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Cowboys go linebacker, not receiver, get Boise's Vander Esch
By SCHUYLER DIXON
FRISCO, Texas (AP) The Dallas Cowboys decided linebacker was a bigger priority than receiver even after releasing franchise touchdown catch leader Dez Bryant.
The Cowboys took Leighton Vander Esch of Boise State with the 19th pick in the first round of the draft Thursday night. He walked the stage at his new home field in nearby Arlington, where Dallas was hosting the first draft in an NFL stadium.
"It made me speechless," Vander Esch said. "It's the craziest moment of my life so far."
The Mountain West defensive player of the year will have a chance to start right away alongside 2016 All-Pro Sean Lee and Jaylon Smith, who is getting ready for his second season after sitting out as a rookie following a major knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame.
The 6-foot-4, 255-pound Vander Esch was fifth in the country in tackles and had three interceptions and four sacks for a defense that ranked 22nd nationally.
All the top receivers were still available when the Cowboys selected, including Alabama's Calvin Ridley, who was Bryant's prediction on Twitter if Dallas went with a receiver.
Instead, the Cowboys picked the position that involved another significant loss in the offseason. Dallas let the versatile and durable Anthony Hitchens go to Kansas City in free agency.
"He was the highest-rated player on our board at the time," coach Jason Garrett said of Vander Esch. "We felt like he fit a need for our football team, but more than that, just someone who can make an impact on our football team."
Dallas released Bryant earlier this month in a cost-cutting move after three sub-par seasons since the $70 million, five-year contract he signed following an All-Pro season in 2014. Bryant's 73 touchdowns were more than Hall of Fame receivers Bob Hayes and Michael Irvin.
Vander Esch disputed reports from before the draft that a neck injury had led to concerns for some teams, saying he "hadn't had any neck injuries." His agent has said he sustained a stinger and concussion on the same play early in the 2016 season and missed seven games, but said Vander Esch hasn't had any medical issues since then.
"There was nothing," Vander Esch said. "They took like a bad CT scan or something at the combine and some people started talking about it."
The Cowboys didn't hesitate on Vander Esch two years after taking Smith early in the second round knowing he probably wouldn't play as a rookie.
"Our independent doctors as well as our trainers gave him a medical grade that allows us to draft him in the first round," owner and general manager Jerry Jones said. "I do not stand here concerned about his medical."
A former walk-on from tiny Riggins, Idaho, who played eight-man high school football, Vander Esch had career-high 16 tackles in a triple-overtime loss to Washington State in September.
"It's been an incredible journey thus far," Vander Esch said. "I think (eight-man football) really developed me as a football player. You couldn't come off the field because you had to play both ways. You got in shape real quick. You really learn how to open field tackle."
The Cowboys have a history of taking Boise State defenders. Cornerback Orlando Scandrick played 10 seasons as a fifth-round pick in 2008 before his release this offseason.
Dallas moved up to get defensive end DeMarcus Lawrence early in the second round in 2014, and he finished second in the NFL with 14 1/2 sacks last season. Defensive lineman Tyrone Crawford is going into his seventh year as a third-round choice in 2012.
"You have to be careful about that, ascribing traits to a guy just because of the school that he came from," Garrett said. "But there's something about that program that grows them the right way. It just seems like Leighton is exactly like the rest of them, has a little chip on his shoulder and is a driven guy."
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Updated April 27, 2018