The New York Jets swing for the fences with an athletically gifted edge rusher from Florida. It’s time to meet Jabari Zuniga.
With the 79th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, the New York Jets select… Jabari Zuniga, EDGE, Florida. The Jets needed to address pass rushing in the draft. They currently have Tarell Basham starting at outside linebacker and that couldn’t stand.
Zuniga will likely compete with Basham for a starting role, though that might not be warranted. The Florida product is a phenomenal athlete, but injuries and a lack of production in college are a concern.
He has a long way to go before he’s a starting-caliber player in the NFL. However, general manager Joe Douglas loves to take players with upside and that’s exactly what Zuniga brings to the table.
If he hits his ceiling, he could be a legitimate pass-rushing threat off the edge for the Jets. They haven’t had that since Calvin Pace. The downside is that if Zuniga doesn’t develop well, he could be a useless player due to his limitations.
Zuniga came to Florida as a three-star recruit. He was redshirted his freshman year as he wasn’t ready to take on the grueling SEC schedule.
Year two he was used mostly as a situation pass rusher, only starting in three games. He dominated in the time he did play with five sacks, and 8.5 tackles for loss.
He took on a larger role in his sophomore year, but injuries limited him to only six starts and 10 games played. Despite, playing through injuries, Zuniga replicated his performance from the year before putting up four sacks and eight tackles for loss.
Zuniga broke out in his junior year. He started in 12 games and put up 6.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. Those stats may not look that impressive but add in that he led the SEC in pressure rate at nearly 16% and it’s clear he was dominating his competition.
Despite his dominant numbers, Zuniga returned to school for a senior season. It didn’t go the way he planed after picking up a high ankle sprain in the third game of the season. Zuniga racked up three sacks and three tackles for loss in his first two games, but after returning from injury, only put up 2.5 tackles for loss.
If Zuniga could have stayed healthy, it’s possible he would have played himself into the same conversation as A.J. Epenesa and Yetur Gross-Matos.
Zuniga blew people away at the combine. He ran a 4.64 40-yard dash, the second-best among defensive linemen. He also put up 29 reps on the bench press, more than Carolina Panthers nose tackle Derrick Brown. He’s a freak athlete at the position with the speed and strength to be a game-changer.
That athleticism makes him more versatile. He can play standing up, as a down lineman, and even played defensive tackle at times for Florida. With strength and speed like that Zuniga becomes a weapon who can be deployed as a pass rusher from anywhere on the field.
A smart defensive coordinator will find a way to move Zuniga all over the field and confuse opposing quarterbacks.
Zuniga’s biggest strengths are derived from his athleticism. His long arms allow him to make first contact on most rushes, which makes him a dangerous speed to power threat. It also allows him to get leverage when playing as a down lineman that most players his size don’t have.
He has strong first-step quickness that lets him fill gaps against the run and blow past slow reacting guards. It also helps him set the edge against the run if the ball is run his way.
He’s excellent in pursuit with a white-hot motor and possesses the athleticism to chase down running backs. Zuniga will never give up on a play.
He has scary good acceleration. His ability to start and stop on stunts and in run coverage is among the best in the draft class.
For all the power that Zuniga posses, he struggles to use it when engaged. Stronger offensive linemen are able to drive him off his spot and move him to the second level.
He can struggle against tight ends due to a lack of technique. Anyone who actively fights to engage him can give him fits.
His versatility is a double-edged sword. Zuniga doesn’t have a definite position in the NFL. The Jets will likely try him as a stand-up edge rusher, but he might be better with his hand in the dirt. Don’t be surprised if defensive coordinator Gregg Williams moves him all over the field as he looks for a true home.
He lacks the dip and bend to consistently beat tackles with his speed rush. That’s only going to be more true in the NFL where the tackles are more athletic.
Hidden production is very real with Zuniga. He had trouble turning pressures into sacks throughout his college career. He’ll need to better in the NFL if he wants to make a real impact in the NFL as a pass rusher.
His instincts and awareness in the run game are weak. He was able to make himself useful in the NCAA with his athleticism, but at the NFL level, he’ll need to figure out the mental side of run defense.