Hercules Mata’afa departs the Washington State Cougars as one of the most decorated defensive players in program history. After racking up 22.5 tackles for loss (fourth nationally, most in the Pac-12, and a school record) and 10.5 sacks (eighth nationally and most in the Pac-12), the fourth-year junior was named a consensus all-American, the Associated Press Pac-12 defensive player of the year, and all-Pac-12 first team.
At a lot of schools, that kind of production would mean the player is a lock for the first round of the NFL Draft. At WSU, where players don’t come with five-star pedigrees, it just means there are more questions about how it will translate to the next level.
The questions aren’t completely unwarranted; Mata’afa spent the bulk of his time playing interior lineman despite his 6-2/250-pound stature, and the consensus is that he won’t be able to do that in the NFL. But some lucky team in this draft will see the talent and figure out a way to maximize it.
What We Like
Explosive quickness: NFL scouts love to talk about “get off,” and boy does Hercules have that. One of the reasons he was so effective as a defensive tackle in spite of his size was because he was often moving past a bigger interior lineman before he knew what to do.
Might wanna block Hercules Mata'afa pic.twitter.com/Mb3WRIj8Zz— Ty Wurth (@WurthDraft) September 30, 2017
Opponents double teamed Hercules Mata'afa almost every down when he lined up inside and when they didn't, this happens. Quick reminder: He is only around 250 lbs playing inside at WSU, he'll be an EDGE in the NFL pic.twitter.com/LlCcUxpANv— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) February 25, 2018
Coming off the EDGE again, Hercules Mata'afa is too quick for OL, splits the RG/RT pair and is gone before they can adjust pic.twitter.com/pJfGEH8Xk5— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) February 25, 2018
You get the picture. We actually could go on for a while longer, but we’ll leave it at that.
Superb leverage: It would be natural for a player giving up 50-plus pounds to get washed out once he’s engaged, but Mata’afa has an uncanny ability to maintain his center of gravity even while being pushed on by men who are much larger than he.
Hell of a play by Hercules Mata'afa. Slants backside, splits the combo gets held but is still able to make the play. Quick out of his stance, good swipe but need better pad level. pic.twitter.com/w6hmNbCHW6— Cover 1 (@Cover_1_) January 29, 2018
Really impressed by the hand strength & lateral quickness of WSU's Hercules Mata'afa. Synchronizes his hands & feet so well to slip blocks. pic.twitter.com/MuSJXOnyxz— Rob Rang (@RobRang) September 10, 2017
Hunter mentality. When we get to the next section, we’ll talk about Mata’afa’s measurables, which didn’t knock anyone over at the combine. But Hercules has this little extra something when he smells a chance to make a play — it’s a burst that’s hard to describe and even harder to measure. You kinda just have to see it. He’s relentless in his pursuit and he closes as fast as any athlete you’ll see in this draft.
Hercules Mata'afa isn't very big by DL standards at 6-2, 245 but every team in the NFL is looking for burst, close and finish like this. pic.twitter.com/GdfrZ9ImYt— Rob Rang (@RobRang) October 14, 2017
Year-over-year improvement. About this time last year, I was wondering just how good Mata’afa was going to end up being. After a strong freshman year — which, by the way, came after a developmental redshirt year — Hercules had a good follow-up campaign, but not a spectacular one. Here’s what I wrote going into his junior season:
By all accounts, it was an incredibly successful season for the redshirt sophomore from Lahaina, Hawaii. And yet ... well, it sure felt like there was some more meat on that bone.
Mata’afa was absolutely devastating through the first five games of the year, registering 8.5 tackles for loss, which included three sacks. But over the next five games — against some of WSU’s weaker competition — Mata’afa registered just 2.5 tackles for loss with zero sacks. And then when the competition got tough again, he did pick up a sack each against Colorado and Minnesota, but he got just half a tackle for loss against Washington.
For the year, Mata’afa would finish with 13.5 tackles for loss with five sacks, which was a tick up in the former from his sophomore year (11) and fifth in the conference, but the sacks took a dip (from seven) and were good only for a tie for 13th.
Obviously, my concerns were unfounded. In fact, here’s what his stat progression looked like over his college career:
Hercules Mata’afa College Stats
From a lightly-regarded three-star recruit to a consensus all-American, he just got better every season.
What We’re Unsure Of
Can he actually play a different position? This is the question foremost on everyone’s mind. There’s seeming unanimous agreement that he can’t play inside nearly as much as he did in college, but he didn’t spend a lot of time lining up in the other places for which he’d be a candidate in the NFL, so it’s a guessing game at this point. Is he a 4-3 end? Is he a 3-4 outside linebacker? Could he maybe even be an inside linebacker? The skills he shows on tape suggest he can be successful making a change, but that’s always a risky proposition.
How athletic is he, really? This obviously is related to the previous concern. His measurables just don’t really stack up with elite prospects — pretty much what you’d expect when you’re dealing with a player who once was rated as a modest three-star recruit. That’ll make NFL GMs pause a little bit when they watch him beat up on 300-pounders in college with his quickness, then think about whether he can do the same as an edge rusher against long-armed NFL tackles or playing in space as a linebacker against skill players.
There will undoubtedly be NFL GMs who will underrate Mata’afa’s college production because of the positional uncertainty. Being a generally risk-averse group, there probably will be many who will elect to pass on him repeatedly until he drops to a spot that’s more palatable for a “project.”
That would be a mistake. The best teams in the NFL make a habit of looking at a player and seeing what he can be, even if he doesn’t quite fit a mold — as a Seahawks fan, guys like Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor immediately come to mind. Mata’afa gets after the quarterback, and there’s always a place in the NFL for a player who has a nose for pressuring the QB.
Additionally, Mata’afa’s development suggests he can be coached into a new position. It might take a little bit of time, but his steady improvement as a Coug — much of which owes to a refinement of technique — is a resounding endorsement of his potential. He’s a superb student of the game.
There’s a creative coach/GM combo that will look at Mata’afa and see the possibilities. Hopefully, it’s the coach/GM combo of your favorite NFL team, because you’re probably going to regret it if it’s not.