FRISCO, Texas — Leighton Vander Esch touts Barbacoa as the best steakhouse in Boise, Idaho. Maybe it is the signature “hot rock” filet with the flamed cognac sauce for $42 that he likes so much.
If Vander Esch, the Dallas Cowboys’ first-round draft pick, has the type of career he hopes, he can remember his dinner at Barbacoa with linebackers coach Ben Bloom on March 24 as the moment it all changed.
Bloom made the trip to Boise to get a hands-on feel for Vander Esch after seeing him excel on tape in 2017. In his final year at Boise State, Vander Esch was credited with 141 tackles, 9 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 4 forced fumbles and 3 interceptions. His workout at the scouting combine in February only added to the intrigue when the 6-foot-4, 256-pounder ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash and had a 39.5-inch vertical leap.
The Cowboys had targeted Vander Esch early in the draft process as a possible selection with the 19th pick overall.
The workout went a long way toward solidifying that evaluation, as did a pre-draft visit to The Star to meet the rest of the coaches as well as owner and general manager Jerry Jones.
“We ate a good dinner, had a good conversation, and the next morning he worked me out, put me through some linebacker drills,” Vander Esch said. “Obviously, at that time, we were building our relationship pretty early already.”
They kept in touch during the draft process, with Bloom quizzing him on different parts of the Cowboys’ defense.
“It wasn’t special treatment,” Bloom said. “Every player that we work with in the pre-draft process, you teach him a part of your defense, ask him to give the information back to you. So you teach him like you’re going to coach him as if he’s your own player and see how he can retain information, and you evaluate him based on that. He wasn’t the only one that got that. We just happened to draft him.”
Bloom admits he wanted the Cowboys to take Vander Esch, but his say in the draft room goes only so far. Vice president of player personnel Will McClay sets the board. Jerry and Stephen Jones are involved in the process. Head coach Jason Garrett and defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli had to get on board, too.
“Yeah, I wanted Leighton Vander Esch to be on the Cowboys, but that’s selfish, and it’s a position coach, so the bigger picture happens," Bloom said. "Is he the right value at the pick? And who else is there? It’s just kind of circumstantial, and happy the circumstances worked out that way.”
Bloom is in his eighth year with the Cowboys. He arrived as one of Rob Ryan’s Cleveland Browns guys in 2012. He worked with defensive linemen and linebackers and spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons as a special projects assistant.
In his first full year as a position coach, taking over for Matt Eberflus, who left to become the defensive coordinator of the Indianapolis Colts, he gets to work with the Cowboys’ first-round pick.
“You want to get good players, whether it’s free agency, the draft, so, yeah, it’s great to get good players and have more depth in your room and guys that can execute the defense,” Bloom said. “As a coach, I get it. I’ll be a better coach when I have better players that have pride and play the game right. Fortunate to have those guys in the linebacker room right now.”
At the recent rookie orientation, Vander Esch was first in all of the drills run by Bloom, soaking in the messages just the way he did during the workout.
“I feel like he’s just been teaching me ever since I met him,” Vander Esch said. “He’s been giving me stuff, things I can take here and there and apply them on the field. He was already installing defenses and doing all that before I was even drafted. It was awesome.”
Vander Esch believes the comfortability he has with Bloom should help ease the transition from college football to the NFL. Bloom said Vander Esch has the skills required to fill a major need in the Cowboys’ defense.
“We play in space, we play zone, we have to get depth as linebackers, take away the intermediate passing game, handle some vertical pass routes, and then at the same time, we have to get to the ball and go tackle a 3-yard checkdown before it becomes 10 yards,” Bloom said. “So you need guys who have speed to get back, instincts to read the offense, have length to fill up passing windows and have short-area movement to adjust to the ball in space. Any player that does those things, you want in this defense, and Leighton, it’s well-documented that’s some of his strengths, so it fit.”
As Bloom and Vander Esch continue to build that relationship with the Cowboys, they will find even more steakhouses where they can talk ball.
“I mean, Nick & Sam’s, Al Biernat’s, Bob’s, we have a long list here, Town Hearth,” Bloom said. “Our standards in Dallas are probably a little higher than Boise, but I’d still recommend [Barbacoa]. If you’re in Boise, go ahead.”