With NFL defenses desperate for disruptive talent, pass-rushing prospects don't need ironclad résumés -- just sky-high potential and the goods to make life hard on QBs. Meet the latest crop of raw-but-promising pass rushers on the rise.
By Jeffri Chadiha | April 20, 2022
A few weeks ago, just out of sheer curiosity, Boye Mafe clicked on some old tape from his redshirt freshman season on the Minnesota football team. He squinted at the film within a few seconds of checking out the material. He grimaced at other times, squirmed in his seat occasionally and chuckled quite a bit. Mafe basically couldn't believe most of what he was watching. He saw an overwhelmed kid making all kinds of mistakes, from positioning his hands in the wrong places to jumping into the wrong gaps to sabotaging a potential rush with an assortment of shoddy footwork.
That tape would've been even harder to watch if Mafe weren't considered one of the top edge rushers in the 2022 NFL Draft. As much as that old game film revealed an ambitious teenager trying to prove himself at the college level, it also spoke to how far Mafe has come in an incredibly short amount of time.
"I was like, 'Wow -- I really used to look like that,' " Mafe said during a recent interview. "I was playing so slow, and when I played like that, [football] was a different game. The game was so fast back then. I could see just how much I've really grown."
Mafe's ascent from raw talent to standout pass-rushing prospect isn't unique. He's actually representative of one of the latest trends to hit the NFL in recent years. There have been a variety of freakishly athletic defensive linemen who started from humble beginnings and then suddenly grew into top draft prospects in a hurry. This class alone is filled with such talents, gifted young men with high ceilings and the potential to wreck an offensive game plan with every kernel of knowledge they acquire about playing the position.
There's Penn State defensive end Arnold Ebiketie, a native of Cameroon who didn't start playing football until his sophomore year of high school. Michigan outside linebacker David Ojabo -- a top-15 prospect until he tore his left Achilles at his pro day -- was born in Nigeria and lived in Scotland before getting into the sport as a junior in high school in New Jersey. The 23-year-old Mafe didn't become serious about organized football until his freshman season at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. That was after he spent eighth grade at a boarding school in Nigeria.
"All the passing and analytics has made people more desperate to just get that (pass-rushing) skill set in the door and hope to develop it." -- NFC scout
All these players are at different levels of their own development. What they all have in common is the ability to excite league decision-makers with their scary combination of God-given ability and a capacity for exponential growth. "I do believe the pass rushers coming into the league may be more raw than they have been in the past," said one AFC personnel executive. "In college football, you're not seeing a lot of dropback passing, so a lot of prospects don't have that developed skill set that we're used to seeing in the past. The ball is coming out fast with run-pass options and spread formations. I think you're seeing more programs putting their best athletes on the edge and not worrying so much about how they play the run. I don't think it's good or bad. It's just how the game has evolved."
There's already ample evidence that it's not a stretch to invest in an edge rusher who's still learning his craft. The Baltimore Ravens selected Odafe Oweh in the first round of last year's draft after a redshirt sophomore season at Penn State in which he didn't register a single sack -- and he totaled five quarterback takedowns in his rookie year. Scouts once had similar concerns about Danielle Hunter's lack of productivity coming out of college, and he's earned two Pro Bowl trips since the Minnesota Vikings made him a third-round pick in 2015. Shaquil Barrett, Leonard Floyd, Haason Reddick, Rashan Gary, even reigning Defensive Player of the Year T.J. Watt were considered in need of molding to some degree when they entered the NFL. The bottom line is that teams are willing to be patient and hopeful when it comes to a position that plays such a big role in a defense's ability to disrupt offenses.
New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll echoed that sentiment when asked about the most important traits he looks for in a pass rusher. "Guys that can affect the quarterback," Daboll said. "They all come in different shapes and sizes ... They're all different, but all of them have a knack to affect the quarterback one way or the other, however that may be: speed, power, speed to power, different moves. But someone that can get him off the spot. Obviously, that's an important part of today's game, with the way passing is going."
"I think pass rusher is universal," added New York Jets head coach Robert Saleh. "Your ability to win one-on-one. Your ability to win three ways -- win with speed, win with counter moves, win with power. There are some really cool prospects at the top of the draft. I get that there is not that splash name like a Nick Bosa (who was drafted second overall by San Francisco in 2019 and won Defensive Rookie of the Year with Saleh as his coordinator) or Chase Young (who also won Defensive Rookie of the Year after being taken second overall by Washington in 2020), but these guys are really good. They are really, really good."
Mafe is a prime example of that. He only earned second-team All-Big Ten honors in his redshirt senior season, but he's been blowing by players who were more highly touted in the pre-draft process. Mafe's performance at the NFL Scouting Combine in March was one of the highlights -- that's what happens when a 6-foot-4, 261-pound man runs the 40-yard dash in 4.53 seconds and posts a vertical jump of 38 inches -- but his Senior Bowl experience was just as compelling. That was the week when he served notice that bigger names like Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson, Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux and Georgia's Travon Walker, all of whom were more buzzed-about recruits entering college, weren't the only future star pass rushers in this class.
Mafe's cousin, Ayo Idowu, was one of the many family members who traveled to Mobile, Alabama, to watch Boye compete in the Senior Bowl in early February. When Idowu arrived on Tuesday and watched practice, he had to introduce himself to scouts and coaches as Mafe's cousin and longtime trainer. By Friday, Idowu noticed that many of those same personnel types were strolling up to him and asking plenty of questions about Boye's story. "All of a sudden, they were coming at me and saying, 'You're the guy with Boye, right?' " Idowu said. "By the end of the game, Boye was the guy they were talking the most about."
"I feel like I'm still a sponge," Mafe said. "I can look at my footwork and see a difference now. My pre-snap awareness. My sense of what pass-rush moves will work in different situations. I used to just be concerned with what people were going to do to me. I now realize I can dictate what the offense does."
"It literally looked like he was chasing kids and trying to play tag when he was a freshman in high school." -- Ayo Idowu, cousin of Boye Mafe, on Mafe's rawness as a high school football player
The people who know Mafe best believe his greatest skill might just be his resourcefulness. If he's interested in something, he's going to find a way to succeed at it. As a child, though, the sport didn't yet captivate him. He played at the pee-wee level -- "Mainly because I wanted to hang out with my friends, and that's what they were doing," Mafe said -- but it wasn't an obsession, because his parents weren't crazy about the idea of him playing.
It wasn't that football was a foreign game to the family. Both Ayo and Boye's older brother, Dami, played at smaller colleges in Minnesota (Ayo at St. Thomas, Dami at Minnesota State-Mankato). But Boye was a relatively tiny kid by the family's standards, until he spent that eighth grade year in Nigeria and returned at an eye-popping 6-4. "He was around my height when he left, which is 5-6," said Wale Mafe, Boye's father. "When he came back, he was the tallest person in the house."
Wale and his wife, Bola, sent all four of their children to boarding school in Nigeria prior to high school for a number of reasons. They wanted the culture of their native land -- Wale and Bola had immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s -- to be familiar to their kids, and they wanted to instill some West African values, as well. Respect, obedience and discipline were at the top of the list. "I wanted Boye and all my other kids to know the importance of making the most of the opportunities they would get here," Wale said.
Every gifted pass rusher in this class who discovered football late in his adolescence needed a moment of clarity, a flashpoint when he could see the possibilities the game could offer. For Ojabo, that moment arrived when he saw the success Oweh was having at their high school, The Blair Academy in New Jersey, and decided he should start playing. Ebiketie's competitive drive led him to the sport as a high school sophomore at Albert Einstein High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. His only major college offer came from Temple, where he spent four years before his career exploded at Penn State.
Mafe's future in football became clearer once that growth spurt hit. "Football wasn't something I was really thinking about when I was in Nigeria," he said. "And I only started playing again in my freshman year because my friends were doing it. I was pretty raw at first. I was a receiver and defensive end, and I was just big. But the more I played, the more I realized I could do this."
It helped that his cousin, Idowu, was in his corner, as well. Idowu knew how the league worked because he trained NFL players and even attended a tryout with the Seattle Seahawks after his stellar Division III career ended in 2013. Idowu was an undersized pass rusher at 6-2. A 6-4 pass rusher like Boye would be just what major colleges, and possibly NFL teams, would covet.
Mafe started off so raw that, Idowu said, "it literally looked like he was chasing kids and trying to play tag when he was a freshman in high school." That all changed by Mafe's redshirt junior season at Minnesota, when he emerged as a starter who was flashing his potential on and off the field. One day, Idowu was training some pro football players, and Mafe was in the gym at the same time. When the older athletes saw Mafe's size and agility, they were stunned to learn he was still just a college player. "They kept saying, 'He'll be in the league someday,' " Idowu recalled.
The most impressive part of Mafe's redshirt senior season wasn't just setting a career high for sacks (seven) and tackles for loss (10) -- it was the way he put all the training and coaching he'd received over his previous four years together. "After my 2020 season, I just wanted more," Mafe said. "I knew what I wanted to do. I had to go into that offseason and get myself right with my fundamentals and technique and everything I had to work on. I started to understand exactly what I had to do."
In many ways, that senior season was a natural extension of Mafe's maturation. He lost his mother to a battle with cancer during his freshman year -- Bola died on Mother's Day in 2018. His father and cousin say he experienced a different type of growth spurt through the pain. Boye still had the relaxed, easygoing nature that exemplified his mother's personality, but he also had more resolve. "That was an emotional time," Mafe said. "The thing I learned the most is that the world really doesn't stand still for anybody."
That maturity will be essential to Mafe as he moves into the NFL. Defensive coordinators have been willing to ask more of defensive linemen in recent years, because opposing offenses have become so prolific. The most sensible way to attack the best quarterbacks in this league -- stars like Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes, Buffalo's Josh Allen and Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, the two-time reigning MVP -- is to win with a four-man rush and rely heavily on coverage to limit big plays. Blitzing essentially has become a bigger gamble, with increasingly more teams utilizing two-high safety looks to minimize vulnerabilities.
One NFC scout said the demand for pass rushers continues to increase because "all the passing and analytics has made people more desperate to just get that skill set in the door and hope to develop it. Every team is trying to find cornerbacks who can play man coverage, but they won't challenge receivers that often. Every game, you see tons of free-access routes, because teams scheme it up too well." Added Cincinnati Bengals director of player personnel Duke Tobin: "(Having) more guys in coverage is better. If you can get to the quarterback, and we faced teams that can pressure with four our entire playoff run, it does complicate things. So if you can get to the quarterback with four guys, that is a premium."
There is a legitimate chance as many as seven pass rushers could land in the first round of his year's class because of that thinking. Hutchinson, Thibodeaux and Walker seem to be firmly established at the front of this pass-rushing class. Mafe has been creating so much buzz with each passing month that he might be a top-20 pick by draft night. "He's explosive, he's smart and he has a good motor," said the NFC scout. "And there's a versatility factor with him because of his athleticism. Those players tend to have a good chance at succeeding."
Idowu believes Mafe's explosive rise is tied to the way he's been able to showcase his ability to win one-on-one matchups ahead of the draft after a college career in which that ability was obscured. Mafe handled multiple responsibilities within the Gophers' scheme, and, as Idowu put it, he wasn't really set loose in the same way players like Hutchinson and Ojabo were at Michigan. Mafe's maturation also has been apparent as the spotlight has shined brighter on him. "He was training in Los Angeles, with a nice chunk of change in his pocket, and he was still spending his Saturday nights talking with me," Idowu said.
The reality for younger, less-experienced pass rushers is that the game will become more challenging at the next level. Ebiketie said at the combine that he talked with Oweh a few months ago, and the advice he received was that "things are going to be faster." Oweh offered even more profound wisdom to Ojabo when the Michigan product was preparing for the combine. "He just said, 'Just learn,' " Ojabo said, also speaking at the combine. "We're new to this. We don't have dads who played or uncles who played or even friends for real who played. Just shut up and learn. There's so much to learn."
Mafe is fortunate in that he has loved ones who completely understand the path he's trying to walk. His brother and cousin used to criticize his game mercilessly when he blossomed into a three-star high school recruit, telling him that he needed plenty of work before he impressed them on the field. They were just as demanding as he developed in college. Their thinking was that the more they pushed him, the more Mafe would ask of himself.
All those efforts paid off over the past year. When Wale came to greet his son after the Senior Bowl ended, he beamed with pride at all the success his youngest son had earned. Then an event staffer came and pulled Mafe away from the crowd. Mafe eventually returned a few minutes later, after learning he had been named National team player of the game. "I looked at him and just said, 'Oh my God,' " Wale said. " 'I guess you're on your way.' "
That is exactly how Mafe is seeing things these days. "I feel like I've got a lot of work to do to be the player I want to become," Mafe said. "I'm off to a good start. Now I'm ready to see how far I can take this."
Editors: Ali Bhanpuri, Tom Blair, Gennaro Filice, Dan Parr
Illustration by: David Lomeli