Linebacker Malik Jefferson was rated the number one prospect coming out of the State of Texas just a couple years ago. A prized recruit and the cornerstone of Charlie Strong’s recruiting classes. Jefferson showed out; he put up two very productive seasons amassing a total of 121 total tackles, 16 of which were for a loss. His athleticism and versatility were on full display, as he also pitched in nine sacks.
Although he was productive in the box score, he struggled with the transition to inside linebacker. In college, more times than not, if you have a very talented player like Jefferson, wherever you put him he is going to make plays. However, the switch to inside linebacker really seemed to handcuff his talent.
He struggled processing plays from the inside linebacker position. That half second delay often led to him getting hooked or swallowed up. Jefferson allows the lineman to engage him with one arm, he doesn’t process the running back’s entry point quick enough and is unable to flow to the ball freely.
That’s why the shift back to outside linebacker could do wonders for him, especially in defensive coordinator Todd Orlando’s 3-4 defense. The aggressive scheme will maximize what Jefferson does well and put him back into a playmaking role. If you pay attention to the NFL Draft, then you may remember Tyus Bowser. He was the second round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2017 NFL Draft, a 6’3″ 247 pound edge defender that played the position at Houston last season, where DC Orlando coached. Jefferson has some similar traits to Bowser.
Jefferson, like Bowser, is an upright linebacker who occasionally has trouble with his pad level and physicality. He isn’t always in the mindset needed to win with physical toughness. He would rather use his athleticism to win 1-on-1 matchups. However, there is no denying his talent and how disruptive he could be as an outside linebacker in a two point stance. He displays good change of direction and suddenness in his game, which could cause issues for blockers.
The staff will have to find ways to maximize these skills, as he will not be able to win against top tier tackles with strength or leverage. Although he is undersized as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he is comfortable being around the line of scrimmage. At the college level, that is fine; not many teams are going to line up and run power at him all day. He will see more plays like this on Saturdays:
Notre Dame tries reading Jefferson, but his athletic ability takes over, as he is able to defend both the dive portion of the read option AND the QB keeper.
His speed and lateral quickness displayed in the prior clip should make the transition back to OLB easy.
Jefferson doing the mirror drill with RB Saquon Barkley
— Malik Jefferson (@Official_MalikJ) July 3, 2017
His quickness in tight spaces makes him very difficult to block.
His ability to change directions suddenly will also allow DC Orlando to utilize Jefferson as a pass rusher, something Bowser did really well in Houston over the span of his four years. Bowser is a much better pass rusher than Jefferson, but when it comes to change of direction and quickness, I think Jefferson has the edge. In 2016, Jefferson registered 6.5 sacks, but they weren’t due to his ability to win with pass rush moves. He just isn’t that guy, but Orlando can scheme up stunts and blitzes that really could up Jefferson’s sack total. Here is one that Houston drew up for Bowser.
Jefferson was utilized in a similar manner last season. A fair portion of his sacks were as a spy and/or secondary rusher.
Regardless of scheme, junior linebacker Malik Jefferson’s meal ticket is his overall athleticism. For that trait to be maximized, he must be allowed to play fast. When given that opportunity, he has the skills to be a playmaker. Hopefully, the new scheme and switch back to outside linebacker will help him have a breakout season. If that happens, don’t be surprised to hear his name called as the Bednarik Award winner.
— Texas Football (@TexasFootball) July 10, 2017
Jefferson mirroring now Cincinnati Bengal RB Joe Mixon