It's no secret to anyone who has watched the Chicago Bears the last two years that the team is in need of some top outside pass rushers. If we look at how Bears General Manager Ryan Poles has drafted, he uses premium picks on premium positions. One position in his first two Drafts that he hasn't taken in a premium round is defensive end/edge pass rusher. There is no question in my mind that he will add at least two pass rushers next spring, though one may come via veteran free agency in March.
One of the better pass rushers in College Football the last two seasons has been UCLA's Laiatu Latu. Over the last season and a half, Latu has recorded 16 sacks for the Bruins, with 5.5 sacks coming in UCLA's first six games this year.
Latu has ideal defensive end size at about 6050 – 265 with long arms, and he shows very good play speed. I would estimate he will run in the high 4.6s to low 4.7s at the Combine. Not only does he have speed, but he is very athletic, with excellent body control, quick feet and flexibility. His strength and power are also very good, and he plays a physical, aggressive game.
While Latu's forte is rushing the passer, he is darn good versus the run. Latu usually plays from a stand-up 2-point stance but will put his hand in the dirt at times. His snap reaction and initial quickness are excellent, and he comes off the ball low. He has top instincts, is quick to find the ball, and is seldom fooled by misdirection. He shows on a consistent basis that he can set the edge and not give ground to blockers. His quick, strong hands allow him to shed most blocks very quickly.
When rushing the passer, Latu shows some special ability. Regardless of whether he is playing up or down, he is able to get under his opponent to gain leverage and has the bend and deep coming off the edge to defeat most pass block attempts. His ability to close off a block is excellent. Latu is not just a speed rusher as he can use power to bull rush, and he has several moves. As stated, his hands are quick and strong, and he often uses the slap move made famous by current Bear Yannick Ngaqoue. With that move, the pass rusher uses his quick hands to slap down the blocker's hands so that the blocker can't get his hands on the pass rusher. A player has to have a strong upper body, arms and hands to make that move work. Latu does this as well as any pass rusher in college. Jared Verse from Florida State is also very good at using the slap move.
When we look at Latu's tape, he seems to be a certain Top 15 type prospect. As good as he is, there is a huge negative that he must overcome once he gets to the Combine. What Latu must do is pass the medical, and for some clubs, that may be difficult.
Latu originally enrolled at Washington in 2019. As a freshman, he played every game as a backup and showed flashes of the player he would become. In pre-season practice in the fall of 2020, Latu suffered a neck injury that required surgery. The injury prevented him from playing in the 2020 season, and in the spring of 2021, when Latu still had numbness in his neck, he was advised by the Washington medical staff to never play football again.
Despite not being allowed to play, Latu continued to work out, and as he gained strength in his neck area, the numbness went away. He wanted to continue his football career, so he transferred to UCLA, where the medical staff cleared him to play just before the start of fall practice in August 2022. In the last season and a half, Latu has played in 19 games without incident. He wears a special collar on his shoulder pads, but it's not very noticeable. As I mentioned above, Latu plays a physical game and shows no signs of not wanting to hit. He can be a very aggressive hitter and flashes some blowup hits.
When Latu gets to Indianapolis for the Combine next February, the first thing the Combine staff will do is have an MRI done on his neck and spine region. This will give all the club's medical staff the opportunity to see exactly what kind of condition Latu's neck is in. My experience with past injuries is that there will be clubs that will read the MRI, and if all looks good, they will take into consideration that he has played two years since the surgery and clear him to play for their clubs. There will be other clubs that will not clear him because they feel the risk is just too much. This happens all the time in the League, where one team will differ from another on a certain player's medical. A lot of it has to do with a club's medical staff's experience with that type of injury.
Assuming that Latu passes the medical, he can become a plug-and-play type of player as a rookie. He should start right away for most teams, and eventually, he'll be a difference-maker for an NFL team. For the Bears, he would become a young aggressive pass rusher who is capable of playing either on the left or right side. Let's hope the Bears' medical staff clears Latu, as he then would be in the mix to be selected with one of their two first-round picks.