Jalen Jelks: Unlocking A Miscast Blue-Chipper

"Standing at 6’5 and weighing in at 245 pounds, playing 2-tech, from the University of Oregon…”

Jalen Jelks is confusing to look at. He’s high-waisted and gangling, sometimes comically skinny among the offensive guards and defensive tackles with whom he lines up. If you’re not paying close attention, you sometimes wonder how the tight end accidentally got onto the field and lined up for the defense.

Interior defensive linemen of diminishing size have increased in frequency across recent NFL drafts -- but we’re not talking about Aaron Donald’s squatty 285 pounds anymore. That man’s a bowling ball. Even Hercules Mata’afa, last year’s uber-productive 255 pounder from Washington State, had more of a compact, powerful build. Jelks is lean, long, and lanky.

But copy-paste Oregon’s own Gumby from the interior to the EDGE, and things start to make a lot more sense. When you add that abnormal length to excellent athleticism -- and Jelks is a great athlete -- you give offensive tackles nightmares. It’s for this reason that you’ve already seen names like Leonard Floyd float around Jelks’ performances as a player comp: tackle radius, high-motor, constant pressure.

But Jelks doesn’t play anything like the Leonard Floyd of Georgias past--you won’t find him off-ball, dropping into coverage, peppering the A-gap with stand-up blitzes. In Jim Leavitt’s 3-man fronts, Jelks typically plays the 4-tech DE -- a position that prototypically demands a 270+ lb athlete, and on designated pass rush downs, Jelks will often get kicked inside to the 2-tech. Floyd would never have pulled it off. Most 245 pounders couldn’t dream of it.

Jelks does more than dream of it; he thrives. While his greatest trait is likely his length, a close second is the functional power throughout his frame. With long limbs, Jelks often has to work through tougher angles than most interior linemen, but he has an elastic frame and knows how to build his base to generate power from the ground up. With a lightning-quick get-off and typically sound hand placement, Jelks has almost every building block of a sound, consistent run defender inside of the tackle box.

Jelks’ ability to play with coiled hips and good leverage at his size is quite silly; the power he generates through such a linear frame also surprises, in my eyes. Now, he clearly wins many a rep more so with initial quickness, which will come in handy with his outside EDGE responsibilities in the NFL. But when asked to drop anchor and hold a gap as an interior defender, Jelks...does it. With shocking consistency. He has such an excellent vestibular sense to feel from where the OL is attacking him, which lets him win with length early and combat power with power. Add in the explosiveness -- as well as the unbelievable tackle radius -- and he’s an impact line of scrimmage defender.

He is 245 pounds.

This...this is so irregular for 245 pounds. I don’t know what to tell you. Yeah, he struggles with some double teams at times -- so do 300 pounders!

You can’t leave him on the interior in the NFL, because he is 245 pounds, so what does this tape mean for his pro projection? To me, it indicates that he’ll be a stellar EDGE defender against the run from the moment you put him on the field. With this much experience? With this high-quality, irregularly impactful tape against the run? Leverage, instincts, penetration quickness...these all translate down the line.

Which then begs the question: how much does pass rush tape translate from the inside to the outside?

Well...I’d say not as much as the run defense does. Which is a problem.

These are some of Jelks’ most noteworthy “wins” as a pass-rusher across the tape I charted. I hand-picked my selections, obviously -- this isn’t every win -- but you’ll notice that all the clips but the last are rushes from the interior. What’s important to note here is how Jelks wins on those reps. What makes him successful?

There are two key traits I’d circle, watching these reps and answering the “how does Jelks win?” question. Power and quickness -- an exciting blend of skills, no doubt. Just as he demonstrated in the running game, Jelks can really activate his lower half to generate rolling power, but he also plays with his hands above his eyes and can deliver a strike to initially jolt an offensive lineman onto his heels. Not included on this cut-up is how frequently Jelks used that jolt to disengage and then attack the throwing hallway -- high number of PBUs for the long and instinctive player.

Then, there’s the quickness. Mostly with rudimentary hand usage, Jelks can either use that two-handed swat or, like on the last rep, the inside arm-over move to quickly clear his hips and generate a rush angle. As Jelks learns more complex rush moves and improves the timing of his strikes, he'll create more and more of those quick pressures you see above -- regardless of where he's aligned. Once he has that quick alley, it becomes a game of explosiveness: Can Jelks get there quickly enough?

But it’s really not that simple. Once you clear the offensive lineman and generate that rush angle, you need to be able to finish the rush. Very often, to finish the rush, you must turn a corner -- bend through contact from the recovering OL and still attack into the QB.

And that bend is also much more necessary when you’re rushing the outside track. From the inside, you’re often working two-way goes as a pass-rusher depending on where space appears; as an EDGE defender, you have to attack that outside rush track in order to even create inside space. And to run that hoop along the outside, you need to be able to stick your foot in the ground and bend around it.

And I think Jelks can -- but it’s not easy for him, and he doesn’t do it a lot. Part of that is expected, given how little he’s asked to bend from the 2-tech; and given how tall of a player he is. It’s tough for him to dip that shoulder and reduce his surface area when he's such a big target.

But when he tries to get bend involved, the results are mixed. He leans too far in the offensive tackle and often ends up on the floor; if he keeps his feet, offensive linemen often still push him beyond the peak of the pocket. With such a long runway to deal with from the EDGE, his initial quickness and even the advantage of his length are mitigated. He throws hands far too early, as he’s accustomed to the immediate hand fighting of the interior; and his bull-rushes die out, because it’s a much longer path to the QB through an OT than it is through an OG.

Again: I have seen Jelks bend. You saw it in the good clips; you see it in the running game. But for a player of his frame to become an impact EDGE rusher, reducing surface area and winning with dip is a non-negotiable, and as of right now, that trait is not yet integrated into his skill set. He doesn’t know how to dip and rip; he is unable to turn corners on the outside EDGE track.

So what do we have left? A doggone good player capped by the responsibilities of his defensive role and the limitations that puts on his development. A great player who, if he was a little worse for his college team, would be so much better in terms of pro projection. I don’t know what Jim Leavitt’s plan is for Jalen Jelks in 2018 as far as usage and alignment -- but if it’s much the same, then we likely won’t see significant improvements in outside track rush moves/technique from Jelks.

And as such, we have to project forward.

As far as projections go, it’s not a bad one. Jelks clearly has a great mind for the game and a super-hot motor; and for a player of his size to survive in the interior, he must have quite the stalwart mindset. Those are nice intangibles to go with a mouthwatering physical profile on the outside.

So where do you draft an elite college defensive tackle (I can’t believe I just wrote freakin’ 'defensive tackle' on a 6-FOOT-5 245 POUND PLAYER’S WRITE-UP what is football coming to) to play 9-technique for you? I have no idea, to be honest. The determining factor will be how much of a project Jelks represents after the 2018 season, so we’ll have to wait and see.

But scouting intuition inherently builds up with every game tape you watch as an evaluator. Grind a lot of film, and you start to get a sense of how players are going to go, even if that gut feeling might be tricky to explain. Instincts for a linebacker: that nagging feeling that they’re coming with counter to the backside; instincts for a scout: this player’s gonna be a good one.

And Jelks just strikes me as a player the NFL will love as a first-rounder. The edges may be rough and he may represent an upside, risky pick when the time comes. But he’s tough not to fall for, and I’m fully smitten.

Written By:

Benjamin Solak

NFL Draft Analyst

NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Deputy Editor of Bleeding Green Nation. Undergrad at UChicago.