After the New England Patriots lost starting edge defender Trey Flowers in free agency last year, they changed their defense from a 4-3-based unit to one built around more 3-4 principles. However, the personnel turnover this offseason — linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Jamie Collins both departed as unrestricted free agents — could lead to the team moving back to using more four-man fronts in 2020 and subsequently targeting players in this year’s draft that would fit such a system.
Penn State’s Yetur Gross-Matos would be such a player. While his intriguing athletic skillset would also make him a potential candidate to play as a 3-4 outside linebacker, he appears to be best suited as a traditional edge defender in the mold of Flowers. With that said, let’s take a closer look at him.
Name: Yetur Gross-Matos
Position: Defensive edge
School: Penn State (junior)
Opening day age: 22
2019 stats: 12 games; 561 snaps; 40 tackles (15.0 tackles for loss); 38.0 quarterback pressures (11.0 sacks, 5 hits, 22 hurries)
Size: 6050, 266 lbs, 9.75 hand size, 34.88 arm length
Workout numbers: 34.0 vertical jump, 1000 broad jump, 20 bench press
Expected round: Late 1st-Early 2nd
Patriots pre-draft meeting: N/A
Strengths: Despite being measured at 6-foot-5, 266 pounds at the scouting combine in February, Gross-Matos has some smooth movement skills to go along with his impressive frame: he is explosive out of his stance and able to quickly cover ground when charging into the backfield from the edge or playing downhill from the interior, but also has the flexibility to attack laterally and move towards the inside when lining up outside the offensive tackle. He certainly can be a dangerous player when used on stunts or when challenging offensive linemen around the corner.
Gross-Matos knows not just how to use his lower body to put pressure on offensive linemen, but also how to use his long arms to disrupt their blocking attempts upon initial contact. He furthermore has shown that he can effectively employ bull-rushes and a variety of pass-rushing moves — from swim to rip motions — and that he can be equally effective as a run blocker: he has a natural feel for positioning himself to set a hard edge in the running game, and is hardly fooled by stretch runs or trick plays.
He also offers adequate strength and a motor that appears to run hot at all times to move blockers off their spot and quickly close gaps. For a player his size, he plays with a generally disciplined pad level and is a good tackler both to the inside and in the rare occasion when he is going against players in the open field.
Weaknesses: Gross-Matos’ foundation is a strong one and should help him to quickly adapt to life in the NFL, but there are still some areas to work on before he can become an every-down player at the next level. His technique is sometimes a bit inconsistent, for example, especially when it comes to disengaging from blockers and using counter-moves as a pass rusher — he needs to clean up his hand movements to become more efficient and not waste time and energy trying to get free.
In general, he needs to develop a Plan B in case he cannot get to the quarterback quickly and if it is only getting his hands up to disrupt passing lanes. Gross-Matos also may need some more time in the film room and with coaches to let the game slow down a bit for him: his outstanding physical tools allow him to be successful, but has considerable room for growth when it comes to reading the play and reacting accordingly to what is unfolding in front of him. His demeanor off the field may be a question as well after he was suspended at one point during last year’s offseason for violating team rules.
On top of it all, Gross-Matos’ scheme flexibility might be limited: he did see some snaps in a two-point stance on the edge, dropping back in the underneath area, but he is more effective and natural in his movements when allowed to play downhill.
What would be his role? Depending on the Patriots’ front, Gross-Matos could either be used as a 4-3 end or 3-4 outside linebacker (even though he projects more favorably in a 4-3 defense). Either way, he would likely be asked to set the edge in the running game and also serve as a pass rusher. While he needs some significant fine-tuning before he can be trusted in an every-down role like the one Trey Flowers used to play, he could make an immediate impact on New England’s defense as a situational pass rusher both from the edge and when kicking inside on occasion.
How many downs can he play? Gross-Matos has the talent to develop into a four-down player, but early on in his career he will likely be used in a package-specific rotation alongside fellow edge defenders Chase Winovich and John Simon. He would get his fair share of snaps as a run defender, but might have a more prominent role as a pass rusher from various alignments across the defensive line.
What is his special teams value? The Patriots used Winovich extensively in the kicking game and also gave Simon some looks on field goal and extra point block units. A similar usage could be in the cards for Gross-Matos as well if he gets drafted by the team. He would therefore see regular action on field goal and extra point units on both sides of the ball, and possibly also on punt coverage from time to time. His eventual role on special teams might be dictated by his defensive playing time, though.
Does he have positional versatility? While Gross-Matos does not project to be the most scheme-flexible defender — as noted above, he seems better suited to play in a 4-3-based front with his hands in the dirt rather than as a 3-4 outside linebacker with increased coverage abilities — he still offers positional versatility and could be used in various D-line techniques. He played 462 of his 561 defensive snaps (82.4%) outside the tackle from the 5- to the 9-technique spots, according to Pro Football Focus’ 2020 NFL Draft Guide, but was also used on the interior from time to time (79 snaps; 14.1%).
Will his role change from Year One to Year Two? If he is able to improve his hand-counter technique as a pass rusher and starts processing information more quickly, Gross-Matos should be able to develop into a three-down player on defense. Such a development could already happen over the course of the 2020 season, but a more significant jump seems likely to occur between his first and second year in the league. By 2021, he could therefore be a cornerstone alongside New England’s defensive edge.
Which current Patriots will he have to beat out? Given that he could come off the board as early as the first round, Gross-Matos would be a lock to make the roster. In terms of playing time, he would compete against the other edge defenders on the team — Winovich, Simon, Brandon Copeland, Derek Rivers, Keionta Davis, Tashawn Bower and Terez Hall — but get every chance to carve out a role as a top-three member of the rotation.
Why the Patriots? After the departure of Kyle Van Noy, the Patriots’ defensive edge rotation is currently headed by Chase Winovich and John Simon. They are a solid one-two punch, but adding another high-upside option such as Gross-Matos to the equation would be a smart move: not only could he have an immediate impact in a package-specific role, he also offers a combination of length, athleticism and tremendous upside that New England has not had since it traded away Chandler Jones ahead of the 2016 season.
Why not the Patriots? Even with Van Noy and Jamie Collins gone, the Patriots could opt to run their defense on 3-4 principles — a schematic framework in which Gross-Matos would project as a standup outside linebacker rather than a player lining up in a three-point stance on nearly every down. While there is a chance he could develop into a difference maker in this role as well, it seems more likely that he won’t be able to reach his full potential outside of a 4-3. If New England does not want to go back to such a front, Gross-Matos may not be as highly rated by the team as he otherwise could be.
Verdict: Yetur Gross-Matos is an exciting prospect to watch: his talent is apparent, and his ceiling is undeniably high due to his combination of size and athleticism. The question will be how the Patriots view him, especially in regards to their defensive scheme and the role he might play. If he projects favorably within their evaluation, though, it would not be a surprise to see the team go after him late in the first round or early on the second day of the draft.