Leighton Vander Esch's 'crazy' rookie season finishes with Pro Bowl

FRISCO, Texas -- A year ago, Leighton Vander Esch was preparing for the NFL scouting combine, working out in Phoenix.

This week, he is in Orlando, Florida, getting ready to play in the Pro Bowl.

“It’s all happened really fast,” Vander Esch said by phone. “I’ve talked about it with certain people, just how crazy this last year has went, how fast it’s gone by. Everything that’s happened in the last year, it’s pretty neat.”

Vander Esch, the Cowboys’ first-round pick last spring, ended up leading the defense in tackles with 176, according to the coaches’ breakdown. The linebacker set a rookie record for most tackles in a season and in a game (19). He had three tackles for loss, five quarterback pressures, tied for the team lead in interceptions with two and had six pass deflections.

He also became one of the more popular players on the team, with his No. 55 becoming a must-have and a “howl” celebration as a nod to the nickname the Cowboys’ coaches gave him -- “the Wolf Hunter.”

Vander Esch did all of this despite starting in just 11 games.

He thought this season's playing days were over when the Cowboys lost to the Los Angeles Rams in the divisional round of the playoffs on Jan. 12.

Then he got a phone call from owner and general manager Jerry Jones. Actually two calls.

“I was actually looking at houses and I didn’t even have my phone on,” Vander Esch said. “I had it on ‘do not disturb,’ and I had a few missed calls. I got a text from [director of player development] Bryan Wansely, saying, ‘Hey, Jerry’s trying to get a hold of you.’ I called him right back.”

Jones told Vander Esch he had a great season, but that wasn’t the reason for the call. He was added to the Pro Bowl as an injury replacement for Luke Kuechly of the Carolina Panthers.

“He asked me how I liked hanging with the coaches and I told them I enjoyed being around them the whole season, and he said, ‘Good, you’re going to spend another week with them at the Pro Bowl,’” Vander Esch said.

Vander Esch was back in Idaho, enjoying some downtime. All of a sudden he had to get ready to go to Orlando and get his mind on football again.

“It’s been kind of a whirlwind,” Vander Esch said. “Now I’m here and this is pretty crazy, but I’m going to enjoy every single bit of it. Got one more game left to go, soak it in, have fun and just enjoy the experience.”

Not only are the Cowboys' coaches around Vander Esch, but so are teammates DE DeMarcus Lawrence, CB Byron Jones, RB Ezekiel Elliott, QB Dak Prescott and WR Amari Cooper. (Offensive linemen Tyron Smith and Zack Martin were selected to play but withdrew because of injuries).

Vander Esch is looking to pick the brain of other Pro Bowl players. Vander Esch grew up a fan of Seattle’s Bobby Wagner. He studied him from afar. He swapped jerseys with him during the season. Now, for a week, they will be teammates.

“These are guys I’ve been watching on TV forever,” Vander Esch said. “I’ll probably stay close to [Wagner] most of the week.”

Wagner will be playing in his fifth Pro Bowl in seven seasons. Vander Esch is the first Cowboys rookie defender to make the Pro Bowl since Everson Walls in 1981.

“That’s insane,” he said.

It also raises the level of expectations on Vander Esch, who teamed with Jaylon Smith to form one of the best young linebacker tandems in the league. He wants to be better in 2019.

“I think I just still need to clean up my reads,” Vander Esch said. “A couple of plays through the season, I kind of got hung up on certain things. That’s going to happen, but the more you can eliminate those, the better off you’re going to be. Eliminating those cloudy plays and your reads and getting your keys down every single snap.”