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Vikings Next Man Up: Hercules Mata’afa

Can the 3rd year defensive lineman find a role?

Atlanta Falcons v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

The Vikings picked up Hercules Mata’afa two years ago as an undrafted rookie free agent. Mata’afa had a very successful career at Washington State as an interior defensive lineman, including being named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, despite the fact that he weighed only around 250 pounds. But he went undrafted despite some explosive traits and excellent college tape because he was seen as too small to play inside in the NFL, and not long enough to play defensive end.

But the Vikings took a flyer on the native Hawaiian, hoping to figure out a fit for him in Mike Zimmer’s defense.

#51 - DT Hercules Mata’afa

Mata’afa’s rookie year with the Vikings ended before it started, as he tore his ACL in early June, 2018. The Vikings saw enough potential in him to put him on IR, however, rather than just releasing him. He spent most of the next year rehabbing his knee, and hoping he could make the team. In addition to the rehab, Mata’afa also worked to bulk up, and showed up at OTAs last year having added about 20 pounds of muscle, weighing in around 275 pounds.

But more than the knee recovery and the added weight, comments by head coach Mike

Zimmer created some buzz around Mata’afa’s prospects. Not one to glow much about young players, Zimmer had a lot of praise for Mata’afa in OTAs, calling him the surprise of the off-season so far, and saying he reminded him of Geno Atkins, who Zimmer coached, when he first came into the league. Players and coaches were talking about him as well, using words like, “Explosive.” “Relentless motor.” “High energy, high effort.” “Unassuming.” and “Focused” to describe him.

Zimmer was impressed by Mata’afa’s quick first step and ability to come out low off the snap, and how well he was doing against both the run and pass. All that created some buzz that Mata’afa could emerge as the disruptive 3-Tech the Vikings had been missing since Zimmer came to town, except the one season Sheldon Richardson filled the role.

But it didn’t materialize.

Mata’afa made the roster, no easy feat for a UDFA, but rotating in on passing downs in a handful of games early in the season, he didn’t have much of an impact - he had just 4 hurries in 90 pass rushing snaps.

A big part of the reason for his ineffectiveness was how he was used. In his first snaps in the NFL, the Vikings had the undersized defensive tackle facing double-teams most of the time. The results were predictable.

At least half his snaps were at the 0, 1 or 2 technique and/or facing double teams. Rotating in on 15 or so passing downs at different positions didn’t give him much of opportunity to get settled at any one of them.

And after experimenting with him for 5 games, they took him off the active roster, except for the week 17 game against the Bears.

But despite the somewhat disjointed development program, Mata’afa has continued to work during the off-season to put himself in a better position to succeed. Since the end of the season, Mata’afa has continued to build his size and strength - adding another 25 pounds or so - tipping the scales at 289 pounds. That added bulk could make him a viable option on running downs, and therefore more able to compete for a starting job.

#51 - DT Hercules Mata’afa Game Tape Notes

Looking at Mata’afa’s game tape, there are a few things that stand out. First, he plays hard. There is no lack of effort in his game. He’s not the biggest guy out there, but he plays tough and gives it his all every play.

Second, his swim move seems to be his best, and he was able to use that with some success a few times. He has a bull rush, a rip move, and a spin move in his tool box as well.

But what really stands out throughout Mata’afa’s game tape is that he was often put in the position of taking one for the team. By that I mean he was often faced with double teams, and often by the offensive line’s best players. For example, against the Raiders, he faced double teams by Rodney Hudson and Richie Incognito. Against the Eagles, by Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson or Jason Kelce. But regardless of who it was, Mata’afa faced double teams on at least half his snaps. In that sense he functioned like a nose tackle more than half the time - taking on double teams so somebody else can make a play.

That being the case, he wasn’t in a position to get many QB pressures - pretty much by design. And so he didn’t. Only 4 pressures on 90 pass rush snaps. He did manage a few other impact plays, however. Week one against the Falcons, he had a nice swim move that generated a holding call. Against the Packers week two, he had a nice TFL on a dump off pass, and recovered a fumble. And against the Bears week 17 he had a nice batted pass when he was tasked as a spy on Mitch Trubisky.

And on the relatively few snaps when he had a one-on-one situation, he had his share of success. He didn’t get a sack, but he did demonstrate that he can generate pressure if given a one-on-one match-up. Unfortunately that was rarely the case for Mata’afa last season, and that’s reflected in his stats.

Looking Ahead

Not showing up much in the stat sheet or the highlight reel last season, and not really getting much playing time either, it would be easy to dismiss Mata’afa as someone who’s not gonna make it. But that would be premature.

Mata’afa has the desired traits in a 3-technique, but has been somewhat undersized. More importantly, he hasn’t been put in a position where he can maximize his skill set. The way he was used last season didn’t give him a chance to show much, which was too bad. Schematically the Vikings weren’t trying to set up Mata’afa as a featured pass rusher. Far from it- despite being a passing down sub-package specialist.

But that doesn’t mean Mata’afa cannot succeed in that role if given the opportunity. He is doing his part to make himself viable as three-down defensive tackle, and with that a shot to compete for a starting job.

At the same time, Mata’afa may also benefit from a scheme change up-front - one that gives him a better opportunity to maximize his potential. And with Zimmer looking to make changes defensively, those changes could put Mata’afa in a better position for success.

We’ll see.


Does Hercules Mata’afa have what it takes to be a starting 3-tech for the Vikings?

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