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Why the Cowboys picked Leighton Vander Esch in the 2018 NFL Draft

Vander Esch is one of the 2018 draft’s most versatile linebacker prospects.

NCAA Football: Boise State at Air Force Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday night, the Cowboys selected linebacker Leighton Vander Esch with the No. 19 pick in the NFL Draft.

It’s not a surprising pick. Vander Esch’s talents would’ve made him a fit for any defense in the world, so no landing spot could’ve much of a shock.

Why did the Cowboys pick Vander Esch?

He’s versatile, and he can fill a couple different defensive roles. Vander Esch profiles as a middle linebacker, but he has the frame and athleticism to line up at any linebacker position and do the job well.

He also gets a pretty good comparison:

He has the sideline-to-sideline speed require of an inside backer, but at Boise State, his primary position was on the weak side, away from the opposing tight end. Vander Esch was often responsible for setting the edge like an outside backer, and he spent plenty of time in pass coverage of both the man-to-man and zone variety.

Vander Esch’s versatility isn’t an accident. Idaho doesn’t have a lot of people, and lots of its high school teams play eight-man football, which necessarily requires everyone on the field to fill more roles and cover more space. Vander Esch says it made him better.

“You’ve gotta have a special talent to play eight-man football,” he told SB Nation at the NFL Combine in March. “You’ve gotta be a well-rounded player. I mean, you’re playing both sides of the ball. Not that 11-man players don’t play both sides of the ball, but I think it definitely helps with the speed of the game and being able to open-field tackle. Those are important aspects of the game, and you’ve gotta be able to do everything. You gotta have dynamic players that can play everywhere.”

Can he start right away?

Yes. Vander Esch’s versatility makes him a plug-and-play guy, but he has the talent to develop into a stalwart at any number of positions down the line.

What’s the risk?

He’s reportedly been the subject of injury concerns from a couple of teams. At 6’4 and 256 pounds, he’s a little heavy for a classic edge rusher and a little bit long and slender for a classic Mike backer, so maybe he winds up being what scouts call a “tweener.” But there’s also upside in that, which is that Vander Esch can help in various facets of linebacker play.

Can you tell me something else cool about Vander Esch?

Oh, yes. Vander Esch is a native of 420-person Riggins, Idaho, a town where he grew up playing eight-man before earning a preferred walk-on spot at BSU. His family outfitted an old party bus with couches and brought Riggins folks to all of Vander Esch’s Boise State home games, a three-hour drive on the Vander Esch Express:

I wish I had a bus like that.