The NFL draft complex would like for you to believe that prospects don’t really test themselves into the first round. It feels foolish to do all of this film work, all of this background research, just to take a guy with your top pick because he put up crazy numbers in shorts and a T-shirt. The process is more sacred than that.
Jayson Oweh just tested his way into the first round.
Don’t get me wrong: he very well could have been there beforehand. Teams have known that Oweh was a freaky athlete for years, and have accordingly anticipated his entry in the 2021 NFL Draft pool with excitement. But Oweh didn’t just test well at the Penn State Pro Day on Thursday: he broke records.
Those are pretty numbers, but they aren’t the only numbers that Oweh’s put up over his career. For as elite as his testing is, his production is just the opposite.
If Oweh is a first-round pick, his lack of production will be rather unprecedented. Over the last 10 seasons, only two EDGEs have been selected in the first round with fewer than Oweh’s 7.0 career sacks: Ziggy Ansah in 2013 and Jason Pierre-Paul in 2010. It’s helpful to take only a recent time frame for reference, as college edge rushers saw far fewer pass attempts in previous eras of football and accordingly had less production coming out altogether.
Ansah and Pierre-Paul both had extenuating circumstances that provide color to their lack of production. Ansah didn’t play football until failing to stick on the BYU basketball team and spent much of his sophomore and junior seasons seeing situational reps on defense and maining the special-teams unit (Ansah literally needed help putting his pads on as a sophomore). In Week 4 of his junior year, Ansah entered the starting lineup following an injury on the depth chart above him and totaled only 4.5 sacks across the rest of the season.
Ansah declared after that year because the NFL was enamored with his athleticism. Ansah ran a 4.63s 40-yard dash at 275 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine, apparently without any real training or prep (he walked onto the BYU track team with a sub-11 100-yard dash) and ran a 4.26 short shuttle at over 6-foot-5. All that was good enough to make Ansah the fifth overall pick for the Detroit Lions, for whom he totaled 44 sacks across his first five seasons as a pro.
Pierre-Paul took a JUCO route to South Florida where, like Ansah, he only played meaningful snaps in one season. While Ansah only started playing football in college, Pierre-Paul began in his junior year of high school after a major leg injury playing basketball. Without much of a background for recruiting, Paul spent two years at lower-level colleges before signing with South Florida as a 5-star JUCO recruit.
Pierre-Paul also broke into the rotation during his one season, starting seven of 13 games and tallying 6.5 sacks in the process. Pierre-Paul didn’t test out of the gym as Ansah or Oweh did, but he did bring a 6-foot-5, 270-pound frame with 34.75-inch arms. Pierre-Paul was the second pass rusher selected in 2010, with the 15th overall pick, and he delivered the New York Giants 42 sacks through his first five seasons.
The team that selects Oweh in the first round would love 40-plus sacks over the course of his rookie deal, and the successes of Pierre-Paul and Ansah are encouraging signs. A basketball player in high school, Oweh only first picked up a helmet in his junior year, much like Pierre-Paul, with promises that his frame and speed alone would get him big-time offers—a promise that was kept. Oweh committed to Penn State and redshirted his first year while still learning how to watch film and still learning how to fit the run. The next season, Oweh only played 329 snaps as a rotational pass rusher behind Shaka Toney and Yetur Gross-Matos, but he sacked the quarterback five times and anticipated a breakout season in 2020.
That breakout didn’t come. And that’s the scary part.
Oweh did not sack the quarterback in 2020. He only got 346 total reps, as the Big Ten started their season late—and with Gross-Matos gone, Oweh now had to play more base downs, not benefitting from extra rest in late-game, clear passing situations. On a down-to-down basis, it wasn’t too much of a problem: PFF charted Oweh with 31 total pressures on 196 pass rush reps in 2019, affecting the quarterback on 15.8% of his opportunities; in 2020, he had 20 total pressures on 163 pass rush reps: 12.3% of his opportunities.
We know sacks to be largely situational and often random. A high-quality pass-rush often creates a pressure, moving the quarterback off of his point in the pocket, while creating a sack for another rusher. It isn’t hard to argue that Oweh’s blank on sack totals was largely an unfortunate roll of the dice.
But there’s still a middle ground to be respected. While Oweh’s lack of sacks this year is more unfortunate than it is a reflection of his ability, he’s still as raw as you’d expect a player with only five years of football under his belt; only 289 total snaps of pass rushing at the college level. Oweh’s film details a project player; he isn’t pro-ready. That’s why he often gets the Danielle Hunter comparison: his entire projection is based on his athletic ability and future success.
Hunter had 12.5 sacks in his second season as a pro; Ansah had 14.5 by Year 3; Pierre-Paul put up 16.5 and an All-Pro bid in Year 2. The ceiling is sky-high for Oweh, and in a weak EDGE class, his selection in the first round is likely justified.
Will it pan out? Maybe not. Just two picks before Ansah went Dion Jordan, a decent athletic comparison to Oweh who totaled 14.5 sacks in his college career but never established himself as a successful pass rusher in the league. Last season, K’Lavon Chaisson’s 9.5 career sacks were not enough to deter the Jacksonville Jaguars from making him a first-round selection, but in Year 1, he struggled playing at a similar weight (254 pounds) to Oweh (257 pounds at his pro day). Grabbing a freak athlete and developing him into a dangerous pass rusher isn’t easy, and as Oweh’s goose egg of a 2020 season reminds us, development isn’t always linear. It comes in fits and starts.
With his athleticism considered (no EDGE rusher has ever run a sub-4.40s 40-yard dash in Mockdraftable’s database), Oweh is a verifiable lock for the first round. The weakness of the positional group and the premium put on pass rushers in the modern NFL all but seals it. Fortunately, there is decent precedent for nascent defensive ends exploding into success once they receive NFL coaching.
Oweh still represents a hefty gamble, and teams hunting an immediate contributor should look elsewhere. But the chance of smashing success is too large for NFL teams to pass up in the first round. With the Giants (11), Vikings (14), Raiders (17), and Dolphins (18) all in need of pass rush help, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Oweh off the board in the first 20 picks.