As mentioned last week in this piece on the new Titans players and coaches, skill set multiplicity is key to the new Dean Pees defense. Linebackers (and defensive lineman) will be asked to do just about everything. They’ll need to be able to get after the quarterback like Wesley Woodyard demonstrated last season. They’ll also be asked to drop into coverage, demonstrate gap discipline inside and outside, and get sideline to sideline with speed. Given that diverse skill set requirement, Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch is a perfect fit for the Tennessee Titans.
Why the Tennessee Titans Should Consider Drafting Leighton Vander Esch
The Titans Need Linebackers
While the Titans definitely need outside pass rushers, they also need linebackers that can play off the ball. Avery Williamson, who played 60 percent of defensive snaps in 2017, departed via free agency. Woodyard has been an absolute stud, but he turns 32 in July. Jayon Brown is an undersized sub-package linebacker that brings speed, but he is unlikely to become an every-down guy. The Titans just signed Will Compton, formerly of the Washington Redskins. However, he’s only been a consistent starter during one season. The Titans are one or two seasons from having zero viable inside linebackers. The team is almost definitely taking an inside linebacker in the draft. It’s just a matter of what round it happens.
Vander Esch is a size and speed freak for an off-the-ball linebacker. At 6’4”, 256 pounds, he posted this ridiculous NFL Combine:
Wingspan: 81 inches (94th percentile)
Arm Length: 34 inches (94th percentile)
40-yard dash: 4.65 seconds (72nd percentile)
Vertical Jump: 39.5 inches (93rd percentile)
Broad Jump: 10 feet, 4 inches (89th percentile)
Three-cone: 6.88 seconds (85th percentile)
Short Shuttle: 4.15 seconds (82nd percentile)
*all percentiles via mockdraftable.com
For those unfamiliar with typical linebacker measurements, those numbers are insane. In fact, even if he tested as a wide receiver in this class, he would have crushed the positional average for vertical, broad, three-cone, and short shuttle. Essentially just imagine a more agile Travis Kelce that can also tackle, cover, and get after the passer. That’s what Vander Esch brings to the table.
And he isn’t just a good athlete in shorts. Those athletic traits showed up all over the field when the pads came on.
As mentioned earlier, Vander Esch offers a versatile skill set that should entice just about any NFL franchise. If you want evidence of this versatility, just look at his stats sheet. Leighton logged 91 solo tackles, 50 assists, 8.5 tackles for loss, four sacks, two interceptions, and five pass deflections. He does it all: run defense, coverage, and pass rushing.
Leighton attacks gaps and holds position against the run incredibly well thanks to his impressive size, athleticism, and instincts. It sometimes looks like he pushes too far upfield and loses the opportunity to make a play due to his aggressiveness. However, most of the time he portrays solid gap discipline and closes quickly to make tackles close to the line of scrimmage. Offenses definitely struggled to find any big-play success running in his direction.
However, the Titans don’t really struggle against the run like they do the pass. They’ll need Vander Esch to use his coverage and pass rush skills at times to improve that side of their defense. Most of the time when Leighton was asked to drop into coverage it was into a short zone. That’s where he showed real success. He reads the quarterback and shorter route patterns incredibly well (with a few exceptions against play action). That’s how he grabbed one of his interceptions this past season. He read both the incoming route and the quarterback’s eyes, adjusted, and made a fantastic play that showed both his athleticism and awareness. And while he didn’t attempt man coverage, he showed well in limited reps. Thanks to his size and speed he should match up well if asked to cover most tight ends and running backs (an area where the Titans struggled consistently).
Lastly, Vander Esch demonstrated some pass rushing ability in 2017 as well. He showed he could use his size and speed to rush the passer, grabbing four sacks this past season for Boise State. However, he will definitely need to work on his technique if the Titans want him to blitz often. He’s incredibly raw when it comes to pass rushing moves. Vander Esch only started at linebacker for one full season, so obviously more reps there will help.
Titans Scheme Fit
Vander Esch played in the creative Boise State defensive scheme that had him playing a mix of inside and outside linebacker almost exclusively off the line of scrimmage. He would frequently line up as one of two inside guys or the Will in more conventional 4-3 defensive looks. The Titans scheme has been more of a 3-4 for the past couple years, but under Pees it will probably look different down to down. Vander Esch could line up inside with Woodyard in both 3-4 looks and most sub packages. If the Titans decide to run more of a 3-3-5 (given their newfound depth at corner with Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan, and Adoree’ Jackson), Vander Esch could fit in any linebacker role there. Thanks to his aforementioned versatility, the Titans could match up against a wider variety of offensive personnel packages too.
If the Titans do want to draft Vander Esch, it will most definitely have to be in the first round. In fact, if some of the latest mock drafts hold true, they may need to even trade up slightly to get him. The upside of his athleticism, range, and motor is too enticing for him to drop out of the first round. However, his lack of significant experience may be just enough for him to drop to the Titans at pick 25. If he does, the Titans will have found their stud inside linebacker of the future. Either way, Vander Esch is just what the Titans are looking for at linebacker.