With inside linebacker Ryan Shazier already ruled out for the entire 2018 season due to a spinal cord injury, the Pittsburgh Steelers are hard up for help at that position. The Steelers signed Jon Bostic in free agency, but there’s been plenty of speculation that the Steelers might address inside linebacker in the first round of the 2018 NFL draft — speculation that general manager Kevin Colbert downplayed while poo-pooing this year’s class to reporters at February’s scouting combine.
“Outside linebacker types are good. Inside, not so much. There’s a few impactful guys, but then there’s a lot of numbers,” Colbert said, per Bryan DeArdo of 247 Sports. “Inside guys usually have one (main) ability … maybe they can cover, maybe they can play the run. Maybe they’re special teams guys. There’s a nice group of those.”
Of course, general managers have been known to blow smoke at this time of year, and one young prospect that’s been connected to Pittsburgh quite a bit in the pre-draft process is Boise State’s Leighton Vander Esch.
ESPN’s Mel Kiper was among those who connected the dots between the Steel City and the 6-foot-4, 256-pound Vander Esch, who had an eye-popping 141 total tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and three interceptions for Boise State in 2017.
“Vander Esch is a name I continue to hear for the end of the first round,” Kiper wrote. “At 6-4, 240, he has the versatility to play outside linebacker, but I think his best fit is as an inside ‘backer in a 3-4. He’s a physical run-stopper who can defend tight ends and running backs – he had three interceptions in 2017. Inside linebacker is an obvious need for the Steelers, who will have to replace Ryan Shazier.”
Vander Esch, who has met with the Steelers, told Joe Rutter of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that playing for the Steelers would be a dream come true.
“It was a great time meeting the coaches and the organization. It was an absolute blast,” Vander Esch said. “It would mean everything to play for an organization like the Steelers and the reputation the defense has,” Vander Esch said. “It would be pretty special. It would be awesome.”
Per Rutter’s colleague Gerry Dulac, NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock thinks Vander Esch would be an excellent fit with the black and gold.
“If you put his tape on against Oregon, it’s as good an off-the-ball tape I’ve seen in years,” Mayock said. “He goes sideline to sideline and is great in the pass game. He splits over and under blocks. He has a skill set — I don’t use this word often — that’s unique.”
The Hogs Haven blog at SB Nation, on the other hand, thinks Vander Esch’s athleticism could be an asset no matter where he plays.
“Vander Esch has scouts buzzing about his skills on the field which include good athleticism, sure tackling, great instincts, tenacity and motor, as well as impressive measurables and size,” they wrote. “Vander Esch excels at patrolling the (line of scrimmage) and limiting opponents run production and impact. Scouts likely see all the physical skills at the position they covet as well as key intangibles like instincts, leadership, and vision and some versatility. Vander Esch is projected to either continue his duties as a weakside outside linebacker or move inside.”
However, as Eric Edholm pointed out at Pro Football Weekly, for all his athletic gifts Vander Esch, as a one-year starter, could use some seasoning — even if Edholm believes he’s a good fit on a bucket full of NFL teams.
“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,” Edholm said. “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.”
Lance Zierlein of NFL.com echoed those sentiments — that Vander Esch is a talented but raw young linebacker.
“Vander Esch is a loose-hipped, instinctive linebacker who played in 2017 like he had a GPS tracker on the football,” Zierlein said. “His production totals against both the run and pass are rare for being a first-year starter and with a frame that is primed for more muscle, his NFL ceiling is high. Vander Esch might benefit from a reduced role his rookie season while he improves his play strength and becomes more skilled at taking on blocks. He’s an every-down linebacker with very good starting potential and the talent to fill up a stat sheet.”
From an Individual Defensive Player (IDP) perspective, Vander Esch’s dynasty future would appear to be bright. He’s an athletic and prolific player with a nose for the football that appears to have the skill-set for an every-down role on the inside.
The $64,000 question is whether that role will be coming sooner or later. If it’s the former (say in Pittsburgh), then IDP owners could be looking at an upside LB4 for the 2018 season and a second-tier fantasy asset at the position in dynasty rookie drafts.
However, if Vander Esch lands with a team where it appears they can indeed ease him in his value for this season will take a hit — even if he has the potential to be a mid-season priority waiver add or taxi squad call-up.