Going into the 2023 College Football Season, the two defense end/edge players who were the favorites to become the first edge players drafted in the 2014 NFL Draft were Florida State’s Jared Verse and Alabama’s Dallas Turner. While both have had good seasons, the player who has risen to the top of the pass rusher Draft Board is UCLA senior Laiatu Latu.
I took an early look at Latu here a month ago, but I wanted to revisit his play because I’ve been impressed with how he’s performed the last few games.
Latu has put together two very strong seasons while at UCLA, with 10.5 sacks in 2022 and 13 to date in 2023. He is by far the most complete defensive end in the Draft because of his overall play vs both the run and pass.
Latu has excellent edge size at about 6050 – 265 with long arms and play speed of about 4.65. Though he plays mostly from a two-point stance, he has explosive initial quickness, stays low and consistently gets penetration to disrupt the run game. He has the size, strength and hand use to set the edge and keep plays inside and does a very good job getting off blocks quickly.
As a pass rusher, he again stays low, and even though he gets double teams a lot, he shows the power to break through the double to create pressure. When up against one-on-one blocks he is almost impossible to stop. His speed, explosive quickness, hand use, and bend make it very difficult for offensive tackles to stay with him. His dip and lean to get under opponents is as good as I’ve seen in years when coming off the edge.
Latu has very consistent production in that he shows up every game. His sacks don’t come in bunches but rather in just about every game. To date, he has played in 11 games this season and has recorded at least one sack in eight of these 11 games. Last year, he was similar with sack production in eight of 12 games played.
As good as Latu is, he has a medical issue that could very well hurt his draft status.
Latu originally enrolled at the University of Washington in 2019 and played in all 12 games as a backup his true freshman year. The following August in 2020, during a pre-season practice, he suffered a neck injury that required surgery, and he missed the entire 2020 season. The following spring, Latu was still unable to play, and the Washington medical staff suggested he retire from football because of the risk involved. Latu stayed at Washington for the fall 2021 season but then entered the transfer portal in order to transfer and find a team that would allow him to play.
In the spring of 2022, Latu transferred to UCLA where the UCLA medical staff cleared him to resume football. Latu resumed contact in fall camp of 2022 and played in 12 games having a very productive season with 10.5 sacks and 33 total tackles. He followed that up this season with 13 sacks to date as well as 46 total tackles.
So, is Latu good to go as far as the NFL Draft? Well, that remains to be seen, and Liaatu Latu will be one of the most talked about and highly examined players at the 2024 NFL Combine. How is medical results at the Combine turn out, will have a direct effect on where he gets Drafted.
Having attended over 30 NFL Combines, I know the process well, and having been the Bears Director of College Scouting for nine years, I am significantly up to date on the medical issues and procedures.
The first thing that will happen to Latu when he arrives at Indy is he will be given an MRI so that team doctors can see exactly what happened to his neck. In all the research I have done, I could not find exactly what kind of surgery Latu had, and exactly what that surgery was is very important to team doctors.
With many clubs, the fact that Latu has played two straight seasons without incidence will go a long way. Other clubs will go strongly with what the MRI says. I have found over the years the medical reports are often like scouting reports and are very subjective. It could very well happen that a high number of teams pass Latu on his medical while there will be teams that fail him because of the risk.
What we can be sure of is that sometime during or after the Combine, it will be leaked that Latu has been totally cleared to play in the NFL. What those reports will leave out is that he has been cleared by “some teams, but not all teams.” This happens every year at the Combine, and we never know for sure what clubs pass or fail a player. We find out on Draaft Day when he gets selected.
How high could Latu go? If cleared, there is no doubt he is a Top-5 player in the Draft. If he goes lower than that, then it means clubs deem there is some sort of risk, though he still very well could go in the first round.
If Latu is cleared, he very well could be one of the players the Chicago Bears are interested in for the 2024 NFL Draft. Put Latu across from Montez Sweat, and the Bears will have a very formidable pass rush combo.
Hope you all had a great Thanksgiving and have a fantastic weekend!