The best defender in the NFL you likely didn’t hear much about last season was Falcons defensive tackle Grady Jarrett. He was a second team All-Pro, registering 7.5 sacks with 11 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles. Jarrett was a fifth-round pick in 2015 after a dazzling career at Clemson, one with 28.5 tackles for loss in three seasons. Since entering the league, he’s made the rest of the league pay for passing on him so many times. Now, it’s time to pinpoint who’s next.
My pick to be the next Jarrett is Raiders interior rusher Maurice Hurst, another former fifth-round selection with a “smaller” pass-rushing frame for the defensive tackle position. While his drop to Round 5 in the 2018 draft was likely precipitated due to a rare heart condition being reported during the pre-draft process, there was some thought that his “undersized” frame pushed him down the boards of most teams, which is precisely what happened to Jarrett three years earlier.
Also similar to Jarrett, Hurst wasn’t an enormous sack-creator in college. At Clemson, Jarrett had just 5.5 sacks over his final three seasons. Hurst recorded 13.5 in three seasons in Ann Arbor and never reached six in a single year.
In the NFL, neither exactly hit the ground running as rookies, but they did provide occasional glimpses of how good they could be on Sundays. Then, they matured into serious producers in Year 2. Let’s take a look at the second-year production for each.
Grady Jarrett 2016
Maurice Hurst 2019
*Data via Pro Football Focus
For context, Aaron Donald, who’s long played football on a different stratosphere than any other interior defensive lineman (see: defender), had 79 pressures on 532 pass-rush snaps in his second season in the NFL, which equates to a 14.7% pressure-creation rate.
Hurst isn’t quite the athlete Jarrett is, but at the Michigan Pro Day in 2018, Hurst did clock a 40-yard dash time in the 79th percentile among defensive tackles, and his vertical landed in the 71st percentile. There’s plenty of explosion to his game.
Hurst started slowly last season, with just 12 pressures in his first seven games, then something clicked. According to PFF, Hurst only trailed some huge names at the position in pass-rush win rate over the last nine weeks of the season in 2019 — Aaron Donald, Kenny Clark, and Chris Jones. He totaled 26 pressures in the last nine contests.
While Hurst’s late-season surge is the most glaring indicator of a Year 3 breakout, Las Vegas’ new defensive line coach couldn’t be any better for him. Rod Marinelli won’t be calling the plays, but he’s long had a reputation for getting the most out of trench players — especially smaller, quicker interior rushers — due to his simple “get upfield” attacking philosophy. He was the Buccaneers’ defensive line coach, then coordinator, early in Warren Sapp’s career.
And next to him on the Raiders defensive line is Maliek Collins, whom Las Vegas signed in free agency. He spent his first four seasons in the NFL under Marinelli’s watch with the Cowboys, and his presence will be vital for Hurst. Collins had a career year in 2019 with a pass-rush win rate of 16% per ESPN via Next Gen Stats, outdone only by Jones, Jarrett, and Donald (among 47 qualifiers). Hurst will have a legit running mate up front. That’s good news.
Beyond that, Collins draws plenty of attention. According to that same ESPN chart, Collins was doubled nearly 65% of the time last season. That’s a high figure. Just eight (qualifying) defensive tackles were doubled teamed more frequently than Collins. Hurst was double teamed just over 59% of the time, which was right around the middle of the pack. Collins should at least start the season as the Raiders defensive tackle who gets double-teamed more frequently, which also bodes well for Hurst. The more one-on-one situations, the better.
On film, Hurst doesn’t strictly win with a lightning-quick first step. He has a loaded arsenal of efficient pass-rushing moves and plays with outstanding speed-to-power leverage because he’s only 6-foot-1. His pressure-creation doesn’t rely on twists or high-caliber coverage behind him.
As a member of what should be an ascending defense, Hurst is primed for a huge year as a pass-rushing specialist on the interior of Las Vegas’ defensive line.