Even if Vander Esch didn’t get around to watching season one of Stranger Things, the Clash classic “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” has to be running on repeat in his mind. The Boise State senior-to-be has a pretty big decision to make regarding his playing future and it might be getting clearer by the day.
At the beginning of the year, I don’t think anyone had sky-high hopes for the Boise State linebacking corps. Joe Martarano had decided to pursue his baseball career, Tanner Vallejo, Ben Weaver, and Darren Lee had graduated and Blake Whitlock was lost to injury before fall camp had let out. On top of all that, Leighton Vander Esch had played sparingly as a sophomore with injuries of his own, and although he’d looked like a difference-maker when healthy, it was hard to measure what kind of impact he’d have. Certainly, he was nowhere to be found on Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year lists...and probably for good reason. Then the season started.
Right out of the gate, Vander Esch showed that he might be in for a big year...he racked up 23 tackles, 3 sacks, and a forced fumble in the first two games of the season and 8 times total throughout the 2017 campaign hit double figures for tackles. Most importantly, he came up biggest in the Broncos biggest games—16 tackles and 2 sacks against WSU, 11 tackles against SDSU, 16 tackles (and a game-sealing INT) in the MWC title game, and 12 tackles, a forced fumble and a sack against Oregon. He played through pain...he played through injury, and he gave every ounce of himself for the team. Is it fair to ask him to give more? I’m not sure—but if the circumstances are correct, I think he’ll do so without hesitation.
The real question for Vander Esch isn’t if he’ll get drafted—he will. The question is how high, and unfortunately this is an area where people can offer educated guesses at best. He’s certainly improved his draft stock as the season went on...Mountain West Player of the Year, Championship Defensive MVP, destroyer of worlds in the Vegas Bowl. Vander Esch is no longer a closely-guarded secret...he’s a bona fide superstar, coming off the best season a Bronco defender has had since the Skip Hall era. Moreover, he’s the best linebacker prospect Boise State has produced...ever. 6’4” 240 lbs. athletes that can cover sideline to sideline and jump out of the gym don’t grow on trees, and they certainly don’t walk-on division 1 football programs after playing 8-man football at a wide spot in the road along the Salmon River. Yet, here we are.
I haven’t seen Vander Esch’s name atop any draft boards thus far, and for good reason—he hasn’t declared for the draft yet, but is afforded the opportunity to receive a draft “grade” from the Draft Advisory Council. The draft grade is still just a guess, but if a first or second round grade were to be applied to Vander Esch, he would probably be foolish to return for a senior season. If a guy were to theoretically get a first round grade and “slip” to the second round, he’s still likely to sign a million dollar deal with a team. That’s slightly more than the scholarship, meal plan, and cost of attendance stipend he’d receive as a senior at Boise State. If Vander Esch is considered a “raw” prospect since he’s started just one year at Boise State and is given a 4th to 6th round grade, he could return for his senior season—wreck stuff again and become a likely top pick in the 2019 draft. Of course, that carries with it a bit of risk as well—say if a serious injury were to occur, making him persona non grata on draft boards. It’s a sticky affair altogether.
So where should Vander Esch land on draft projections? I may have been a homer and too bullish on previous Bronco linebacker prospects, but I truly believe Vander Esch could go in the first round this year. He’s just the complete package...there is nothing he doesn’t do well, and his measurables are exactly what scouts covet. I fully expect LVE to receive a sufficiently high draft grade to eschew his senior season as a Bronco, and I wouldn’t blame him one bit for taking the money. Think about it, if this was his final year in blue and orange...how better could you have scripted it? He was the DPOTY, won a title AND a bowl game...what more do you need to accomplish before moving to the next level? At one point in the season, I thought Vander Esch would make a great 2019 draft prospect, but reality slowly started to set in around late November. IF he returns, he would undoubtedly be a Bronco legend...but would he be a smart one? If he bolts, he would undoubtedly be a Bronco legend...just one that burned too bright too quickly to remain.
We’ll know for sure what Leighton’s intentions are in the coming days and weeks, but absolutely nothing can damage his place in Bronco history. His is the unlikeliest of stories, and one that already has a very happy ending.