By drafting Malik Jefferson, the Bengals acquired an extremely gifted linebacker. The former Texas Longhorn was a five star recruit out of high school and has the the athletic profile to develop into a star in the NFL.
Jefferson did not stand out in his first couple of seasons at Texas, but benefitted from the Longhorns’ recent coaching change. The Longhorns’ defensive system in 2017 was a much better fit for Jefferson than the one they had previously employed. Playing off the ball helped Jefferson reach his potential in his final college season totalling 110 tackles on the year.
Jefferson is an explosive tackler who uses his hips and leg drive to not only stop runners, but move them backwards. Below, you can see Jefferson roll his hips and keep his keep moving on contact. He stands the running back up and ensures that he does not have an opportunity to reach forward to get the first down.
Jefferson missed too many tackles during his college career, though. Sometimes he would outrun an opponent on the edge and get cut back on. In the clip below his feet get wide as he slows down to muddy the quarterback’s read and allow time for the support player to get into position. With Jefferson in poor body position, the quarterback is able to juke causing a missed tackle.
Jefferson has a great understanding of where he fits in the run game. Here he is the cutback player. He does a great job of folding into the box and filling the vacant gap as the rusher hits the hole. This is an excellent job by Jefferson and exactly how a linebacker should play the backside of inside zone.
Although he is responsible for the edge here, Jefferson sees a gap open up and trusts his athletic ability enough to shoot the gap. This forces the running back to cutback severely and leads to a tackle for a loss.
Many linebackers would take the wide angle playing the outside shoulder of the tight end to force the cutback. Although that would have been a good play and sound defense, aggressively shooting the gap is what creates the opportunity for a loss of yardage.
Jefferson can be a true sideline-to-sideline middle linebacker. He demonstrats that here as he lines up over the center but makes the tackle on the pitch near the sideline. Jefferson is able to scrape and stay clean, while having enough speed to get to the sideline and make a play at the line of scrimmage on third-and-one.
Jefferson looks lost at times in zone coverage. He seems like he was not effectively taught how to read a quarterback and simply drops to space.
He has the athletic traits to excel in pass coverage, but has a lot to learn in zone coverages. Here, Jefferson shows that he can match up well with tight ends.
Although he needs some work as a pass defender, Jefferson’s atheltic ability could be used to effectively mirror and spy athletic quarterbacks. With the potential that the Bengals could be seeing both Baker Mayfield and Lamar Jackson twice a year in the near future, this is a valuable skill. Here the quarterback runs a draw and Jefferson stops him in his tracks near the line of scrimmage.
Jefferson has the size and speed to be an incredible linebacker in the NFL. He needs to work on his pass coverage, but does some very good things against the run. He is extremely fast and would benefit from simple reads that allow him to react quickly. Jefferson is not likely to have a major impact in his rookie season, but could develop into a long-term starter for the Bengals.
Although he has the athletic ability to play any linebacker position, Jefferson may be best suited to play middle linebacker where he can make faster reads and will have to make fewer adjustments.