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The 2017 NFL Draft is already being heralded as a deep class of incoming NFL talent, especially at the edge defender position, where as many as 8-10 prospects are receiving first round billing from various analysts. I’ve written about the four- and five-year draft eligible edge defenders in recent weeks, highlighting the strengths, weaknesses, and potential scheme fits for several of the top players in the redshirt senior, senior, and redshirt junior groups.
University of Washington senior Joe Mathis isn’t typically listed among the premier edge defenders in the 2017 class, but he should be. I understand why Mathis isn’t as sought after as some other big names, as an injury and limited tape have restricted the public’s view of the defender’s abilities off the edge. A torn ligament in his foot ended Mathis’s senior campaign after just six games, but during that time Washington’s best edge posted some impressive tape, displaying a refined ability as a pass rusher and the desired physicality and awareness as a run defender.
One of my favorite things about Mathis is his quick recognition of blocking concepts and aggressive mindset to bring the fight to his opponents with proper technique once the scheme has been identified. Against Oregon, the Ducks run a counter play Mathis’s way early in the game, hoping to kick out the outside linebacker and run inside of him. Mathis quickly identifies the down block of the left tackle and immediately adheres to his block-down, step-down rules as the force defender. Given that he is the unblocked defender, Mathis is the player the pulling guard’s kick block is designed to attack, and the Huskies senior cannot flow upfield or he will leave a massive rush lane for the Ducks to exploit.
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Diagnosing the concept quickly, Mathis steps down hard into the C Gap without flying upfield, squeezing down the line of scrimmage to force the running back to bounce outside. Look how Mathis takes on the blocker, getting low at the point of attack, and exploding into his opponent with leverage and power. By blowing up the inside gap, Mathis leaves no space for the tight end to lead block, standing up the pulling guard and causing a collision between the two offensive players.
But remember, Mathis is the force defender here, meaning that defending the perimeter is his primary responsibility. Nothing can get outside of him. As the running back bounces to avoid the pileup of debris Mathis has created, the outside linebacker quickly disengages from the block and explodes upfield to drop the ball carrier for a big loss. So many traits are on display in this one play – mental processing, technique, power, athleticism, competitive toughness – which are all quite reflective of Mathis’s overall skill-set and performance as a whole against Oregon, where he was nearly unblockable.
Mathis is one of the more heavy-handed edge defenders I’ve ever scouted at the line of scrimmage, consistently bringing the fight to blockers and getting his hands inside his opponent. His quick feet and active upper half allow him to work off, and around, blockers with equal propensity. On both these runs the right tackle attacks him aggressively off the snap hoping to drive-block him to the sideline, but Mathis counters by jumping outside as the force defender, using a sudden arm-over technique to leave the lineman lunging at air.
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Mathis successfully dodges the block and has positioned himself to defend the boundary, but because he jumped outside so aggressively, he’s left a wide rush lane inside for his teammates to fill. Alertly diagnosing the play, Mathis rapidly closes down the line of scrimmage to make the tackle, showing off his quick feet and range. I love his play speed and intensity, working hard in pursuit despite both runs being inside of his gap. Evaluators often talk about area of impact for front line defensive players, and Mathis shows off his elite range by affecting two run plays inside of him while still maintaining gap responsibility.
Edge defenders who can think on their feet while still matching the speed of play are highly sought after, especially when those traits show up in pass rush situations. Here, Mathis explodes off the line of scrimmage from a 2-point stance, threatening the edge with a top-notch get-off. Oregon left tackle Brady Aiello (#66) is forced to overset slightly, opening his hips to the sideline to keep Mathis from cornering. Without hesitation the senior abruptly counters inside, executing a smooth and sudden swim move to surprise his opponent and exploit an open path to the quarterback.
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Not only does Mathis alertly identify an inside rush lane that his speed up the arc he has created, but he executes the perfect move to win the rep cleanly. Aiello is overextended when he attempts to initiate contact, and his base is too wide and unbalanced to recover against any lateral move. Mathis takes advantage of the redshirt freshman’s lack of technique and proper footwork, using a slight push-pull to get him off-balance before finishing with the swim. Lunging offensive lineman are always susceptible to the swim move, and Mathis does an excellent job of not trying to force a rush, but instead utilizing what the blocker’s posture has made available to him.
Sometimes aggressive, violent players don’t think well on their feet due to “seeing red” on the field. Not so with Mathis, however, as he even has the presence of mind to diagnose a screen pass in the middle of a stunt.
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Washington runs a simple T/E stunt up front, with 3 technique Elijah Qualls (#11) as the crasher and Mathis as the looper coming to the near A Gap. Qualls bullies through the left guard and left tackle, leaving an opening for Mathis to shoot through, but instead the linebacker stops in the gap. The edge defender notices that the right guard and center have encouraged the 1 technique into the pocket, before turning to release as blockers down the field. Sensing a middle screen coming, Mathis chucks the center to the ground, eliminating a blocker, before making a shoestring tackle of Christian McCaffrey (#5) to stop a potentially big gain. Not many defenders have the presence of mind, mid-twist, to identify a middle screen and snuff out the ball carrier.
Pass Rush – Converting Speed to Power
When you’re 6’ 2” and 255 pounds with an explosive first step off the ball, converting speed to power should be a go-to move. Mathis’s built-in leverage maximizes his power at the point of engagement against taller offensive tackles, as he explodes through contact with top-notch hand placement. Look at the push created on both of these plays by sheer bull rushes.
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On the first play Mathis lulls the right tackle to sleep with a little stutter step before exploding into his frame, eventually powering through the lineman’s inside shoulder to get a hand in the quarterback’s face.
On the second play, you can see Mathis’s terrific upfield burst off the ball, blowing Stanford right tackle Casey Tucker (#77) off his feet with incredible power. All Tucker can do is grab a hold of Mathis on the way down, preventing a sure sack with a penalty.
Pass Rush – Stringing Moves Together
The ability to showcase speed-to-power at a high rate opens up a bevy of options for pass rushers. But while many college edge defenders rely heavily on the bull rush, very few can transition smoothly from a power move to a finishing move. Power rushes are great to push the pocket and create chaos, but sacks only happen if pass rushers can disengage from a blocker – something Mathis does extremely well.
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In each of these plays, Mathis maneuvers from a bull rush to winning the edge, usually with a powerful rip move. Mathis’s ability to maximize his arm extension at the point of attack keeps offensive linemen from getting a hold of him, allowing for a smooth transition to his next move. Myles Garrett, for all his natural ability and technical improvements, could learn a thing or two from watching the technique on Mathis’s bull rushes.
[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Pass Rush – Bend / Flexibility to Corner
Mathis excels at playing with excellent knee bend, running under contact with natural leverage and power to clear hands around the corner. He’s not Gumby, but Mathis can bend well enough to be a cornering threat, with better hips around the edge than most pass rushers in this class.
The shoulder dip and bend in that second image is vintage Von Miller, displaying the ability to be in a near-squat position while running under an offensive tackle’s punch at full speed. I’m not saying Mathis is Miller, but to even flash that kind of flexibility on the edge is crazy, and indicative of the special athleticism Mathis offers as a pass rusher. Here is the clip of the play that second image is taken from. Watch how Mathis doesn’t lose speed while running under the right tackle’s hands and through the running-back chip to get a hand in on the sack.
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The concern with Mathis will be injuries and a relative lack of experience and / or production. Despite many nagging ailments in college, Mathis has never suffered a serious injury to my knowledge before this year’s torn foot ligament. If Mathis is healthy enough to compete at the combine, it will go a long way toward assuring a top selection for the Washington playmaker.
As for his lack of production, Mathis was a rotational player until this season, starting seven games his junior year, but recording just two sacks and six tackles for loss. Mathis was on pace to annihilate those numbers in 2016, with 7.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in the season’s first six games until his injury. Four of those sacks came in conference play, while Mathis also notched pressures on almost a per-pass rush basis, as you can tell from many of the clips above.
While teams will have to assess Mathis’s nagging injury history and weigh his lack of relative production, the Washington outside linebacker’s positional versatility and experience from a 2- and 3-point stance will work in his favor. Mathis can win with speed, power, athleticism, and hand usage, displaying a rare understanding of the mental and physical process of an edge rusher. His awareness and advanced technique against the run, as well as his violent play temperament, nonstop motor, and competitive toughness will be major strengths on NFL teams’ draft boards. Did I mention he even fluidly dropped into coverage on more than a few occasions for the Huskies? This is a loaded edge class with potentially 8-10 first round caliber players, but Mathis’s name should eventually pick up steam as a possible day one selection as the pre-draft process continues.
Follow Jon on Twitter @LedyardNFLDraft. Check out more of his work here, including his articles on Todd Bowles and twist stunts, and DeMarcus Ware’s resurgence with Denver.
All video courtesy of ESPN.