What Happened To Leighton Vander Esch?

Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

What happened to Leighton Vander Esch?

This is a six-word question with about 19 different answers. A few of the answers are very easy. He got injured, dealing with a neck stinger that benched for a few games in the first half of the season, then passed him over to IR by the end of the year. The defensive line in front of him, like most of the defense, wasn’t very good—critically, running mate Jaylon Smith did not play well at all, exacerbating Vander Esch’s mistakes or exposing him in space. He regressed naturally, having qualified for an All-Pro team in his rookie year, a rare feat from which it would have been difficult to get better, let alone sustain his quality of play.

Those three answers together account for much of the depreciation in Vander Esch’s play. The injury in Week 7 particularly explains some ugly games in Week 10 and 11, when Vander Esch tried to play through the pain and simply could not. Vander Esch’s game lacked the characteristic physicality and strength that his supersized frame could dole out, and he was getting moved off his spot with regularity in the running game.

But let’s rewind the clock all the way to the beginning of the young linebacker’s career. Vander Esch was at his best in 2018 when he was playing fast, getting far ahead of blocking schemes with his quick trigger and short-area explosiveness and shutting down YAC opportunities in space by firing out of zones in rhythm with quarterbacks’ check-downs.

Those two players are about as different as it gets in terms of play style. One is the aggressor; one is the reactor. One acts, and the other is acted upon.

And the Vander Esch between the two? The Vander Esch who played in the early weeks of 2019, with lofty expectations and newfound pressure on his shoulders? He was somewhere in the middle. 

Vander Esch remains a quick-trigger player, who will occasionally run himself out of contention on misdirection plays and deceptive blocking schemes, but largely is one of the first defenders to figure out where the ball is going and how he fits into the according defense. This allows Vander Esch to make plays at or near the line of scrimmage, tipping the advantage to the defense as they get a long-and-late down scenario.

We can also see Vander Esch help account for the deficiencies on the roster with him. Take that final play, in which Taysom Hill presents a zone-read threat as the quarterback in the backfield for the Saints. When the unblocked defensive end spikes inside to close on the handoff, Smith should belly outside and account for the QB run. This is a pretty simple scrape exchange, but Smith gets suckered into the run action before him. Vander Esch, on the other hand, immediately understands what’s happening and actually takes over Smith’s responsibility once Smith is late to key. At a bad angle, Vander Esch can’t make a play—but it does demonstrate just how quickly he processes information.

Vander Esch is also significantly better than Smith in zone coverage, and has to account for him accordingly. Vander Esch is an aggressive zone defender who wants to bait throws, adjust coverage shells, and hit with the intent to dislodge. He has a good understanding of how common concepts are trying to space him out or put him in conflict, so he will space to force underneath throws, then close like a rocket to limit YAC. It’s quality stuff.

On that final rep against the Giants, New York wisely tries to use his aggressiveness to underneath targets to open up a double-move switch concept behind him. Vander Esch shows off the athleticism here, sinking, reading, and elevating to break up the pass on a concept the offense wins on the chalkboard. That’s the hallmark of a high-level player.

If you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, I don’t blame you—but the reality is that if anything, Vander Esch was just lacking a little for consistency. He played with aggression, but got burned by it a bit. He missed more tackles in space than I remember him doing off of his 2018 film, but didn’t show any measurable decrease in change of direction ability or physicality that would explain it. 

You might say that Vander Esch’s film was roughly the same from 2019 to 2018, but his impact wasn’t. Compound that with Vander Esch’s depreciating health—he’s now had three separate injuries in his NFL career, and has injured his neck twice in his football career—and there’s a chance that we never see Vander Esch make the same impact that he did in 2018. He’ll never be the same fresh, unbridled athlete that he was then—and he may have gotten just a bit lucky, playing with his hair on fire with not too many consequences.

Chalk Vander Esch’s 2019 regression up to a few things we understand and several things we don’t. We can point at it, shrug, and say “Well, he probably wasn’t going to be a top-three linebacker in the NFL again anyway.” And that’s a pretty fair assessment.

What matters more now is 2020. If Vander Esch has a more consistent season with impact plays under new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan (who has an off-ball linebacker coaching background) then 2019 will remain that: an injury-riddled sophomore slump. But if Vander Esch continues to struggle with availability (likely) and doesn’t translate well to reading and reacting to two-gap defensive linemen in Nolan’s scheme (likely, if Nolan runs that defensive philosophy heavily), then 2020 could continue along the downward skid that began in 2019.

With huge money already poured into Smith, the Cowboys are not looking to dole out a second fat linebacker contract for only above-average play, when healthy. Smith’s contract is very cuttable, but Vander Esch has to make it so by evening out the rough edges of his play and doing it for 16 games. Vander Esch’s 2020 is critical, if not for the sheer reason that we need it to help understand his weird 2019 performance.