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Steelers 2018 NFL Draft Prospect Watch: ILB Leighton Vander Esch

Leighton Vander Esch could be the perfect replacement for Ryan Shazier.

With the upcoming NFL Draft this month, we examine a player who has all the attributes needed to become a star linebacker in the NFL, and one that can be the answer to Ryan Shazier‘s absence.

Player Description:

Name: Leighton Vander Esch

College: Boise State

Height: 6 ?4″

Weight: 256 lbs

Combine Numbers:

40 yard: 4.65 seconds

Bench Press: 20 reps

Vertical Jump: 39.5 inches

Broad Jump: 124.0 inches

3 Cone Drill: 6.88 inches


It took only one year for Leighton Vander Esch to become a household name in college football. In his first full season as a starter, Vander Esch compiled incredible numbers: 141 total tackles, three sacks, three forced fumbles, and three interceptions. His most notable game came in the second game of the season against Washington State. Vander Esch accounted for 16 total tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble. To cap off an incredible season, Vander Esch helped lead his Boise State team to a 38-28 victory over Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl. For his accomplishments this past season, Vander Esch was named Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year, and was named First-team All-Mountain West Conference.

Vander Esch is a linebacker in the purest sense. What sets him apart from many of the inside linebackers in the draft is his ability to combine his athletic abilities deriving from his basketball background, with pure football fundamentals. From what I viewed on tape, he is one of the few linebackers who plays with the type of depth and details needed at the next level. There were very few times on film where Vander Esch was stagnant. He was always doing something, whether it was rushing the quarterback, dropping back into coverage or assisting on a tackle. Vander Esch was as engaged a defensive player as I have seen in a while. He plays with the type of motor and physicality to should make him an instant impact player at the next level.

Open Field Tackling

Simply put, watching Vander Esch tackle is a thing of beauty. When we talk about textbook tackling, there are certain attributes that it should have: proper shoulder pad placement, point of impact, and wrapping of the arms. From what I viewed on film, Vander Esch checked all these boxes. His tackling from a technique point of view is authentic.

In this clip against Oregon, Vander Esch displays his ability to make a tackle in open space. When watching this clip again, I noted even before the snap that Vander Esch is not necessarily tracking the quarterback or the running back; he is tracking the ball. Even before the the pass is made, Vander Esch is already anticipating the pass going to running back. What makes this tackle happen is that Vander Esch does not fully accelerate towards to the running back, he uses the right amount of speed to establish a base to make a tackle. The tackle in itself is as good as it gets — stays low, shoulder pads into the midsection and arms wrapped. The impact of the hit knocks the ball loose, which is then recovered by Boise State. From the film I viewed, Vander Esch made a habit of make game-changing plays such as the one seen here.

Coverage and Ball Skills

Ball skills are attributes I believe are not solely applicable to cornerbacks and safeties. Part of what sets Vander Esch apart from many of the linebackers in this draft class is his ability to drop back into coverage and make plays. Generally when viewing certain linebackers drop into coverage, you get the sense that they are out of place. In the videos I viewed of Vander Esch, he displayed both fluid hips when shadowing receivers in coverage, and field vision which is a sign of a linebacker with high football IQ.

In this example against Fresno State, Vander Esch is seen dropping into coverage. As he is dropping back, he is continuously tracking the ball and not just the quarterback. As the Bulldogs quarterback tries to deliver a pass to the receiver running the inside slant, Vander Esch is able to undercut the route and intercept the ball. Vander Esch’s attention to small details is what made this play happen, and is a example of the type of plays he had been making throughout the season.

Issues Taking on Blocks

When looking at Vander Esch from a physical standpoint, he has a relatively slender and athletic looking body at 250+ pounds. When it comes to rushing the quarterback and dropping into coverage, his physical frame was ideal; however when it came to taking on blocks from bigger offensive linemen, this became an issue. When Vander Esch encountered bigger linemen, he would be physical overwhelmed and in some cases manhandled; hence why he was not as effective in goal line situations.

In this particular goal line stance, Virginia is going to run a basic run play down the middle. Note how Vander Esch fills the gap as he is supposed to and sees the Cavaliers offensive lineman coming towards him. When they engage, the lineman is not only is able to overpower him, he is also able to seal him outside; the result is an open lane for the running back to run through for the touchdown. For Vander Esch, I believe he must devote himself to getting stronger during the offseason, as he will inevitably encounter incrementally stronger offensive linemen at the next level.

In totality, I believe that any team that drafts Vander Esch will be counting their blessings. Vander Esch is one of the few players in this class that has both the tangibles and intangibles that a team could build their defense around. There are very few things that Vander Esch cannot do on the field, and if there are any, he has the type of work ethic to ensure he can add it to his vast repertoire of skills. Even with the recent speculation about his health, Vander Esch has a definite possibility of being a top 15 pick in this year’s draft.

Born and raised Ottawa, Ontario Canada, Kelly is a Steelers contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. Formerly a contributor for SBNation's 'Behind the Steel Curtain'. Kelly can be reached via the Twitter handle @kanozie80

8 Comments on Steelers 2018 NFL Draft Prospect Watch: ILB Leighton Vander Esch

  1. Kelechi Anozie // April 18, 2018 at 8:44 AM //

    Just as a note, in the last clip, the person that overpowered Vander Esch on that TD play was a fullback and not a offensive lineman.

  2. Tiger Rowan // April 18, 2018 at 9:11 PM //

    That ?s. My. Guy.

    Too bad that ge ?ll be long gone by 28.

  3. Bob Stover // April 19, 2018 at 12:46 PM //

    I would not be shocked by a draft day trade that has Bell going elsewhere and the Steelers moving up in the draft, so they may be able to get Von Esch or someone else that’s really good on the inside. The only impediment to a trade would be if Bell refused to sign his franchise tag deal.

    • Kelechi Anozie // April 19, 2018 at 11:46 PM //

      More than likely not. The last time Colbert made a trade on draft day was back in 2006 for Santonio Holmes; at that time they were picking 31st after winning the Superbowl, so it made sense to move and they could afford to at that time.

      When you look at this Steelers team, they are a couple pieces away from really contending; the last thing they’ll want to do now, is remove one of their most important pieces, for the sake of a linebacker that has recently noted having some health concerns; thus Vander Esch could fall in the draft.

      If in any crazy scenario they trade Le’veon Bell, it’s more than likely not for Vander Esch; he’s good but not worth letting go of a multi-time All-Pro running back. This is not the strongest draft class, so we need to look at the guys that they’ve met with/dined with, whom they would be more inclined to get;
      – Minkah Fitzpatrick
      – Darrius Guice (whom they met and dined with)
      – Justin Reid (arguably the top safety in this class)
      – Tremaine Edmunds (arguably the best ILB in the draft).

      That said, I’m more than positive that Colbert isn’t going to be making any trades in the draft this year; keyword being “this year”.

  4. Bob Stover // April 20, 2018 at 8:06 AM //

    I believe that if Bell is not signed to an extension by the draft, you can kiss him goodbye. I think they can send Bell and their first round pick to a team or combination of teams that will get them back a Top 10 1st round pick and a couple of lower draft picks in the 2nd and 4th rounds. If the NFL has proven anything the last few years, you don’t need a guy like Bell to have success. He’s threatening to hold out again and I think Colbert has had just about enough of his narcissistic, me first attitude. There is talk that Barkley might fall as far as #6 in the first round and that Washington would like to have Bell and would be willing to deal, perhaps in conjunction with a third team to make all three happy. Just because the Steelers and Colbert haven’t done so recently, doesn’t mean they won’t again. They’ve never been faced with a situation like they’re confronting with Bell before.

    • Kelechi Anozie // April 20, 2018 at 9:02 AM //

      That’s not at all the truth. Bob, just like last year, Bell can delay till July before signing his franchise tender. Like I said, if you’ve followed Colbert’s moves, he rarely trades, unless it is definitely necessary. As much as you’d like to think they don’t need Bell, if you’ve followed the articles and video I’ve posted, they most definitely do. From a schematic point of view, he opens up the field for the passing game; yes Bob, you still need a good running game to open up the passing game (ask the Rams and Todd Gurley).

      Barkley is likely going to be 1st overall or at the very least top 5, Barkley is likely going to be a Brown; thus you can forget about him. It is important that when you start talking about things like this, you evaluate what they’ve been doing, whom they’ve met with and whom they’re actually interested it. The only running back they’re likely to get if they actually make that type of move, is to get Derrius Guice; he resembles Bell as any other running back in that class, exception to perhaps Kerryon Johnson, whom is likely to be available in the 3rd round.

      About this whole presumption about Bell’s me too attitude Bob, let me sprinkle a dose of reality to you; all of them have it. Before Antonio Brown got paid, he also was putting on a me too attitude( you saw it on the field against the Ravens). Frankly speaking, the fact that NFL players don’t get guaranteed contracts in a sport that is as violent as football is a crime; hence why people like Bell want to get what they can get before they end their career. As fans, many of us do not appreciate that, rather we carry this delusional stance that they should just play and be happy to get paid what they’re paying; that’s not how is works in today NFL unfortunately Bob.

      As noted before, the reason why they traded back on 2006 was before they were picking last and they had just won a Superbowl; thus trading up or down didn’t make a difference. Whether you like it or not, Bell is an important piece to that offence because of how he frees up everyone else; in exception to Guice, none of those running backs come close to having Bell’s skillset. Hate to disappoint you, but you’ll be seeing Bell this season; next season could be a different story, but this season, he’ll be there.

  5. Bob Stover // April 20, 2018 at 1:12 PM //

    No way the Browns take Barkley at #1. They might at #4, but the Browns will take a QB #1. But there is talk of the Browns taking another big offensive tackle out of Alabama at #4. So, Barkley may well fall to #5 or #6.

    Your reference to a one of a kind talent like Todd Gurley is laughable. The Rams did not get to the Super Bowl, and it’s not like talents like Gurley or Bell grow on trees. Still, many teams have won Super Bowls over the years, including New England and Seattle and Green Bay, without a Gurley or Bell type of RB that opens up the passing game.

    • Kelechi Anozie // April 20, 2018 at 3:18 PM //

      Actually it’s very applicable as I noted from a schematic point of view Bob. In today’s NFL, you need a running game to set up the pass; otherwise defenses can simply run zone defenses and not worry about loading the box; in essence, it makes youR offense one dimensional at best. The Rams despite not winning the Superbowl, had one of the best offenses in the league a HUGE reason for that was Todd Gurley’s element. They’re still a rebuilding team not to forget, yet the progress they made from 2016 to 2017 was remarkable, and Gurle played a major part in that.

      Secondly, what you noted “it ?s not like talents like Gurley or Bell grow on trees”, I thank you for noting that because it strengthens my point and likely the reason why the Steelers can ill afford to lose Bell; his type doesn’t appear too often, thus there is no reason why he shouldn’t get paid in such a manner that can reflect is valuability to a team. Barkley is good but when you talk about a running back that is good for a system, not every running back in the draft can be plugged in and play the Steelers way as Bell did; if that was the case, they would have likely gotten rid of Bell a long while ago. What makes a good running back is two things I’ve learned; their skillset and the system they play in. Bell’s skillset is virtually perfect for the type of offense Randy is likely to run. The only other running backs in this draft that may fit this bill are Derrius Guice and Kerryon Johnson; hence part of the reason why they met with the Steelers at Pro Day and/or the combine.

      The teams that you noted that won Superbowls without a running game, well let’s evaluate each one Bob (I love when you do this):

      Green Bay – They’ve only won one Superbowl in the last 15 years (2010). They’re fortunate to have arguably the most talented QB ever in Aaron Rodgers; however last season when he was injured, how did that turn out? They most definitely could have used a competent running back to open up their offense, especially considering the type of quarterback they had in Rodgers’ place. Instead they became too predictable and teams exploited that.

      Seattle – Funny how you mentioned running back. They had Marshawn Lynch whom at the time was one of the premier running backs in the league. The year they won back in 2013, he rushed for 1,257; in the postseason he led the league in rushing yards so his contribution were essential. Ironically enough, on the play in which Seattle should have run the ball, they passed instead and lost the Superbowl (Malcolm Butler’s interception).

      Patriots – Whether you see it or not, much offensive schemes they’ve run with different coordinators, has been initiated by the running game. With this team, we can explore ad nauseum why they’ve been successful. What I know is that for many years, they were very much a play-action offense; thus for a lot of years, they depended heavily on their running backs for success. Much of that has not changed, especially considering now they have mediocre receivers (Gronk being the exception).

      Winning a superbowl doesn’t exclude the running game Bob, like every other aspect required in a winning team, it’s part of the formula to the equation of success; if you’re absent one part, you become exposed.

      Bob here’s the bottom line, it seems like a lot of fan, you’re in that camp of letting Le’veon Bell go because you believe he’s keeping your team back from winning. If you actually study the type of offenses this team has run in the last 5 seasons, they’ve relied heavily on Bell; to replace that will be extremely difficult, as you noted, running back like Bell doesn’t grow on trees.

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