Penn State OLB, Jesse Luketa, is shooting up draft boards. In past drafts, Les Snead has paid close attention to the Senior Bowl when looking for players and down in Mobile Luketa was one of the standouts. Driving buzz about Luketa was a viral video clip that came from one of the team drill practice sessions during Senior Bowl week. On a play action pass, Luketa explodes into the chest of huge 6'8'' tall and 387 pound Minnesota right tackle, Daniel Faalele, knocking Faalele to the ground as if he had been hit by a ton of bricks.
Luketa continued to cause problems for offensive tackles the rest of the week and in the Senior Bowl game he had 2 sacks. The first sack came from a two point stance, where Luketa smokes the RT for a strip sack. He started from a three point stance on the second sack, then exploded past the RT and chased down the QB from behind. PFN named Luketa one of the defensive standouts from the Senior Bowl. Sports Illustrated was so impressed, they projected that Luketa would be a Day 2 pick in the draft.
On multiple major draft boards, I couldn't even find Luketa's name included. On another he's listed in the UDFA range. A couple had him in the 5th round range. So, in a short period of time, Luketa has gone from being a late round or UDFA player to being discussed as a potential 2nd or 3rd round pick.
One stat makes Luketa's possible meteoric rise very surprising. Can you guess how many career sacks Luketa had in his 4 year career at Penn State? He had 0.5 sacks. No, I'm not making that up. We're talking about a prospect who people think could be a quality edge defender in the NFL and he technically didn't even have a full sack in his entire college career. Is Luketa overrated, a mirage created by draft season? Or is Jesse Luketa one of the best kept secrets in the 2022 NFL draft?
I like this player. It was fun to watch Luketa play, because he has a hard charging, high energy style on the field. Lance Zierlein described it by saying that Luketa plays every snap like his hair is on fire. Luketa is small to be an edge rusher, but he has very surprising play strength. He also has excellent intangibles. I could see Luketa becoming a football coach someday.
It isn't clear what position Luketa will play in the NFL, because he can be used both as a stand up LB or an edge rusher. Experts feel he's either a 4-3 SAM linebacker or a developmental 3-4 OLB. A team might try turning him into a middle linebacker. A player in last year's draft who was somewhat similar in this respect was Baron Browning from Ohio State. Browning was the very last pick in the 3rd round of last year's draft. Lance Zierlein has nearly identical draft grades on Browning and Luketa. So, if we assume that Luketa will come off the board at the same slot where Browning was taken, this would put Luketa at almost exactly the slot where the Rams will make their first pick in the 2022 draft.
Luketa ran slow at the Combine (nearly 4.9 sec in the 40), so if this drops his draft stock, maybe he will boomerang back into the later rounds of the draft, his 15 minutes of fame bursting. We'll have to wait and see what people say after the end of the Combine.
Name: Jesse Luketa
Position: Edge or Outside Linebacker
School: Penn State
Size: 6' 2 3/8'' tall, 261 pounds, 33'' arms, 10 1/4'' hands, 78 3/4'' wingspan
He measured slightly differently at the Combine compared to the Senior Bowl: 6'3'', 253 pounds, 32 5/8'' arms, 10 3/8'' hands
Testing: 4.89 sec (40 time), 1.68 sec (10 yard split), 37.5'' vertical jump, 9'6'' broad jump
Age: 23. True Senior.
Born in Ottawa. Raised by single mother who immigrated to Canada from Congo. Has 6 siblings. Criminology major. 3 time team captain of high school football team. 4 star recruit in Pennsylvania. Weighed 205 pounds. Was in same recruiting class as Micah Parsons. One of 8 team captains at Penn State in 2020. Not named a permanent captain in 2020, but was chosen to be PSU game captain multiple times. Second on PSU's defense in tackles in 2020 with 59 tackles in 8 starts. Had 61 tackles in 12 games in 2021, with 8.5 TFLs, 0.5 sacks, 5 QB hurries and an INT for a TD.
Luketa played special teams as a freshman, then was primarily a backup his 2nd year. During his junior season in 2020, he played as an OLB. PSU lost a number of their top DEs after the 2020 season, including Odafe Jayson Oweh (1st round pick by the Ravens). In 2021, PSU moved Luketa around, having him split time between DE and LB. They also rotated players, so there were times where Luketa was not on the field. A reflection of Luketa's football character is that not only did he play in PSU's bowl game, but he played that game at LB due to an injury to another player. If he was selfish and only cared about his NFL draft stock as an edge defender, there was zero reason for him to have played in that game. After the season, PSU's coach praised Luketa and said that he'd pound the table for him in the NFL draft.
Missed a game in 2021 due to undisclosed injury.
Lance Zierlein says Luketa is a team-first leader who is loved by his coaches. Best suited to be a 4-3 SAM linebacker, with developmental potential to be a 3-4 OLB. Projects to be a good backup or low end starter, will be a good special teams player.
LZ 6.23 draft grade. Compare to 6.27 (Baron Browning, late 3rd), 5.99 (Ernest Jones, late 3rd), 6.26 (Jabril Cox, 4th rd) a few of the LBs taken in the 3rd to 4th round last year. Luketa's draft grade by a solid margin is better than all of the edge defenders drafted in the 4th round last year, but last year's draft wasn't very deep, so even if scouts agree with LZ, might not guarantee that that he'll be a Day 2 pick.
PFN (Tony Pauline) 333rd overall (7th round projection) There were 259 picks in last year's draft.
PFF not ranked top 150 board, his name is 166th overall on their draft simulator (5th round) Compare that to Josh Paschal, who PFF's sim has at 72 overall.
CBSSports not ranked
Drafttek not ranked
Draft Countdown 125th (Shane, 4th), 146th (Brian, early 5th), 136th (consensus 4th), listed as LB, not as edge player.
PFN (Oliver Hodgkinson) says that he projects as a mid-Day 3 pick (which means 5th to 6th round).
Versatile defender. In 2021, lined up in wide variety of positions on both odd and even fronts. 4-3 DE in a 3 point stance, as OLB standing up in 2 point stance, 3-4 DE, middle linebacker behind the DL, wide 9 alignment, standing up over the offensive G. As edge defender went against both LTs and RTs.
High motor. Pursues the ball with hunger and desire. Combative, doesn't back down from challenges. Multiple times he knocked over the ref trying to get to the ball carrier.
Agile and quick. Slithers inside on twists. Gets skinny at the LOS. Can swim over run blocks. Fluid change of direction in open space. Comfortable dropping back into pass coverage in short zone areas.
Very surprising power and strength relative to his size. Pound for pound dynamo who packs a wallop. Shocks RT with powerful jolt, shoving him away, the wrapping up the RB at the LOS for no gain. The RG tries to pull around and Luketa absolutely obliterates him with a heavy blow (similar to what happened to huge Faalele at the Senior Bowl).
Has violent and heavy hands. Able to quickly defeat run blocks with both powerful shoves or quick evasive moves. On wide pass to WR, a TE tries to block in space and Luketa playing as a stacked LB runs out and slams into the TE, sending the TE flying backwards.
Sets edge very well for a smaller defender. Can fend off blocker, disengage and shed blocks to contain the play. Gets low and wins leverage against taller OTs, low man wins, then defeats the block.
Good defender who makes impact in short yardage run situations. On a 4th down run, in very quick succession, he jumps sideways and uses his hands to get by a block by the TE, then he fends off the pulling RG, then he stuffs the lead blocking FB. It happened so lightning fast, I had to watch the play over again to dissect exactly what happened. By beating all those blocks, he trashed the blocking plan and freed up his teammates to stop the RB.
Has strength to overpower TEs who attempt to block him one on one.
Able to bend the edge to get to the QB. Has variety of basic pass rush moves. Able to dip under the OT. Average spin move. Swipe moves. Enough speed to threaten outside edge of OT. Doesn't expose his chest to the OT, presents a small target area for the blocker.
Pulled arms of RT down to throw him off balance, then disengaged to tackle the RB.
Solid tackler. Long arms reach out and trip up runners. Wraps up firmly. Delivered hit with facemask into QB's chest. As LB, fast closing speed to jump all over shallow drag route and makes strong tackle on receiver.
Had some nice plays as a MLB. Used his hands to protect his legs from OG, stay clean and find the RB. Quickly jumps from gap to gap. Fast burst up the middle, then slams into the lead fullback. Shows enough potential that an NFL team might try to develop him as a stand up LB instead of trying to develop him as a pass rusher. Maybe he could be the next Cory Littleton, but much better as a run defender.
Aware to WR screen pass. Aware to reverse. Nice reaction to read option and tackled the RB right away.
On several of his pass rush reps, he's not trying 100% to go get the QB. He's reading the play develop and if he senses something developing, he'll stop and try to get in the passing lane and deflect the pass. On a few of the plays it appeared that he was used more like a containment rusher or spy on the QB. On his pick 6, he recognized that the RB was going out for a pass to the flat, and instead of continuing to pass rush he dropped in that direction, then jumped up and stabbed the pass out of mid-air with one hand, caught the ball and returned it for a TD.
Good intangibles. Comes across as mature, self-aware, intelligent, hard worker, professional in approach, vocal leader, calm and collected, gives good answers to questions and can talk at length about his teammates, a football player who "gets it" and leads by example.
Has special teams experience and should be good ST player.
Has good arm length relative to his size, but he's too short and small. Lacks ideal length, power and size to be NFL pass rusher. Average bull rush, not enough power to drive the OT backwards.
Pushed backwards and chewed up by some double team blocks. Gets taken to the ground more than desirable. Bigger and stronger offensive linemen can knock him down or push him back. Got washed down the LOS by a good down block. Got taken down to the ground on run block by OT.
Not enough juice as a pass rusher. A tweener who could have issues as a run defender due to small size and not enough impact as a pass rusher to merit being an NFL starter. His spin move okay, but not electric or impressive. Doesn't link together moves. If his initial move is stopped, lacks creativity to deliver effective counters. Lacks experience in setting up opposing linemen and having advanced plan as pass rusher, too predictable in approach.
Gambles as a MLB, trying to guess and jump into the gap early to stuff the RB. Sometimes he's right, but other times he's wrong and out of position.
Not a full time player in 2021. Gives high effort, but also appeared to get tired and winded at moments.
Gets fooled by misdirection. As LB, he'll step too aggressively reacting to the fake and can be pulled away from his assigned gap responsibility or lose his pursuit angle. Swim moves as edge defender take him away from the point of attack on runs. Doesn't display reliable instincts at MLB position.
Appears to get fatigued.
Plays very hard, but got involved in shoving match with TE after the whistle. Ejected for targeting in a game in 2020.
A bit stiff in the hips.
Slightly older than most draft prospects.
Doesn't have a natural position in the NFL. I like how hard he competes on the field, but I'm not sure how to use him on defense. If a team moves him too much between different positions, it could stunt his growth, by not allowing him to focus on learning how to play just one spot.
Not a high ceiling player, due to size and athletic limitations.
Pro Comparison and Grade
Malcolm Koonce (3rd round, 79th overall, Raiders, University of Buffalo), 4th round grade.
Last year, I thought Malcolm Koonce was a good prospect for the later rounds. This is probably because I played around with PFF's draft sim too much. In PFF's final mock draft, they had Koonce at slot 156, which is the 5th round. Matt Miller's mock was more accurate, at 87, close to where Koonce was actually picked. Koonce was more advanced as a pass rusher compared to Luketa, but they are similarly sized players.
By the way, I found it entertaining to see that Miller had Jacob Harris mocked as a late 7th round pick (at the exact same slot where the Rams got Ben Skowronek), Earnest Brown as a late 6th rounder and Tutu as a compensatory 3rd round pick. Meanwhile, he had Drake Jackson, who the Rams have on a futures contract, as a 5th round pick. PFF had Harris as a late 5th rounder, Tutu as a late 4th round pick and Earnest Jones as a 6th round pick.
Koonce: 6'2'' tall, 249 pounds, 33 3/8'' arms, 9 5/8'' hands. He didn't do testing drills, due to an injury, but people estimated his 40 time speed to be about 4.8 seconds.
I don't expect Luketa to ever become an elite NFL pass rusher, but I think a team could use him in a role similar to how the Rams used Samson Ebukam. Due to factors such as his play strength and a slight edge in size, Luketa is arguably a better pro prospect than Obo Okoronkwo, which is how LZ currently has them graded (Obo had a 6.10 draft grade and was a 5th round pick.)
Last year, I gave a 4th round grade to Daelin Hayes (5th round, Ravens) and he's a similar prospect compared to Luketa. Hayes got injured last year and hardly got an opportunity to play.
In my opinion, Day 2 feels a little early to draft Luketa, but since the Rams don't pick until the end of the 3rd round, this could be a distinction without a difference. By that point, Luketa might be acceptable value, depending on how much weight you want to put on things like position need for the team and relative position value. If you think Luketa is a developmental edge rusher who has upside, this increases his value. If you see him as just a rotational backup who is only a SAM linebacker for a 4-3 team, his name might not even appear on the draft board for the Rams at all.
Luketa is a strange prospect to pin down, because so much of his stock is based on imagination of what he could become. That's what happens with an edge rusher prospect who only has 0.5 career sacks in college.