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Steelers

Linebacker prospect Leighton Vander Esch: Playing for Steelers 'would mean everything'

Joe Rutter
| Saturday, March 3, 2018, 8:15 p.m.

INDIANAPOLIS — An inside linebacker with first-round potential, Boise State's Leighton Vander Esch has relished his chance to meet this week with NFL general managers, coaches and talent evaluators.

He relished his get-together with the Steelers more than most.

Just ask him.

“That one was really enjoyable,” Vander Esch said Saturday at the NFL Combine. “I loved it. It was a great time meeting the coaches and the organization. It was an absolute blast.”

Several NFL Draft analysts have predicted the Steelers will select Vander Esch with the No. 28 overall selection April 26. Vander Esch and Alabama's Rashaan Evans are inside linebackers most associated with the Steelers in the first round since the loss of Ryan Shazier, who won't play in 2018 because of his spinal cord injury.

“It would mean everything to play for an organization like the Steelers and the reputation the defense has,” Vander Esch said. “It would be pretty special. It would be awesome.”

Vander Esch, though, is no Shazier, not in sideline-to-sideline play-making ability, size or speed. Where Shazier played at 230 pounds, Vander Esch weighed 240 pounds in his final college season, and he bulked up to 256 pounds for the combine. He also is three inches taller at 6-foot-4.

“I wanted to put on some weight because I know guys are bigger, faster, stronger in the NFL and I need to keep up,” Vander Esch said.

NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said Sunday is an important day for Vander Esch. That's when he'll run the 40-yard dash and compete in other agility drills.

“I think the coaches I've talked to worry about his inventory of plays,” Mayock said Saturday. “He has one season as a starter, one outstanding game. … To bang the table for him as a first-round pick is hard, but he could be there late in the first round.”

Alabama's Evans is 6-3, 232 pounds, and the player comparison on his NFL.com draft bio is not Shazier but another familiar inside linebacker: Lawrence Timmons.

Evans said he was scheduled to meet formally with the Steelers on Saturday night.

In meetings with other NFL teams, concerns about groin injuries that bothered Evans in 2017 were raised.

It was Evans' second season playing inside after Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban switched him from the edge.

“I naturally told them I wasn't 100 percent the whole season,” Evans said. “That was me being honest with them. The fact I have a chance to get better now and have some time off to really rehab those two groin injuries, I feel a lot better about it.”

Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert acknowledged earlier in the week that nobody in the draft class has the same makeup as Shazier, a two-time Pro Bowl selection. Colbert also categorized the inside linebacking group as lacking impact players.

“There's a few,” Colbert said. “Not a lot, but there's a lot of numbers at that position. Guys may have one talent. They are better against the run, they are better in coverage, they're better in chasing, those type of things.

“There are a lot of guys who have individual talents we may have to sort through. Impactful players? No, there's not a ton of those at that position. That's one of the leaner spots.”

If the Steelers address another position in the first round and delay taking an inside linebacker until the second day of the draft, perhaps Ohio State's Jerome Baker will be on their radar. Baker said he had a formal meeting with the Steelers.

Baker, considered a second- or third-round selection at 6-1, 229, would love to follow Shazier's path from Ohio State to Pittsburgh.

“That was the person I really molded my game after,” Baker said. “I saw him my junior year of high school when Indiana played Ohio State. He had like 20-some tackles. It was freezing cold, and I promise you I was the only recruit out there in the cold watching him.

“That's when I fell in love with the play of Ryan Shazier.”

The Steelers, who can hold 60 formal meetings at the combine, also were scheduled to meet with a pair of defensive linemen with first-round grades: Alabama's Da'Ron Payne and Stanford's Harrison Phillips.

Georgia inside linebacker Roquan Smith, considered the second-best player at his position behind Virginia Tech's Tremaine Edmunds, said he had no meetings scheduled with the Steelers.

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, right, brings down Washington State wide receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack (9) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.
Boise State linebacker Leighton Vander Esch, right, brings down Washington State wide receiver Isaiah Johnson-Mack (9) during the second half of an NCAA college football game in Pullman, Wash., Saturday, Sept. 9, 2017.
Rashaan Evans of the Alabama Crimson Tide tackles Jarrett Guarantano of the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 21, 2017 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Getty Images
Rashaan Evans of the Alabama Crimson Tide tackles Jarrett Guarantano of the Tennessee Volunteers at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 21, 2017 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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