Monday was the final day for underclassmen to declare for the 2018 NFL draft.
With that brought the news of Clemson defensive linemen Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant – both considered first-round talents by numerous analysts – are returning to school for another season. EDGE defenders who have already declared for the draft now have the opportunity to capitalize on the void created.
While I already consider him to be one of the top talents in the position group, one prospect who could be the prime beneficiary is Washington State’s Hercules Mata’afa.
The 6-foot-2, 252-pound defensive lineman from Lahaina, HI was a consistent presence along the Cougars defensive line since arriving in Pullman. A freshman All-American, Mata’afa was a three-year letter winner at Washington State and consistently was tabbed as an All-Pac 12 performer. To go along with First Team Pac-12 honors, he was awarded as the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year as a redshirt junior in 2017 after leading the conference in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (22.5). His 22.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage this season was a school record. If those honors weren’t enough, Mata’afa was also named the Polynesian College Football Player of the Year this past season.
Impressive as that is, what makes it even more so is that he was being played out of position as an interior defensive lineman his entire career. In terms of his size transitioning to the NFL, it immediately stands out that his mix of size and athleticism translates better as an EDGE defender than staying inside. After taking a long look at his tape, I believe I have found a few areas that will intrigue fans of teams in need of an immediate presence as a pass rusher.
Despite playing as an interior defensive tackle and not a defensive end or outside linebacker, Mata’afa was graded by the analysts at Pro Football Focus as one of the top returning defensive players in the Pac-12.
How can a player who is being played out of position still be so successful?
An explosive first step.
That’s really what helps Mata’afa be so disruptive aside from appearing to be playing in a scheme that calls for him to be primarily a “gap shooter.” He isn’t the most fundamentally sound player in terms of his technique, but he’s able to mask the deficiency with a great get off. A prime example of that is this snap against Boise State early in the season.
On this first down snap, he starts out in lined up in a “loose” 4i and shifts to a 2i alignment just prior to the snap. At the snap, the Broncos show a pull and pin, having the left guard pull and the center attempt to fold block his defender which in this case, is Mata’afa.
Despite failing to fire his hands, he is able to beat the block simply by getting off the football. A tough block to make if the defensive lineman hesitated becomes nearly impossible with a step like his. By quickly planting his right foot, Mata’afa is in prime position to record one of his 22.5 stops behind the line of scrimmage. All this due to having an explosive get-off. This doesn’t just set him up to make stops either. Sometimes it’s enough to generate disruption.
On this snap against Stanford, this is a good example of how Mata’afa can still be disruptive despite weak technique. Lined up as a three technique, he does a great job of crossing the guard’s face while still managing to penetrate. However, if you look closely, he doesn’t gain any ground with his first step. it’s not until his second step that he’s actually on course to disrupt a pulling left guard. Nonetheless, due to his great lateral agility, he’s able to completely change the course the guard causing the back to stop his feet before being tackled by an incoming defender.
It’s certainly not the most fundamentally sound way of winning the snap, but Mata’afa has made a living at allowing his speed, athleticism, – and let’s not forget his motor – to mask poor technique. It’s the consistent plays like this that will really intrigue scouts and coaches about how his skill set will translate to being on the edge.
However, his motor doesn’t just make him disruptive in the run game. According to Pro Football Focus, Mata’afa was the No.1 draft-eligible interior defender when it came to snaps per pressure, registering 15.7. To put that in perspective, not counting his snaps against Michigan State in the bowl game, Mata’afa registered 10 sacks, six quarterback hits, and 14 hurries in 279 pass rush snaps this season.
A mainstay to his repertoire, Mata’afa is built for speed. He doesn’t do anything spectacular but is just relentless. Here against Cal, he split a double team simply by getting off the ball and keeping his pad level lower than his opponent. There isn’t a chop or a rip, he just keeps his feet moving. This isn’t to say that he doesn’t utilize his hands, there is plenty of proof that he does. In fact, on the vast majority of pass rush snaps that he was able to create disruption, there was an efficient rip or quick swim used to clear.
Aside from having a great first step to set him up for success, his athleticism sets him further apart. It’s uncommon to see an interior defensive tackle be asked to spy a quarterback or have the ability to bend the way he can when engaged in a line game that requires him to be the contain player. However, when you watch him as a pass rusher, it becomes very clear that strictly based on his speed, there is potential to develop into a very effective threat at the next level.
The big question mark in the evaluation process of Mata’afa will undoubtedly be his technique. He is immensely talented athletically, but appears to be quite inconsistent in his fundamentals. There are times where he is forced to take on a double team and many of those times, due to not shooting his hands, he became engulfed.
When he did shoot his hands, he would attempt to strike both blockers, giving up his chest plate in the process. As seen here against Boise State he would ultimately be driven off the ball or would struggle in recovering. Now, a lot of that could be the scheme responsibility within Washington State’s defense.
There are plenty of quality snaps against any opponent this season where he displays sound fundamentals against the run (great first step, helmet and hands fire together, ability to quickly disengage) that leads me to believe that it is more in line with the responsibility within the scheme than anything else.
However, whether it is scheme responsibility or simple inconsistency, Mata’afa will have to improve the minor details of his fundamentals that could be cleaned up even if being a “gap shooter” was the responsibility.
As a pass rusher, he needs to develop the ability to win by more than just his speed. With a repertoire that really only boasts a swim move as a form of disengaging, it’s vital that he becomes familiar with an array of moves. Moreover, he needs to develop the ability to string counter moves together. There were a few snaps from this season, that he hit a really good rip move, but didn’t clear the lineman entirely, essentially forcing him to stop mid rush to try and recover.
It is vital for Mata’afa to have have a strong performance at the combine for the sake of taking a step in the right direction in terms of his transition to playing on the edge. With the exception of playing as a ‘spy” on some snaps, we haven’t really had the chance to see how fluid he is when having to be in coverage and the on field drills will give us a better look at that. We have already seen that there is somewhat of an ability to bend. According to Jim Cobern’s metric provided below, he hits every threshold for run production from the defensive tackle standpoint.
I’m sold on his traits translating well to the next level. There is enough of a base to be confident in the ability to refine his fundamentals on a consistent snap-to-snap basis. Despite the tremendous production as an pass rusher, I think he’s really just scratching the surface and can only benefit from growing into a wider array of pass rush moves as noted earlier with developing counters. He was a flashy, disruptive player that was somewhat masked by the way he was used in Washington State’s scheme. However, I believe I uncovered enough to prove that there is plenty of untapped potential and that he’s more than just a pass rusher at the next level. In fact, he has the ability – with refinement – to be a force against the run. Moreover, I believe that he should easily be considered a first round selection with the potential of possibly sneaking into the top half of the round.
- Josh Zimmer is the Lead NFL Draft analyst for NGSC Sports as well as serving as a contributor for NHL coverage.
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