Analyzing Texas LB Joseph Ossai: Versatility with vexations

Versatility is a coveted trait in today's NFL, and it comes in many different forms. Texas LB Joseph Ossai has a unique brand of versatility, but his role could shift dramatically in the coming years.

He’s 6-foot-4, 255 pounds. He played everywhere from the edge to the slot in his sophomore season at Texas, amassing 90 tackles, 13.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, two interceptions, a pass deflection, and a forced fumble. And he has one of the coolest phonetic names in existence. Who is he? That last one should give it away — he’s Texas linebacker Joseph Ossai, and he’s one of the most compelling linebackers on the 2021 NFL Draft circuit.

Ossai is versatile; it doesn’t take much tape-watching to figure that out. He moves all around the field as one of Texas’ highly-heralded linebackers, and he fills just about every role in the middle of the field. Whether it’s splitting out in coverage, locking down the center of the defense, or encroaching the edge and providing a pass-rushing spark, Ossai does it all, and he has the upside to be drafted early in 2021.

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Ossai was productive in a multi-faceted manner in 2019, as his stat line above conveys. But Ossai’s versatility comes with certain vexations — causes for worry. Is his versatility forced somewhat by role definition? Does he have the necessary traits to carry that versatility over to the NFL, or would it serve Ossai well to have his role condensed at the next level? Let’s break it down.

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Analyzing Texas LB Joseph Ossai

For much of the 2019 season, Ossai was used as an off-ball linebacker with the Longhorns. For those unfamiliar with the term, off-ball describes a linebacker who does not immediately pursue the ball on every play. In coverage, off-ball linebackers must fortify their zones, maintain spatial awareness, and stick with their man, and in run defense, they must navigate crowds and fill their lanes.

Conversely, the most well-known example of the off-ball linebacker’s opposite is the 3-4 outside linebacker or edge defender. 3-4 outside linebackers share a lot of similarities with 4-3 defensive ends, in that they’re most often found on the edge of the defensive line. But 3-4 outside linebackers traditionally offer more versatility, although their primary function is commonly that of a defensive lineman.

As an off-ball linebacker, Ossai’s imposing size and length stood out, and at times, he showed off his impressive athleticism moving downhill. He has very good short-range explosiveness, and when he has a runway, particularly as a blitzer, he can get up to high speeds. His combination of burst and length makes him dangerous in pursuit, and he’s capable of traversing long distances quickly, not only with his speed but with his long strides.

But Ossai also showed some limitations in his more traditional linebacker role — limitations that one might see from a defensive lineman being used in space. He wasn’t always fluid in his open-field movement and showcased some stiffness laterally.

Ossai also had moments of suspect balance, where a change-of-direction left him reeling and losing his leverage. Tackling angles, additionally, were incredibly inconsistent from Ossai, and he repeatedly took himself out of plays by taking poor angles to the ball.

What’s exciting about Ossai is that even with these mitigating factors on his upside, he still managed to produce in a role that didn’t quite attune to his skill set. This means that when Ossai moves to the “JACK” role for the Texas defense in 2020, he could take his game to new heights.

Texas LB Joseph Ossai as the JACK linebacker

Texas got a look at how a role change might benefit LB Ossai after the 2019 season. Ahead of the Valero Alamo Bowl against the Utah Utes, the Longhorns made a switch at defensive coordinator. The following week, Ossai lingered much closer to the line of scrimmage, transitioning from an off-ball linebacker to an edge defender hybrid.

His stat line against the Utes in the final game of the season? Eight tackles, 3.0 of his 5.0 sacks on the season, and 5.5 tackles for loss.

Ossai’s role against Utah is one that he’ll presumably maintain in 2020 under defensive coordinator Chris Ash: The “JACK” role. As the JACK linebacker, Ossai is no longer an off-ball linebacker. Instead, he’s an edge rusher in a 4-2-5 scheme who doubles as a third linebacker on a situational basis. Think Terrell Suggs. Demarcus Ware. Jason Taylor.

“It’s so much better than being just a D-lineman,” Taylor, who’s now in the Hall of Fame, once said about being the JACK linebacker. “I like to think you have to be the most athletic person on the field. I’m not throwing rocks at the other players, or other positions, but to be the jack you have so much to do.”

In his new role, Ossai will be able to maximize his size, power, athleticism, and motor, attacking the pocket on the majority of his plays. Ossai has a 36.5-inch vertical jump on record, and his projected 40-yard dash time is somewhere within the 4.6-4.7 range, so he has the athletic profile needed to be a situational linebacker.

That explosive athleticism will serve him even better on the line, where he’ll be able to use his length in conjunction with that athleticism and wreak havoc against offensive tackles.

What should we make of Ossai’s new role in 2020?

Don’t forget about Ossai’s versatility. Ossai’s ability to play multiple positions is something not a lot of defensive linemen have, and it’s something that he can use to separate himself at the next level. But just know that Ossai isn’t your average hybrid linebacker. Just because he’s 6-foot-4, 255lbs and is listed as a linebacker, doesn’t mean he’s in the same mold as Isaiah Simmons.

Ossai is an edge rusher first, and he should be able to produce even more in that role in 2020. Ossai was at his best on the edge in 2019, rushing the quarterback and pinching the pocket. With more and more snaps devoted to that role in 2020, he should be able to make a more profound impression on the national stage. In a relatively unsettled 2021 edge class, look for Ossai to potentially emerge and challenge for the highest echelon.

The junior will still have his chances to make plays in coverage and as an off-ball defender. Still, he’ll need to work on improving his lateral agility, fluidity, and balance before he can maximize his skill set in that area. If he can play faster and smoother, and take better angles consistently, while maximizing his impact as a pass rusher, Ossai could end up being a dominant, dynamic catalyst for Texas’ defense.

Last season was the emergence. Now comes the next step.

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