If you just happened to be a first-year NFL Scout overseeing your very first NFL Draft this year, then you would probably be surprised to find out that the young man that some experts say has "the fastest first step in college football" as an outside defensive edge pass rusher, actually played a handful of snaps as an interior lineman / 1-Technique defensive tackle last season — despite the fact that he only weighs a little bit over 250 pounds.
That player's name is Washington State defensive end / EDGE pass rusher Hercules Mata'afa (pronounced MOTTA-ah-fa), and he's a possible 1st Round selection for the Saints at #27 overall in the upcoming NFL Draft in late April; and this morning he's also the latest player to be profiled here this morning for Saints News Network's continuing coverage of potential Saints draft picks in 2018.
Mata’afa virtually 'exploded' onto the college football scene in his redshirt junior season of 2017, with a total of 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery coming from a defensive tackle position. At times, he even slid in far enough along the Cougars defensive line, to play some 1-Technique.
However, due to his notable smaller size, he projects to the NFL as an outside edge pass rusher. Mata'afa still was able to thrive at the interior rush position despite his size because of his exceptional strength; since Mata’afa was difficult to move, even when he was double-teamed.
That Herculean strength (no pun intended) carried over to other areas of his abilities such as his tackling, where Mata’afa showed excellent form and very rarely (if ever) allowed ball-carriers to escape from his grasp.
He also is an outstanding defender against the run, as evidenced by his 22.5 tackles for loss last year. In fact, he very notably was responsible for almost single-handedly "shutting down" Stanford All-American RB Bryce Love this past November.
Love was held to a measly 69 rushing yards against the Washington State defense in their November 4th, 2017 PAC-12 game, despite the fact that he had been averaging over 10 yards per carry before that contest. Love only picked up 4.3 yards a carry facing the Cougars defense led by Mata'afa — and most of his yardage came on a 52-yard run.
In all, Mata'afa used his quickness and God-given natural strength to post 121 tackles in three seasons at WSU, including 46 tackles for loss and 21 and a half sacks. Those are impressive numbers from a defensive lineman who essentially only played 2 full seasons.
Additionally, last season he was named a Consensus All-American (named to All-American 1st Teams by SI.com, Walter Camp, Sporting News, Associated Press, ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and the American Football Coaches Association); as well as earning the PAC-12 Defensive Player of the Year by The Associated Press.
Those remarkable achievements make Mata'afa one of this year's most intriguing players in the entire 2018 Class, as NFL Scouts and front office personnel try to figure out exactly what role would suit him the best as he prepares to become a player at the professional level in the upcoming months ahead.
Mata'afa's current draft status has since become one of the biggest question marks of the entire 2018 NFL Draft process heading into this week's upcoming 2018 NFL Scouting Combine; which gets under way beginning this coming Tuesday (February 27th thru March 5th) in Indianapolis.
As of this very moment, there is a lot of speculation as to when and exactly at what spot in the draft order, that Mata'afa will be chosen. Some NFL Scouts think that Mata'afa is worthy of a late 1st Round selection, while some others believe he still could be available in the draft's middle rounds. It literally depends on who you ask.
Our good friend over at Canal Street Chronicles, NFL Draft expert and football analyst John Sigler, was kind enough to give us a few minutes of his time and explain why a player like Mata'afa, despite his "smaller" size, could unleash an unholy reign of terror as an unstoppable defensive presence at the next level.
Sigler — who actually has Mata'afa being selected by the Saints at the #27 spot in the 2nd version of his 2018 Saints Mock Draft for Canal Street Chronicles — says that Mata'afa is nearly all projection for the NFL (he lined up on the edge outside a tackle's shoulder just 7 times last year) but there's so much to like about his game.
As we noted at the beginning and what Sigler re-emphasized to us again for this article: Mata'afa had what most analysts agree is the "best first step" coming off of the line of scrimmage from the outside edge in pass-rushing situations, in all of college football last year.
Sigler says that Mata'afa is a consistent finisher in the backfield (21 career sacks and 41.5 tackles for loss) who shows relentless pursuit and notes that one thing is for certain: Mata'afa doesn't take plays off.
Washington State played the 6-foot-2, 252 pound Mata'afa at what would be best described as the boundary defensive tackle position inside of the “rush” linebacker position, who also aligns to the boundary.
Although the Cougars played mostly "over" fronts last season, they were fairly multiple and they loved to disguise exactly what they were intending to do strategy-wise, until just before the snap..
But Sigler cautions that there were also times that putting him at the interior pass rush / 1-Technique position actually hurt Mata'afa, because it meant that the other team's guards could get their hands on him and they were able to overwhelm him (not surprisingly) because of his smaller size.
Sigler also notes that Mata'afa's hands will need some work once he's in the NFL, but he thinks that will develop with more experience over time.
So — how does Mata'afa potentially "fit" with the Saints?
Sigler believes that once you can get Mata'afa out on the edge where he can put his rare speed and ankle bend to good use, he'll flourish at the pro level. An upside to his experience playing inside is that it's something the Saints really like to do on third downs; which is to deploy an edge rusher like Alex Okafor or Trey Hendrickson over the opposing offensive guard to take advantage of the speed mismatch.
Sigler adds that the 21-year old Lahaina, Hawaii native would fit in New Orleans remarkably well if he were to be taken by the Saints. He could fit into that lightweight, lightning-quick pass-rush package, making opportunities for Okafor (if he’s re-signed), Hendrickson and whoever makes the team out of Hau’oli Kikaha and Al-Quadin Muhammad, to go hunt opposing QB's off the edge.
It would also bring some added relief to Saints All-Pro defensive end Cam Jordan, the team's leading pass rusher and of the NFL's truly "elite" defensive players at his position.
It's important to keep in mind that Mata'afa has lined up at a total of six different defensive positions throughout his college career according to Pro Football Focus, so NFL teams have had the opportunity to see him employed and productive in numerous ways which gives them a clear idea of what he can do for their defense.
A hybrid / "tweener" role is what probably benefit Mata’afa at the next level. He possesses way too much talent to simply be "pigeon-holed" or placed into a typical role of a pure EDGE rusher; and he'd very likely get destroyed against much bigger NFL O-Linemen if he was placed as a pure defensive tackle on the inside, because of his smaller size.
As a versatile inside-outside player, Mata’afa should be able to reach his true potential only if he's able to go to a team that can utilize his strengths effectively (and to their advantage) — and Saints defensive coordinator Dennis Allen could certainly be the one to do so. Mata'afa's ability to line-up at multiple spots should allow Allen some creativity in the pass-rush scheming, that he hasn't been able to have in recent seasons.
The bottom line is that Hercules Mata'afa has the capability to become a defensive star at the next level, if he ends up landing in the "right spot" with the "right team", best-suited to utilize the unique skill-set that he brings to the table.