There was a time when Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson was viewed as a potential first-round pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Just after Super Bowl LII, Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller predicted that the 6-foot-3, 236-pounder, who amassed 110 total tackles, 10 tackles for loss and four sacks for the Longhorns in 2017, could be a target for the New Orleans Saints at No. 27.
“Jefferson is a special athlete who will post rare times at the scouting combine,” Miller said, “but some teams are struggling to reconcile that with his film that was at times uninspiring. Jefferson, playing middle linebacker, was a step late occasionally but was able to make up for it with speed. You can’t do that in the NFL, of course, but with coaching and reps at just one position instead of jumping all over the defense, Jefferson could be a high-level starter.”
Jefferson did have a good workout in Indianapolis, with trainer Bobby Stroupe telling Jeff Howe of 247 Sports that Jefferson’s agility and ability to change direction (highly coveted traits in today’s sideline-to-sideline NFL) were on full display.
“The point of concentration for most of the scouts was, can he change direction? Does he have good enough hips? Can he react? Can he play the part in pass coverage? They want to see if he’s explosive as they heard,” Stroupe said. “I think he did a really good job at the combine and today showing in drills — which is really the only way that you can show true mobility — how he can redirect his body. He has great reaction speed and he’s explosive in his movements.”
However, those traits don’t appear consistently in tape, where Jefferson often looked a step slow to react. That has dropped the All-American and Co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year into the draft’s second day on most boards.
But just because Jefferson has the look of a Day 2 pick doesn’t mean that he can’t be a first-rate fantasy asset.
Dan Dahlke of Cheesehead TV echoed a common sentiment among the draft community. Jefferson has first-round athletic talent — he just didn’t show it all the time.
“Jefferson is a Day 1 talent who could fall into the second round because of consistency concerns,” Dahlke said. “He still possesses a ton of upside, and given his young age, still has plenty of room to grow. He remains one of the top linebackers in the class and a prospect with exciting athletic traits. However, teams drafting him will have to be patient and allow him time to develop before expecting any type of impact on the field. He’s definitely a high-risk/high-reward prospect. His versatility to play inside or outside and to rush the passer or drop in coverage should hold significant weight though in draft war rooms.”
Many of those same sentiments were echoed by Lance Zierlein of NFL.com.
“Jefferson has the desired combination of height, weight, speed that teams covet and draft, but his career production never matched his athletic traits,” Zierlein said. “He lacks the instincts and play demeanor to be a middle linebacker and could move to a weak-side linebacker spot in a 4-3 to take advantage of his athletic gifts. Jefferson has athletic talent, but needs to play with more of a glass-eating mentality to fit in with NFL linebackers. He has eventual starter talent and should become a very good core special teamer.”
At least one AFC Scout agrees with Zierlein that Jefferson’s best fit at the professional level is one where can flow to the football without having to make multiple reads. “He was better this year because Todd Orlando (defensive coordinator) had him attack and run instead of trying to process and react,” the scout said. “I see him as a better tester (Combine) than player.”
However, Dave Thomas of SB Nation believes that Jefferson is capable of kicking inside in the NFL, calling him the best of the Day 2 linebackers.
“Jefferson has that rare combination of size and speed to fly to the ball and punish the runner with crunching hits,” he said. “You would think that the way he attacks the ball carriers that he would have many more nicks and bruises, considering his “search and destroy” attitude on the field. He has excellent quickness and balance, showing the quick change of direction and lateral agility to make plays along the perimeter. He plays faster than his timed speed indicates and even when banged up, he will give total effort on the field.”
No one is questioning Jefferson’s physical gifts — he has the athletic talent to play an every-down role in the NFL early on. The key for him is going to demonstrating to his new team that he can fly around with getting lost or caught out of position. If he can, Jefferson could start and make a substantial IDP impact early on. If he can’t, he’ll be spending most of his time on the sidelines in between running down punts.
Jefferson will all but surely be drafted to play inside or as a weak inside linebacker in a four-man front, and in a perfect world (clear path to early playing time and a quick acclimation to the pros) Jefferson could work himself into the LB3 conversation fairly quickly. However, after watching film of Jefferson I’m inclined to think that acclimation is going to take some time. Long story short, he needs to be coached up a bit.
This isn’t to say that I wouldn’t add Jefferson late on draft day in redraft IDP leagues as depth at the linebacker spot – I’ve long been a proponent of targeting upside where my reserves are concerned. But fantasy owners counting on an early impact from Jefferson are setting themselves up to be disappointed.
Those questions regarding his ability to hit the proverbial ground running also drop him behind players like Roquan Smith of Georgia, Tremaine Edmunds of Virginia Tech and Alabama’s Rashaan Evans in my eyes in IDP dynasties – at least until we see who lands where.
That doesn’t mean Jefferson isn’t worth adding, mind you – just that it’s a pick aimed more at potential in the future than a splash in the present.