If the Minnesota Vikings can be patient with the development of Hercules Mata’afa, there is a chance he could become a key piece of the team’s defense.
Two hundred and fifty-six. That is the number of players whose names were called during the seven rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. The Minnesota Vikings chose eight of those players but also took a deep look at the players who ended up as undrafted free agents.
Among those players who weren’t picked during the draft was Washington State defensive lineman Hercules Mata’afa. Despite being projected as a fifth to sixth round selection by NFL.com and listed as the 183rd best prospect by CBS Sports, teams struggled to find a fit for him in their defense and wound up signing with the Vikings.
There is plenty of love about Mata’afa. He was the 2017 Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year after recording 45 total tackles in 11 games played, including 22.5 tackles for a loss and 10.5 sacks. He added two forced fumbles that year, recovering one according to Sports-Reference.
Production and motor aren’t the reason Hercules Mata’afa didn’t get drafted. It’s his combination of size and speed that makes defense wonder how to use him. At 6′ 2″ and 254-pounds, teams likely felt he lacks the size to be a defensive tackle and power to be a defensive end.
One coach who is always willing to find a way to get the best possible players on the field at the same time is Mike Zimmer. In fact, the Vikings have already announced a move to put the standout player at linebacker according to the Star Tribune.
It will take time to get Mata’afa up to speed at the position since it will be new to him. However, his combine results show he has the athleticism needed to make the jump. If Minnesota is willing to be patient with the collegiate standout, they could have an athletic, high-motor, and instinctual player at a position where the team lacks depth.
The Vikings have already locked down another linebacker many considered undersized by rewarding Eric Kendricks with a 5-year contract worth $50 million and will likely lock down Anthony Barr with a similar deal after this season.
Minnesota has been playing smaller players in their defensive sets anyway, subbing out solid-tackling linebacker Ben Gedeon for an additional cornerback. Gedeon was on the field for less than 25% of the team’s defensive snaps, and having another solid tackler who can rush the passer opposite Barr could be a real benefit to the Vikings defense.
Don’t expect Mata’afa to make an impact right away. He’s a player that Mike Zimmer can develop into whatever he feels is best for the Vikings and that transition may take a while. However, don’t be surprised if the hard-working defender can make an impact faster than expected much like other high-potential yet raw prospects who have paid off for the team such as Adam Thielen, Andrew Sendejo, and Danielle Hunter.