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Leighton Vander Esch said it almost felt weird to have the ball in his hands again on the first NFL interception for the Dallas Cowboys linebacker.The rookie from Boise State who used to play every down ??offense and defense ??for his eight-man high school team never said anything about it feeling strange to diagnose a screen pass before it was in the air Xavier Woods Jersey Stitched , slip past a pair of blockers and make a critical open-field tackle for loss.That defensive play of the game in a season-saving win at Philadelphia was a signature moment weeks in the making, through preparation and focus that Vander Esch said should be expected of any team's first-round draft pick. At least that's how he sees it."I've never really thought that I've been caught off-guard with anything," said Vander Esch, taken 19th overall last spring . "I'm confident in my abilities and my athleticism, in my preparation. It's going to put me in position to make plays on the field on game day."Vander Esch established a Cowboys rookie record with 19 tackles against the Eagles, according to the coaches' count. He's the first rookie Dallas linebacker with an interception since injured teammate and mentor Sean Lee had two in the same game eight years ago.Barring a surge from Jaylon Smith, who figures to be his linebacking partner for years to come in Dallas, Vander Esch could become the first rookie to lead the Cowboys (4-5) in tackles since coaches starting tracking the stat in 1977.Vander Esch has 96 through nine games going into Sunday's trip to Atlanta (4-5), and Smith is second with 82."He's going to be around here a long time," Smith said. "He's developing into a great player. He's the best tackler on the team. I joke to him all the time. He's finding ways to learn from his 96-inch arms."Smith, a first-round talent relegated to the second round in 2016 because of a knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame, watched as a rookie while recovering from the injury, so his second season was really his first.Because of injuries to Anthony Hitchens and Lee Youth Joe Looney Jersey , Smith had to play more than expected and struggled at times. More hamstring issues for Lee have forced the 6-foot-4 Vander Esch into essentially a full-time role ??he and Smith played all 62 defensive snaps against the Eagles.Vander Esch hasn't struggled nearly as much, perhaps in part because he's had Smith out there with him. And he's had Lee in his ear on the sidelines ??and in the meeting rooms all week. The Cowboys have raved about Lee's preparation for years."He's lucky to have a guy like Sean Lee in that room with him," coach Jason Garrett said. "To see that example really each and every day in your room, up close, seeing how a guy like that does it, how he approaches it, I think that's been really good for him."Apparently so."I wouldn't have been able to do it without him," Vander Esch said. "He's right there to give us tips and to be on us right as we come on the sideline after being on the field. I love the guy. I feel like I've known him for my whole life."Lee has already missed four games with separate hamstring injuries and likely won't be back until the final month because of the second one. Injuries have defined his career, and several times brought the Dallas defense down with them.Smith's improvement in his first year without a foot brace that he needed because of nerve damage from the knee injury is part of the reason the Cowboys, ranked seventh in the NFL in total defense, are in their best shape in several years to survive without Lee.The rapid rise of the Vander Esch is the other reason, and perhaps isn't that surprising considering he went from tiny Riggins, Idaho Joe Looney Jersey Stitched , to a Boise State walk-on who developed fast enough through a redshirt year and three seasons to enter the draft early."For a guy as big as he is, the things that we saw from him on tape in college that led him to be really intriguing prospect, it is showing up," passing game coordinator Kris Richard said. "And it's translating into this league."Vander Esch has a signature play to show for it. With the Earl Thomas question settled, the Cowboys should turn to the draft, it was the right way all the time anyway."WhiteFanposts Fanshots Sections Dallas Cowboys NewsDallas Cowboys 2019 Free AgencyDallas Cowboys 2019 DraftWith no Earl Thomas, the Cowboys should draft a safety and allow Xavier Woods to shineNew,180commentsWith the Earl Thomas question settled, the Cowboys should turn to the draft, it was the right way all the time anyway.CDTShareTweetShareShareWith no Earl Thomas, the Cowboys should draft a safety and allow Xavier Woods to shineRon Chenoy-USA TODAY SportsIn case you missed it, free agency is in full swing. All around the league, players are agreeing to deals that pay out huge sums of money. Nick Foles got $88 million over four years in Jacksonville Youth Jaylon Smith Jersey , Landon Collins got $84 million over six years in Washington, and C.J. Mosley got $85 million over five years in New York (with the Jets, not that other New York team). And then there’s the Cowboys. It shouldn’t be surprising that Dallas is continuing their recent trend of being conservative in free agency, but the big difference here is that they have some cap space this time around. They have made a few moves, mostly re-signing players and adding depth, but nothing big. To keep up with all the news, head over to our free agency tracker.The biggest story in Cowboys free agency, though, was the pursuit of Earl Thomas. The interest was mutual, and the Cowboys almost traded for the star safety last year on several occasions. But Thomas wanted a big pay day, and he got it from the Baltimore Ravens. Four years for $55 million with $32 million guaranteed. Dallas was not willing to spend anything close to that that much out of concern over the big extensions they’re looking to give to their own players, namely DeMarcus Lawrence, Dak Prescott Jaylon Smith Jersey Stitched , Ezekiel Elliott, and Amari Cooper. And just maybe, the Ravens did the Cowboys a favor. In the long run, going a different route might end up being the better thing. Now, there’s no doubt that Thomas is a great player and, despite his age and injury concerns, Thomas can still make an impact for a defense. However, if Thomas would have come to Dallas, he would have likely spent most of his time as a center field safety. In Seattle, Thomas was the free safety playing opposite strong safety Kam Chancellor. In that defense, they mostly played Cover 1 and Cover 3, like the Cowboys, and Chancellor was an ideal fit for the box safety role due to his aggressiveness playing the run and shallow pass coverage off the line of scrimmage. Similarly Youth Maliek Collins Jersey , the athleticism and instincts of Thomas made him a good fit as a center field safety patrolling the deep part of the field. The Cowboys have a strong candidate for a long-term center field safety in Xavier Woods, who was very impressive in 2018. If Thomas had signed with the team, it likely meant that Woods primarily plays strong safety. While Woods is capable in that role, I believe his true future, the one where he reaches his maximum potential, is center field. Woods has moved around quite a bit in his young career, playing slot corner, free safety and strong safety. He would benefit from having one primary position and that position should be the free safety. Much like now Thomas may not even be playing anymore, while a well-scouted draft prospect will be hitting their stride. Not to mention the long-term price tag will be drastically lower with a draft selection. It was fun to envision Thomas with the Cowboys, but Dallas can’t afford to risk the financial security of their larger roster for one player. And with how deep the safety class is in this year’s draft, it becomes easier to think that the Cowboys are actually better off making a move in the draft, at least for the long-term.

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