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Round 1 Middle Linebackers: Leighton Vander Esch better than Roquan Smith

Comparing the draft’s best two inside linebackers

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Boise State vs Oregon
Leighton Vander Esch
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Just three linebackers are expected to be taken during the first day of the draft - Tremaine Edmunds of Virginia Tech, Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch and Georgia’s Roquan Smith, who could be the first from this trio to be taken.

Our staff lists Edmunds as the best defensive prospect in this draft, but while Smith is likely to go before the other two on draft day, Vander Esch is The NFL Draft Report’s top middle linebacker, as we feel that Smith’s obvious struggles vs. the pass and small frame make him a better fit inside at the weak-side position in a 3-4 alignment. Meanwhile, Vander Esch is the type that can play any linebacker spot in either a 3-4 or 4-3 defense and has a lot of Brian Urlacher type qualities.

Leighton Vander Esch - Boise State

Vander Esch’s rise to prominence is this draft’s feel-good story. Not regarded much as a recruit, Vander Esch was not even listed on Boise State roster when he arrived on campus for fall session in 2014. He would spend the year on the scout team before seeing reserve action in 12 contests as a weak-side outside linebacker in 2015. Midseason injury issues (leg) limited Vander Esch to six contests during the 2016 schedule.

In 2017, Vander Esch received All-American first-team honors from The NFL Draft Report. Vander Esch was named the Mountain West Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year and the Mountain West Championship Game Defensive MVP. The junior led the team and conference with 141 tackles (91 solos), which ranked fifth in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks and tied for third on the school season-record chart. He had four sacks for minus 43 yards, 8.5 stops for losses of 50 yards and one quarterback pressure. He caused four fumbles, deflected four passes and intercepted three others for 47 yards in returns.

Body Structure...Vander Esch has nice overall muscle structure and while not overly thick, he has good definition in his chest, arms and hips. He has a good bubble with tapered thighs and calves, along with well-developed hamstrings. He has the frame to carry additional bulk with no loss in his quickness. He is currently 15 pounds over his playing weight, but at the Combine his body fat content was 8.6%.

Athletic Ability...Vander Esch is a very athletic defender, showing the hip swerve and flexibility you find in a player that some teams might feel will be more advantageous as a weak-side outside linebacker, rather than performing as a classic middle linebacker. He shows suddenness in his initial move off the ball and gets to top speed quickly. He has the lateral agility and change of direction agility to slip off blocks and string plays wide (see 2017 Washington State, Oregon games). He has good strength upon initial contact and while he is a “blow them up type,” he also breaks down well on the move. His ability to quickly turn and run makes him an asset in pass coverage, as he has the foot speed to stay with most receivers through their routes. He has the height you look for on the outside, but with his bulk and low pad level, he can easily adjust to the middle linebacker position in a 4-3 alignment (prefer him at strong-side outside slot in a 3-4 scheme). He generates explosion coming off the ball and above average power behind his hits. For someone his size, he moves well in space, thanks to exceptional change of direction agility.

Football Sense...Vander Esch has excellent field instincts and vision. He is not the type that will take poor angles in pursuit, showing the hip action to quickly turn coming out of his backpedal. His ability to read and diagnose could see him convert to the classic middle linebacker position at the pro level, but his lateral range is also ideal for the strong-side outside linebacker position in a 3-4 scheme. He is very alert maintaining eye contact with the ball when working through trash. He picks up traps and pulls easily and shows fluid feet retreating in pass coverage (see 2017 New Mexico, Brigham Young, Colorado State games).

Athletic Report

Key and Diagnostic Skills...Vander Esch is a natural athlete with excellent instincts and field vision. He is quick coming off the snap, staying low in his pads while generating quick lateral movements to string the plays wide. He has the natural ability to always anticipate the flow of the ball (see 2017 Troy, Washington State, Oregon games). He excels at reacting and tracking down the ball. The thing you see on film that he is a patient type that plays under control and has no problems identifying what the offense throws at him. Plays with outstanding instincts, especially when reading the quarterback and putting himself in position to make game-changing plays (see 2017 New Mexico, Brigham Young and Fresno State MWC title games).

Playing Strength and Explosion...While Vander Esch has that Duane Bickett/Brian Urlacher athletic frame with ideal size to take on the larger blockers. He plays with proper pad level, good strength, excellent field savvy and tremendous instincts. He has enough hand strength to shed blocks quickly, doing a nice job of extending to keep blockers from attacking his body. He has the ease of movement agility to flow to the ball, staying at a proper pad level to extend, wrap and secure as a tackler. He constantly keeps his legs moving on contact, doing a nice job of driving the ball carrier back (see 2017 Washington State, San Diego State, Colorado State games). When he takes on blocks with his hands, he will generally separate and get off blocks quickly. He has the functional strength to take on blocks and shed. He has no problems running down hill to fill the rush lane and plays with good leverage when taking on the linemen.

Lateral Pursuit/Range...Vander Esch has a natural feel for the flow of the ball, showing quick lateral movement and fluid change of direction agility. He takes good angles in pursuit and stays low in his pads to deliver a clean wrap-up tackle. He shows explosive acceleration when closing and has a natural flow in his backpedal. The thing you see on film is his ability to run through and around traffic. He gives great effort in pursuit and still plays under control to properly read and adjust to the flow of the ball (see 2017 Washington State, Colorado State, Oregon games). He is the type that will always give total effort and he simply flies to the football, showing that quick initial burst to get in position instantly when changing direction.

Use of Hands...Vander Esch uses his hands well, showing good strength to jolt and redirect tight ends in pass routes. He even plays bigger than his size indicates, showing good physicality in his game like a first level bull rusher. He uses his hands effectively to keep blockers off his feet and get around trash quickly.

Tackling Ability...Vander Esch is a solid wrap-up tackler who extends his long arms properly to stalk and secure. He is the type that collides with ball carriers upon initial contact and has the strength to shed blocks and stay on the ball. He shows ease of movement getting to the ball when working in space. He has the leg drive and strength to get the ball carrier on the ground instantly. Vander Esch brings a good thump upon contact and his hits have been known to jar the ball loose from several ball carriers (see 2017 Washington State, New Mexico, Colorado State, Oregon games). He is simply a punishing tackler who explodes into his assignment, generating very good pop from his hips to impede the runner’s forward progress.

Run Defense...Against the inside run, Vander Esch has the raw power and size to combine with his change of direction agility and lateral movement to slip past blocks. He has the strength to take on the offensive linemen and it is rare to see him get engulfed when working in-line (except for when he does not protect his chest from the blocker locking on). He does a good job of coming down hill, but is best when using his hands to shed when working near the line of scrimmage, which allows him to fill the rush lane. He plays with good leverage taking on blocks coming off the edge. He has the ability to take on lead blockers and come off those blocks to make plays, as he is very quick to attack the ball carrier in the hole.

Against the outside run, Vander Esch has the speed and burst to head off ball carriers along the corners. He is a smart player who stays in control, but also shows urgency in making the play. He has the range to make plays sideline to sideline. His change of direction skills lets him cover large portions of the field. He runs to the ball well and has the hand usage to slip off passive blocks. When he closes on the ball, he will usually take good angles. His speed is evident when he explodes and accelerates to close. He has that rare extra burst (do not look at his timed speed, he carries his pads well and plays much faster than you would expect) to get to the outside, maintaining balance and body control as he does an excellent job of avoiding trash and cut blocks.

Pass Defense...Vander Esch has safety-like ability when he drops off deep in the zone, due to his hip swerve. He takes no wasted steps in transition and is quick to turn coming out of his backpedal. He flips his hips properly and plays at a good pad level. He shows no stiffness in his turns and this allows him to drop off quickly. He gets very good depth in his pass drops and keeps his head on a swivel to locate the ball in flight, playing more like a safety than a middle linebacker in that aspect. He looks smooth in his drops and displays vision to see the routes developing in his zone (see 2017 Washington State, Brigham Young, Oregon games).

In man coverage, Vander Esch has the quickness of a safety. He can turn and run with most tight ends and running backs. He has more than enough redirection agility and flow to the ball quickness to cover tight ends and backs in the short area and always seems to be in position to make plays on the ball (see 2017 Washington State, BYU, Colorado State games).

Zone Defense...Think David Fulcher here. His ball awareness skills lets Vander Esch locate the ball quickly. He does a good job of picking up and switching off on receivers, keeping the play in front of him. He has an explosive break on the ball and keeps his hands properly extended to wrap and secure. His understanding of zone concepts and great ability to anticipate the ball in flight allows him to stay on the field for every down. He is so instinctive, you will rarely, if ever, see him frozen by the tight ends. He has that good burst of speed, along with great field vision to anticipate throws and it is rare to see him get locked on the quarterback, as he works more to maintain relationship with the receivers and challenge them for the ball in flight.

Pass Rush and Blitz...While he is an effective pass rusher and blitzer, Vander Esch also seems comfortable enough to stay back more and wait for the play to come to him. It is rare to see him get caught up vs. inside trash. If he does not get a strong push off the blocker, he can get bounced around when working inside. He gives good effort as a blitzer, but is more effective flowing to the ball than attacking from the back side (making him a nice fit at the middle position). In opportunities to rush the passer, he did show the speed to close and run down plays, but is better served finding the lanes and plugging those gaps. He plays with good leverage, so a shift to the strong outside slot in a 3-4 scheme at the next level could see him have better chances of closing on the passer.

Compares To...Brian Urlacher-ex Chicago Bears.

NCAA Football: Rose Bowl-Oklahoma vs Georgia
Roquan Smith
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Roquan Smith may be drafted first, but Vander Esch is better

Overview...Some questioned the judgment of the selectors when Smith was awarded the 2017 Butkus Award. Sure, the Bulldog led the team and Southeastern Conference in tackles with 137, the seventh-best figure in the NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision ranks last year, but there were some glaring holes within those statistics.

The junior was directly involved in 84 tackles on running plays in 2017. His opponents collected 275 yards (3.27 yards per attempt) with 14 first downs and three touchdowns charged to Smith. In pass coverage, he was targeted 46 times, allowing 30 receptions (.6522 pass completion percentage) for 169 yards (5.63 ypc) and two more scores.

Still, most teams expected the weak-side outside linebacker to be a Top 10 draft selection - as a middle linebacker.

The 2017 Season...Smith received first-team All-American honors from The NFL Draft Report, the Associated Press, Walter Camp, American Football Coaches Association, Football Writers Association of America and The Sporting News.

Body Structure...Smith has a compact, but thick frame with a good bubble, thick and muscular thighs and calves, a V-shaped torso, tight abdomen and waist and good muscle definition in the chest and arms. He lacks the ideal size you look for in a classic middle linebacker, but could play the weak-side in a 3-4 alignment. He compensates for size issues with good straight-ahead explosion and a low pad level that lets him take on and shed blockers to clog the rush lanes.

Athletic Ability...Smith has above average playing speed and change of direction agility. He shows an explosive straight-ahead burst and good plant-&-drive skills to come out of his breaks cleanly. He keeps his pads down and arms extended to take on and shed blocks in attempts to push the lead blocker back into the rush lanes. His knee bend allows him to recover and mirror tight ends covering in the short area and he uses his hands well to attack the outside leg of the ball carrier to impede the runner’s forward progress. His burst and acceleration moving forward will generally surprise a lethargic lineman, but he does not have the power to stack up bigger opponents. He plays with good body control, doing a nice job of keeping the activity in front of him and demonstrates excellent avoidance skills to generate good backside pressure. With his ability to stay low in his pads and slip blocks getting through trash, he is capable of making big plays from the weak-side inside position at the next level, but I do not see the strength needed to play the middle in a 4-3 base system. Still, he demonstrates good quickness closing on the ball, as he has the agility and balance to close in a hurry (see 2017 Notre Dame, Kentucky, Georgia Tech games).

Football Sense...Smith seems to always be around the ball. Quarterbacks can’t fool him with pump fakes or misdirection, but he needs to play tight ends and backs tighter in passing situations, as teams had good success throwing underneath vs. him (see 2017 Notre Dame, Missouri and Auburn regular season games). He can make a nice living with his ability to sniff out the activity in the backfield, but needs a free lane to execute, as he can be absorbed trying to power through trash. He is alert to blocking schemes and knows that it is best to avoid the bigger linemen rather than try to combat them in the trenches due to size and strength questions. He is aware of his surroundings and does a nice job of lining his teammates up. His peripheral vision is evident by the way he digests action on the field and moves with no hesitation to close. He is capable of handling the mental aspect of the game and will have no problems making all the calls at the professional level.

Athletic Report

Key and Diagnostic Skills...Whether dropping back to play in the shallow zone or stepping into the box to plug the gaps at the line of scrimmage, Smith’s keen instincts and field vision have him always in position to make the play. Still, his issues in pass coverage seem to be his penchant for allowing a big cushion, which leads to a lot of underneath tosses having success. He has a good feel for blocking schemes and makes sudden reads off the snap to keep the ball in sight. He reacts decisively to the run or pass and is quick to jump into the play. The thing you notice on film in 2017 is his improvement keeping his shoulders squared (used to turn them slightly) when tackling, doing a nice job of holding position at the point of attack.

Playing Strength and Explosion...Despite concerns about his overall strength (refused to lift at the Combine or during Georgia’s Pro Day, Smith has an efficient hand punch to defeat smaller, isolated blockers and the leg drive to push the fullback into the rush lanes. He plays low in his pads to defeat double teams and shows good hand placement and counter moves to shed. But, because of his size, bigger linemen can engulf him and wash him out of the play, if they manage to get their hands locked on to his jersey. He shows nice explosion on contact to make up for those size issues, though. He is a slippery tackler who stays square when reacting to block pressure. Even when he gets pinned by the lineman, he is very active with his hands to prevent the opponent from sealing him off. While some concerns about his size arise, he is improving his ability for shedding blocks and it was tougher for a blocker to knock him around as a junior, thanks to his improved hand usage and slippery moves.

Lateral Pursuit/Range...Smith has an explosive closing burst, but there are times when he is a step late when changing direction to give chase along the perimeter, especially in pass coverage. He plays low in his pads, but must work on his balance when trying to redirect. He can scrape and sift through trash well in attempts to close on the ball in front of him, but must keep leverage better in attempts to avoid traffic along the perimeter. He pursues hard and shows improved knee bend slipping through inside trash in 2007 and proved that he was able to collide and drag down the outside runner (see 2007 Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and first Virginia Tech game).

Use of Hands...This is an area that needs improvement, evident by just five pass deflections and no interceptions in 40 college games. Smith appears to have nice-sized hands (10-inches), but he struggles in attempts to pick off or deflect the ball. His excellent leaping ability and hand extension are not evident when he is asked to get to the ball at its high point, leaving him to marginal pass defense numbers. He keeps his hands active in attempts to keep blockers off him and has developed efficient counter moves to defeat blocks, but will get captured and stalled when he gets his hands outside the frame. He has the ability to look the ball in over his shoulders, but most of those attempts see the ball hit the ground rather than become an interception.

Tackling Ability...While Smith is a solid wrap-up tackler whose low center of gravity, he needs to improve his hand extension and leg drive to prevent ball carriers from slipping off his tackles. He is very good at attacking the runner’s outside leg to impede forward progress. He is a better tackler inside the box than along the perimeter (change of direction hesitation issues prevent him from making some of those plays, but he showed much better hip flexibility his junior year). He breaks down and fits well when tackling opponents in front of him. The thing you see on film is his ability to hit the ball carrier with a good thud. As a junior, he showed better control when playing in space than he did in the past (see 2017 Tennessee and both Auburn games).

Run Defense...Smith has the ability to stuff the lead blocker back into the rush lane. Even though he lacks ideal size, he works hard to stay stout vs. the inside running game, but has to use his hands effectively more to shed. His vision and awareness lets him be very quick to fill the tackle-to-tackle holes, getting a lot of success making plays in-line (29 of his tackles came on third-down snaps). Because of size issues, he is more apt to slip past the bigger blockers rather than engage them. He has the second gear to give chase, but when he hesitates too long to chase around the corners, he becomes a liability covering from sideline-to-sideline. He keeps his feet well getting through traffic, but needs to improve his decision making to make plays along the boundaries.

Pass Defense...Someone needs to teach Smith man coverage. Generally, Smith has the functional hip snap to come out of his backpedal cleanly. He gets good depth taking on slot receivers and tight ends in the short area, but has just average fluidity when having to change direction in an instant. Still, with his vision, he does a good job of keeping the action in front of him, but must shorten the cushion area (of the 30 catches he allowed last year, just two completions were for longer than 10 yards). Even with average change of direction skills (did great in the shuttles on Pro Day, so he has the athleticism, just not the production), his depth on his drops are the result of taking a good drop angle. He is quick transitioning from the draw read and gets good depth when handling play action, but has to play his man tighter and not concede so often on the short catches (has to play the ball more than the man).

Zone Defense...In the short area, Smith is capable of handling the switch-off or rerouting the receivers in front of him. He just lacks the second gear and change of direction fluidity to recover when beaten (has that split second hesitation). He has awareness to look up the receiver and shows a nice feel for the route developing, but you would like to see him press more than he prefers. When he keeps plays in front of him, he will strike the opponent with authority. He shows the shadow skills to stay on top of the ball as the route extends. On 46 pass plays he was involved in during 2007, the opposition was pressured by Smith into third-down incompletions seventeen times (see 2017 Notre Dame, Samford, Mississippi State, Tennessee, Vanderbilt games.

Pass Rush and Blitz...If given a clear lane, Smith can be efficient applying pressure (see 2017 Notre Dame,South Carolina and both Auburn games). He shows good determination in backside pursuit, along with enough speed to simply give long chases in the backfield. He is slippery on the blitz, doing a nice job of avoiding blocks and has decent pass rush moves. The thing you see on film is his ability to bring on the heat when he finds the rush lane. He might get hung up on some blocks due to his size, but if he doesn’t get to the quarterback, it is not because of a lack of effort. He is not the type who comes at the passer on a one-way track, as he shows good timing on the blitz and enters gaps with his shoulders properly squared.

Compares To...Deion Jones-Atlanta Falcons.