After two seasons in a rotational role, Leighton Vander Esch exploded onto the college football scene as a Junior. Vander Esch tallied 141 tackles, 8.5 for loss to go with three interceptions, four sacks and four forced fumbles. He was named the Mountain West Conference Defensive Player of the Year and has officially put himself in the draft conversation. How high did he shoot up draft boards, and when would the Pittsburgh Steelers get their chance to decide on Leighton Vander Esch?
College: Boise State
Vänder Esch is an instinctive player with fluid movement and an ability to find the ball. You do not end up with those stats without an understanding of where the ball is going. What is impressive about Leighton Vander Esch is how he is able to navigate traffic to get to the ball.
He is able to breeze by blocks with smart timing, angles and a quick burst to the football when the time is right.
Vänder Esch can explode past blockers and explode through blockers to make stuffs in short yardage running. Vander Esch totaled 12 tackles, three for loss and a sack in the Las Vegas Bowl against Oregon, winning the player of the game, and finishing his college career on a strong note.
Vänder Esch is also able to fluidly move sideline to sideline while managing traffic and flying bodies. Watch how low Vander Esch is as he moves towards the football. He is almost hiding behind the defensive line to stay clean and is shifting with the runner. Finally, he catches up and drags the runner down with his momentum.
Vänder Esch has the instincts and movement to flow sideline to sideline and brings closing speed as well. Vander Esch looks like he could be a strong athlete, and has a basketball background. Below, you can see where he starts his pursuit to the ball as he fades out of the camera. By the time the pass is on the running back, he is right there to wrap him up with power and find a way to knock the ball loose. His speed is a threat against the run, screens and quick passes, and in coverage.
Vänder Esch is excellent near the line of scrimmage, but has the speed to carry tight ends and running backs down the field. He also has the shiftiness and quick hips to change direction and line up with some of the shiftier players in the box. In the play below he shows off not only fluid movement in change of direction, but also the anticipation of the route to beat the receiver to the spot. He was not thrown off for a second and covered the route perfectly.
Vänder Esch is lacking full playing strength. When he is unable to beat lineman to the spot and get a step on them, he usually struggles to get a real push. The lack of power also shows in his tackling. There are times where he may give up an extra yard or two while working his opponent to the ground. He also still showed some adjustments to the speed of the game, and his awareness of the field. In the play below, Vander Esch takes a poor angle, unaware that his teammate was being blocked right beside him. This play turned into a touchdown.
De’Vondre Campbell, Atlanta Falcons
Campbell was drafted for a specific purpose, to follow tight ends and running backs on obvious passing downs. He has the size to matchup with bigger tight ends and the speed to roam sideline to sideline to help against quicker backs. He has executed his job well, and has turned into a relied on asset for the Atlanta Falcons.
Vander Esch likely comes in a better run stuffer, but with the same idea in mind. This is an evolving, position less league. Teams need role players now. The role of being fast and big and able to play the middle of the field on defense is as valuable as ever. The Falcons found theirs in 2016, and in 2018, a bigger, and potentially better version is arriving in Leighton Vander Esch.
Fit for Pittsburgh Steelers
Leighton Vander Esch is an ideal fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After watching Rob Gronkowski tear up the Steelers on a game winning touchdown drive, this team knows they have to find an answer. Vander Esch is going to be closest thing in terms of size and coverage ability to have a chance on these types of tight ends. While Vince Williams can use his strength to soak up blocks in the interior, Vander Esch can take on the role of finding the ball and chasing down players outside of the box.
If Vander Esch tests well, he almost guaranteed to be a first round lock. If that were to happen, his floor could be looked at as pick 28 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Vander Esch is a highly productive player, a smooth mover and good athlete, and fits a need and the scheme. Leighton Vander Esch is going to be intriguing player that the Steelers should be interested in this spring.