Leighton Vander Esch took a fairly sizeable entourage with him to Dallas this week for the NFL draft.
The Boise State linebacker, who may or may not still be on the board at No. 32 when the Eagles may or may not pick, brought 13 people: his parents Darwin and Sandy, his four siblings, his girlfriend and her mom and dad, his high school coach and his wife and son, and last – but certainly not least – his defensive coordinator at Boise, Andy Avalos.
Considering that Vander Esch’s hometown of Riggins, Idaho, only has 419 people, it’s going to be even quieter than usual there this week. Well, except for the hooting and hollering that’s going to take place when Darwin and Sandy’s boy finds out what NFL team he’ll be playing for.
“Whoever drafts me is going to get somebody who is always going to work hard,” the 6-4, 256-pound Vander Esch promised.
That’s a given with Vander Esch, who is considered one of the top four linebackers in the draft along with Virginia Tech’s Tremaine Edmunds, Georgia’s Roquan Smith and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans.
The Eagles re-signed Nigel Bradham and signed two free agent linebackers – Corey Nelson and Paul Worrilow. But questions about middle linebacker Jordan Hicks’ ability to stay healthy and the Eagles’ apparent desire to trade Mychal Kendricks and his $7.6 million cap number would make Vander Esch a feasible – and appealing – pickup if he’s still on the board at 32.
Vander Esch is a Superman-esque character in Riggins, where he led Salmon River High School (which has a total enrollment of less than 75 students) to state championships in basketball and eight-man football.
Then he walked on at Boise and was the Mountain West Conference’s defensive player of the year last year, registering 141 tackles, four sacks, three interceptions and four forced fumbles.
Then he packed on 16 pounds of muscle in the 10 weeks between his MVP performance in Boise’s Vegas Bowl win over Oregon in mid-December and the NFL scouting combine in early March. Then he ran a 4.65 forty and jumped 39 ½ inches.
“My playing weight last year was around 240,” Vander Esch said. “But I wanted to put on some weight. All the guys are bigger, faster, stronger in the NFL. I have to keep up.’’
Vander Esch suffered a neck injury in 2016 and that’s been a cause for concern with some NFL teams, who have either dropped him down their board or taken him off altogether. Other teams have reservations about the fact that he was just a one-year starter at Boise.
The Eagles met with Vander Esch at the combine and also brought him in as one of their 30 allotted pre-draft visitors, probably in large part so the medical staff could do their own check on his neck and spine.
“People are split on him,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “Some teams think he’s a middle-of-the-first-round player. Others think he’s a second- or third-round guy. I don’t understand that, to be honest with you. I think he’s going to be a really good linebacker.
“His tape from their bowl game against Oregon is outstanding. He’s the best zone-drop linebacker in this draft. He’s got a nose for crossing routes. He’s got a feel for the passing game. He sees things before they happen. He has tremendous lateral speed and diagnostic ability in the run game. For a big guy, I wish he’d take on big bodies a little more physically. But he’s a finesse linebacker at 255.”
There aren’t a lot of eight-man football alums in the NFL. But Vander Esch said it actually helped him.
“You have to be a well-rounded player” to play eight-man football, he said. “You’re playing both sides of the ball. The speed of the game is faster. You have to be able to tackle in the open field. It helped make me the player I am.”
Vander Esch played a lot his first two years at Boise, but it was mainly in sub-packages. He didn’t become a full-time starter until last season.
Riggins is 153 miles north of Boise. Before his son’s sophomore year, Darwin bought a used Disneyland bus, customized the inside and used it to transport about 30 friends, family and neighbors to home games and selected road games to cheer on Leighton. They were there in Las Vegas for Leighton’s MVP-worthy performance in his final collegiate game.
“I thought he was crazy for doing it at first,” Vander Esch said. “But it turned out cool. He took out some of the seats in the back and put a couch in there. Put in a stove and TVs.
“Made it a comfortable environment for people to make the long ride to our games and have fun. The people in Riggins are absolutely the best. They’ve supported me through everything. It makes it that much more special when you can get extra people from town to make it to the game on the bus.”
Unless Vander Esch gets drafted by Seattle (a seven-hour drive), San Francisco (12 hours) or the Raiders (12 hours to their future home in Las Vegas), the bus has probably made its last football journey.
Vander Esch is confident that, despite his small-town roots, he will have no trouble making the adjustment to NFL big-city living.
“I made the transition from Riggins to Boise just fine,’’ he said. “It didn’t change me at all. I don’t think it will be a difficult adjustment.
“I was on a travel basketball team my last two years in high school. We played in Seattle and Las Vegas and L.A. I’ve been around. My dad owned a hunting business and he used to go to sports shows around the country, and I would go with him a lot. So I’m used to the city life.’’