At the end of the season, the Jets signed several players to futures contracts for the 2021 season. We’ve been taking an in-depth look at the strengths and weaknesses for each of them over the past few weeks, continuing today with edge defender John Daka.
The 23-year old is listed at 6’2” and 240 pounds and was undrafted out of James Madison last year. Daka has yet to make his NFL debut, but had 26.5 sacks in his last two years in college.
Daka was born in Zambia but his family came to the USA when he was three years old. He developed into a good player in high school, racking up 28 sacks in his senior year and opted to enrol at James Madison despite interest from some FBS schools.
He made a slow start to his career with 23 tackles and one sack over his first two seasons, but broke out in 2018 and earned the first eight starts of his career, finishing up with 10 sacks.
In his senior year, Daka racked up 16.5 sacks and led the nation with 28 tackles for loss. He also set a career high with 67 tackles as he was named to the All-CAA third team.
Daka was hopeful he would be drafted in April with one team telling him they had a third round grade on him and another saying they planned to select him in the fifth or sixth round if they got the chance. However, he was not selected and signed with the Ravens as an undrafted free agent.
There was obviously no preseason, but Baltimore hadn’t drafted a pass rusher so there was some hope that Daka might make the roster or practice squad as a project. However, he was released in early September and wasn’t signed to any team’s roster or practice squad all year, although he did work out with the Giants.
The Jets signed Daka at a futures deal a few days after the end of the season.
Let’s move onto some more in-depth analysis of what Daka brings to the table, based on in-depth research and film study.
Daka is undersized, although he has bulked up from his listed 227 pounds in his senior season. While he didn’t attend the combine or a pro day, he is regarded as having good length and being a very good athlete.
As a high school prospect, Daka was timed at between 4.67 and 4.72 in the 40-yard dash. He did a 40-yard dash and bench press for teams during virtual meetings but his times were not released.
In college, Daka played defensive end and was almost always aligned outside the tackle with his hands in the dirt. However, he did often come up out of his stance and stand up on the edge rather than constantly firing upfield so it shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment for him to play linebacker, even though he doesn’t have much experience of standing up at the snap.
Daka has a reputation as someone with a non-stop motor, who generated almost 100 total pressures in the 2019 season. On this play, he is initially blocked, but works back to the ball to get a clean-up sack.
In the 2019 season, Daka averaged over 50 snaps per game, so he seems equipped to handle a starter’s workload. However, despite his reputation, there were some plays where he didn’t chase across the field or play to the whistle.
While known mostly for his pass rushing, Daka graded out as a good run defender and made big contributions in the running game. He was most effective when shooting gaps to burst into the backfield and make plays.
In the Dukes’ system, Daka often stayed at home on the edge rather than trying to penetrate, especially against read option teams. Within that role, he would react well to get in on stops.
Despite his lack of size, it wasn’t that common for Daka to be blocked out of a play, but this would probably be a bigger issue with the jump in competition. At times he was controlled at the point of attack, even when blocked by a tight end, and sometimes took himself out of a play by trying to shoot a gap or struggled to disengage.
You can’t really argue with Daka’s production, but his fellow defensive end with the Dukes - Ron’Dell Carter - was regarded as the better pro prospect and won a lot of national awards, despite producing less.
The main reason for this is that Carter is an NFL-sized defensive end. Obviously, there was also a sentiment that Daka was able to exploit extra attention that was given to Carter, although actually he saw plenty of double teams himself. Carter also went undrafted, but did briefly see NFL regular season action with the Cowboys in his rookie year.
Daka’s main attribute is his get-off. He is explosive out of his stance and often generates pressure because he beats the offensive tackle to a spot and turns the corner.
He also displays some surprising power at times, seeing success on bull rush and speed-to-power moves.
On the whole, he doesn’t demonstrate a heavy arsenal of pass rushing moves and doesn’t showcase much of an ability to transition into another move when initially repelled, but he fits the mold if you’re looking for someone to generate quick pressure at a good rate.
As noted, Daka doesn’t seem to use much of a variety of exotic pass rushing moves, but when he comes off the edge he does a good job of setting up his man with inside jab steps and also of slapping the tackle’s hands away. He displays some good dip coming around the corner, is really good at getting skinny to shoot gaps between defenders and flashes some ability to bend the edge, although he does overrun the quarterback at times.
Once an offensive lineman locks onto him with a block, he can struggle to fight his way off it, but he can prevent that from happening with early strikes when coming off the edge at speed.
In the running game, Daka is balanced, moves well laterally and plays with good pad level. He also gets his pad level below his opponent well when attempting to bull rush.
Daka is a productive tackler and has good closing speed to chase plays down from the backside or when the quarterback is flushed from the pocket. However, he can overshoot the quarterback at times and miss tackles when forced to reach beyond his frame.
Missed tackles weren’t a major issue for him at James Madison though. He had just four in his senior year.
Daka can come up with some big hits and has a knack for stripping the ball away with six forced fumbles in his last two seasons with the Dukes.
It was rare for Daka to drop into coverage, which might be something he’ll need to learn to do at the NFL level. However, he did often play contain which required him to react to short passes in space.
On this play, he reacted late and was caught peeping into the backfield, leading to a short touchdown.
When he was added to the negotiation list for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers of the CFL last season, their coaches praised his ability to get his hands up in the passing lane and stressed the importance of this in a quick passing era. He was credited with three pass breakups in 2019.
Daka shows some good ability to read and react both in the running game and on short passes although he can get fooled on play action fakes or on read option keepers. He shows no hesitation on this play though.
He says he became more of a student of the game after his first few seasons in college so this was probably a big factor in his emergence as a junior.
Daka hardly played any special teams in college, but they snuck him onto the field for this punt rush, correctly banking on the fact that his pass rushing ability would translate and he made this play.
This is another area where he’ll need to show he can make contributions. He is athletic enough to do so, but obviously lacks experience.
Daka almost quit football after his sophomore year, at which time he was said to have had a strained relationship with the coaching staff. However, after initially exploring a transfer, he made the decision to stick it out and adopted a new and more mature attitude to his preparation and work, which turned him into a key contributor.
On the field, he had six penalties in his senior year, including two games where he was flagged twice. On each occasion, he jumped offside once and was called for a facemask penalty on a tackle.
Daka doesn’t seem to have had any significant injury issues so far in his career. He played in all 29 games over his last two years, but only nine in his sophomore season.
The biggest adjustment for Daka will be to the level of opponent. While he may be required to stand up more often and also to drop into coverage from time to time, he could potentially get into the mix for a pass rush specialist role, fitting well within the wide-nine defensive fronts that Robert Saleh often employs.
Daka is an obvious long-shot and a long-term developmental prospect and the fact he wasn’t with a team last season perhaps means it was a lost year for him. He has some intriguing raw tools, but there are some obvious things he needs to work on in terms of his pass rushing approach, technique and toolbox.
The fact he lacks experience of playing as an outside linebacker or on special teams hurts his chances, although he does have the athleticism and physicality to pick these up.
Ultimately, Daka might be a bit of a one-trick pony at this stage of his career. However, that one trick, generating constant pressure on outside speed rushes, happens to be something the Jets lack, so perhaps he has a chance to turn some heads.