Ranking the Cowboys’ last 10 first-round draft picks

The Dallas Cowboys have had some strong picks in Round 1
Dallas Cowboys, CeeDee Lamb
Dallas Cowboys, CeeDee Lamb / Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
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8. Leighton Vander Esch, LB (2018)

Another draft pick met with instant criticism came in 2018 when the Cowboys took Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch 19th overall. The Wolf Hunter wasn't criticized for his ability, since he was a three-down linebacker capable of making plays all over the field. Instead, the concern was a lingering neck injury.

Just two years after using the 34th pick on Jaylon Smith, who missed his entire rookie season due to a knee injury, Dallas again took a flier on an injured linebacker. At least with LVE though, their medical staff cleared him and he was on the field for every game as a rookie. He was also a huge difference-maker that year.

Vander Esch racked up 140 tackles, broke up seven passes, and recorded two interceptions. His great season happened when Smith finally broke out as well.

Unfortunately, their success was short-lived. Smith fell off a cliff once he was paid and Vander Esch started dealing with nagging injuries. He missed seven games in 2019 and six more in 2020 before finally bouncing back in 2021.

Still, the team declined his fifth-year option but re-signed him in 2022. Vander Esch had a resurgence that season with 90 tackles, leading to a two-year extension. Just five games into that extension, he was lost to an injury once again.

Vander Esch suffered another neck injury which forced him to retire at just 28 years of age. He leaves the game with 469 tackles, 3.5 sacks, and three picks. He was an underrated defender who always knew where he needed to be on the field. Had he stayed healthy, he would have climbed much higher but that gamble ended up costing the Cowboys in the end.