When the New England Patriots traded away Jamie Collins to the Cleveland Browns, the team moved on from its best coverage linebacker – one it has not been able to replace since the October 2016 trade deadline. Sure, Dont'a Hightower is solid when dropping back and both Kyle Van Noy and Marquis Flowers have had more ups than downs, but the Patriots need another player that can play all three downs and not be a question mark.
Enter Boise State linebacker and likely first-round draft selection Leighton Vander Esch. Let's take a closer look at him.
Name: Leighton Vander Esch
School: Boise State
2017 stats: 13 games, 129 tackles, 3 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 3 interceptions, 5 pass breakups
Size: 6042, 256 lbs, 33 7/8 arm length, 9 3/4 hand size
Combine numbers: 4.65 40-yard dash, 39.5” vertical, 10’4” broad jump, 20 bench-press reps, 6.88 3-cone drill
Expected Round: 1st
Strengths: If Vander Esch was to be described with one word it would be “athleticism”. The 22-year old brings some impressive measurables to the table: Not only does he have ideal size to play linebacker in the NFL, he also has elite moving skills, turns his hips quickly and fluidly, and has great change of direction abilities – all factors that contribute to him being arguably the best coverage linebacker in the entire draft.
Vander Esch has the agility to cover running backs and the size to take on tight ends one-on-one. He also has a natural feel for zones and does neither drop too shallow nor too deep when in coverage. Furthermore, he has tremendous instincts with a knack for the football and is able to read quarterbacks and ball carriers very well. The Boise State product also has the closing speed and – most of the time – patience to make tackles.
As an all-around linebacker, Vander Esch is not only able to perform in coverage, he also was productive as a downhill defender. Whether it is blitzing, rushing the passer, or defending the run, he was competitive. This versatility also is visible in his usage as Vander Esch played multiple roles off the line of scrimmage: No matter if he aligned as a Mike, Will, or Sam linebacker, he never appeared to be out of place.
Furthermore, Vander Esch is already very solid when attacking blocks as a run defender, pass rusher or blitzer. He tries to get low to push through blocks but is also quick enough to move around opponents if need be (as is the case on stunts). The Mountain West conference's defensive player of 2017 also is an active communicator from the linebacker position.
Weaknesses: While Vander Esch is a rather polished product entering the draft, he does have some question marks. The biggest of which concerns his outstanding 2017 season: After two solid but unspectacular seasons for the Broncos, he suddenly turned into one of the best defensive players in all of college football. Coming off just one year of noteworthy production it is fair to ask whether or not this year was an outlier.
Also, Vander Esch is not the strongest player despite being an impressive athlete. He therefore needs to improve his technique in terms of hand usage to stay competitive against the superior linemen in the NFL. Furthermore, his downhill playing style sometimes works against him from time to time: Vander Esch's aggressiveness and speed make him overrun plays when challenging the pocket or trying to make one-on-one tackles.
What would be his role? Vander Esch would instantly become one of the Patriots' top three linebackers alongside Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy. As such, he would see regular defensive snaps, and most likely become a prominent player on passing downs as either the lone off-the-line linebacker in the team's 5-1 front or either the Will or the Sam in standard regular 4-3 alignments.
How many downs can he play? Four. Vander Esch played defense and special teams at Boise State – even running the football on a fake punt once – and projects to do the same in the NFL. His kicking game exposure could depend on his defensive role though, as he might not be used on all special teams units as not to overuse him.
What is his special teams value? As noted above, Vander Esch has experience in the kicking game after starting his college career primarily as a special teamer. Given his top-notch athleticism, he will likely be used there as well in the NFL – potentially as part of the field goal and extra point units and as a blocker/coverage defender on punts.
Does he have positional versatility? While he predominately played off the line of scrimmage at Boise State, the team used Vander Esch in various roles as a linebacker: He played on both the strong side (Sam) and the weak side (Will) and also played as the lone middle linebacker (Mike) in certain schemes. Furthermore, the 22-year old also moved up to the line to show/disguise pressure or serve as a blitzer.
Will his role change from year 1 to year 2? The quicker Vander Esch adapts to life in the NFL, the quicker his defensive role will expand. Late during his rookie campaign or at least by year two, he could very well serve as a three-down player next to Hightower that is used regularly against both the run and the pass – allowing the team to move the fellow former first-rounder all over the formation.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? As a first-round pick, Vander Esch's spot on the 53-man roster would be safe. In order to get playing time, he would have to beat out Kyle Van Noy as well as Marquis Flowers, Harvey Langi and also Elandon Roberts further down the depth chart.
Why the Patriots? New England's lack of athleticism at the front seven was apparent during the Super Bowl. Adding Vander Esch would help tremendously in this department and give the team a highly talented player capable of playing downhill and in coverage it has been lacking ever since Jamie Collins was shipped off to Cleveland. Vander Esch would at least be a quality depth option in year one who would ideally turn into a full-time starter further down the line.
Why not the Patriots? The main reason why Vander Esch might not end up in New England simply is his talent and the fact that he might get picked before the team is on the clock. The Patriots, of course, could very well trade up if it thinks that the former Bronco is worth it – but it could also opt to settle for other options at the linebacker position like Alabama's Rashaan Evans.
Verdict: Vander Esch is one of the most exciting linebackers in this year's draft, an amazing athlete capable of becoming a difference maker at the next level. If the Patriots are in a position to take him – most likely with the 23rd overall selection – they should probably not hesitate to do just that: After all, he would be an instant upgrade to one of the currently weaker positions on the team's roster.