The Green Bay Packers are heading into the draft in unfamiliar territory. They haven’t picked in the top half of the draft since 2009 and have the rare opportunity to add players at positions of need that can contribute from day one. One great example of this that will almost assuredly be on the board at 14 is Linebacker Leighton Vander Esch out of Boise State. Vander Esch was a solid player for two years before breaking out to be ranked among the best linebackers in the country in his third season. He was the number one linebacker in run stops and percentage, along with an above average grade in coverage. Today, we’re going to look at what Vander Esch could bring to the team if the Packers select him with their first-round pick.
Three Down Ability
The Packers are transitioning to a base 4-3 front under new Defensive Coordinator Mike Pettine. While the team has Blake Martinez locked in as the starting middle linebacker, they could use a player like Vander Esch to play alongside him, particularly in coverage. Martinez was a top 10 linebacker in run defense but struggled mightily in coverage, which is where Vander Esch would come in. He had a coverage grade of 86.2 while being near the top of the class in passer rating allowed. He doesn’t quite have the same level of coverage ability as a Shaq Griffin or Skai Moore, but he makes himself a three-down player with the level he does have and the player he will develop into.
One of the more underrated aspects of a successful middle linebacker is their ability to rush the passer. Neither Martinez nor Ryan was particularly adept at causing pressure up the middle, but Vander Esch was well above average in terms of his pass rushing grade. Although his productivity was not the highest, he shows the instincts to develop into a solid up the middle pass rusher. The double A-Gap blitz was a staple of successful defenses for a long time, but something the Pack have not had the personnel to pull off. Bringing Vander Esch in would allow Martinez to take on less skilled blockers and get more pressure on the opposing quarterbacks. It’s been said many times that you can never have too many pass rushers.
Last season, the Packers had three middle linebackers on the roster in Martinez, Ryan and Joe Thomas, now with the Cowboys. Currently, the team only has Martinez and Ryan under contract for 2018 and Vander Esch would be a great addition for this season and the future. The team will likely add a linebacker later in the draft or as a UDFA, but a strong day one contributor like Leighton would be a great addition. The linebacker position is one that experiences a lot of grind over the course of the season, so trotting out just two players all game will lead to eventual injuries the team could not handle.
Lots of players have been mocked to the Packers at the 14th pick, such as Edge Rushers Marcus Davenport, Harold Landry and Cornerback Denzel Ward. However, the team could very easily go after Vander Esch if he’s still on the board and have him start from day one alongside Martinez. He fills a position of need and at a high level, while some of those others might not be regular contributors.
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