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Is Hercules Mata’afa the Real Deal at Defensive Tackle?

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Or is he just a myth?

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NCAA Football: Nevada at Washington State James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

It all started a month ago, first with this tweet:

And then a few days later the buzz began in earnest when Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer called Mata’afa, “the surprise of camp” and recalling the similarities between him and Geno Atkins - who Zimmer coached in Cincinnati- during his first OTAs.

Not from Out of Nowhere

Hercules Mata’afa played mostly defensive tackle during his 3 seasons at Washington State, and despite being one of the smallest defensive tackles in the FBS, he was among the most productive.

After news broke of Zimmer’s comments about Mata’afa, Pro Football Focus posted this piece about him, saying:

Hearing that Mata’afa has looked good on the interior of the defensive line shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise — it was a position he played and dominated from in college. During his 2017 season, Mata’afa ranked seventh out of the 200 Power 5 interior defenders who played at least 200 defensive snaps with an 89.6 overall grade.

Mata’afa thrived against the run (89.6 run-defense grade) but he was far from one-dimensional, as his 86.0 pass-rushing grade ranked second among interior defenders, making him – along with Maurice Hurst – one of just two interior defenders in the nation to finish the 2017 season with both a run-defense and pass-rush grade north of 85.0.

PFF has been a big fan of Mata’afa for years, and included him as a promising UDFA both this year (prior to any of this news), and last year.

The Vikings signed Mata’afa as a UDFA last year, having gone undrafted because he was undersized for an NFL defensive lineman - not long enough for a defensive end and not heavy enough for a defensive tackle. Despite that, Pro Football Focus had him ranked 63rd on their 2018 draft big board, based on his production, traits and play-making ability.

So the Vikings signed him hoping to find a position for him. They started him out at linebacker, but then moved him back to defensive line, where they had him at defensive end and moving inside as a pass-rusher. But then he tore his ACL at the beginning of June last year, ending his rookie year on IR.

Coming Back For (and with) More

Not much was written about Mata’afa after that, until the news that he had not only recovered from his ACL tear - quickly as it turned out- but also that he had gained 20 pounds, and was the surprise of camp at 3-technique.

But in a recent interview in the Spokesman-Review, Mata’afa said he was devastated after his knee injury when the Vikings told him they were placing him on injured reserve, and went through a period when he wondered if it was all worth it.

“I found that it was,” he said.

He also realized that by putting him on IR, rather than releasing him, the Vikings showed that they wanted him around. He stayed in Minnesota for the rest of 2018 to be with the training staff as he rehabbed after surgery. “I was able to do things much faster than you’re usually able to do, and these guys out here, the training staff, really got me right.”

At the same time, Vikings defensive line coach Andre Patterson told him he liked what he had done along the defensive line and wanted to give him another shot at 3-technique: “I think you can do special things at that position,” Patterson told him.

Early Years

Mata’afa is a native Hawaiian, having grown up in Lahaina on Maui. One of seven kids, he was a wrestler from an early age, a sport which often helps linemen improve leverage, balance, and hand/arm usage- not to mention work ethic, strength, and self-discipline. Mata’afa was pretty good too - two-time state high school finalist at the 215 lbs. weight class - before giving it up prior to his senior year to focus on football. He was also an all-state football player (OLB) before moving on to Washington State.

Washington State

There he red-shirted as a freshman before getting consistently better, and more productive, each season as a defensive tackle. In his last season (2017), he was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, Polynesian Player of the Year, consensus All-American, and first-team All Pac-12. He played in 13 games, starting 12, with 45 tackles, 22.5 tackles for loss (top 5 nationally), including 10.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles.

Below are a handful of plays that led to those stats, and demonstrating the traits the Vikings coaches and players mentioned he showed in OTAs this spring.

He just plays with amazing leverage... he’s able to use that and explode into the offensive lineman whether it’s pass or run. - Stephen Weatherly
He can get out of the chutes without raising up at all.. he’s been very difficult to block, he’s very active - you know I think he led college football in tackles for loss...- Mike Zimmer
He is playing the run well, he has a good pad level. His quickness and speed rushing the passer is really showing up in these first couple practices. - George Edwards
He’s just a worker. His body lean is extremely low. He’s got great post stuff. - Mike Zimmer
His quickness is really beneficial inside. - George Edwards

Success as a Small 3-Tech

Even at 275 lbs., Mata’afa is probably the lightest defensive tackle in the league. That’s not to say at 6’ 2” he couldn’t put on another 5-10 pounds, but even then he’ll still be one of the lightest defensive tackles. But a handful of smaller DTs have enjoyed great success in the NFL - guys like John Randle, Aaron Donald, and Geno Atkins. Those guys were/are between 280-290 - a good 20 pounds or so lighter than prototype, and about 10 pounds heavier than Mata’afa is now.

But reason for their success, despite being light for the position, comes from their athletic traits and technique. All three of those All-Pros had/have the key traits in a 3-tech - explosiveness including a quick first step, excellent technique and use of leverage, relentless motor, and excellent functional strength. They also knew how to take advantage of their strengths and play to them.

Beyond that, I’m not sure it’s useful to compare smaller defensive tackles anymore than it is 310 pound ones. Even though there may be similarities, each player develops differently and has their own style of play - as is the case with Randle, Donald and Atkins.

Expectations

Mata’afa may be small, but he’s shown the key traits desired in a defensive tackle - abundantly so in college and now it seems in the off-season program at 275 lbs.. But, as Mike Zimmer pointed out, he still has a long way to go.

It will be interesting to see how he does in training camp and in pre-season action - along with how many reps he gets.

Neither John Randle nor Geno Atkins saw the field much their rookie years, but they had more proven guys ahead of them - Henry Thomas in Randle’s case.

But with Sheldon Richardson’s departure, there isn’t a proven talent ahead of Mata’afa at 3-tech. Shamar Stephen was brought in to help fill the void, but while he knows Zimmer’s defense, he’s never been more than just a guy as an interior lineman. He may also be asked to rotate at nose tackle to spell Linval Joseph. Beyond Stephen, Jaleel Johnson and Jalyn Holmes have yet to show much, and have only had limited reps in the past.

That leaves the door open for Mata’afa, if he can continue his college and OTA performance into training camp and pre-season. A continued good showing could lead to significant reps in rotation at 3-tech along with Stephen, but it could also be a situation similar to Brian O’Neill last season, where Mata’afa eventually becomes the starter.

The Time Is Coming

Though his stock appears to be rising, Mata’afa has remained soft-spoken, humble and self-aware when it comes to the comments and praise he’s received this spring. When asked about it, he had this to say:

“I haven’t made the 53-man roster yet and I haven’t contributed to this team yet. I’ll just keep going out there, doing my job the best I can and hopefully I’ll be able to live up to those high comments. But the time hasn’t come yet.”

That time is about a month off.

And if past is prologue, I wouldn’t bet against him showing his performance in OTAs was no fluke.

Poll

What are your expectations for Hercules Mata’afa this season ?

This poll is closed

  • 1%
    He won’t make the roster
    (47 votes)
  • 18%
    He’ll make the roster but only limited reps
    (484 votes)
  • 14%
    He’ll be average with significant reps in rotation
    (376 votes)
  • 36%
    He’ll be above average in rotation with significant reps
    (933 votes)
  • 21%
    He’ll take over the starting job at 3-tech based on superior performance
    (544 votes)
  • 2%
    He’ll have a Pro-Bowl caliber season
    (71 votes)
  • 5%
    Defensive Player of the Year
    (134 votes)
2589 votes total Vote Now