* With the Super Bowl in the past and the 2021 season in the books, NBC Sports Washington's Ethan Cadeaux and Matt Weyrich take a look at potential free agents that the Washington Commanders could benefit from signing this offseason. Next up: LB Leighton Vander Esch
Outside of finding a franchise quarterback, arguably the biggest offseason acquisition the Washington Commanders must make this spring is at middle linebacker.
Nearly 10 months ago, Washington selected Kentucky's Jamin Davis 19th overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, with the hope that the athletically gifted, tackling machine could be Washington's middle linebacker for the next decade-plus.
However, Davis' rookie season did not go as planned. The rookie's inexperience -- he started just one year in college for the Wildcats -- was evident, as Washington's coaching staff went on record multiple times about the amount of learning Davis still has to do. Davis flashed at times, too, but his overall play has Washington wondering if moving Davis permanently to outside linebacker would be the best fit entering Year 2.
In 2021, Washington began the season with veteran Jon Bostic at the MIKE position. Yet, Bostic played in just four games before suffering a season-ending pectoral injury. Cole Holcomb shifted from the outside to the interior following Bostic's injury and played well, but his skill set is best on the outside.
As the Commanders enter the 2022 season, Holcomb and Davis figure to both start at the outside linebacker positions. But, Washington still lacks that true middle linebacker, a player who can wear the green dot, provide leadership and truly be the 'quarterback of the defense.'
The options at linebacker position aren't necessarily strong entering free agency. The group is headlined by 2021 All-Pro De'Vondre Campbell and NFL tackles-leader Foyesade Oluokun, but it significantly tails off after that. Campbell, who turns 29 in July, is expected to command a large payday, while Oluokun's fit in Washington -- he's best in space playing the weakside linebacker position -- isn't the best.
Enter, Leighton Vander Esch, who presents a low-risk, high-reward option at one of Washington's most-needed positions.
Vander Esch is a familiar name for many Washington fans, as he's suited up for the Dallas Cowboys for the past four seasons. He's played against the Commanders seven times in his career, too, the most of any opponent. Washington has seen first-hand what he can do.
The linebacker's career arc is an interesting one. A first-round pick in 2018, Vander Esch immediately became an impact player. As a rookie, Vander Esch totaled 140 tackles and was named both to the Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro.
Yet, over the past three years, Vander Esch has been unable to return to his rookie season form for a variety of reasons.
To start, Vander Esch has dealt with multiple injuries over the past few seasons. In 2019, a neck injury sidelined him for seven games. In 2020, an ankle sprain and collarbone break kept the linebacker out of action for another six.
However, Vander Esch was able to stay healthy for the entirety of the 2021 season. His play drastically improved down the stretch of the season, as he was playing some of the best football since his rookie year before the Cowboys were upset by the 49ers in the Wild Card round.
In Washington, Vander Esch would fill a major need for the Commanders. A true middle linebacker, the addition of Vander Esch would allow both Holcomb and Davis to play on the outside. The three linebackers would make a young trio (all 26 and under) with plenty of speed on the edges. Vander Esch excels in stopping the run, something the Commanders specifically need to improve in when looking at its linebacker corps.
The rest of Vander Esch's skill set also fits well behind Washington's defensive line -- a force that should allow its linebackers to play freely in space. It's no secret that Vander Esch's two best pro seasons have come behind solid pass rush units in Dallas.
Contractually, signing Vander Esch shouldn't be too expensive of an addition, even given the weak linebacker free-agent class as a whole. Vander Esch's inability to replicate his rookie season, even if he improved from 2020 to 2021, significantly handicaps his ability to cash in on a big payday.
Pro Football Focus predicts Vander Esch to sign a three-year deal worth $25 million. So, if they are interested, Washington should be able to sign Vander Esch to a multi-year deal under $10 million per season. The Commanders must determine if that price tag is worth the risk for the reward that could come by signing him.
In short, Washington must address middle linebacker in free agency. And, there might not be a better value signing at the position than the former Cowboy.
Other Free Agent Targets:
WRs Chris Godwin, Michael Gallup
2 guards to replace Brandon Scherff