Malik Jefferson was a prized recruit coming into Texas. The nations top linebacker recruit came in as a freshman and started nine games for the Longhorns that season, compiling 61 tackles, seven for loss with 2.5 sacks while being named a freshman All-American. As a true sophomore, Jefferson put up 60 tackles, nine for loss and 6.5 sacks. His junior year in a new defensive scheme saw him a lot more production, though. He started to live up to his name and put up 110 tackles, 10 for loss and four sacks, earning a second-team All-American honor. Will the prized recruit turn into a better NFL asset than college one, and does he fill the Pittsburgh Steelers hole at linebacker?
Malik Jefferson is great in space. For his size, he is going to be one of the best testers at the NFL combine. His athleticism and fluidity really shows as he able to track ground quickly. Jefferson has that sideline to sideline ability, and on the play below was able to flash it and get his team off of the field on third down because of it.
It can also show up in the box at times. When he is able to run all out and get ahead of momentum, there is no stopping him. He can shoot gaps and make plays deep into the backfield with the athleticism he brings to the table.
He is also comfortable moving in coverage. Malik Jefferson has the size to matchup with tight ends, the fluidness to change directions with slot players, and enough understanding of his responsibility to be an impact player out there. Watch the play below as he is able to seamlessly pass off the slot receiver and pick up the outside route coming over the middle. He not only picked up his assignment quickly but reacted extremely quickly to break on the route and shut it down, forcing a sack.
Speaking of sacks, Jefferson’s total has risen by year, and coming in hot off of the edge, he is able to make that impact in the backfield as well.
Jefferson is still relying on just his athletic ability too much. He is not an instinctive player and does not consistently make those plays to blow things up in the backfield. Against the run, he misses gaps, makes poor reads and misses tackles. Notice the play below. First, he is reacting and waiting for the ball carrier to come to him. Then, he becomes preoccupied with the blocker in front of him and completely misses the play, sending the ball carrier off to the races.
It happens far too often in the running game. He tends to play passively and let blocks and ball carriers come to him. He is not reacting and looking to blow plays up. This also results in wasted movements. Watch the play below as he stutters around deciding his plan of attack while the quarterback is reacting. Add in the poor angle, and this quarterback is able to escape the rush of one of the fastest linebackers in the nation.
It can show in coverage as well. On the play below Jefferson is defending the receiver to his left. His immediate thought process is to get out there quickly, rather than reacting to the wide receiver. The receiver breaks left, Jefferson breaks right, and all of the sudden Jefferson is giving up an easy third down completion.
Jefferson also needs to get better at form tackling. He tackle high, has players bounce off of him at times and takes bad angles resulting in extra yards after contact. The athleticism presents interest, but the nuance is lacking across the board.
Pro Comparison Shaq Thompson
Jefferson is a player who is going to be best in space. There is a good chance that his best profile is as a weak side linebacker who is able to rush off of the edge and take coverage snaps. He is an important piece to a team because he limits how often they have to resort to nickel or other sub-base packages.
This is how Thompson impacts the Carolina Panthers. Thompson progressed slowly behind two linebackers but has started to become a player who can do more than just defend on third downs. If Jefferson gets the time and development, he can turn into an impactful NFL player against the pass and the run. In the short term, a lot of teams will want to look at him as a nickel backer who can move around in space.
Fit for Pittsburgh Steelers
With all of that said about his usage, his best fit may not be the Pittsburgh Steelers. In a nickel heavy league, it may not matter much what the base scheme to teams is. Still, Ryan Shazier did a lot of work in the box, defending the run.
While the two may present similar athletic traits, and Jefferson is a bigger, more durable linebacker, Jefferson does not have that instinct to blow plays up in the backfield or make the game-sealing interceptions. It also would be tough to expect Jefferson to call plays and get his team in line at this juncture. That is where Shazier’s loss hit home the most last season.
While there are better fits, there may not be better players. The Steelers could be thinking long-term with Malik Jefferson, and add a free agent for next season to let Jefferson progress. However, with the clock ticking on Ben Roethlisberger, the question is whether or not you can spend a first round pick on a player who will slowly ascend onto the field. If Jefferson would fall into the second or third, the bet becomes enticing. However, there should be better fits in the first round.