Vander Esch on Cowboys’ new LB rotation: ‘It’s going to be sweet on the field’

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It was just three years ago that Leighton Vander Esch was the rambunctious rookie, eager to take the league by storm as a linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys. A first-round draft pick, he lived up to the billing by earning a Pro Bowl nod in his debut pro season, stepping into a starting role after veteran Sean Lee went down with an injury.

Now at just 25 years old, Vander Esch is suddenly playing the role of the battle-worn mentor to Micah Parsons, the club’s new first-round linebacker phenom.

“It’s been fun having him in our room,” Vander Esch said of Parsons in an interview on the team website. “Just helping him along, knowing that Sean and Jaylon [Smith] helped me when I was a rookie, and being that guy there for him: if he has anything that he needs, knowing that I’m going to be there to help him.”

Vander Esch served as a sounding board early during Parsons’s preseason debut. When coaches pulled the Penn State product from the Hall of Fame Game after just a handful of plays, Parsons complained that he wanted more snaps.

A bemused Vander Esch preached patience to the rookie that night in Canton. He was still laughing when asked about it this week.

“I remember my rookie year; I didn’t get a lot of preseason action. Being that young guy, you’re confident that you want to go, want to go, want to go. All the credit to him,” Vander Esch snickered, “but he’s got to realize the coaches have a plan for him and to trust what they have in store for him and not get too far ahead of himself. You love the attitude, you love the go-getter; he’s not going to lose that.”

Parsons has been getting a lion’s share of work so far in training camp. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn seems ready to turn the youngster loose and stretch the traditional textbook definitions of what a linebacker’s job should be.

“I really think he’s got more on his plate than what I did. It was a plug-and-play for me when I was a rookie. We pretty much ran the same exact thing that I ran at Boise; that’s why they drafted me,” Vander Esch recalled. “I think with Micah’s skill set and how athletic he is and his speed, you can play him pretty much anywhere on the field. I think the coaches are utilizing that very, very well. I’m glad he’s on our team and not somebody else’s.”

Injuries have slowed down Vander Esch over the past two seasons. Smith’s production has dropped drastically since his breakout year. With the retirement of 11-year-veteran Lee, the linebacker position in Dallas went from a team strength to a glaring weakness.

Quinn and the Cowboys addressed that need by drafting Parsons twelfth overall. But they also brought in Keanu Neal, a former Falcons safety trapped in the body of a linebacker. Reunited in Dallas with Quinn, Neal is making an official position switch more in keeping with his size and talents.

“The kid’s crazy athletic,” Vander Esch said of Neal. “He obviously has that DB skill set, and he’s built like a fricking linebacker. The dude’s crazy-looking. You can see his arms, you can see the way he’s built that he can be a linebacker. And the things that he’s shown on the field, he can definitely do it.”

Parsons playing multiple linebacker roles. Neal bringing a ballhawk’s mentality to go with his massive size. Both figure to play predominantly in a Dallas linebacking corps- along with Vander Esch, Smith, talented rookie Jabril Cox, and others- that could have the heads of fans and opposing offenses on a swivel as they try to keep track of who’s playing where.

“We’ve got a crazy rotation going,” Vander Esch admitted. “But that’s what’s going to be sweet on the field, because we can play all the positions. It doesn’t matter who it is: we all have the potential to play any position it is that DQ wants us to play at linebacker whether it’s on the edge, off-the-ball, whatever, stack, doesn’t matter.”

The hope is that all that multitasking raises the level of play for a defense that was historically poor across the board last season. For Vander Esch, he has the added pressure of this being a contract year, after the Cowboys declined to re-sign him in the offseason. Vander Esch, though, shrugs off that notion.

“It’s always been ‘prove-it.’ You’ve got to go out there and prove yourself every day in the National Football League.”

For now, he’s proving he can still be the on-the-field force in his fourth season that he was in his first. But he’s also taking a more all-encompassing view, striving to provide crucial off-the-field leadership, too.

“My goals are just to be the best teammate I can be, to be able to communicate on a high level, lead this defense, be someone that the guys can lean on, come to with questions if they need, help the young guys get along the way that I was helped when I was a young guy.”

Said the 25-year-old.

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