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Why Texas edge defender Joseph Ossai could be a smart Day 2 pick for the Steelers

The Pittsburgh Steelers might be thinking about drafting a pass rusher in the 2021 NFL Draft, and Texas EDGE rusher Joseph Ossai might be a great pick for them on Day 2.

Texas v Kansas State Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

My three year-old daughter woke up at 4 a.m. the other night. She was having a nightmare in which a monster from the Scooby Doo episode she’d been watching was chasing her (looks like we’ll be taking a break from Scooby Doo at the Smith house). My wife put her back to bed, but I couldn’t get to sleep again, so I did what any sensible Steelers fan would do: I spent the next hour running mock draft simulations looking for the perfect scenario to address the team’s three most pressing needs: offensive line, running back and edge defender.

I ran about thirty simulations. There was always a player-of-need on offense available at 1:24 in which the Steelers seem to have interest. Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, Creed Humphrey, Teven Jenkins, Sam Cosmi, even Christian Darrisaw at times. I landed one of those players every time through. It seems likely the Steelers will go offense in round one. If they do, high-end players will be available.

Round two was a different story. If I took a lineman in round one, it was impossible to land one of the big three running backs (Harris, Etienne or Williams) at 2:55. If I took a back in round one, the best centers and tackles were off the board while the highest-rated remaining linemen (Dillon Radunz, Quinn Meinerz, Walker Little) all came with questions. Radunz played one game in 2020. Meinerz is from Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater and did not play at all. Little has not played a snap since the opening week of 2019.

This got me thinking. What if the draft does in fact fall this way? What if the Steelers are on the clock at 2:55 and are staring at second-tier running backs or linemen on which they’d rather not invest a high pick? Would they take a flyer on one anyway? Or would they put their eggs in their favorite basket and draft a talented edge rusher?

We know, given the current lack of depth at edge, it’s high on their radar. And we know the Steelers love drafting linebackers. It’s not implausible, then, to imagine a scenario where a player on offense the Steelers highly covet is not available in round two and they go with an edge instead. If that’s the case, my hope is they’ll target Joseph Ossai from the University of Texas.

Here’s a breakdown of Ossai, and why he’s my favorite edge defender for the Steelers at that point in the draft.


Ossai is routinely being mocked in the middle of the second round. I’ve seen him go at 49 to the Cardinals, at 53 to the Titans, at 56 to the Seahawks and at 58 to the Ravens. That puts him right in range for the Steelers at 55. If Ossai is there, and the Steelers don’t like their options in that slot on offense, he’d be a smart pick.

Ossai is 6’4-256 and ran 4.62 in the forty. His first ten yards were clocked in 1.58 though, which is faster than the projected first-round picks at his position (Kwity Paye, Azeez Ojulari, Jaelan Phillips, Jayson Oweh). That ten-yard split shows up in the way Ossai bursts off the football. His quickness is reminiscent of Bud Dupree’s and presents problems for offensive tackles who don’t move their feet with urgency.

Ossai was highly productive on the field at Texas. He piled up 86 tackles, 29 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in 22 games as a sophomore and a junior, earning 1st Team All-America honors and a team captainship. He is a high-character player whose family fled violence in Nigeria and were granted residency in the United States under the Diversity Visa lottery program. Ossai plays with the urgency of a young man who knows he’s been provided a blessing in his life and is determined not to waste it.

Strengths

Ossai’s best asset is his quickness, which was on full display in Texas’s 41-34 win against Oklahoma State in 2020. Matched up much of the night against Teven Jenkins, Ossai was spectacular. He amassed twelve tackles, six tackles for loss (TFL) and three sacks, including this one that ended the game in overtime:

Watch Ossai (bottom left, #46) burst off the ball to beat a chip from the tight end before using a dip-and-rip move to clear Jenkins. From there he flattens out and tracks down quarterback Spencer Sanders for the walk-off win.

What I love about that clip is, with the game on the line, matched up against another elite player, Ossai refused to be denied. He played that snap to win the football game. I’m not reading too much into a single play but, in big situations, you want your best players to shine. Ossai did so there.

Here’s another, from Texas’s game against TCU where Ossai produced 11 tackles, 3 TFL and a sack. Ossai (top left edge) gains good position with an initial burst and uses his hands well to disengage from his blocker. A quick punch to the chest of the offensive tackle knocks the tackle back, creating enough space for Ossai to bend the edge and get a hit on the quarterback:

Here’s one more. I like this one because Ossai (top left edge) is forced to go really wide because of the deep vertical drop of the tackle. Still, he manages to neutralize him by swatting away his hands then uses an arm-over club to turn the corner. Ossai then redirects immediately and creates a strip-sack:

That’s three good pressures on speed-rushes using three different techniques: a dip-and-rip, a punch to the chest and a club move. The combination of speed and craft makes Ossai a potentially elite edge rusher.

Ossai also uses his speed effectively on twists and stunts. Here (bottom right edge), we see him start outside before looping back underneath the defensive tackle, who attracts two blockers with his slant movement. This stunt takes some time to develop but Ossai’s quickness allows him to get to the quarterback and force another fumble:

That quickness is evident in the run game as well. Watch Ossai (top right edge) defend this zone-read play by keeping his shoulders square as he squeezes the running back’s cutback lane before bursting to the quarterback. This type of lateral movement would be useful when defending the read-option schemes favored by the division-rival Baltimore Ravens. It also makes Ossai extremely difficult to reach on outside zone plays.

Ossai is not just a speed guy, though. He can hold his own at the point of attack. Here (bottom right edge), we see him deliver an excellent two-hand strike to the chest of the offensive tackle, allowing him to shed the block, find the football and recover a fumble.

Notice how the tackle’s torso snaps backwards in that clip. While Ossai will likely need to add some bulk to handle the better offensive tackles in the NFL, he plays with heavy hands and can be a powerful in-line defender.

Here we see it again. Watch Ossai (bottom left edge) separate from the tackle before laying out the running back. Ossai gets into an ideal arrowhead tackling position, wrapping his arms and driving his legs to finish the play.

Teams would prefer to run at Ossai than away from him, however. When you leave him unblocked on the back side of a play, he’s a menace. Watch him here (bottom right edge) chase down this counter-sweep:

I like the discipline Ossai employs. He doesn’t simply take off like a dog chasing a bone. Instead, he angles for the mesh point between the QB and the back to disrupt any bootleg action before flattening out in pursuit.

On this play, Ossai (bottom right edge) impresses with his effort. The two things a player can always control that take no ability whatsoever are his attitude and his effort. We know Ossai, as a team captain, has a great attitude. Plays like this (and there are many on his tape) demonstrate great effort as well:

Weaknesses

Ossai is not yet a complete pass rusher. He’s great when claiming the edge and using his hands. Sometimes, though, he’s indecisive. And, when he does get locked up, he struggles to disengage. This play goes terribly wrong for Ossai. Matched up against Jenkins (bottom left edge), he gets stalemated at the snap, can’t create a move to get off and winds up being buried:

On this one, Ossai (top left edge) tries a quick stutter move to draw Jenkins inside before bursting around him. Jenkins stays on balance, though, allowing him to ride Ossai out of the play. Ossai will need to develop a counter to his speed move to become a complete pass-rusher in the NFL.

(Side note: the battle between Jenkins and Ossai was a treat to watch. I’ve embedded the YouTube clip here. Jenkins pancakes Ossai on three or four occasions with nasty, physical blocks while Ossai beats him for sacks and TFL’s with an array of moves. It was like watching a great heavyweight fight).

In the run game, Ossai’s aggressiveness can, on occasion, cause him to over-pursue and run himself out of position. Here, Ossai (top right edge) runs around the block of the tackle, opening an alley for the back to the edge:

And, at times, he can get fooled. On this play, Ossai (bottom left edge) is defending against the zone-read like we saw earlier. But TCU, recognizing his controlled close, comes back at him with GT counter. Ossai’s eyes are in the backfield and he never sees the pulling guard, who nearly knocks him off his feet. Ossai can be susceptible to screens and misdirections when he doesn’t use good eye discipline.

Overall

Ossai is not quite a finished product. He will need to become more sound against the run and develop a counter to his outside speed rush. But his size and athleticism make him a great scheme-fit for the Steelers. He is versatile enough to rush the passer, defend the run and, though he was not asked to play coverage often, has shown good agility when doing so. His intangibles are outstanding as well. He is a high-effort player with great character who was a leader at Texas and played big in their biggest games.

In Pittsburgh, Ossai would not need to start right away. Instead, he could be an immediate contributor on special teams while earning reps in passing situations. With T.J. Watt, Alex Highsmith and Ossai in the fold, the Steelers’ depth at outside linebacker would be solid for years to come. If Pittsburgh can’t land the running back or offensive lineman they desire in round two of the draft, Ossai would be a wise investment.