro, I think Vander Esch could be a similar player to Lee.
NFL Matches: Indianapolis, San Francisco, Oakland, Miami, Green Bay, Seattle, Dallas, Detroit, Tennessee, New Orleans, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, New England and Philadelphia
There are a lot of teams that could be a fit for Vander Esch in the 2018 NFL Draft. Indianapolis badly needs to improve its linebacking corps, and Vander Esch would give the Colts a long-term defensive building block.
The 49ers could consider taking Vander Esch. Given all the problems that Reuben Foster has had off the field, along with dealing a lot of injuries, Vander Esch could interest John Lynch as the long-term Mike to build the San Francisco defense around. Even if Foster returns to the field, Vander Esch could be a tough middle linebacker with Foster serving as the Will.
The Raiders have to improve the middle of their defense and the front seven. Vander Esch would be an upgrade to their rush defense and pass coverage while serving as their middle linebacker.
Miami released Lawrence Timmons and needs to improve its linebackers. Green Bay also could consider a linebacker upgrade.
If the Seahawks move down or somehow pick up a second-day pick, they could consider Vander Esch as they get younger and turn over their defense. Dallas could use more linebacker talent, and Vander Esch could give the Cowboys a long-term complement to go with Jaylon Smith. The Lions could target Vander Esch as a linebacker to go with Jarrad Davis.
Among the playoff teams, Vander Esch has a number of potential fits. An inside linebacker is a need for the Titans, and Vander Esch would be a good fit for Mike Vrabel. Linebacker is one of the biggest needs for New Orleans. The Saints, however, are without their second-round pick, so if they want Vander Esch, they would have to take him in the first round as he probably won't get to their third-round pick. Minnesota could use a linebacker to go with Erik Kendricks and Anthony Barr. Pittsburgh has a big hole at inside linebacker in the wake of Ryan Shazier's injury. Even if Shazier comes back in 2018, the Steelers could use an upgrade next to him. The Patriots could stand to improve their linebacker talent next to Dont'a Hightower. Philadelphia also could look to improve its linebackers with Vander Esch.