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NFL Draft Watch: Washington State’s Hercules Mata’afa offers defensive versatility

Washington State  defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa  forces Stanford  quarterback K.J. Costello  into throwing an interception during last November’s game in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Washington State defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa forces Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello into throwing an interception during last November’s game in Pullman. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – When the Associated Press published its postseason All-Pac-12 Conference teams in early December, Hercules Mata’afa left such an impression on voters that many of them gave him extra credit.

Mata’afa not only earned first-team honors at his natural position, defensive tackle, but voters came to a consensus that the Cougars’ pass-rusher warranted the same recognition at defensive end.

Mata’afa’s next employer might not need him to play either.

The Lahaina, Hawaii, native called it a career after three years at the college level, electing earlier this month to bypass his senior season at Washington State and skip on to the NFL, where many believe Mata’afa can still excel as a pass-rusher – albeit at a position other than the one he grew comfortable in at WSU.

The decision to forgo another full season of college eligibility is often one fraught with question and criticism, unless your name ends with Darnold, Rosen or Barkley. How does Mata’afa, a 6-foot-2, 252-pounder who’s played nothing but defensive tackle, show professional scouts he can adapt to a new position at the next level?

Thirteen more college games wouldn’t have done that for him, per se, but extending his career in Pullman would’ve afforded Mata’afa the opportunity to play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl – or a similar game – and show a gallery of NFL evaluators he’s able to translate his skills to different position.

“If he’d returned for his senior year, he’d be doing just like what Luke Falk is doing,” said Rob Rang, a Senior Analyst at NFLDraftScout.com. “Going to a Senior Bowl like that, then you would get a little bit more of an opportunity to see him practice in a different position, and therefore his projection to the NFL would be a little bit easier.”

On the other hand, Mata’afa would be hard-pressed to replicate his All-American junior season – there were 22.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 45 tackles and two forced fumbles – and the 2018 class of pass-rushers is not a particularly challenging one, Rang believes. So Mata’afa’s timing could serve him well.

“And so I thought he was kind of striking while the iron’s hot on both fronts,” Rang said. “… The biggest question about Mata’afa is going to be about his size – and he’s not going to get significantly bigger by coming back for a year – and there’s also the injury question, so I think it was an understandable decision.”

Rang lists Mata’afa as the fifth-rated defensive end prospect – Rang’s position-by-position ranking system can be found on NFLDraftScout.com – which would translate to a late first- or early second-round pick in the upcoming 2018 NFL Draft (April 26-28).

But Rang doesn’t anticipate Mata’afa a true defensive end role at the next level. In college, he played with a hand in the ground and brushed away offensive linemen with instinct and a lightning-quick first step. Mata’afa won’t lose either of those traits at the next level, but the offensive guards and tackles promise to be bigger and more agile, and there’s not much more bulk Mata’afa can add to a frame that most consider “undersized” in the pro ranks.

Rang estimates that Mata’afa’s “first-step quickness is as good as anybody in the entire country,” which could allow him to slide forward to the line of scrimmage on third downs or clear passing situations.

Mata’afa’s toolbox could allow him to play a traditional linebacker role. Some analysts think his pass-rushing savvy would translate best to an outside, or Rush linebacker role, but Rang said Mata’afa could also thrive playing on the interior.

“I also think he does look like a very instinctive player,” Rang said, “and he looks like a good athlete and the few times I’ve seen him really have to flip his hips and change direction and run the opposite way.”

The Pac-12 was the Pac-10 when former Arizona standout Tedy Bruschi made the transition successfully. The 6-1, 240-pound Bruschi wreaked havoc for the Wildcats’ “Desert Swarm” defense, accumulating 52 career sacks over his four-year career. New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick shifted the former UA star to inside linebacker after picking him up in the 1996 Draft and Bruschi spent a large part of his 12-year career as a pass-rushing specialist who learned how to covering opposing receivers and the other intricacies that come with being an NFL linebacker.

“I think that Mata’afa has that potential to be able to play that inside linebacker role,” Rang said, “not just on the outside, though I do think he can play that role as well.”

Mata’afa’s best game last season came on the road at Utah, where he compiled three sacks, five tackles for loss, a forced fumble and fumble recovery in the first half of a win over the Utes. Rang was in attendance for the next game – a blowout loss to Washington the Apple Cup that perhaps was Mata’afa’s only true stinker in 2017. He had just two tackles before an illegal hit on Huskies quarterback Jake Browning yielded a targeting ejection, forcing Mata’afa to miss the rest of the second half of the Apple Cup and the first half of the ensuing Holiday Bowl.

The nationally televised game, against a reigning College Football Playoff semifinalist, for a berth in the Pac-12 title game was a perfect showcase especially for Mata’afa and his NFL-bound teammates.

“Obviously, it’s disappointing because it did look like the frustration got the better of him on that play he got ejected,” Rang said. “But at the same time, I think the people that like him are going to say, ‘Hey this is a kid, this is his passion.’ You’d almost rather him make a mistake by being too aggressive rather than the opposite.”

Mata’afa did more than enough to pad his highlight reel leading up to that point.

“I think guys that make big plays as frequently as he does will certainly be drafted,” Rang said.

Other reviews on Mata’afa have been mixed. Jonah Tuls, an NFL Draft Analyst for NDT Scouting LLC, considers the WSU D-lineman is a “slam-dunk first-round EDGE defender,” while Pro Football Focus’ Austin Gayle says that Mata’afa’s size is a “legitimate concern” but his “effort and first-step quickness are things of beauty.”

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