Bengals Director of Player Personnel Duke Tobin, along with many other NFL executives have gone on record saying the most important aspect of the NFL Scouting Combine is the medical evaluation for each player.
This gives each team a clear picture of a player’s health that they may have not know had possession prior, and also sheds light on surprising conditions of the players. This year’s prime example was when a medical exam revealed an irregular EKG for Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst. Such news has since altered his perceived draft stock, but that’s what the exams are for: to provide clarity.
Clarity can also be found with the athletic testing, and that was exactly the case for Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
The legend of Vander Esch started in high school in Riggins, Idaho, where the elevation above sea level is over four times larger than its population. Vander Esch was a multi-sport athlete prodigy, excelling in track and field, basketball and of course football. In his junior and senior year at Salmon River high school, he lead both the basketball and football teams to Division II state titles while playing both quarterback and linebacker.
In his senior year, he accounted for 62 total touchdowns through the air and on the ground at quarterback, and 10 total turnovers and four touchdowns at linebacker. The kid played quarterback on both sides of the field, and considering Salmon River and its division played eight-man football, it wasn’t like he had a choice.
With no other interest from any other school, he enrolled to Boise State, 150 miles south of Riggins. He was redshirted his freshman year in 2014 and was a reserve linebacker the next two years before breaking into the starting defense as a redshirt junior this past year. This was his first year of playing high level 11-on-11 football as a starter, and it explains some of the things I picked up on tape:
Despite his impressive athleticism, Vander Esch’s instinctual aptitude at the position is not near that of other linebackers in this class. A lot of times, he’ll be late to react and creates subpar angles for himself. In a big picture sense, I wouldn’t classify tackling as a huge red flag, considering he lead Boise State’s defense in solo tackles this season by 26, but often times you’ll see him stop his feet and be uncommitted to the angle he’s taking, like the play above.
Same story here. The click and close when breaking down on the flat is workable, but Vander Esch is putting himself at the mercy of the running back, instead of sticking to an angle and attacking it. This indecisiveness and play speed will cause issues against competition beyond that of the Mountain West Conference.
These deficiencies showed up in coverage as well. Vander Esch was asked to drop into the deep middle zone like Derrick Brooks did so well for the Buccaneers in their Tampa 2 defense and did fairly well in those situations, but his reactionary skills in underneath zones were less than desirable.
As the MIKE, Vander Esch’s responsibility is identifying the running back’s role and read the quarterback’s eyes. Locked onto the backfield, he opens his hips in response to the quarterback’s eyes while still keeping tabs on the running back. The back is staying in to pass block and the quarterback is trying to get the slot receiver over the middle while isolated on the linebacker. Vander Esch is late in reacting and the slot receiver gets about 10 yards after the catch. A split second sooner and Vander Esch could’ve made a play at the first down marker.
More of the same on this play. Washington State is running a mesh concept with intersecting drag routes over the middle, but the execution is less than stellar as they end up slowing each other down. This delay gives Vander Esch the opportunity to break down on the route and potentially make a play on the ball, but again, he’s just a hair too slow and allows the completion. These aren’t deal breakers, but if we credit other linebackers for showing great instincts, we have to acknowledge those who don’t.
Click and close is the phrase describing a second level defender reading and reacting to the play unfolding in front of him. It’s mainly applied to filling run fits and pursuing outside runs from the backside, but can also be shown in coverage.
Here, Vander Esch is again in that underneath middle zone. We don’t get to see it all unfold because of the camera (I’ve no clout for All-22) but the quarterback takes a good 5 steps rolling out to the right before Vander Esch starts flowing in that direction while a receiver is running a crosser right in front of him. Vander Esch is late to attach to the route and is now trailing without the makeup speed to get in front of the route. As a result, it’s an easy completion on the run.
It’s mental lapses like these that fills Vander Esch’s evaluation with caution. He clearly had troubles in his first year starting, but in between the struggles, he made plays that are written in a textbook for linebackers.
Something I like to harp on with the combine is how certain testing numbers are indicative of on field traits. Take the short shuttle and 3 cone drill; both test balance and lower body flexibility. The shuttle tells you how flexible a players hips are, and the 3 cone gives you an idea of a player’s ankle flexion. Vander Esch tested very well for his size in both of these drills, and it shows up on plays like this.
Not only does he do a great job of attacking his fit, but he’s able to lower and turn his hips to knife through the point of attack clean. But he still needs to get around the left guard pulling around the line. He bends around the guard while navigating though traffic and manages to wrap up on the running back by the ankles.
Vander Esch plays with finesse as opposed to power, which can get him in trouble when being forced to take on blocks, but if your defensive tackles can hold ground against combo blocks and give him the slightest of space he needs, he can do damage.
I watched four of Boise State’s regular season games and was ready to finalize my thoughts on Vander Esch’s film, but still wanted to see how he played against Oregon in their bowl game. A more well rounded player showed up.
The very first third-down of the game, Vander Esch powers through contact and comes up with a tone-setting stuff. That’s possible top-50 pick Tyrell Crosby at left tackle trying to reach block him as well. Crosby and Vander Esch are almost exactly the same height, and low man wins. Vander Esch drops his pad level and explodes through the condensed gap to make the tackle for loss from the backside of the play.
Another third and short, another tackle for loss. Reads his key, gets low in the hole, finishes. When the athleticism is on par with the mental processing, positive plays are made. You can’t ask for anything more than this.
Those bad pursuit angles seem like distant memories when watching this. Vander Esch’s pad level is consistently low and level and his coaches in the NFL are going to really appreciate that right away. He’s not looking to make the biggest hit, he’s looking to make the most impactful hit. Just getting him to trust his eyes will be the difference.
If I were Vander Esch, I would label this as my signature play. Boise State didn’t typically control the line of scrimmage from the film I viewed, but when they did, Vander Esch was able to look like a playmaker. His height at 6’4” is a big plus when finding and locking onto the running back, and his incredible flexibility and balance helps him maneuver through traffic, and being able to sink your pads to wrap up like this is extraordinary.
Now to address the question presented in the title of this piece, the comparison to now hall of famer linebacker Brian Urlacher was floating around before and after Vander Esch’s combine showing. According to James Cobern’s data, both the production and relative athleticism data support the comparison. Urlacher also came from a Mountain West school, played at almost the same height and weight as Vander Esch, and of course, is caucasian.
Urlacher was ultimately taken in the top 10 of the draft 18 years ago and the Chicago Bears never regretted it for a second. Based on just tape, I really like the flashes from Vander Esch but there’s some questions I have about his mental processing that make me pause. Having learnt that this was his first year starting, that eases those concerns a bit, but not completely. When you take the data into account, his quantifiable upside is considerably higher than most in this class. And that should mean something. Is he the next Urlacher? That’s probably pushing it as of now.
Looking at his complete profile, Vander Esch is a 22-year-old linebacker with squeaky clean character, has the athleticism and production to produce a high-quality career, but doesn’t have a lot of starting experience and is still growing as a player. He brings value to the Bengals in the form of athleticism and becoming a potential long-term starter at a position where the Bengals don’t have anyone under contract in 2019. The questions that pop up in most of his tape, however, may cause them to pass him up at the 21st overall pick, along with the fact that they don’t invest in linebackers this early in the draft. But based on his production and athleticism, they could end up regretting that decision.