Leighton Vander Esch said he would be "speechless" if drafted by the Cowboys. It actually happened.
All of the waiting, all of the rumors, all of the mock drafts — it ends Thursday night.
The NFL's first round will be held at the Dallas Cowboys' home field, AT&T Stadium, and Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch's name likely will be called. He would become the fifth first-round pick in school history.
Vander Esch intrigues the NFL for plenty of reasons. His 6-foot-4, 255-pound frame is ideal, but so is the fact that he ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and was in the top five among linebackers in the vertical jump, broad jump, three-cone drill and 20-yard shuttle. His 2017 season was incredibly productive: 141 tackles (8.5 for loss), four sacks and three interceptions. Pro Football Focus ranked him No. 1 among all defenders last season with 47 run tackles on gains of 2 yards or less.
"The team that drafts him might want to have a plan for integrating him gradually while Vander Esch learns and grows, but he could be a Pro Bowl-level starter in a year or two," Pro Football Weekly's Eric Edholm wrote.
There are a few aspects that could hold the Salmon River high graduate back — including the fact he was a one-year starter, some criticism of his pass rush instincts and his ability to get off blocks. Some recent talk has centered on a 2016 neck injury being an issue, though his camp denies it's a concern.
"He wears that neck brace for a reason ... teams around the league right now are having the conversation about how bad or good is it, really," the NFL Network's Mike Mayock said on a recent teleconference.
So, where could Vander Esch wind up? Here are a few potential landing spots:
DALLAS COWBOYS (No. 19) —A lot of buzz has emerged around this idea, which would continue the Boise State pipeline there. Though many of their fans might prefer a big-name receiver, their linebacking crew has been injury-plagued. The NFL Network's Jane Slater said that Dallas views him as "Brian Urlacher 2.0."
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS (Nos. 23 and 31) —Two of NFL.com's four mock drafts have Vander Esch landing with the Patriots, so do SI's Peter King and ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. New England clearly needs to get more athletic on the defensive side of the ball, and he would certainly fit that bill.
"Vander Esch is the type of supreme athlete that Bill Belichick loves to coach up," Kiper wrote. "Put him inside, put him outside — just get him on the field."
TENNESSEE TITANS (No. 25) — The team lost starter Avery Williamson in free agency, and though the team appears to be in the market for a pass rusher, adding the versatile Vander Esch in the middle could be a value pick. Titans coach Mike Vrabel was cut from a similar cloth when he played 14 NFL seasons, so he may take a shine to the productive linebacker.
PITTSBURGH STEELERS (No. 28) — This seems like it would make too much sense. A gritty linebacker from a small town would be instantly embraced. Steelers inside linebackers coach Jerry Olsavsky worked out Vander Esch at the Broncos' pro day. After Ryan Shazier's potentially career-ending spinal injury last season, inside linebacker is a need. Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported Tuesday the team has no concerns about Vander Esch's neck.
PHILADELPHIA EAGLES (No. 32) — It is hard to imagine Vander Esch dropping this far, but the Eagles have a need there with some injury concerns and potential trade bait. Linebackers coach Ken Flajole ran drills at pro day with Olsavsky. The Super Bowl champions had Vander Esch in for a visit and would be ecstatic if he fell to them.
NFL DRAFT – WHERE TO WATCH
6 p.m. Thursday (first round): FOX, ESPN, ESPN2, NFL Network
5 p.m. Friday (second, third rounds): FOX, ESPN, ESPN2, NFL Network
10 a.m. Saturday (fourth-seventh rounds): ESPN, ESPN2, NFL Network