If you're a fan of the New Orleans Saints but have never ever heard of Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch until just now, then chances are that you're not alone.
That's because Vander Esch — also considered to be one of the biggest "sleepers" in this year's 2018 Class — may have been overlooked previously because he played at Boise State; a program where despite sending a handful players to the NFL in recent years, still doesn't get the respect that other bigger schools like Alabama and Ohio States always seem to do.
Additionally, Vander Esch missed more than half of the 2016 season with injuries, which also made him a bit of a 'mystery' for most scouts before his break-out redshirt junior season last year in 2017; where he completely went into full-attack mode and recorded a team-high 141 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks, two interceptions, and four forced fumbles.
Then there was his back-to-back performances against Fresno State in the Mountain West Championship Game (a whopping 16 tackles and an interception); and a few weeks later against Oregon in the Las Vegas Bowl, where he recorded 12 tackles and a sack in a 38-28 victory.
Long story short: Vander Esch can do a lot of things well at the linebacker position both as a middle / inside player against the run and in pass coverage, and also coming off the outside edge as a pass rusher as well.
He's exactly the type of athletically-gifted that the Saints could still use at the LB position, and he's the next player to be profiled this morning here at Saints News Network in our continuing look at the Saints 2018 NFL Draft prospects for the upcoming NFL Draft on April 26th-28th at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (just outside of Dallas).
The linebacker play last season for the Saints was solid but not great, and as New Orleans Advocate beat writer Nick Underhill noted yesterday: it doesn’t mean the position is set.
Underhill makes the observation that New Orleans had some issues in run defense and could justify adding talent at any of the linebacker spots. The run defense wasn’t as strong as it could have been last season, and there is room for a linebacker with better coverage skills and range.
And Vander Esch certainly meets those qualifications, and then some.
Pro Football Focus NFL Draft Analyst Jordan Plocher says that the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Vander Esch's height combined with long arms, gives him outstanding length for the position.
Vander Esch can shrink second-level passing windows with his length and bat down passes to wide receivers he’s not even covering. He also uses his long arms to defeat blockers and make difficult tackles in space.
Plocher notes that against the run, Vander Esch has the eyes to find the ball and has a knack for sliding past blockers to make a run stop. Vander Esch had 57 run stops and a run-stop percentage of 15.9, and both marks ranked No. 1 among all FBS inside linebackers.
Plocher adds that Vander Esch uses his long stride to quickly cover ground on outside runs and is also a productive pass-rusher when asked, and he can use his athleticism to make a quick lateral move around a blocker or he can use his strength to bull-rush a blocker. Additionally: he’s also very difficult for RB's to handle in pass protection.
Vander Esch has been compared by some to former Chicago Bears star Brian Urlacher, and my good friend and WWL New Orleans TV & Radio Football / Draft Analyst Mike Detillier says that he plays the run very well and where he is really most impressive is in his ability to drop back in coverage.
Detillier adds that Vander Esch needs to physically get stronger, but his football intelligence, reverse skills and his track-down ability grade out at a high level.
Vander Esch is currently being mocked anywhere from as high as the middle part of Round 1, to as low as the late 2nd Round, where the Saints currently don't have a pick because they traded it to the San Francisco 49ers in last year's 2017 NFL Draft, to move up and select superstar RB and eventual 2017 NFL Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara.
Would the Saints trade up and get back into Round 2 to grab a player with Vander Esch's capabilities?
And with him continuing to rise up many current NFL Draft boards ahead of the beginning of next week's NFL Scouting Combine (February 27th-March 5th) in Indianapolis, would New Orleans even consider taking him with their top pick at the end of Round 1?