Detroit Lions Draft Profile: Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 16: Quarterback Brett Rypien
LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 16: Quarterback Brett Rypien /

As the draft draws nearer, we’ll be previewing a few more potential draftees for the Detroit Lions. This week, we look at linebacker Leighton Vander Esch.

As a Detroit Lions fan myself, I never thought I would miss Stephen Tulloch. In Detroit, he emerged as the leader in the linebacker corps and helped lead the team to a 2014 playoff appearance before rapidly regressing due to age and injury.

But despite his regression, the Lions linebacker unit really hasn’t been the same since his departure, proving to be inconsistent and mediocre in the past few seasons.

And this core might be even worse this season. The Lions lost Tahir Whitehead, who was arguably their best linebacker last year, to free agency as he signed with the Oakland Raiders.

Linebacker Jarrad Davis had an up-and-down rookie season, showing flashes of potential but lacked the consistent ability to not miss tackles and drop back in pass coverage.

Davis and the rest of the Detroit defense could use a long, athletic linebacker to play alongside Davis, not only to replace Whitehead, but also complement Davis and improve the front seven as a whole. That’s where the subject of this article comes into play.

Leighton Vander Esch has some unique measurables. At 6-foot-4 with almost 34″ arms, he can cover a lot of ground and can use his long arms to hold on and wrap speedy ball carriers.

Vander Esch had a pretty impressive combine, running a 4.65 40 yard dash, recording a 124 inch board jump and a 6.88 second 3-cone drill. He also had a respectable 20 reps on the bench press with his long arms.

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Based in his combine results, rates him as a player who can start right away, which is ideal when selecting a linebacker on Day 1 of the draft.

Potentially the best part of Vander Esch’s game is that he is definitely playing his best football at this very moment. He was the best defender in the Mountain West Conference last season, winning many awards in the conference.

These include being named the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year, winning the Mountain West Conference championship game MVP, and being selected 1st-team all conference 

He has the statistics prove he deserves these accolades, posting an impressive 141 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and four forced fumbles in his final season with the Broncos.

As simple as it sounds, the joy of Vander Esch is just how athletic he actually is. He truly is a freak, being ranked as the 6th most athletic player in this class, posting a 9.97 Relative Athletic Score, which was higher than former Super Bowl MVP Von Miller scored in his draft.

Detroit has shown a clear interest in drafting him, as he visited the Lions this past week. For his new hybrid defense, Matt Patricia is going to need elite athletes who are the embodiment of versatility, which is exactly what Vander Esch is.

Vander Esch has proven that he can use his size to excel as an NFL Will Linebacker, using his size in the running game while also being able to drop into pass coverage.

Vander Esch is projecting in different places all throughout the first round. Popular mock drafts have him going as high as to Chicago at pick #9, but a lot of mocks also having him falling into the late first to a team like the Buffalo Bills or the New England Patriots.

Back in his time with New England, Bob Quinn and co. were known throughout the league for trading back in the draft. If Quinn is interested in trading out of the #20 slot, Vander Esch is the kind of prospect that will probably still be on the board for the Lions.

Buffalo is going to need to draft a quarterback after getting rid of Tyrod Taylor this offseason, and Detroit should be opening to swapping picks with them if they panic and feel the need to trade up to draft a quarterback like Baker Mayfield.

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If a player as good as Vander Esch will be available in the late first round, the Lions should be open to any team that’s want to trade down and offer them additional draft picks. Leighton Vander Esch could very well be a household name in this league five years now, why not have it be in Detroit?