For a mid-major program, Boise State produces consistent NFL draft picks about as well as anybody. The Broncos have had a player drafted in 11 of the last 12 drafts, and in each of the last eight seasons. Jeremy McNichols and Tanner Vallejo kept the streak alive last year, ending up in Tampa Bay and Buffalo respectively.
The Idaho school hasn’t had a first-rounder since 2012 despite all this success, but linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is threatening to break the drought this year.
RAF Big Board Ranking: #36
He’s agile, strong, and big. His February excursion in Indianapolis proved all of this.
His 40-yard dash time and bench press were nothing special in the grand scope of all of the linebackers, roughly in the middle of the back in both tests.
He made up for it big time though by showing how agile he is. The numbers speak for themselves. The jumps, both broad and vertical, were both in at least the 87th percentile. His Combine performance will help him shoot up draft boards around the league.
Height: 6’ 4”
Weight: 256 lbs
40-yard Dash: 4.65 seconds
Bench Press: 20 reps
Vertical Jump: 39.5 inches
Broad Jump: 124 inches
3 Cone Drill: 6.88 seconds
20-yard Shuttle: 4.15 seconds
60-yard Shuttle: 11.57 seconds
His build is something any NFL team would desire to have. Just the height and weight alone is impressive, but especially combined with how nimble he is with his movements despite that big frame. Vander Esch can cover all of the ground on the field even without jaw-dropping speed, leaving no blade of grass uncovered from sideline to sideline.
When a ball carrier meets Vander Esch, the result usually only ends one way. The Boise State linebacker was as efficient as anyone in the country last season at finishing out plays, registering 91 solo tackles in 14 games. Throw in another 50 assisted tackles, and you have a guy who on average had at least a part of a tackle 10.1 times a game in his final season in Boise.
He’s a hard hitter at the point of contact as well, forcing four fumbles last season, good enough to lead the Mountain West Conference. The one he had in Boise State’s bowl game against Oregon was vintage Vander Esch. The ability to finish what you start is as important as anything for a linebacker, and Vander Esch has that in spades.
His tackling is a by-product of the routes he takes to the football. For a guy with a huge area to patrol, you’ll always find him in the right place at the right time when you pop in his tape. He’s got quickness off the snap to take the initial step in the right direction, and a nose for the football. His game against San Diego State in particular was an illustration of how he can take over a game on his own, with nine solo tackles to help shut down the nation’s leading rusher Rashaad Penny.
His game itself has a lot of the tools you want in a linebacker, but there are legitimate concerns about the jump from the college to NFL level. He had three seasons in college, but in the first two seasons he was not much of a contributor to the Boise State lineup. He played in all 14 games in his junior season, but only played in 14 total between his freshman and sophomore seasons combined. Even with his talent, there’s a severe lack of reps there. He had injury issues nagging him all throughout 2016, and because of that he only has one full season as a starter under his belt.
Every draft prospect has to deal with the reality of the college season being shorter than the NFL one, but Vander Esch is going to have an especially big challenge having only gone through the full college grind once. There’s going to be a big learning curve for him getting thrown into the deep end of a full NFL season.
I think there’s room for improvement with Vander Esch in pass coverage too. He’s at his best when he is moving around the field and making plays all over, but when he has to be more stationary and play with a receiver, he has a tendency to get lost at times. He can get a little bit turned around in coverage and has a tendency to lose positioning when he’s dropping back.
I really like what I see here. Vander Esch is something of a tweener in terms of the draft board itself. It’s clear he’s not at the level of the top two linebackers in the draft in Raquon Smith and Tremaine Edmunds, but he is ahead of most of his peers in terms of talent. I think the concerns about his durability and NFL readiness might cause him to slide down the board a little bit.
But the talent is there without a doubt. His playmaking on defense and how well he moves across the field to make those plays with how agile he is will have NFL defensive coordinators salivating.
Draft prediction: He’s a first round talent, but probably towards the back end of it. He might be an interesting candidate to go to the draft-hosting Cowboys at #19.