Jabari Zuniga was the Jets’ 3rd round pick (the #79th overall) in the 2020 NFL Draft. Interestingly it was reported the Jets were willing to trade down from this spot to the Denver Broncos for pick #83 (4 spots later) and a day 3 pick. The Broncos were interested in Temple center Matt Hennessy, but the trade was dissolved when Hennessy was selected the pick before at #78. The trade would have been the fourth for the Jets in the 2020 Draft with Joe Douglas trading down each time for more capital.
I scouted Zuniga quite a bit during the 2018 season because of his size, speed and length. This along with the dearth of pass rushing options on the Jets made him an intriguing prospect. I continued my interest in Zuniga despite the disaster that Jachai Polite (another DE from Florida) had caused as a selection by the Jets as a 3rd round pick in 2019.
Let me digress, starting from the beginning.
Jabari Zuniga is a 6’ 3” 264 lbs OLB/DE who hails from Marietta, which is in Cobb County, Georgia. Zuniga is the second Cobb County pick the Jets have made in the last two years. He will join former McEachern offensive line standout Chuma Edoga, who New York also selected in the third round in 2019 out of USC.
When Jabari was born his mom Tammy Thompson-Winfrey wanted to name her son something masculine but also meaningful. She decided on Jabari which was derived from a Swahili name (also an Arabic surname) meaning “brave one, or fearless one.”
Jabari was tall as a child but also stocky with unusual strength for his age. His mom said, “I call him the big bear, he’s a bear. That’s his nickname.”
Zuniga was a basketball standout growing up. He followed in the footsteps of his biological father (Carlos Zuniga) who played basketball at Tulane University. Carlos played professionally after college, including a brief stint with the Detroit Pistons during training camp in 1981.
Tammy Thompson later married Clayton Winfrey, and they both raised Jabari outside Atlanta. Clayton Winfrey was a football fan. Over the years that enthusiasm for the gridiron rubbed off on Jabari. He thought he would give it a try. “When I first got out there, I didn’t really like it,’’ Jabari said. “Then I hit somebody, and I just loved that feeling. I was eager to learn.” So Jabari started playing football in his junior year of high school.
Jabari had the natural strength. Coaches like Gators assistant Randy Shannon (who was an assistant at Arkansas at the time) had an interest but he was not as tall as they liked. “That May he was 5-11,’’ Shannon said.
Many recruiters and coaches dropped Jabari as a prospect because of his size, but Shannon knew something other didn’t. Jabari’s father Carlos was 6’ 8” so he figured he had a growth spurt in him. “Well, like anything else, some people didn’t go back through the school because he was 5-11 at that time.” Shannon said.
When Shannon went back the following year he almost didn’t recognize Jabari. “Senior year he sprouted up. It was like, ‘whoa, wait a minute. Who is this guy?” Shannon said. Jabari was now a 6’ 3” 250 lb end and the center on his basketball team. He was eventually rated a 3 star recruit by Rivals and recruited by Florida, NC State and Arkansas.
As a freshman at UF he had to learn the defense, but he also had to reconstruct his body. He needed so much work that he was redshirted his first year despite a need the Gators had on defense.
The work was hard, really hard as his mom remembers. “There were plenty of days when he was like, ‘Mom, it’s hard for me.’ I can remember him getting up in the morning and saying, ‘Mom, they have me running and I felt like I was going to die out there.’ He just couldn’t handle it,’’ Winfrey said. “Running was never a big thing of his. That first year was really hard for him. But Jabari is really not a complainer like that.”
The work paid off as Jabari was now down to 230 lbs but also much stronger than he ever was. It got to the point that backup QB Luke Del Rio (his weight room partner) had to complain to the strength coach about it, “He’s a freak in the weight room, We’re putting on a lot of weight for him and taking some of it off for me every set.” It was said Jabari practically lived in the weight room his redshirt season.
Everyone on the team noticed Jabari’s transformation. “I have a rule,” UF defensive line coach Chris Rumph said. “He cannot take his shirt off in front of my wife.” Jabari kept working, gaining muscle and adding weight. “I’m just gonna keep working and see where it can get me,” Zuniga said.
In his first 5 games as a Gator Zuniga had 5 sacks which made his coaches elated. “He’s an explosive young man that has quickness, got good hands and is learning the game,” Shannon said. “He’s doing a tremendous job for us in the pass game and sacks and stuff, but his run game, if you watch him on tape, he’s very, very disruptive because he’s got very strong hands and very good punch.”
Zuniga was a rotational player his first 3 years in Gainesville. He was hoping for a breakout senior year that could vault him into the first round of the Draft. This was not to happen as a high ankle sprain early in the season limited him to merely 5 games as a senior.
Although he came out of the gate strong as a freshman he finished his career with only 18.5 sacks in 39 total games; which means he had only 13.5 sacks his last 34 games. Also consider that 8 of those sacks came against Colorado State, UMass, North Texas and Tennessee Martin.
Jabari Zuniga positive traits
Very strong and powerful for his size
Very good speed with great quickness
A strong and accurate punch when used, he has some “pop”
Solid anchor to hold the edge for a smaller edge defender
Very good length for his size
Has great pursuit, a hustler who plays to the echo of the whistle when engaged
Converts speed to power well
Can be solid run defender when he plays with good leverage
Very good all around athleticism
Has great character and is a worker who has the right mind set
Where Jabari Zuniga needs work
Does not use his hands well, needs to be much more busy with hands
Needs to develop get off, is super quick at times but usually late off the snap
Struggles to disengage from blocks
Rudimentary rush moves, has a rip/sweep and a club move he uses infrequently
Virtually no rush counters, he does not adapt well after snap
Not an edge bender, flexibility is lacking, tight hips
Poor tackler, misses too many tackles that should be made
Has poor lateral mobility and would be a liability in space, not a fluid mover
Not a high football IQ, things don’t come naturally for him, lacks anticipation
Too small to be a 5 tech in the NFL and not great working from 2 point stance
Vision and play processing still need refinement, too much thinking not reacting
Plays far slower than he really is
Effort is inconsistent form snap to snap
Often plays with elevated pad level, losing leverage
The bottom line on Zuniga is he is a player in need of development, much like you would expect from someone who took up the game at such a late stage of his life. Instincts take time, understanding concepts, and most of all reps. The loss of playing time as a senior was extremely detrimental to his development as a player.
Also it should be stated that Jabari is known as a very high character person. He is very soft spoken off the field and was a person who was well respected at Florida.
This first play is from the opening game of his senior year against Miami. This shows some of the positives along with the negatives of Zuniga’s play.
Zuniga is the left DE #92. He is tardy off the snap and gets tied up by the tight end. The tight end is Brevin Jordan a 6’ 3” 235 lbs who does a nice job on the play. The Miami offensive line was horrible this game allowing constant pressure and a total of 10 sacks in a close loss. You can see Zuniga has a hard time disengaging from his blocker and really only gets away when the TE allows him free, assuming the ball had been thrown.
Watch as when Zuniga first contacts Jordan he doesn’t try to swat his hands or use a half man approach. This is a straight bull rush with no counters or trying to stack & shed despite Zuniga having the superior size advantage. He should be able to disengage from a smaller player with ease. but he doesn’t. At least he keeps pushing his man back towards the QB and makes the play when he is free. Being the first game of his senior year when he was fully healthy you would expect more technical acuity or counter moves.
Later in the game Zuniga is moved to the right side (against the left tackle) in a 3rd and 27 situation, the definition of a passing situation. This clip is started as the ball is snapped since the TV station was showing a replay of the sack on the previous play and was late getting back to the game.
Zuniga gets off the snap quickly as he makes his way around the left tackle for the sack. That tackle was Zion Nelson a 6’ 5” 273 lbs true freshman playing in his first game as a collegian. This does not take away from the fact that Zuniga has superior quickness when he times the snap correctly. Problem is this does not happen often enough to be front line player in the NFL.
I know Gregg Williams likes Zuniga saying, “Jabari Zuniga fits the Justin Tuck/Brandon Graham mold in that he’s a legitimate left defensive end, but can slide inside to play defensive tackle in passing situations.” He is correct in that assumption, but he will be the first to say that fitting the mold and being the player (like those two great players) are two totally different things entirely. There is a long road to travel to get to that point.
Here are two plays from the Georgia game that show this point. Both these plays you have Zuniga going up against Isaiah Wilson, a massive 6’6 350 lbs right tackle who was a first round pick by the Tennessee Titans. Wilson is a giant, but he is raw with poor quickness. You beat him off the snap, not by powering past him.
Gregg Williams was probably thinking of this play when he spoke of Zuniga. You can see that Zuniga is the first player off the snap (a rare occurrence) as he shoots the gap between the guard and tackle. This was a nice play call by Florida defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. This is what Florida calls it’s “Bear front.” You move the OLB down to the outside shoulder of the tight end and move Zuniga down to the inside shoulder of Wilson. This gives the impression of 5 pass rushers on a 2nd and 9 play. You can see as Zuniga shoots the gap he is by Wilson easily as the big tackle entirely whiffs on the block.
This play extols many of the virtues of Zuniga’s game. He is super quick off the snap. He stays very low with great leverage if he is contacted. The show great athleticism as he keeps his balance with his head up so he can see. He then explodes into the runner as he gets the ball making a sure tackle.
Later in the same game he shows almost nothing. He is playing against a much larger man (again Wilson) so he has to use quickness and guile to make a play. Many great pass rushers will set up a tackle by using a move a few times then countering that move when the situation dictates.
This is a three man front which is more difficult but can also give some advantages to pass rushers who possess great ability to read a play then make adjustments. Here Zuniga takes the play very wide which makes his distance to the QB that much longer. He obviously wants to stay away from the double team so he bellies out wide. He doesn’t use his hands at all to affect the play. In fact he allows Wilson to knock his hands down then force him to the ground in a feeble attempt as a rusher against a very raw pass blocker with zero quickness. This pass rush had no chance of being successful as it had no plan.
You have to read the play. The move outside was actually a great play as it took the guard out of the play as he turns back inside to triple team the poor nose tackle. If Zuniga had started outside then countered back inside with a hand chop then a quick move inside with a rip or swim move then he could have put pressure on the passer. Instead he played into the hands of Wilson who was only happy to drive him into the ground.
Here again is another situation where Zuniga has no clue how to attack a massive player like Isaiah Wilson. Zuniga will see a multitude of massive tackles in the NFL, Those players will also have a much higher technical skill set than Isaiah Wilson.
This is a 4 man front with the Gators moving an OLB up (Devin Reese) to put pressure on the QB. This is basic man on man protection from the offense with every man singled up with some help from the RB. Zuniga’s rush is just horrible with no hand usage whatsoever; no hand swipe, no knock down, no chest punch; nothing. He basically just ducks his head immediately into the chest of Wilson, who controls him like a steering wheel. No deception, no rush counters, no hand usage at all. Fromm (who is a statue) can make himself a sandwich if he wants to.
These are the type of reps that bother me severely about Zuniga. He has a positive skill set, but he lacks the ability to use multiple moves or formulate a plan that gives him an advantage even against players he should dominate.
Here in the bowl game against Virginia you see the same type of effort and technical skill over and over again. Here he is going against a 6’ 7” 285 lbs true sophomore player in Bobby Haskins who you would attack laterally since his lateral movement is noticeably suspect.
Instead you see a direct approach, no positive hand usage, no rip or swim attempts. I realize this is a 1st and 10 play, but as a pass rusher when the RB steps away from the QB you have no worries about the run anymore. Reading a play then making the appropriate adjustments are nearly as important as physical skill.
I have numerous other clips of Zuniga doing little or nothing at all. I would have hoped that the defensive coaches at Florida would have worked with him on hand work and counter moves. Now that duty falls on the Jets defensive coaches.
Being an edge player in the NFL is a tough job. That is why it pays so much. You need to be at the top of your game every play with a plan against every offensive scheme. Yet few players ever make it as anything more than a special teams player for a few years. Edge defender was not one of the quality filled positions in the 2020 NFL Draft.
Zuniga was overdrafted slightly because of his positive skill set. I too had Zuniga rated as a 3rd round prospect because the edge position is that vital to containing offenses.
The good thing about Zuniga is he has the physical ability to be great. He just needs to learn skills necessary to be successful. He needs a plan on every play with the ability to adjust as the protections warrant. If Jets coaches can at least make him use his hands better it would be a great start. Instead of getting tied up with physically stronger men his hands should be like a sushi chef, knocking down hands and arms to create a place where he can pitchfork himself around the edge in passing situations.
The last few years have not been kind to Zuniga as a high ankle sprain made his senior season a lost endeavor, and the pandemic prevented him from working with NFL coaches during the spring to hone his skills and give him a plan to work with during the summer. Yet all is not lost. A positive mind set along with a heightened work ethic can cure a lot of problems. The thing to remember is that Zuniga has the physical tools to compete. He just needs the technical skills plus a diverse plan to be on the right path. He also has to learn how to better use his length as a weapon rather than an afterthought.
One problem is Zuniga already considers himself better than his Draft position. It is preferable to be confident, but it is foolish to think you are already better than what you are. Zuniga was quoted as saying “I definitely consider myself the steal of the draft,” to the New York Daily News. “I feel like I can do a lot on the football field. And I’ll show that next year.” Too bad he didn’t show that in college. Now he is stepping up in competition.
Let us hope he is the steal of the draft.
That is what I think
What do you think?