Another of the more intriguing UDFAs the Vikings have signed is Hercules Mata’afa, out of Washington State. Weighing in at around 250 lbs., he dominated as an interior defensive linemen in college. That won’t be the case in the NFL. He also may not have the traits to be successful as a defensive end. So what will the Vikings do with him then?
Well, Mata’afa does have the build and skill set to play linebacker- most likely a backup base linebacker behind Ben Gedeon- and that is how the Vikings have listed him.
Update: Rick Spielman said in an interview with Paul Allen that they’ll look at Mata’afa as a backup SAM linebacker initially and try to utilize his blitzing ability.
Well, okay, so what- backup base linebackers are a dime a dozen. What’s so intriguing about that?
Let’s take a look.
Analyzing Hercules Mata’afa’s Game
Mata’afa basically has an old school linebacker build - 6’2”, 252 lbs. He ran a 4.76” 40, very similar to Ben Gedeon, but he does have a particular skill set he developed as a defensive tackle:
- Explosive off the snap, good rip move
- Plays with single-minded desire to find the football
- High motor
- Gets tackles and sacks with strong secondary effort
- Punishing tackler with heavy hands
- Every snap is important
- Good lateral quickness to get to blockers edge
These are all very good traits for a linebacker, but also- and perhaps even more so- for a special teams ace.
Mata’afa seems like a guy that could line up inside or outside on the punt return team and be a constant threat to block the punt - same for field goals and extra points. This is a guy that when he wins as a defensive tackle, he often is able to penetrate and nail the RB practically when he gets the hand-off. Against NFL-caliber offensive linemen, Mata’afa is not likely to be as effective as a DT, given his size. Watching his tape against USC points that out. But against NFL special teams units, which typically have smaller guys along the line- long-snapper, backup TEs, LBs, DEs - guys that can run and cover after the punt/kick is away- Mata’afa could be very effective.
And on punt and kick coverage units, he has all the skills to rack up a lot of tackles and really be a disruptive force on those units as well. His ability to get by blockers in the open field, find the ball, and make the tackle is impressive. His combination of good vision/awareness/instincts, excellent hand use, closing burst, and play-maker ability to finish could make him a very effective special teams ace on these units.
But there’s more.
As a linebacker, where the Vikings plan to use him, Mata’afa can use his skill set to be a very effective blitzer. Whether an ‘A’ gap blitzer or off the edge, he has that special combination of explosive burst off the snap, good hand use/lateral quickness/leverage, secondary effort and finishing ability that could make him a very effective blitzer from the linebacker position.
Pro Football Focus (PFF) had Mata’afa as #63 on their big board - a late second-round value - that the Vikings picked up as a UDFA. They list him as one of ten UDFAs they think will make an impact.
I would not be surprised to see Mata’afa make the roster as a special teamer and backup LB behind Ben Gedeon. He’s also my early favorite to be “Mr. Eagan” or whatever the successor to ‘Mr. Mankato” will be called this year.
Here are some illustrations of Mata’afa’s skill set outlined above:
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
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
Along with some highlights: