After Ryan Shazier’s horrific injury, which has his future as a football player in jeopardy, inside linebacker becomes a very high priority. As a result of the injury the play from the ‘Mack’ linebacker spot in 2017 was underwhelming, which led to the Jacksonville Jaguars exposing this Steelers’ defensive weakness. The Steelers need to replace Shazier and rejuvenate the linebacker position with a stud. Today, we study Boise State inside linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
Leighton Vander Esch #38 | Boise State
6’4″ 240lbs | RS Junior
2017 Stats: 14 Games. 141 total tackles (91 solo). 8.5 TFL. 4 sacks. 2 INT. 5 Passes Defensed. 4 Forced Fumbles.
Background: Idaho native. Business Major. Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year (2017). Mountain West Championship Game Defensive MVP (2017). Burlsworth Trophy Candidate (2017). 2x Mountain West All-Academic Team (2015-16). Played football, basketball and track and field in high school. Played both ways in high school football (quarterback/inside linebacker).
What’s to like: Has prototypical linebacker size. Is a read-and-diagnose linebacker. High football IQ. Very solid tackling technique, rarely lets the ball carrier break his tackle. Has a ton of experience dropping into coverage. Has a motor that doesn’t let up, gives 110% effort every play. Always stays in front of the play, is rarely out of position. Doesn’t shy from being physical or aggressive. Does not over commit, stays patient and secures tackles instead of being overzealous.
Concerns: Suffered various injuries. Played in the Mountain West where the competition is not very fierce. Not the most effective blitzer. Not as athletically gifted as many would prefer. Needs to work on his backpedal in coverage, but moves well laterally. Can get too fixated on taking on a block than keeping his eyes up and reacting to the play in motion. While he is physical, his collisions are not very powerful.
Verdict: Vander Esch is a top five linebacker in this class. The Steelers need a fundamentally sound linebacker who is a reliable tackler that can also make splash plays. The Boise State product isn’t as athletic as Shazier, but can move sideline to sideline, through traffic, as well as blitz. His best traits are his football IQ and motor. Selecting 28th overall, the Steelers may have their backs against the wall. Perhaps a similar situation in 2016 when the Steelers selected Artie Burns. They went with need over best player available, reaching a bit purely based on potential after their main position targets were off the board. If he tests well at the NFL Combine, his grade may improve to one of a first rounder.
Grade: 86/100 (High Second Round)
Games Watched: 2017 San Diego State | 2017 BYU | 2017 Virginia | 2017 Wyoming | 2017 Oregon (Las Vegas Bowl) | 2017 Troy
Credit: Sports-Reference (stats), Boise State Football Website (background), YouTube (film), Twitter (photo)