Could Tyler Matakevich start for the Steelers?

With a 7th round compensatory pick in 2016 (pick 246 overall), the Steelers drafted the most productive defensive player in all of college football. Tyler Matakevich was the 2015 Bronco Nagurski Award winner and three-time first-team All-American in the Athletic Conference.

His play on the field was so good that he made the 2015 College Football All-American team, which is chosen by the following selector organizations: Associated Press (AP), Football Writers Association of America (FWAA), American Football Coaches Association (AFCA), Walter Camp Foundation (WCFF), The Sporting News (TSN), Sports Illustrated (SI), USA Today (USAT) ESPN, CBS Sports (CBS), College Football News (CFN), Scout.com, and Yahoo! Sports (Yahoo!).

The list of the very select to achieve this honor is small and impressive:

Name Position Year University Round drafted
Deshaun Watson Quarterback Sophomore Clemson 1st
Leonard Fournette Running back Sophomore LSU 1st
Derrick Henry* Running back Junior Alabama 2nd
Corey Coleman* Wide receiver Junior Baylor 1st
Josh Doctson* Wide receiver Senior TCU 1st
Hunter Henry* Tight end Junior Arkansas 2nd
Taylor Decker Offensive tackle Senior Ohio State 1st
Spencer Drango* Offensive tackle Senior Baylor 5th
Ronnie Stanley Offensive tackle Senior Notre Dame 1st
Joshua Garnett* Guard Senior Stanford 1st
Ryan Kelly Center Senior Alabama 1st
Joey Bosa Defensive end Junior Ohio State 1st
Shaq Lawson Defensive end Junior Clemson 1st
Carl Nassib* Defensive end Senior Penn St. 3rd
A’Shawn Robinson Defensive tackle Junior Alabama 2nd
Reggie Ragland* Linebacker Senior Alabama 2nd
Tyler Matakevich Linebacker Senior Temple 7th
Jaylon Smith Linebacker Junior Notre Dame 2nd
Jeremy Cash* Safety Senior Duke UFA
Jalen Ramsey Safety Junior Florida State 1st
Vernon Hargreaves* Cornerback Junior Florida 1st
Desmond King* Cornerback Junior Iowa 5th
Ka’imi Fairbairn Kicker Senior UCLA UFA
Tom Hackett* Punter Senior Utah UFA
Evan Berry All-purpose Sophomore Tennessee 2018 draftee
Christian McCaffrey All-purpose Sophomore Stanford 1st

Of all the non-special teams players on this list, only Jeremy Cash (priority free agent) fell further in the draft than Tyler Matakevich. With hundreds of capable linebackers at the collegiate level, making this list of is no small accomplishment.

However, it’s hard to argue with Matakevich’s production:

Year School Conf Class Pos G Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int Yds PD FR FF
2012 Temple Big East FR LB 67 34 101 3 0 3 0 1
2013 Temple American SO LB 12 106 31 137 11.5 1 1 0 0 2 3
2014 Temple American JR LB 12 88 29 117 10.5 1.5 1 47 3 2 0
*2015 Temple American SR LB 14 77 61 138 15.5 4.5 5 47 5 0 0
Career Temple 338 155 493 40.5 7 7 94 11 4 4

Temple’s best defensive player crushed the stat sheets as he compiled nearly 500 tackles in four years. In his senior campaign, he also proved to be one of the best linebackers in the nation at taking the ball away, as he recorded five interceptions.

In 2015, Tyler Matakevich was far and away the most valuable player on Temple’s roster. With his help, the Owls surrendered just 336.8 total yards and 2.0 offensive touchdowns per game.

Here’s a chart showing how much more productive Matakevich was than the rest of his teammates: including Haason Reddick, who was drafted in the first round this year.

Rk Player Solo Ast Tot Loss Sk Int Yds Avg TD PD FR Yds TD FF
1 Tyler Matakevich 77 61 138 15.5 4.5 5 47 9.4 0 5
2 Jarred Alwan 30 43 73 7.5 1.5 2 4
3 Sean Chandler 44 21 65 5.5 1.0 4 120 30.0 2 10
4 Nate L. Smith 31 22 53 0.5 0.0 1 74 74.0 0 3
5 Alex Wells 32 20 52 1.0 0.0 1 21 21.0 0 5
6 Avery Williams 28 21 49 6.5 0.0 1 13 13.0 0 1
7 Stephaun Marshall 23 23 46 0.5 0.5 1 0 0.0 0 6 1 0
8 Haason Reddick 29 17 46 13.0 5.0 1 1
9 Matt Ioannidis 27 15 42 11.5 3.5 5 2 0
10 Tavon Young 29 12 41 5.0 1.0 7

However, college statistics are just one factor in the grand scheme of things. So why wasn’t Matakevich drafted higher in 2016? An AFC North Executive close to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein put it this way:

Not big, not fast and not strong. Hard to make it as an NFL linebacker without those elements. With that said, the kid makes a bunch of plays. Production matters and he has it.

On the field, Matakevich is known for making plays, but his physical attributes leave a lot to be desired.

Tyler Matakevich’s athletic percentiles compared to NFL linebackers via Mockdraftable.com.

Matakevich is a below average athlete in every measurable category. Though he is smooth and fluid on the field, it’s true that he doesn’t possess the God-given athletic ability that many NFL linebackers have.

However, how important is size and athleticism to the position? There are many linebackers currently succeeding in the NFL with remarkably similar attributes. Here’s how some recent linebackers match up with Matakevich in terms of size:

Player Height Weight Arm length Hand size
Rey Maualuga 6’2” 249 N/A N/A
Jon Beason 6’1” 237 N/A N/A
Larry Foote 6’1” 231 N/A N/A
Manti Te’o 6’1” 241 32 1/2” 9 1/2”
Reggie Ragland 6’1” 247 32” 9 7/8”
Vontaze Burfict 6’1 248 31 1/4” 9 3/4”
Tyler Matakevich 6’0” 238 31 1/4” 9 1/2”
Paul Dawson 6’0” 235 31 1/2” 9 1/2”
Danny Trevathan 6’0” 237 32 1/2” 9 1/2”
Pat Angerer 6’0” 235 30 1/2” 9 1/8”
Anthony Hitchens 6’0” 240 32 1/2” 9 1/8”
Chris Borland 5’11” 248 29 1/4” 9 7/8”
Denzel Perryman 5’11” 236 31 7/8” 9 1/2”

There are many more NFL linebackers who possess similar size traits as Matakevich, but I chose this sample for a reason. Not only are these linebackers similar in terms of height, weight, arm length, and hand size, but also in terms of athleticism.

Take a look at how some of these solid NFL linebackers tested when they came out of school:

PLAYER 40 YD 20 YD 10 YD BENCH VERTICAL JUMP BROAD SHUTTLE 3-CONE
Reggie Ragland 4.72 2.75 1.65 31 1/2 9’8″ 4.28 7.55
Jon Beason 4.72 2.74 1.6 19 DNP 9’3” DNP DNP
Anthony Hitchens 4.74 2.74 1.62 23 31 1/2 9’8” 4.45 7.15
Paul Dawson 4.76 2.84 1.68 21 28 9’1″ 4.49 DNP
Vince Williams 4.76 2.76 1.71 22 32 1/2 9’3” 4.67 7.53
Denzel Perryman 4.78 2.77 1.67 27 32 9’5” DNP DNP
Tyler Matakevich 4.81 2.8 1.66 22 31 9’4″ 4.34 7.19
Manti Te’o 4.82 2.78 1.67 21 33 9’5” 4.27 7.13
Larry Foote 4.83 2.8 1.73 24 30 DNP 4.41 7.18
Chris Borland 4.83 2.8 1.66 27 31 9’6” 4.27 7.18
Rey Maualuga 4.91 2.86 1.73 23 31 8’11” 4.35 DNP
Danny Trevathan 4.84 2.79 1.65 18 31 1/2 9’3” 4.7 DNP
Pat Angerer 4.77 2.8 1.7 26 35 9’2” 4.29 7.04
Vontaze Burfict 5.09 2.96 1.78 16 30 8’8” 4.56 7.51

What I find most notable about this list is that probably the best linebacker on here, Vontaze Burfict, is actually a horrible athlete. Burfict’s athletic numbers aren’t underwhelming, they are pitiful. Yet he proves to be one of the league’s most instinctive and most physical run stopping linebackers.

Matakevich is also taller, longer, more athletic, and far more productive in college than former 49ers linebacker, Chris Borland – who had 107 tackles and 2 interceptions in just 8 starts as a rookie before retiring due to concussion scares.

Typically, the best linebackers in the league have a combination of everything: football IQ and instincts, good athletic traits, size or length. Players like Luke Kuechly, Bobby Wagner, C.J. Mosely, and NaVorro Bowman come to mind.

Conclusion: 

The success rate of “Class C” NFL players (college production, but lacks NFL athleticism) isn’t very good. It also makes a difference where a player gets drafted. Matakevich, for example, is going to be on a shorter leash as an expendable seventh-round compensatory draft choice than a linebacker that was drafted in the third or fourth round – that’s just the way it goes. The third round pick is going to have many more chances to prove that he can be that guy, while a seventh rounder is fighting tooth and nail for snaps to work his way up in the pecking order.

Tyler Matakevich is an incredibly smart and instinctive NFL linebacker. This was even on display with the plays he made during the preseason as a rookie last year. With a little bit more size and a few more physical traits to go with his fantastic college film, it likely would have been enough to land Matakevich inside the first two rounds of the draft. However, the NFL covets players that are big, fast, and strong.

It’s all about an opportunity in the NFL. Vince Williams was a sixth-round pick who ended up starting 11 games as a rookie, despite testing horribly in the agility drills at his Pro Day. Still, he took advantage of a chance he was given.

With only Williams currently ahead of him for playing time, Matakevich has a chance to carve out a role for himself this season. Though it’s unlikely he becomes the long-term solution for the Steelers based on where he was drafted, Tyler Matakevich is no stranger to hard work and overcoming the odds. If Matakevich is given the opportunity to work his way into the starting lineup, don’t be surprised if he impresses.

2 Comments

  1. I’m a big fan of Dirty Red and think he could get there one day. Great write up. Only thing I’ll add is Burfict is probably a bad comparison. While it’s true he wins primarily on instincts and power, he doesn’t play nearly as bad as those measurables.

    Burfict was notoriously out of shape during the pre-draft process. Last season he showed up to camp out of shape and looked sluggish to start the season and by the time he got in shape at season’s end he was playing like one of the best defenders in the league. Just throwing that out there as a Steelers fan in Cincinnati who sees them a lot.

  2. Agreed. Burfict is certainly the best of the group. He was definitely out of shape when he tested, but is still not a good athlete. He makes up for his lack of speed with terrific angled to the ball and no wasted steps. Great football player.

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