There are only a few positions the Detroit Lions should completely ignore in the first few rounds of the NFL draft. With needs all over the front seven of the defense, depth in the secondary, and needs on the offensive line and running back, the team has enough holes left to fill that they shouldn’t be locked into any single area.
After addressing the linebacker position in the 2017 draft and taking both Jarrad Davis in the first round and Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the fourth, the team may not be done adding starter level talent to their corps. Their first visit with an early-round prospect, according to Tony Pauline, is now scheduled with Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.
Hyped as a premiere athlete, Leighton Vander Esch did nothing to squash the lofty expectations of his talents. Prior to the NFL Combine, I had jokingly referred to LVE as “Leighton Vandurlacher,” as his most common comparison was the now Hall of Fame, former Bears superstar. It was a joke at the time, but he actually exceeded Urlacher’s current Relative Athletic Score by putting up better marks in quickness, explosiveness, and agility. His RAS lies sandwiched between Luke Kuechly at 9.98 and Von Miller at 9.96.
2015 - 20 Tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PD, 1 FR
2016 - 27 Tackles, 3.5 TFL, 1.0 Sack, 1 Int
2017 - 141 Tackles, 8.5 TFL, 4.0 Sacks, 2 Int, 5 PD, 4 FF
After lackluster freshman and sophomore seasons, Vander Esch exploded in 2017. Though he was mostly an afterthought coming into the season, the junior put up one of the most productive campaigns in college football. He posted double digit tackles in eight games, the last of which against Oregon saw him post 12 tackles, 3 tackles for a loss, a sack, and a forced fumble.
If the Lions are keen on drafting Leighton Vander Esch, it’s going to take the 20th overall pick to secure him. It’s possible a trade down, if the Lions could find a partner, would still leave him open for selection, but this isn’t a guy you can look at and hope falls to 51. Though he wasn’t a unanimous first-round player on most boards, he had been rising steadily up until the Combine. After crushing it there, he’s done nothing but continue to climb. In fact, the Lions are one of seven teams with visits scheduled this week alone.
Vander Esch possesses elite size and athleticism for a linebacker and that pops out every time you put on the tape. A strong, form tackler, he isn’t afraid to mix it up with blockers or larger running backs. This isn’t your Deandre Levy type, using finesse to get around blocks and take down ball carriers. Using great quickness he navigates through traffic before using elite explosiveness to burst through any opening and get after the ball. He rarely loses his feet, and generally keeps his eyes firmly fixed on whoever is carrying the ball at the time.
If the Lions drafted him, Leighton Vander Esch would immediately take over starting duties as a Will in 4-3 fronts and as the second ILB in 3-4 base sets. He and Jarrad Davis would be your nickel linebackers with the both of them staying on the field for a majority of team snaps. With limited usefulness as a pass rusher, and only passable in coverage, you could see him or Davis come off the field some passing situations to utilize someone like Jalen Reeves-Maybin or Devon Kennard for pass rushing duties. In any event, you’d generally prefer the pass rush or run game to be addressed in the first round of 2018. Vander Esch wouldn’t be a bad pick, but he would be a hard sell as there are likely to be several players who would be more likely to have immediate impact than him.