NFL

Leighton Vander Esch, worse than Jaylon Smith

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Dallas Cowboys fans love to trash talk about Jaylon Smith. Maybe it’s the big contract extension. Maybe it’s “the swipe”. It could be his head-scratching reads. Or the yards he gives up before making plays. Whatever the reason, and however warranted it may be, the fan hate is real.

But Dallas Cowboys fans aren’t nearly as eager to criticize Leighton Vander Esch. And when someone dares slander the man known as “wolf hunter” many are quick to offer excuses.

For the second straight season, Leighton Vander Esch has been definitively worse than Jaylon Smith. The film and the pure numbers back it up. Despite that, the former first round pick often seems to get a pass from Cowboys Nation.

In 2020, LVE posted career worsts in missed tackle percentage (16.7%), completion percentage when targeted (86.4%), and snaps played (44%). While Jaylon had a missed tackle percentage of just 5.9%, a completion % when targeted of 70.7%, and he played a staggering 98% of Dallas’ snaps on defense (all career bests for Jaylon).

An honest look at the Dallas Cowboys linebacker situation tells us Leighton Vander Esch has been bad

That’s not to say Jaylon Smith is undeserving of his criticism. Jaylon Smith gave up some embarrassing plays last season and as a highly paid cornerstone of the team, he deserves raised expectations and an extra portion of accountability.

But Leighton deserves just as much criticism for his play than Jaylon does. After all, Vander Esch is a first round pick who consistently grades in the bottom half of the NFL.

After his stellar rookie season where he ranked 5th in the NFL, Vander Esch has been ranked 51st and 58th  by Pro Football Focus over the past two seasons. Keep in mind, his player grades are based on his actual play on the field and have nothing to do with his availability or injury situation.

Why are we harder on Jaylon than LVE?

The injury excuse for LVE is largely invalid for a couple reasons:

  1. LVE missed so much time, Jaylon Smith was forced to carry an unhealthy workload. So really he should be afforded the same, if not more, allowances for his play.
  2. Even when LVE plays, he’s terrible. This isn’t a Sean Lee throwback situation. Many are incorrectly citing Sean Lee’s lack of availability as a comp to LVE’s situation. But they forget Lee was a brilliant player in between his injuries. LVE simply has not been .

He’s been injured a lot, and has played less than 50% of the defense’s snaps in two of his three NFL seasons. But even when he’s on the field and playing, he’s been a liability.

Contrary to most opinions, I actually don’t think Vander Esch is injury prone. I think he fell on the wrong side of luck the past two seasons and we shouldn’t sign him off just because he’s missed roughly half of the last two seasons. It’s his play we should be judging.

LVE’s rookie season was phenomenal but his next two were honestly abysmal. Which is the anomaly, 2018 or 2019 and ’20? It looks like that rookie season is the outlier here. Especially when you consider how short his college resume was and how he was drafted more for potential than for proven game play.

What do I hope to accomplish by making this fervor-inducing “hot take?” Accountability, I suppose. LVE deserves just as much criticism, if not more, as Jaylon because he was basically half the player as Jaylon (and Jaylon wasn’t exactly good either).

This also serves to illustrate how reckless it is to draft linebackers early in the draft because they often fail to live up to expectations and the LB position is one of the most easily replaceable ones on the field.

This isn’t to say LVE needs to be cut this offseason or that a bounce back season is hopeless for the once highly-regarded linebacking duo. It’s just to show how both LVE and Jaylon are in the same boat and likely playing for their jobs in 2021.

Many fans don’t want to hear it but Leighton Vander Esch was far and away a worse linebacker than Jaylon Smith, and as such, he deserves a hefty portion of criticism

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