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Scouting Jets edge defender Jabari Zuniga

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 30 Orange Bowl - Florida v Virginia Photo by Douglas Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With the draft now complete, we’ll be providing in-depth breakdowns of each of the draft picks and undrafted free agents. We continue today with the 79th overall pick - edge defender Jabari Zuniga.

The 22-year old is listed at 6’3” and 253 pounds and attended college at Florida, where he recorded 18.5 sacks in four seasons. After opting to return for his senior year, Zuniga was a preseason all-SEC first teamer. However, he struggled through an injury-plagued season in 2019.

Background

Zuniga was a basketball player until his junior year of high school but he filled out quickly and soon established himself as a four-star recruit. Having backed out of a commitment to attend NC State, Zuniga headed to Florida where he opted to redshirt his freshman year.

In 2016, Zuniga established himself as a good contributor in a rotational role, racking up five sacks to go along with 25 tackles.

The following season saw him start six games and he recorded another four sacks and 34 tackles despite dealing with a few injuries.

As a redshirt junior he set career-highs in tackles (45), tackles for loss (11) and sacks (6.5). He contemplated leaving for the NFL, but opted to return for his final season, which he entered as a preseason all-SEC first-teamer.

Unfortunately, after a hot start, Zuniga saw his season de-railed by injuries which limited him to just five starts. However, he was productive when he did play. He ended up with 14 tackles, including seven for loss and three sacks.

Zuniga attended the scouting combine and senior bowl and made a good impression but was still regarded as a mid-round pick by most experts. He ended up getting drafted in the third round by the Jets and has called himself “the steal of the draft”.

Let’s move onto some more in-depth analysis of what Zuniga brings to the table, based on in-depth research and film study.

Measurables/Athleticism

Zuniga has decent size and an athletic physique, although he lacks ideal length and there’s a question in some quarters as to how well he’ll hold up in the NFL trenches.

At the combine, he posted excellent numbers for speed (4.64 in the 40), explosiveness (127” broad jump) and strength (29 bench press reps), but his vertical was only average and he didn’t do the agility drills.

Usage

Zuniga is pretty versatile in terms of his ability to line up anywhere along the line, including some interior reps in pass rushing situations. He even lined up at nose tackle and stunted around the outside for a sack against LSU in 2018.

He has primarily played with his hands in the dirt, only standing up very occasionally and not at all in 2019.

Motor

Zuniga battles hard in the trenches and will keep playing to the whistle and fighting to get in on a play.

However, there are often occasions where his blocker locks him up and although he keeps battling, he isn’t able to work out how to free himself from the block.

He showed he can handle a starter’s workload by playing over 50 snaps eight times in 2018. However, he only did this once in 2019 as he was limited by the injury in most of his appearances.

Run defense

Zuniga’s production against the run improved throughout his career. He averaged four tackles for loss per season on running plays.

Most of the run defense highlights on Zuniga’s film show him using his quickness to explode into the backfield, either off the edge or by shooting a gap.

However, perhaps more exciting is his burgeoning ability to hold up at the point of attack and fight off blocks to get in on a play.

He shows good effort and closing speed in pursuit and also when coming downhill off the edge.

There have been questions as to whether he can hold up in the trenches and set the edge at the NFL level, but he perhaps allayed any strength concerns with his impressive bench press at the combine.

Pass rush

While he never put up outstanding sack numbers, Zuniga has a lot of potential as a pass rusher. His best sack total was 6.5 in 2018 but actually his rate of pressure was poor that season. It was much better in 2019.

He’s still very raw, though. While he has shown an ability to effectively use pass rushing moves, he’s not at the stage where he can come up with a counter if his first move is repelled or string two moves together to set up the offensive lineman.

For example, if he goes to a speed-to-power move but the offensive lineman re-anchors against his bull rush, he struggles to find a way of disengaging. This gives the impression that with some dedicated coaching he could show progress quickly.

Here’s another example of Zuniga perhaps not having a plan as a pass rusher or perhaps thinking too much rather than having things come to him naturally. He tries to beat the tackle (Isaiah Wilson) around the edge, but Wilson just backs off and pushes him to the ground, clearly anticipating what he was going to do. Zuniga could instead have used a straight arm counter to maintain separation or transitioned to some other kind of power move while his man retreated.

The other question about Zuniga is whether he has the flexibility to dip around blockers and bend the edge. He didn’t show this much early on in his career, but here’s a rare example.

Most of the time, he looks a little out of control as he comes off the edge and he can usually be easily re-routed upfield or knocked off balance. Even when he does turn the corner, he struggles to break down and finds it hard not to overpursue or allow the quarterback to step up and elude him.

There were signs that Zuniga had worked on improving this in his final year, though, and he arguably displays pretty good flexibility in a few of the run defense plays shared above.

Zuniga has also lined up inside the tackle to rush the passer at times and his quickness advantage helps him here.

Technique

Although he has short arms, Zuniga has big hands and he uses them well. He has good pop and power in his hand strikes as Andrew Thomas found out on this play in 2018.

He also does a good job of keeping the offensive lineman’s hands off him on plays like this, especially when exploiting his quickness advantage against interior linemen.

As a pass rusher, his most commonly used moves are probably the rip when rushing outside and the arm-over move when going up against opposing guards.

One other issue has been his get-off which has been very inconsistent. He sometimes explodes out of his stance with perfect timing but, a lot of the time, he’s slow to get out of the blocks. This may be more of a mental issue, but scouts have noticed his stance is never uniform and this could be something that might make a difference if the Jets defensive line coaches can tweak that.

Tackling

As noted, Zuniga is sometimes out of control coming off the edge and this can sometimes lead to him missing opportunities to add to his sack totals.

Against the run, most of his missed tackles seem to be diving tackle attempts on a ball carrier who is out of his reach. This may be a symptom from him not being able to change direction or move laterally efficiently enough, which is something else draft analysts have picked up on.

Generally speaking, Zuniga wraps up well and doesn’t miss a lot of tackles, having averaged less than five missed tackles per season.

Coverage

Zuniga only dropped into coverage a few times per season at Florida and not at all in 2019. As you can see, he doesn’t look very comfortable doing this, which might have an effect upon how soon he can move into an every-down role at the next level.

As a pass rusher, he doesn’t get his hands up do disrupt throwing lanes very often. He didn’t bat down a single pass in his college career.

Instincts/Intelligence

Zuniga’s ability to read, process and anticipate is another area where he displays some rawness. He is often fooled on end arounds and plays such as RPOs.

As noted, he currently lacks natural ability and knowledge of how to be successful as a pass rusher or get off blocks and doesn’t have much experience of dropping into coverage.

As noted, he is not very good at timing up the snap count. Offside penalties, of which he had three in 2019, could be a factor in this.

Special teams

Zuniga’s only special teams roles at Florida were rushing punts and field goals. In the SEC Championship Game in 2016, he blocked this extra point which was returned for a two-point score by his teammate.

Attitude/Demeanor

Zuniga is a hard-working and intense player, who became more of a vocal leader in his final season. He displayed toughness by playing through injuries and a team-first approach by playing multiple roles at Florida.

His on-field discipline has been reasonably good, with only 12 penalties in four seasons. Other than offside penalties, he had just one other flag in 2019 - for illegal hands to the face.

On this play from 2017, Zuniga got lit up, then committed two personal fouls - one for grabbing the facemask and one for participating without a helmet. However, it’s a good indication of the kind of on-field effort and intensity you’ll get from him.

Of course, Jachai Polite - last year’s third round pick out of Florida - exhibited the same kind of on-field hustle. However, Zuniga has allayed fears that he’ll be a similar kind of bust by having a better attitude and remaining in good shape.

Injuries

Zuniga was said to be hoping to establish himself as a first-round talent in his final season, but his injuries scuppered that.

After a terrific first two games of the season, Zuniga suffered a high ankle sprain early on in game three and missed three games before returning in a reserve role against LSU. Despite making a couple of splashy plays, he obviously wasn’t 100 percent and missed the next game. He then returned against Georgia, again in a part-time role, but went on to miss the last three regular season games after re-injuring the same ankle.

He did, however, play in the team’s bowl game and was productive with six pressures.

Zuniga also had injury issues in 2017 which limited him to 10 appearances. This again included an ankle sprain.

Scheme Fit

Zuniga should be a good fit for a Gregg Williams defense because Williams’ system employs multiple fronts, some of which will be well-suited to Zuniga’s abilities.

However, his lack of experience in playing without his hand in the dirt or dropping into coverage makes it unlikely he’ll be able to play an every down role before next year at the earliest. He could be a good situational contributor though.

Zuniga was a teammate of Marcus Maye and Quincy Wilson at Florida. Brian Poole was also on the team during Zuniga’s redshirt freshman season.

Conclusions

Zuniga has plenty in common with the Jets’ first three picks, not least of which being that he believes he had first round talent.

He is, however, raw in a number of areas, although his film would indicate good progress throughout his career, suggesting he’s coachable. Hopefully, these are all issues that can be easily fixed, which could start to pay immediate dividends.

It’s another high upside selection from the Jets, although fans might need to be patient because it will take Zuniga some time to reach his full potential.