ARLINGTON – (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 NFL draft Thursday night.
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.
The Cowboys targeted receivers in free agency, adding Allen Hurns from Jacksonville and journeyman Deonte Thompson. They’re also likely to go after another pass-catcher in the second or third rounds.
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.
There have been questions about a neck injury for Vander Esch, but that didn’t stop the Cowboys from making the move two years after they took Smith early in the second round knowing he probably wouldn’t play as a rookie.
A former walk-on at Boise from a small town in Idaho, Vander Esch had career-high 16 tackles in a triple-overtime loss to Washington State in September.
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.