Evaluating the Steelers’ 2016 Acquisitions: Tyler Matakevich, OLB

tyler matakevichIf you have enough interest in the Steelers to be reading this article, you are probably aware that Tyler Matakevich was the Steelers’ final pick in the 2016 draft. At pick No. 246, he was only eight picks ahead of 2016’s Mr. Irrelevent, Kalan Reed, a corner picked up by the Titans.

I actually considered (but ultimately rejected) Matakevich in this post after I found him mocked to the Steelers (by someone at draftsite.com) in Round 2.

I’ll explain the reason for my rejection later on. It comes from his NFL.com Draft Profile, and we’ll begin there.

NFL.com gave Matakevich a grade of 5.16. There were 59 other players given a grade somewhere in between 5.1 and 5.2. (In the full list of draft prospects by grade, which you can find here, they only show one decimal point.) Of those players, nine, including Matakevich, were drafted in the seventh round, eight were drafted in the sixth round, seven were drafted in the fifth round, and three were drafted in the fourth round. 32 went undrafted.

A grade of 5.1 is almost middle of the pack for this year’s draft class. 250 players in the draft had a grade of 5.2 or higher, and the remaining 190 players were given a grade of 5.0 or below. (The highest grade given was a 7.6, given to OT Laremy Tunsil. The lowest grade was a 4.5, given to two players, a QB from Northwestern and a DE from Mississippi State. Neither was drafted.)

The lowest-graded player to be drafted was long snapper Jimmy Landis, [4.7] whom the Lions drafted in the sixth round. The one ungraded player to be drafted was Trey Caldwell, a 5’9″ DB drafted by the Browns in the fifth round. Do not cue the Browns jokes, because for all we know the kid will turn out to be fantastic and we’ll all look like idiots. You just never know…

And sorry to continue the enumerating, but I’m finding it really interesting to see the very tenuous connection between the grade the NFL gives a player and their likelihood of being drafted. At the top end there aren’t as many surprises, of course. The highest-graded player not to be drafted was S Jeremy Cash, [5.54] who was mocked to the Steelers by steelerswire in the third round, and whom I profiled hereI’m actually going to try to remember to follow how he does (he was picked up after the draft by the Panthers), because I’m curious what it does to a guy to sit and wait through three long days when he’s most likely assuming he’s going to be picked up on Day Two.

Of the 99 players with higher ratings than Cash who were drafted, 31 went in the first round (the Patriots didn’t have a first-round pick because of Deflategate), 28 went in the second round, 19 went in Round 3, and the remaining 21 players went in the fourth round or lower, including Charone Peake, who was graded at 5.84, and who I also profiled as a possible Day Two pick here(The Jets were the ones who picked him up.)

Now let’s see what the NFL evaluators who graded Matakevich had to say about him. Here’s the page on NFL.com:

The 2015 Bronco Nagurski Award winner and three-time first-team All-American Athletic Conference pick isn’t the biggest player on the field but is usually among the most productive. This four-year starter in the middle accumulated over 100 tackles in each season for the Owls, totaling 493 for his career. In his sophomore year, he led the nation with 8.8 solo tackles a game. And his tackles aren’t just catching ball carriers after they’’ve gone through the hole, as he’s had 40 stops behind the line of scrimmage. Add in five interceptions and five pass breakups during his award-winning senior campaign, and it appears there’s not much Matakevich can’t do.

Matakevich didn’t receive a combine invite, but they did give pro day results. Here are what they listed as his strengths:

Considered a great teammate and leader. Incredible production over all four years as a starter. Finished regular season with 465 total tackles including over 100 each season. Has great eyes and processes what they tell him quickly. Decisive with instinctive recognition of play flow and and shuffles accordingly. Keys the quarterback’s eyes and gets a head start into space on pass plays. Rarely fooled by play-action. Plays square to the line of scrimmage and keeps eyes glued to the ball against the run. Battles his limitations by attacking downhill and shooting gaps to disrupt in the backfield. Can shift from a downhill path to lateral movement seamlessly. Easy turn and move into space against the pass. Uses active hands to challenge and defend throws.

Sounds pretty fabulous to me! Here are the weaknesses:

Play strength is very average. Can be engulfed by linemen on the second level and might not have the frame to carry more functional mass. Struggles to hold his spot in the grass against a good lead block. Gets in a hurry to flow downhill and runs himself into bad angles on the ball when the play spills outside. Needs to do a more consistent job of breaking down in space before attempting to tackle. Shifty runners turn him into an arm tackler. Had 32 missed tackles over the last three seasons. Gets caught up in trash near the line of scrimmage and can’’t get free quickly. Play speed is average.

And here is the quote which made me decide not to profile Matakevich, although I have to admit I only published the first half of it. (I was getting pretty burned out by that point…)

Sources Tell Us:

“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.” — AFC North Executive

I would really really love to know which AFC North Executive said that. And it’s also a rather different matter if you’re considering a player for a Round 2 selection as opposed to a Round 7 selection.

Here was their “Bottom Line”:

Film junkie who understands that maximum preparation is essential to his production and success. Matakevich has outstanding instincts paired with a desire to fill up a stat sheet with as many positive plays as possible. His lack of size and strength may limit him to a 4-­3 WILL linebacker spot only. His work ethic, production and ability to step right in and help on special teams gives him a shot at having a long career as a mid­-level starter in the league.

The other thing that put me off of this guy was the “may limit him to a 4-3 WILL” part. But given that the Steelers are moving away from running a strict 3-4, perhaps that’s less important than one might think. And of course the question is entirely moot if you’re thinking of him as a special teams player with potential upside. So could he end up being the next James Harrison?

The real question is, could anybody end up being the next James Harrison? In these more frenetic days, it’s hard to see someone getting the long-term opportunities to develop that Harrison had. And of course there’s no NFL Europe to go to when you need a few years to develop, either.

As we can’t answer that question, let’s just look at the player. I think the NFL.com information covers the footbally stuff well enough. As you all know, I’m interested in what sort of person the Steelers drafted. A philly.com article from last October gives us some hints:

Tyler Matakevich, a tough guy for sure, was in tears. It was just before his senior year at St. Joseph High School in Trumbull, Conn., and Matakevich, on a team coming off a state championship and predicted to win another, learned he had a broken foot.

So he broke the news to coach Joe Della Vecchia before breaking down.

“He was devastated,” Della Vecchia said. “He wasn’t crying for himself, he was crying because he felt he let the team down. Can you imagine that?”

In terms of recruitment, he became a forgotten figure.

“He went from being in the top three players in the state to having the phone stop ringing,” said his father, Dave Matakevich, who is the spitting image of his son. “Just about everybody stopped calling and for a child that age, that is hard to comprehend.”

The article notes that while Matakevich has had a distinguished career at Temple, the only school that made him an offer, he isn’t a speedy player. His older sister, a high-school track star, got the speed in the family. But there is something he has that substitutes for speed:

What Matakevich may lack in speed he makes up for with his motor, one that is always churning from sideline to sideline, crushing one ballcarrier after another.

Two weekends ago against Central Florida, he became the third player in Temple history to accumulate 400 career tackles. He is the leading active tackler for NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision schools and is on track to become the seventh player in NCAA history to record 100 tackles in each of his four years. This year he is the only FBS player to lead his team in tackles each game.

His teammates had many accolades for him, since the article’s author, Marc Narducci, noted that Matakevich was “uncomfortable talking about his exploits.”

“He’s a leader, a natural-born leader,” said Temple defensive end Nate D. Smith, one of Matakevich’s closest friends.

His leadership comes more from his actions, staying late at night, watching tape sometimes until he is bleary-eyed.

Since he tries to squeeze every ounce out of his ability, he wants others to do the same.

“One of the things he does is he allows himself to be led, and he leads,” Temple coach Matt Rhule said. “He allows people to hold him accountable.”

And most of all, Matakevich is concerned with the welfare of his teammates.

“He wants to raise everybody’s level of play,” Rhule said. “A lot of guys in his situation would worry about himself, but Tyler worries about his teammates, and it is why everybody respects him so much.”

These remarks remind me a bit of another 7th-round pick to first make a place for himself on special teams—Brett Keisel. He even has a beard with real potential, unlike so many of the beardlets I deplored in my pre-draft profiles.

His recent tweet reminds me a bit of The Diesel as well:


An SI.com article prior to the draft gives some weight to his words. They said “Matakevich simply was too good for Temple to not hear his name called somewhere on draft weekend, likely during Rounds 4–7 on its third day.” Here’s what they had to say:

He is an unusual fit for an NFL linebacker, built more like a fullback (6′ 0″, 238 lbs.) and without any standout athletic traits; his 4.81-second 40, 31-inch vertical and 7.19-second three cone are all middle-of-the-road combine marks among his position group.

He is quick to point out that he produced in college despite his physical limitations. And he credits his time spent working off the field for that success.

“There’s nothing I can do about my size. It’s the film. I think I put enough [on] film for the past four years for them to see that my size doesn’t matter,” Matakevich said. “I understand I’m not the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, but I’ll beat you in the film room. … I think that’s what makes me such a special player and that’s what is going to allow me to get to the next level.”

What does he mean by beating you in the film room?

By his own account, Matakevich put in an extra two to three hours of film work per day, on top of his team requirements. That attention to detail stands out when Matakevich is in action. He routinely is among the first defenders to the ball, displaying outstanding recognition against both the run and pass. On top of his tackle numbers, Matakevich also set career highs as a senior with 4.5 sacks, five interceptions and five pass breakups…“There’s things that come natural, but my preparation, it’s a lot of hard work and I put in a lot of hard work to study my opponent,” Matakevich said, “and that’s what makes me able to make the plays I’m able to make.

“I can see a team come out in 11 personnel and narrow it down to a few plays. Then, once I see a key, I’m beating the ball to where it’s going to be. That just comes with a lot of time in the film room.”

They included a wonderful quote from his Temple coach, Matt Rhule:

It just goes to remind me—talent isn’t the right word. But talent is almost intangible. The ability to play football is intangible. You couldn’t measure it, you couldn’t identify it on a chart. But whatever it is, [Matakevich] has it.

It reminds me of the quote from Nicolas Dawidoff’s “Collision Low Crossers” about prospect evaluation:

All the NFL teams were engrossed in these careful assessments. And yet, at the end of April, many teams would still make mistakes because, said Joey Clinkscales, who directed the draft for the Jets, one quality remained elusive: “If there were a meter on heart, a way to measure how much a guy cares, we’d draft only Revises.”

The article continues:

[T]he truth is that Matakevich is a better football player than the numbers tell us he should be. While those same numbers may limit his draft ceiling, there are worse players to take a chance on than an overachiever with tremendous on-field awareness.

Like a quarterback who can read defenses pre-snap, linebackers with the football intellect to diagnose plays and get to their spots are coveted. Matakevich, without question, has that in his repertoire.

One of his opponents in college noted the following about Matakevich:

Matakevich is also a one-time training partner with UConn junior receiver Noel Thomas.

“He’s a friend,” Thomas said. “He’s a strong guy. I always try to keep up with him in the weight room. He is just one of those guys who is going to give everything he’s got on every single play.”

As you all know I’m also interested in whether a player took his education seriously. Despite all the extra film study, the Temple bio for Matakevich notes he earned a degree in “adult & organizational development.”

We could play the “what-if” game all day—in other words, what more highly-rated players the Steelers could have taken instead, including, of course, S Jeremy Cash. But instead let’s enjoy the prospect of watching a guy who clearly loves football, studies the game, and wants to succeed. If all the articles touting a guy who was ultimately a late seventh-round draft pick are any indication, it should be a whole lot of fun!



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