With the 84th pick in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected DL DeMarvin Leal out of Texas A&M. Leal drew a lot of praise from draftniks prior to the start of the 2021 season, often being thrown up there as a consensus Top 15 selection in the upcoming draft. While posting his best season to-date with the Aggies from a statistical standpoint and earning All-America First Team & All-SEC First Team honors from the Associated Press, Leal saw his preseason hype fall off during the pre-draft process, causing him to drop during the draft to the Steelers who selected him in the third round.
I had the privilege of breaking down Leal’s game tape in a pre-draft profile for Steelers Depot, and after hearing his name floated around often in the first-round conversation, I have to say I came away with mixed feelings on the prospect. On-one-hand, Leal is an accomplished pass rusher, possessing a variety of moves to win while playing all over the defensive front for the Aggies along with a consistent motor to chase after the football. On-the-other-hand, Leal appeared to be a bit of a tweener, truly lacking a defined position as a small interior defender but a large, less twitchy edge rusher.
Along with mediocre testing at the NFL Combine, Leal’s tape showed various inconsistencies as a run defender which I have taken the liberty of breaking down in this film room, highlighting the areas on concern and needed development, as well as areas that Leal represented himself well and likely prompted the Steelers to feel that he can develop in this aspect of his game.
While Leal is not a small DL by any means, standing 6’3 7/8, 283lb, He does lack that ideal length and bulk Pittsburgh has become known for in their DEs. Along with below-average length and height, Leal’s weight distribution doesn’t do him any favors as a run defender, being more of a top-heavy athlete with slender legs that make it difficult to generate power going forward as well as sit down and anchor against force. We see that lack of anchor strength on several occasions throughout his tape, being driven of the ball by sheer size and power like on these reps against Alabama OT #73 Evan Neal.
Watching Leal attempt to play with brute strength and power at the LOS in run defense, you recognize that he must get physically stronger at the point of attack, having a more explosive first step to get hands-on the blocker to prevent giving up his torso first and play with heavier hands on his initial punch on contact. Technique is also a key reason for Leal’s struggles in run defense as he will play with his shoulders too far over his toes like on this rep, failing to dig his feet in and push forward against the force the opposing guard exerts on him and starts to stand upright as they wash him down the line, creating a wide running lane off-tackle.
Here is another example against Arkansas on a QB draw where Leal pops straight up and allows the blocker right into his shoulder pads, thus leading to the blocker taking him for a ride as Leal is unable to shed the block as the QB gets to the outside.
Here are similar examples against Ole Miss where Leal engages the LT after the snap, but his pad level along with poor hand usage to stack and shed the blocker who gets a hold of his breastplate on his pads runs him out toward the sideline, kicking him out or holding him off just long enough for the runner to shoot through the gap into the second level while Leal is unable to shed the block.
Again, another example against the Razorbacks where Leal plays too far over his toes and with poor hip and knee flexion, allowing the RT to get a violent punch inside his outside shoulder with his right arm and wash him down the LOS to spring the big run. Leal must continue to work on getting stronger and play with better body control at the point of attack if he hopes to be a more consistent contributor on early downs.
Still, despite some glaring issues in terms of strength at the point of attack and being able to consistently shed blocks, there are instances where you see Leal shine as a run defender. General manager Kevin Colbert shared those sentiments after the draft when he took part in an interview with Pat Kirwan and Jim Miller on SiriusXM, saying the following about Leal:
“We think he can get a little bigger. We think he can get a little stronger. He’ll be an end in our base defense, he’ll be a tackle in the sub-package”, Colbert said. “He won’t be an edge rusher for us, but his athleticism, I don’t think, will be hurt by adding a little more muscle and strength. We think he can be a really good run defender. He had 12 and a half tackles for loss. You get that kind of production out of a defensive lineman, that stuff’s hard to find, really”.
Much like my thoughts while completing Leal’s pre-draft profile and during our roundtable discussions on the Terrible Podcast, Colbert acknowledged that Leal would have to add some lean mass and get functionally stronger to play at the next level. However, he also made sure to iterate Leal’s production as a run defender and his upside to improve in that area. I, for one, agree with Colbert that Leal does possess some god traits to signal that he can be a capable run defender. One of those traits is his push/push stack-and-shed move he has used several times on film, using OLs’ forward lean and momentum against them to yank them to the ground and make a play on the football.
Colbert also mentioned Leal’s athleticism for his size as a likely base DE in Pittsburgh’s that can kick inside in sub packages. When watching his tape, Leal was able to showcase his athleticism well as a finesse player against the run, both by shooting gaps as a penetrator as well as using quick hand movements to evade blocks and make plays in the backfield. Here are a couple of instances where Leal is able to swim over the block and get into the backfield to make the TFL.
The encouraging part about Leal is while he can struggle with his base and anchor at times against the run, he has shown the ability to do it on film. Here in the same game against Alabama where Leal had been getting blown off the ball in the earlier clips, we see him kick inside over the LG and get hands-on immediately after the snap, ceding a little ground initially, but does a better job digging his feet in to fight pressure with better knee bend as he fights through the double team to wrap up #4 Brian Robinson right a5t the LOS for no gain.
Overall, DeMarvin Leal is an interesting case study of a player that has the requisite athletic traits, position versatility/scheme versatility, and pass rush production to be an impactful player at the next level. There is no denying that he will have to commit himself to improving his body by means of a professional strength and conditioning program, getting up to likely 290-295lb while adding more functional strength in his lower half to better hold his own at the point of attack as well as play with better brute strength and power. His hand usage also needs to improve to better work off blocks as well as prevent OL from getting hands on his chest to control him during the rep.
Still, Leal’s quickness and finesse at shooting gaps is enticing as an interior defender who can take advantage of guards along a defensive front in Pittsburgh that has morphed from a two-gapping front to more of a penetrating front over the years. Colbert acknowledged this, as well as Leal’s ability to play up and down the LOS attracted Pittsburgh to take him, which I completely understand. Leal likely will see a similar plan of progression that Isaiahh Loudermilk saw last season as a rookie, taking time to build up his body and play as a rotational piece before earning more consistent snaps on defense.
Leal can start out as a sub package rotational player that Pittsburgh can bring in on passing downs with Loudermilk likely playing more on early downs, and with time and more development of technique as well as his overall body, Leal can find his way into more consistent snaps later into the 2022 season and more in 2023.
What are your thoughts on DeMarvin Leal as a run defender? Do you think that he is a complete liability in this area, or do you see the promise that Colbert mentioned in this facet of his game? Do you think that he can get physically stronger and adding functional mass to better handle the duties of run defense at the next level? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!