Over the next few weeks, the Broadway staff will be taking a closer look at prospects the Titans could look to target in the 2021 NFL Draft based on positional need.
Today I am looking at Joseph Ossai, an aggressive linebacker with a lot of upside who hails from my alma mater, The University of Texas at Austin.
Joseph Ossai | OLB | Texas
Games I watched: TCU (2019), Iowa State (2019), Utah (2019), Texas Tech (2020), TCU (2020), Oklahoma State (2020)
At the age of 10, Joseph Ossai moved from Nigeria to Houston, where his uncle taught him how to play football. Ossai received academic All-District honors for his work in the class room in high school. As a true freshman at Texas, Ossai started three games, including the Sugar Bowl when he led Texas in tackles on the way to an upset victory over Georgia. Ossai didn’t miss a start over his final two seasons, 22 straight games, until opting out of the 2020 Alamo Bowl.
As a sophomore in 2019, Ossai played mostly as an off-ball linebacker for the Longhorns, only occasionally lining up as a defensive end, and he led the team with 62 solo tackles and 13.5 tackles for loss in 13 games (in addition to five sacks and two interceptions). Last season, Ossai was a consensus first team All-American as a junior. He was named First Team All-Big 12 and received honorable mention as both Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and Defensive Lineman of the Year.
Ossai’s 16.0 tackles for loss, five sacks and three forced fumbles in just nine games were all team-high marks in 2020, and he finished second in the nation in total TFLs.
This write-up is going to be a little more in-depth than usual because apparently the Titans have extensive interest in Ossai, per Thursday’s report from Crissy Froyd.
Ossai had an incredibly explosive showing at Texas’ Pro Day on Thursday, highlighted by an impressive 41.5-inch vertical and nearly 11-foot broad jump at 256 pounds.
That violent explosiveness is apparent on tape, so let’s get to it…
Let’s start with run defense, where Ossai excels as a disruptor. You don’t pile up 29.5 tackles for loss in 22 games without the consistent ability to quickly get in the backfield. For his relatively limited experience playing on the line, I thought Ossai was effective setting the edge with the strength to collapse the line and quickness to make plays in the backfield.
You’d like to see him get lower and play with better leverage setting the edge, but he has the size and strength to hold his ground and keep his outside shoulder clean.
One of the reasons Ossai racked up so many tackles is his aggressiveness on the backside. Ossai gives maximum effort on every snap and plays with one of the highest motors of any player to enter the draft in the past few years, with announcers often calling him the “heart and soul” of the Texas defense.
Watch how much ground he covers in these next few plays. Ossai is not the type of player to avoid contact. He does not let his teammates make the tackle without him if he’s anywhere close to the play.
In all three of these snaps above, Ossai is responsible for the backside keeper. He covers his responsibility each time and then pursues the running back to get in on the tackle, often before his teammates get there.
When it comes to rushing the passer, which is of course the primary responsibility for an edge rusher, Ossai shows flashes of greatness amidst a generally very raw skillset. Here are a couple of his better rushes from the edge:
In the first one, Ossai executes a stab-chop-swim combo extremely well, getting upfield quickly, engaging the tackle with the long arm, and then chopping the arms down to turn the corner and get a hit on the quarterback. He’s just a beat too slow to get the sack.
The second one is the final snap of overtime, lined up against Oklahoma State’s Teven Jenkins — one of the top tackle prospects in this class. Ossai burns him with his speed off the edge and chases down the quarterback to seal the win for Texas.
What sets Ossai apart from the other edge rushers in this class is his versatility to play as an inside linebacker. This was his primary role in 2019, and he displayed great instincts coming downhill both in run defense and as a blitzer, often navigating lots of traffic to locate the ballcarrier.
Ossai also demonstrated his havoc-wreaking abilities on designed stunts with his defensive line-mates, particularly as the looper when he can use those instincts to find the gap in the line and allow his explosiveness to shine.
Ossai’s quote, “I like the way [the Titans] want to use me,” makes me think they don’t envision him as a full-time edge player at the next level. I don’t either. Ossai should be deployed as a chess piece. When it comes to matching up with mobile quarterbacks, Ossai will be a huge asset. His versatility should allow him to fit into any defense, especially one that tries to manufacture pressure with designed blitzes from the ILB position and games up front on the defensive line. Just wind him up and let him go to take advantage of his competitiveness, athleticism and instincts.
You can’t watch a Texas game without Ossai grabbing your attention. His impact isn’t necessarily as a dominant edge rusher — he isn’t one — he’s just always around the ball. He’s a magnet for contact and often flies into the play with an unmistakable violence. By my estimation, he singlehandedly won at least three games for the Longhorns in the last two years.
The 2019 Alamo Bowl win over Utah is one of those instances. Ossai was absolutely dominant and by far the best player on the field. He was named Defensive MVP and became the only FBS player over the last 20 seasons to record at least six TFLs and three sacks in a bowl game. In 2020, he became the only player in Texas school history to tally at least six TFLs on multiple occasions. He has the uncanny ability to completely take over a game.
He should also fit on the special teams units, at least as a rookie (check out his blocked kick against Kansas State).
Now that I’m done gushing over my fellow Longhorn, let’s talk about the weaknesses.
Ossai has very little experience playing the edge position, and thus, he is extremely unrefined. Like a bull in a china shop, Ossai is usually a bit out of control due to his extremely aggressive nature. You can get a sense of it in the play below.
On the plus side, you love to see the violent chop of the tackle’s hand. Ossai explodes quickly into the backfield, but maybe too quickly. It’s almost like he didn’t expect to get by the tackle so easily. His main problem here is the footwork. He’s unable to flatten his path to the quarterback because he doesn’t get his feet turned and pointed. Still, you can see the potential in a rep like this one.
My favorite part is how he never really stops running full speed. Even after the quarterback evades the pressure, Ossai is hustling hoping to chase him down from behind.
Ben Solak from The Draft Network put out a great breakdown discussing another area Ossai needs to work on, his get-off at the snap. I encourage you to watch the below video:
These refinements aren’t hard to make for a player willing to put in the work to get better. If he’s paired with the right team, I’d expect Ossai to reach his high ceiling within a few years. I’m not sure he’s going to be a double-digit sack guy in the NFL, but he has the skillset to be a disruptive player off the edge and all over the front seven. This is not a player I would bet against.
One last weakness I should touch on is his lack of spatial awareness dropping into coverage from the ILB position. This is something he’ll improve as his understanding of offenses grows and he learns how route combinations are trying to attack a defense. His instincts are out of this world and he consistently was in on pass breakups and deflections on passes closer to the line of scrimmage. However, he struggled trying to drop deeper into space on more obvious passing downs. Asking him to do this frequently would not be the best use of his skills.
Does he fit the Titans?
Well, the Titans certainly believe he fits what they need. And what they need is athleticism, instincts, and play-making ability on the defensive side of the ball. Joseph Ossai has that in spades. He’s hard not to love (maybe that’s just me).
His potential to play as a strongside linebacker on early downs could be especially useful for a team like Tennessee, who is expected to lose starting ILB Jayon Brown to free agency. He and Rashaan Evans could work together well as interchangeable edge-rushing inside linebackers.
Although he doesn’t project as a dominant pass rusher off the edge with only five sacks in each of his last two seasons — and three of those five sacks coming in one game in both years — his tackle-for-loss numbers are incredibly encouraging. College tackles for loss have been shown to be a better indicator of NFL success than college sack totals.
Some experts project Ossai to be picked in Round 1, but I think he’s going to fall to Day 2. That said, players who perform as well as he did at their Pro Days usually rise up draft boards around this time of year, so he might not last until pick 53 (currently the Titans’ second round selection).
Here’s some Ossai cut-ups from YouTube if you want to get more familiar:
Agree? Disagree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!