6’4” 230 lbs.
40 Time: TBD
Like most Faithful I’m a sucker for elite players at the linebacker position and let’s face it, we’ve been spoiled lately, with Willis, Bowman, and Foster all in the last decade. We’ve seen them shoot gaps and blow up ball-carriers, chase down running backs on check downs and run with the best tight ends in the game. Willis and Bowman were two of the best the NFL has ever had to offer. Simply put: 49ers fans KNOW linebackers.
After hearing all the pre-draft buzz surrounding Malik Jefferson out of the University of Texas, I was thrilled to get this assignment and break down what was thought to be one of the best college linebackers in this draft. Jefferson was a five-star outside linebacker recruit out of Poteet High School in Mesquite, TX. After a rocky start to his career that included a position change, a coaching change and a benching, Jefferson came through on his promising potential. After watching several of the 2016 Texas games I was certain that Jefferson was a Day 2 pick at best and was a little underwhelmed. However, after watching 2017 games against Oklahoma State, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Iowa State and USC, let’s just say that I changed my tune.
In 2016, Jefferson looked lost. I didn’t see the burst that we see from great middle linebackers like Wagner and Willis. He seemed to lack the instincts needed to play in the middle and thus might have been better served at his natural position of outside linebacker. He seemed hesitant and uncomfortable. Most blockers that got to the second level of the defense completely engulfed Jefferson, leaving him mostly out of the play. Even on plays that he used his outstanding athleticism and speed, he would miss tackles and overrun plays. I compared him to a Lamborghini being driven by a 12-year-old. I wanted to see more so I moved onto his 2017 season. But I made the mistake of not taking a step back. With my mind made up, I didn’t attack this year’s tape correctly and saw what I thought Jefferson was.
I was ready to write this and be done: Day 2 grade, possibly Day 3. Something told me not to. I dove back in. Jefferson won the 2017 BIG-12 Co-Defensive POY, plus 2017 1st Team All BIG-12, and 2017 2nd Team All American. He had a team-leading 110 tackles. I was clearly missing something. I restarted and what I saw in the 2017 version of Malik Jefferson was simply awesome. He had clearly made a quantum leap in development in between his sophomore and junior seasons at Texas.
I started with Jefferson’s best statistical game, against Oklahoma State. He showed his blinding speed on a blitz of Mason Rudolph, nearly missing a sack but forcing an incompletion.
This is clearly his best attribute. Jefferson’s ability to close in space is downright scary.
On the very next play he knifed across the formation and blasted the running back at the line of scrimmage.
There was little to no hesitation from the middle linebacker and he looked like a different player. The more I watched the more fun this became. Jefferson dropped smoothly into coverage and picked up backs coming out of the backfield on 3rd downs. He was also no longer getting bullied in the run game. He took on and shed blockers to make tackles.
He held contain of the edges and turned plays back inside. He did a nice job identifying play fakes on traditional runs plays (more on this later) and didn’t sell out to stop the run.
Jefferson is not without flaws, however. One of the things that kept creeping into games was the amount of time that Jefferson would drop his eye level and miss plays that he could have easily made.
Several times if Jefferson were simply looking he could have made the stop.
Though he proved me wrong in 2017 there are still times that he can be caught flat footed while waiting for the play to come to him. Other times he got caught up in counter plays and designed cut backs leaving him out of the play. Another thing that could be improved is his tackling.
Jefferson is an above average tackler, but he doesn’t always wrap up. Another thing that I noticed while watching the Kansas State game was how much trouble he had diagnosing the zone read. Lastly, as much as he excels in zone coverage, he can be exposed from time to time in man to man coverage.
If the last twelve months tells us anything about Malik Jefferson it’s that the NFL has been put on notice. Everything about his college experience gives me reason to be hopeful for his NFL future. The road through Texas was clearly not an easy one for him but the resilience he showed to become an outstanding football player will bode well for him at the next level. Though he’s not quite on the level of a Roquan Smith or as polished as Rashaan Evans, Jefferson finds himself as a fringe Round 1 player. I wonder if the NFL views him as a middle linebacker, outside linebacker or edge defender. He has the speed and coverage ability to play all three positions. In 2017, Jefferson began to look like someone who could potentially dominate games. He began to turn the corner into one of those linebackers that stands out when you watch the tape. I truly believe if he played out his senior year, he could be a top 10-15 pick.
GRADE: Late 1st Round/ 2nd Round
49ers Interest: Even before Reuben Foster’s arrest on January 12, linebacker was a position that needed to be upgraded. Malik Jefferson is a player that the 49ers should absolutely consider if he is there when they pick in Round 2. If Roquan Smith isn’t the pick in the 1st Round, then this should be a player that 49ers keep their eyes on if he falls into the 2nd Round. With his speed and position flexibility, Jefferson and Foster could compliment each other incredibly well.