Right before camp got underway, the Jets signed defensive lineman Jeremiah Valoaga. Today, we’ll be breaking him down in detail.
Valoaga is listed at 6’6” and 275 pounds and was undrafted out of UNLV in 2017. The Jets are his fifth NFL team and he has so far played in 13 games and recorded seven tackles, a sack, five quarterback hits and a pass defensed.
Valoaga was a three-star tight end prospect coming out of high school and committed to UNLV where he was converted to defensive end.
In his first two seasons at UNLV, Valoaga racked up 48 tackles and 2.5 sacks in a reserve role and looked set to develop into a key contributor. However, the rest of his career was disrupted by a series of issues that prevented him from reaching his potential.
In 2014, he missed the whole season due to academic concerns and then his return to the lineup in 2015 was cut short by a season-ending injury. He did produce reasonably well with 15 tackles and two sacks in six games though.
Finally, in 2016, he became a starter for the first time and set a career high with four sacks in 10 games. However, he was then kicked off the team after a violation of team rules.
He feared his football career might be over, but was invited to the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and created enough of a buzz for himself there that he ended up in camp with the Lions after going undrafted.
After a good preseason, he made the Lions roster and even registered an early-season sack off the bench. However, he was released and placed on the practice squad late in the season.
The Lions re-signed him to a futures deal and then released him in final cuts after which he spent most of the 2018 season on Miami’s practice squad before again signing a futures deal for 2019 and then getting released in training camp.
The 49ers picked him up and brought him into camp, though, and he had an impressive preseason as he racked up 4.5 sacks. While he didn’t make the team, he was signed to their practice squad and activated late in the season to make four appearances.
He was waived late in the season, though, and the Raiders claimed him, then signed him as an exclusive rights free agent deal for 2020. He opted out of the season due to Covid-19 concerns, though, and so they released him in March. The Jets signed him in late July and he’s been in camp with them.
Now let’s take a look at what Valoaga brings to the table, divided into categories.
Valoaga has solid size and very good length, but lacks elite athleticism. He ran a disappointing 5.21 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day.
His numbers for explosiveness and agility were pretty solid for his size though, with his three cone drill above average for the edge position. However, he only managed an underwhelming 15 bench press reps.
UNLV’s team website describes Valoaga as having a tremendous vertical leap, but he only managed an unremarkable 32-inch vertical at his pro day.
Valoaga plays the majority of his reps on the edge, although he has lined up inside from time to time both in college and at the NFL level.
He would also drop off the line and play off the ball sometimes in college, but this didn’t happen very often.
In high school, Valoaga - who has also played basketball and volleyball - lined up at tight end, defensive end and even wide receiver.
Valoaga seems to work hard in the trenches and impresses with his effort when chasing down plays from the backside or running back to make tackles on players down the field.
Here’s an example of Valoaga being blocked initially but continuing to work to get to the quarterback.
Valoaga has never played 30 snaps in an NFL regular season game, so might not be ready for a heavy workload at this level. However, he did play almost 50 snaps in two of his preseason appearances.
As you’d expect from a player with his slow 40-time, Valoaga isn’t really a fast twitch speed rusher coming off the edge, although he has a decent first step to enable him to get upfield or gain an outside leverage advantage.
He’s at his best when transitioning from speed to power as he does here, driving his man back to pick up the sack.
While Valoaga has never been particularly productive in terms of his pressure rates, even at the collegiate level, he impressed with his finishing in the 2019 preseason as he had 4.5 sacks in just 95 pass rush attempts, albeit primarily working against reserves.
Valoaga has the size to hold up against the run and has been in the league long enough that he’s hopefully improved his strength since his college days. He also shows some good lateral quickness to get into the backfield to make this play.
On this play, he allows his man to prevent him from setting the edge by losing outside leverage. This sort of thing can be avoided by better play recognition at the snap.
One thing that stands out about Valoaga is that when runs go the other way, he still works hard to get downhill and will chase plays down with excellent hustle and good pursuit angles.
As a pass rusher, Valoaga doesn’t showcase a wide arsenal of moves, but one thing his does have is some good power in his punch.
He works his hands well on this rush to gain outside leverage and keep the tackle’s hands off him so he can get around the corner.
He displays some good technique against the run too, standing up his man on the edge, moving laterally towards the ball and then throwing off his blocker to get in on the stop.
Valoaga has never been a particularly productive tackler, although he makes a good effort to get in on or chase down plays.
He doesn’t miss many tackles and, when he does, it tends to be on plays where he dives after a ball carrier in space.
Valoaga wouldn’t be expected to drop into coverage very often, and he’s been exploited a few times when he did, including in this prevent defense situation during a preseason game.
He does, however, have a good knack for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage with seven passes defensed in his college career and one more in one of his four games with the 49ers in 2019.
On special teams, Valoaga has mostly just been on the field goal defense, where he could potentially be a threat to block kicks given his knack for batting down passes. He didn’t register a blocked kick in college though. Other than that, he’s rushed a few punts.
He did, however, have an impressive rep with the Lions in preseason where he lined up at right guard on a punt and was the first man downfield to force a fair catch. This is probably something that showcases his athletic ability rather than being something you’d expect him to contribute on a regular basis.
As already noted, Valoaga’s play recognition on running plays may be somewhere he needs to improve and he could perhaps have a better plan and approach when rushing the passer.
On this play, with no defensive players in the area, it may have been Valoaga’s responsibility to either drop with or disrupt the back if he leaks out in this situation, perhaps on a “hug rush” but he failed to sniff out the danger.
There are a couple of concerns about Valoaga’s attitude, which seems to be rare among players brought in by the Jets this year. According to Valoaga, the academic concerns that caused him to miss the entire 2014 season in college were due to a drop in motivation and confidence.
He did, of course, come back from that and the coaches were lauding his preparation and motivation heading into the 2016 season. However, that season ended with him being kicked off the team.
After that, he showed some maturity by knuckling down to ensure he got his degree and when he got a second chance in the Collegiate Bowl, he made the most of it.
Valoaga’s 2015 season was ended after just six games when he suffered a fractured ankle. He also spent some time on the PUP list during training camp in his rookie year.
Many of the Jets coaching staff and a few of the players are obviously familiar with Valoaga from his time in San Francisco. They clearly view him as someone who can be a fit, perhaps as a strongside defensive end.
Aside from his connections to former 49ers players and coaches, Valoaga has also briefly been a teammate of LaMarcus Joyner while with the Raiders.
Valoaga is obviously a long-shot, especially given how deep the Jets’ defensive line appears to be. However, Robert Saleh saw him produce when given opportunities during the 2019 preseason so it’s perhaps not surprising he might take the chance to bring him in again to see if he can build on that.
He might not make much noise in training camp, but if he stays healthy he should get some second half reps in preseason and could make an impression there to give himself a chance to move up the depth chart and stick around.