It was only five years ago that Leighton Vander Esch had a heck of a time trying to get anyone to notice him. He was a small-school standout with big dreams.
On Tuesday, he was the star of the show at Boise State’s pro day, with representatives from 25 NFL teams on hand to see the former walk-on from Riggins.
Linebacker coaches from the Eagles and Steelers ran drills for Vander Esch, and both teams could use a player like him at the tail end of the first round of the NFL Draft on April 26.
“It’s neat knowing all the hard work is paying off, but there’s still a bunch of work left to do,” Vander Esch said. “It’s not over until it’s over, and it’s never over.”
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That was the key takeaway from Vander Esch, who did only positional drills after putting up strong numbers at the NFL Scouting Combine at the end of February. He has a string of 11 straight visits with teams starting Wednesday, but declined to name the teams.
NFL Network reported that he will fly to Dallas first, and has meetings lined up with 11 of the 14 teams drafting between Nos. 12 and 26. The Steelers, who brought their own camera crew, draft 28th, and the Eagles are 32nd.
“You’re in the air a majority of the time, rather than on the ground,” Vander Esch said of his weeks ahead, adding “everybody thinks the job is after over this, but it’s just the beginning.
“I’m ready for the month to be over, because I want to know where I’m going.”
Last season’s Mountain West defensive player of the year, Vander Esch has climbed steadily up mock drafts, and his combine showing cemented the hype. He joked that doing well in Indianapolis meant that “it was nice knowing I didn’t have to worry about those drills anymore, probably for the rest of my life” – referring to high jumps, 40-yard dashes and bench presses, among other things.
Vander Esch had 141 tackles (8.5 for loss), three interceptions, four sacks and four forced fumbles as a junior in 2017, declaring for the NFL Draft five days after the Las Vegas Bowl. His athleticism, agility and ability to cover, in addition to a dominant year against the run, have scouts excited about his potential. And he thinks he’s worthy of being the Broncos’ fifth-ever first-round pick.
“Absolutely. I feel very confident in that,” Vander Esch said. “I’m just trying to be the best linebacker in the nation, that’s my biggest goal, and I want to be the best linebacker in the NFL one day, too.”
‘DREAM IS COMING TRUE’ FOR WILSON
Like Vander Esch, wide receiver Cedrick Wilson opted not to do the standard testing, including the 40-yard dash, bench press and jumps, after having a solid showing at the combine. Both are considered the team’s most likely draft picks.
Wilson ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash at the combine and said that was in line with what he had hoped. He checked in at 6-foot-2, 195 pounds Tuesday.
“I’ve been talking to a lot of teams, a couple teams definitely like me on special teams, other teams are definitely interested in me being a starter right away, having a chance to compete for a job,” Wilson said.
Thus far, Wilson has visited the Saints (coincidentally the same day last month as Vander Esch), but said he has a few more lined up. He is a likely final-day pick (rounds 4-7). Former Boise State assistant Robert Prince, now a receivers coach for the Lions, spent some extra time working out Wilson following drills.
“It’s kind of crazy, meeting some of the head coaches, you only see them on TV or playing Madden, and you get to meet them face to face,” Wilson said. “… The dream is coming true.”
ROH TRIES TO SHOW HIS VERSATILITY
Tight end Jake Roh had a team-high nine touchdown receptions last season and added two more scores on seven carries as a fullback. He showed he could do even more Tuesday, working as a long-snapper in addition to his tight end drills.
“In the last couple months, I’ve been working on it … another thing in the toolbox to showcase,” Roh said. “I think I showed a little potential, but it wasn’t perfect.”
Roh said a foot injury that sidelined him for the final three games last season healed a few weeks ago, and he is now 100 percent. He recently had a local workout with the Cardinals in his home state.
TWO PRO DAYS FOR COZART
Montell Cozart threw at Kansas’ pro day on March 27 and did so again Tuesday at Boise State. The athletic passer was pivotal in his lone season with the Broncos as a graduate transfer. He didn’t do the on-field testing in Lawrence but went through it in Boise, posting a 34-inch vertical leap, a personal-best 120-inch broad jump and a 4.62-second 40.
Cozart said he expected to run some drills as a receiver but was not asked to do so. He is willing to accept a position change, saying that among the teams he’s spoken with, the Cowboys and Panthers have expressed interest in him as a receiver.
“I’ve been hearing from about 10 (NFL) teams and a couple (CFL) teams,” Cozart said. “… I’m just grateful for whatever opportunity comes. When it comes, I’ll look ahead and not look back.”
Dave Southorn: 208-377-6420, @davesouthorn
Boise State Pro Day
40-yard dash: Brock Barr 4.78 seconds, Montell Cozart 4.62, Alec Dhaenens 4.78, Mason Hampton 5.46, Gabe Perez 4.75, Jake Roh 4.91, Leighton Vander Esch 4.65, Cedrick Wilson 4.55
60-yard shuttle: Barr 12.09 seconds, Cozart 11.33, Dhaenens 12.66, Perez 12.2, Roh 12.07, Vander Esch 11.57, Wilson 11.48, Wolpin 11.52
20-yard shuttle: Barr 4.35 seconds, Cozart 4.27, Dhaenens 4.37, Hampton 4.64, Perez 4.58, Roh 4.59, Vander Esch 4.15, Wilson 4.23, Wolpin 4.24
3-cone drill: Cozart 6.79 seconds, Dhaenens 7.27, Hampton 7.7, Perez 7.19, Roh 7.32, Vander Esch 6.88, Wilson 6.89, Wolpin 6.88
Vertical jump: Barr 31.5 inches, Cozart 34, Dhaenens 29.5, Hampton 25, Perez 31, Roh 32.5, Vander Esch 39.5, Wilson 37, Wolpin 33
Broad jump: Barr 122 inches, Cozart 120, Dhaenens 111, Hampton 99, Perez 111, Roh 109, Vander Esch 124, Wilson 121, Wolpin 115
Bench press: Barr 23 reps, Hampton 24, Roh 13, Vander Esch 20, Wilson 9, Wolpin 19
*Vander Esch and Wilson’s marks are from the NFL Scouting Combine