2018 NFL Draft: Dolphins need a linebacker like Leighton Vander Esch

Leighton Vander Esch played eight-man football in high school, but became a star at Boise State. (Getty Images)

In a league full of monstrous, game-changing tight ends, every team is on the lookout for a linebacker who can cover them. One of those prototypes sprung up from an unlikely source, and he’s worth keeping an eye on for the Dolphins in the upcoming NFL Draft.

Few would’ve envisioned Leighton Vander Esch becoming a pro when he was playing eight-on-eight high school football in the tiny Central Idaho town of Riggins, population 400. Those weren’t pickup games. That was sanctioned, state-organized football for schools that would have trouble fielding enough players to fill out the roster for anything bigger.

That comes off as a watered-down version of the real thing, but Vander Esch believes that’s what made him good, and he was impressive enough that Boise State recruited him as a preferred walk-on.

“You’ve gotta have a special talent to play eight-man football,” he said. “I think it definitely helps with the speed of the game and being able to open-field tackle. Those are important aspects of the game, and you’ve gotta be able to do everything. You gotta have dynamic players that can play everywhere.”

Nonetheless, Vander Esch was stunned when Broncos defensive coordinator Andy Avalos showed up at Salmon River High School his junior year to make sure he was coming to Boise State’s camp that summer.

Once he arrived on campus for his freshman year, it was clear Vander Esch was more than a walk-on. He was a contributor right away and developed into such a star that he was able to skip his senior year and go pro. He’s projected to be a second-round pick in the draft, which sets him up as an option for Miami at No. 42 overall.

He’s 6-foot-4, 256 pounds with a 4.65 time in the 40-yard dash and performed very well at last month’s NFL Combine. Vander Esch ranked in the top five among linebackers in vertical leap (39.5 inches), broad jump (124 inches), three-cone drill (6.88 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.15 seconds).

The Dolphins met with him in Indianapolis, and one thing Vander Esch conveyed is that he’s eager to take on the challenge of covering Rob Gronkowski, Travis Kelce and the rest of the league’s most threatening tight ends. He’s put on 16 pounds since the end of the season to get ready for it.

“You’ve gotta look forward to competing against guys like that,” he said. “It’s a good opportunity to play against guys like that that are well known and super athletic and they’ve got good size. If you can run up against guys like that throughout the season, it’s gonna turn you into a different player, a better player.

“I was always comfortable in man coverage… I take tremendous pride in going into one-on-one matchups against the back or the tight end. That doesn’t scare me one bit. I look forward to it. I want to be put in that position.”

The Dolphins are absolutely in the market for a linebacker with that mentality in this year’s draft after leaving the position unaddressed in free agency.

They are counting on Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan as two starters, and this will be McMillan’s rookie year after missing all of last season because of a torn ACL in August. They also have Stephone Anthony, who is trying to live up to being a first-round pick in the 2015 draft, along with Mike Hull and Chase Allen from last year.

Vander Esch played inside and outside linebacker at Boise State, which would obviously help his case with Miami. During his junior season, he registered 141 tackles, four sacks, two interceptions and four forced fumbles.

As enthusiastic as he is about going pro, the only one more excited is probably his father. Darwin Vander Esch was so hyped about his son making it big at Boise State that he had a bus outfitted in blue and orange with the kid’s face on it so people from Riggins could make the three-hour trek to Boise. It has a stove and a couch inside.

That bus goes with Vander Esch regardless of where he ends up in the draft, meaning it could make the 3,000-mile drive to Hard Rock Stadium this season.

“Honestly, I thought my dad was crazy for doing it at first, but it turned out cool,” Vander Esch said. “The support system in Riggins is second to none. The people there absolutely love them. They support me through everything, through thick and thin. I’ve gotta give it to them, because without them, it would be hard to do what I’m doing.”

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