NFL Draft

2018 NFL Draft Player Profiles: Washington State DL Hercules Mata’afa

From now until the 2018 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to showcase as many prospects as possible and examine both their strengths and weaknesses. Most of these profiles will feature individuals that the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to have an interest in, while a few others will be top-ranked players. If there is a player you would like us to analyze, let us know in the comments below.

#50 Hercules Mata’afa/EDGE/Washington State 6’1”, 252 Lbs

The Good

-Great burst off the line at the snap
-Fluid, natural mover along interior of offensive line
-Tremendous motor that runs hot all game long
-Shoots gaps with speed and power; very low pad level
-Packs a punch as a tackler
-Knack for finding the football anywhere on the field

The Bad

-Struggles to anchor against the run
-Relies too much on athleticism when rushing the passer
-Limited hand fighter as a pass rusher
-When he doesn’t win at the snap when shooting gaps, becomes obsolete to the play
-Lacks bend and a plan as a pass rusher


-Three-year letterman for Cougars
-Three-time All-Pac-12 Selection, earning first-team honors as a junior
-Named Consensus All-American as a junior, as well as Polynesian College Football Player of the Year
-Appeared in 39 career games, with 25 as a starter
-Recorded 123 tackles, 47 tackles-for-loss (second-most in WSU history), 22.5 sacks, (tied for fourth-most in WSU history), three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries in his career at WSU
-Set WSU single-season record with 22.5 tackles-for-loss as junior

 Tape Breakdown

Well, if there’s one thing we can take away from Washington State EDGE Hercules Mata’afa, he wins the name of the draft award, hands down.

Find me a better name than Hercules. You can’t.

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about Mata’afa the player.

Honestly, he might be the hardest player in this draft class to project from college to the NFL, simply because of the way current Ohio State defensive coordinator Alex Grinch used him while with the Cougars.

Despite being just 252 pounds, Grinch deployed Mata’afa as an interior defensive lineman, almost exclusively going up against 300+ pound behemoths. While he was severely undersized playing along the interior, Mata’afa was a disruptive force for the Cougars, setting a single-season record with 22.5 tackles for loss.

While he put up monster numbers playing defensive tackle, it wasn’t because he was some unblockable force due to technique. He simply relied on his lightning-fast get-off at the snap, whipping the offensive linemen in front of him, shooting gaps with impressive speed and power while maintaining low pad levels.

Don’t get me wrong; it’s really impressive what Mata’afa did for Washington State the last three years. I just don’t believe that it’s sustainable at the NFL.

Look at that get-off against Boise State from Week 2 of the 2017 season. Right before the snap, Mata’afa shifts down into the A-gap between the center and left guard. Once the ball is snapped, he’s upfield in a hurry, blowing right past the Boise State center, which falls to the ground. From there, Mata’afa is able to find the ball carrier for the TFL.

He doesn’t even have to make the play in the backfield to be productive.

Against Oregon this past season, Mata’afa was a force all game long, using his speed off the ball to disrupt the Ducks’ athletic offensive linemen. In the clip above, Mata’afa gets off the ball so fast against the center that he’s able to run up the field into the lane of the pulling right tackle, blowing the play up completely.

By running into the lane of the pulling tackle, Mata’afa leaves Oregon running back Royce Freeman without a blocker, which makes it easier for the Washington State defense to make a stop on Freeman behind the line of scrimmage.

While he’s a terrific run defender when shooting gaps, Mata’afa really doesn’t seem to have a feel for rushing the passer straight up, despite having 10.5 sacks last season.


When not shooting gaps, Mata’afa really doesn’t become much of a factor against the play. Here against Colorado during the 2017 season, his stunt to the outside is slow and deliberate, allowing the Colorado right tackle to set up his protection quickly, negating Mata’afa from putting pressure on the quarterback.

It’s not just that he’s taken out of the play, it’s how he’s taken out. Mata’afa’s punch isn’t very powerful, and he really doesn’t know how to use his hands that well as a pass rusher.

However, that’s not to say he flashes as a pass rusher when not shooting gaps.

Here against Utah late in the 2017 season, Mata’afa stunts to the outside after lining up in the A-gap. Once he’s on the edge, he’s able to use his speed to get around the Utah left tackle, which inexplicably steps inside towards the center as Mata’afa crosses his face.

Once he beats the tackle, look at the subtle shoulder dip towards the running back, keeping his punch area small, allowing him to slip by for heat on the quarterback. Sure, the running back is going out into a delayed route, but once Mata’afa dips the shoulder, he doesn’t even try to punch, knowing it’ll be useless and take up valuable time.

By the way, Mata’afa recovered the forced fumble in one fell swoop at the tail end of this sack.

I believe Mata’afa has the right build for a 3-4 outside linebacker, or a 4-3 defensive end that slides inside in a NASCAR package on third downs, but what he did best in college was shoot gaps to blow up plays. I can’t see him sustaining that success in the NFL at that position and that weight.

I think he’s certainly worth a Day 3 pick, because he’ll at worst develop into a strong special teams player, but projecting where he fits in a defense and how he’ll be used is far too hard for me to warrant a higher selection at this point.

Projection:  Mid-Day 3

Games Watched:  vs. Boise State (’17), vs. USC (’17), at Oregon (’17), at Cal (’17), vs. Colorado (’17), vs. Stanford (’17), at Utah (’17), vs. Michigan State (’17)


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Trayvon Henderson Josh Rosen Ronnie Harrison Kallen Ballage Cedric Wilson Jr.
Micah Kiser Will Hernandez Leighton Vander Esch Josh Allen   Harold Landry
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Kyzir White  Rashaan Evans  Tegray Scales  Isaac Yiadom  Jeff Holland
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 Mark Walton  Josey Jewell  PJ Hall  Dorian O’Daniel  Josh Adams
 Leon Jacobs  Marcus Davenport  Jack Cichy  Royce Freeman  Nick DeLuca
 Vita Vea  Darrel Williams  Mason Rudolph  Shaun Dion Hamilton  MJ Stewart
 Derwin James  Kameron Kelly Justin Reid Sam Hubbard Da’Ron Payne
 DaeSean Hamilton  Nyheim Hynes  Arden Key
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