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Tackling film with Bengals linebacker Malik Jefferson

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AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Skyler Howard
AUSTIN, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Skyler Howard /
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The Cincinnati Bengals spent one of their third-round picks on Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson. What did the film show?

The Cincinnati Bengals addressed the need at linebacker by drafting Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson in the third-round. Cincinnati traded back in the second round which moved them up in the third to 78 where they took Jefferson. Coming out of high school, Jefferson was ranked 10th nationally, the top outside linebacker, and the best player in Texas in the 2015 recruiting class.

Starting his career with the Longhorns, Jefferson put up 9 tackles and 2.5 tackles for a loss in his game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. During his first season he put up 61 tackles (7 for a loss), 2.5 sacks, 3 passes defended, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery in which he returned for a touchdown against Rice. He finished his freshman year with multiple awards including the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year, honorable mention All-Big 12 selection, and consensus Freshman All-American.

Jefferson went into his sophomore year with another good game against Notre Dame hauling in 6 tackles, 1 for a loss, and a sack. He struggled with a concussion in 2016 starting 9 of 11 games but still earning second-team All-Big 12 accolades by league media. His 2017 season was his best by far leading the Longhorns with 110 tackles (10 for a loss) and 4 sacks earning second-team Associated Press All-American status and first-team all-conference accolades.

Following the suffering of a turf toe injury in the Texas Bowl in 2017, Jefferson had a great combine running a 4.52 40-yard dash and posting a 36-inch verticle which are great numbers for a player at 236 pounds. Let’s take a look at his film at Texas.

Jefferson has all the athleticism to match is great measurements but he tends to lack the instincts to take him to the next level. Lacking these instincts will probably force him to play outside linebacker for the Bengals. His speed helps make up for this with his sideline to sideline speed and an extra burst of pursuit. The speed is extremely rare for a linebacker his size.

You can see the reaction and speed of Jefferson in this play against Oklahoma State. He comes from the far side, hits the hole and absolutely punishes the running back trying to run to the outside. Just look at the burst when from Jefferson when he starts to react to the direction of the play. Another play to gauge his pursuit burst of speed is below where he goes flying through the line to make a play in the backfield below.

While both of those plays were great and showed the athletic ability of Jefferson, I don’t want to see him in many early downs where he would have to attack the run game. Cincinnati has a lot of work to do with Jefferson to teach him how to read formations, diagnosing plays as they develop, and anticipating blocking schemes. Too often it looks like he is just running around and reacting instead of attacking the play and disrupting.

Jefferson struggles against the run because of his lack of instincts. He doesn’t have the awareness pre-snap to gauge where the play is going and is in constant react mode. This tends to get him into trouble when playing against the run.

In this play, Jefferson completely fails to see the pulling guard and gets pushed completely out of the play. This allowed for a big gain by Oklahoma and a good example of his inability to read offensive line blocking schemes.

Here is another play where his awareness has him looking like he is lost. Right when Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield is handing the ball to the running back, Jefferson should have gone to plug a hole in the middle. Instead, he stayed outside where there is already a safety and left a hole wide open for the running back. Absolutely no reason for two defenders to be covering the same gap here.

If you ask me, the Bengals drafted Jefferson for his reacting ability and athleticism to put him into coverage. Cincinnati has lacked a linebacker that can drop into coverage and in turn, has gotten burned over the last few years. Jefferson has the speed, size, and length to cover tight ends and slot receivers which is what the Bengals need from a linebacker.

This is a play that shows his burst of speed and athleticism in the pass coverage. Jefferson quickly comes off his back peddle and attacks the receiver coming across the middle. His quick reaction and delivering a hard hit only allowed a yard or two on the play.

Another example of Jefferson in coverage is here again against USC where he is asked to cover a slot receiver. This is exactly what quarterback Sam Darnold wanted as he stares down his receiver thinking he has a great matchup. Instead, Jefferson was able to keep pace with his assignment and not allow separation forcing Darnold to scramble.

While it may seem like I am down on the pick of Jefferson, I think that he can become a great linebacker in the NFL. Developing with the Bengals coaching staff and learning in the film room could turn Jefferson into an elite linebacker at the next level. Just watch the highlight video below and you can see the athleticism that he is absolutely gifted with.

Next: Bengals draft Sam Hubbard

Until the Bengals have some time to develop Jefferson and hopefully instill some instincts, I don’t see him being more than a coverage linebacker. If he is far back enough in space he can be a help in the run game but gets swallowed up or lost when he’s near the line of scrimmage. He will have to watch film and gain those instincts if he wants to be a three-down linebacker for the Bengals. Considering the Bengals need at linebacker was one that could cover, I still think this is a solid draft pick for Cincinnati.

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