NFL draft profile — No. 23: Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch

One-year starter's tremendous athleticism, versatility has his draft stock on fire

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Each day leading up to the 2018 NFL draft, I’ll break down one of my top 50 prospects. In some cases, we had to make tough omissions because of injuries, poor pre-draft workouts or incomplete information. For more complete scouting reports on all the prospects, check out the Pro Football Weekly 2018 Draft Guide, which is available for order now.

23. Boise State LB Leighton Vander Esch
6-foot-4, 256 pounds

Key stats: Vander Esch was credited with 28 tackles (three for loss), one interception and one forced fumble in Boise State’s final two games last season — the Mountain West championship game and the Las Vegas Bowl.

The skinny: A three-sport star at 1A Salmon River High School, Vander Esch might have been a local legend in eight-man football (quarterback and middle linebacker), basketball and track and field, but he had trouble finding big-time college football attention. Walking on at Boise St., Vander Esch redshirted as a 215-pounder in 2014. In 2015, he played in 12 games as a reserve on defense (20 tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery) and as a special teamer, where he ran a fake punt for a first down. Injuries limited him to six games in 2016, as he made 27 tackles (3.5 for loss), one sack and one interception.

But in 2017, Vander Esch broke out in his first full season of starting. The team captain was named Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year in making 129 tackles (5.5 for loss), three sacks, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and four passes defended. Vander Esch also finished strong by being named Mountain West Championship Game Defensive MVP with a 16-tackle, one-INT performance followed by a 12-tackle game in the Las Vegas Bowl win over Oregon.

The fourth-year junior opted to turn pro after the season. He performed a full workout at the NFL scouting combine before opting to only take part in positional drills at his pro day.

Upside: Elite combine testing numbers — turned in a workout that a wide receiver 40 pounds lighter could be proud of. Vertical (39.5 inches) and broad jump (124 inches) put him in the top fifth percentile for his position, and 40-yard dash (4.65 seconds), 3-cone drill (6.88) and shuttle drills were all considered excellent for a player his size. Tall with extremely long arms and a frame that still could support some weight-room development.

Loose hips, great quick-twitch ability and outstanding change-of-direction skills. Shows terrific lateral range, making plays all over the field. Has some pass-rush potential. Able to drop in deep coverage in zones naturally.

Absolutely dominated the bowl game against Oregon. Watch Vander Esch (No. 38) — in what was about his fourth-most impressive individual effort of the game —sniff out the direction of the play (film study play?), shoot the gap, cross the face of C Jake Hanson and stone the short-yardage rushing attempt:

Box-score stuffer who can impact the game on all three downs, along with special teams. Displayed really good positional instincts for a first-year starter. Tackling form appears solid, especially in short-yardage situations or close to the line of scrimmage. Showed a knack for rising to the occasion — see huge late-game plays vs. Colorado State, Fresno State and Oregon. Displayed toughness in returning from injuries late in 2016 season. Was named team captain before becoming a full-time starter. Work ethic and leadership have been praised roundly by Boise State coaching staff and teammates.

Downside: Only a one-year full-time starter. Injuries (scouts say it was his right knee, although the school doesn’t disclose injury information) set him back early. Still has much to learn about playing linebacker and could still stand to use more time in the weight room to gain strength, despite his outstanding natural athleticism. Scouts have tried to drill down to see just how good his football IQ is with such a limited body of work on tape. Might not be a Day 1 starter in the NFL unless he’s placed in an ideal setting and role.

Must improve at stacking and shedding blocks. Doesn’t always lock out and disengage effectively despite long arms — could need to add more upper-body strength (middling 20 bench-press reps) and learn to play with better leverage. Will get caught up in the trash now and again. You’d like to see a little more nasty in his game at times. Doesn’t blow up smaller blockers the way his frame and burst suggest he should.

Will fly around, overshoot gaps and run himself out of plays. Missed some tackles in space. Gets faked out by misdirection plays at times. Watch here against Wyoming as Vander Esch gets caught in no man’s land following QB Josh Allen’s good play-action fake and allows the fullback to beat him down the sideline for the big gainer on the wheel route:

Vander Esch has the athleticism to make the tackle downfield. But here’s another view of his indecision at the start of the play (he’s on the very left edge of your screen), allowing his eyes to follow the motion man instead of keeping tabs on the fullback in the flat:

Best-suited destination: Vander Esch played inside in an odd-front defense but appears to have all the talent and athletic ability to fit in with almost any type of off-the-ball role. The team that drafts him might want to have a plan for integrating him gradually while Vander Esch learns and grows, but he could be a Pro Bowl-level starter in a year or two. Among the teams that could be good fits for him include the New England Patriots, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Indianapolis Colts, Tennessee Titans, Miami Dolphins, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Cowboys, Oakland Raiders, Green Bay Packers and Washington.

Quotable: “He’s given everything you could ask for to this program.”  — Boise State head coach Bryan Harsin

Player comp: Their body sizes are quite different, but Vander Esch’s late blossoming, athletic fluidity and versatility remind me a lot of Haason Redick last year.

Expected draft range: Top-25 pick

Greg Gabriel scouting report (subscribers only)

Previous profiles

50. Oregon RB Royce Freeman
49. South Dakota State TE Dallas Goedert
48. LSU DE-LB Arden Key
47. Ohio State C Billy Price
46. Alabama S Ronnie Harrison
45. Oklahoma State QB Mason Rudolph
44. Texas A&M S Armani Watts
43. South Carolina TE Hayden Hurst
42. UCF CB Mike Hughes
41. USC RB Ronald Jones II
40. Maryland WR D.J. Moore
39. UTEP OG Will Hernandez
38. Stanford DT Harrison Phillips
37. Ohio State DE Sam Hubbard
36. Stanford S Justin Reid
35. Oregon OT Tyrell Crosby
34. SMU WR Courtland Sutton
33. Penn State TE Mike Gesicki
32. Colorado CB Isaiah Oliver
31. Georgia OL Isaiah Wynn
30. Texas A and M WR Christian Kirk
29. Alabama LB Rashaan Evans
28. Alabama WR Calvin Ridley
27. Michigan DT Maurice Hurst
26. Texas OT Connor Williams
25. Georgia RB Sony Michel
24. LSU RB Derrius Guice