Odafe Oweh’s 2020 season was a curious one. The Penn State defensive end entered the shortened year with “freak” buzz and left with no sacks. He earned first-team All-Big Ten Conference honors over edge rushers with better pass-rush numbers. And yet when he fell to the Ravens at No. 31 overall in last month’s NFL draft, some hailed the pick as a steal.
Maybe no stretch of games better epitomized the highs and the lows, the risks and the rewards, of a prospect like Oweh than his first two. The Nittany Lions’ season opener against Indiana, a top-20 team for much of the year, was the highest-rated game of Oweh’s season, according to Pro Football Focus. Their second game, against eventual College Football Playoff runner-up Ohio State, was his lowest rated.
Both revealed a lot about where Oweh’s coming from and could be going in 2021. Here are four takeaways from a review of the Ravens’ most interesting draft pick.
1. He dominated vs. Indiana — but there’s a caveat
Oweh didn’t record a sack last season, but he came close time and time again against Indiana, racking up 13 quarterback pressures on 35 pass-rush snaps, according to Sports Info Solutions.
Oweh initially enrolled at New Jersey’s Blair Academy to play for the school’s distinguished boys basketball program, and those hoops roots are evident in his pass-rush arsenal. He used hesitation moves to get Hoosiers offensive linemen off balance and set up an array of moves — two-hand swipes (knocking a lineman’s arms away before beating him out wide), a long-arm technique (knocking a lineman back with one arm while keeping his own chest clean) and pull-rips (taking advantage of an overextended lineman by pulling his jersey forward and dipping past him).
Oweh was most often deployed as a five-technique lineman — lining up over the outside shoulder of an offensive tackle, typically Indiana’s right tackle — but when Penn State kicked him inside, he could also cause trouble. On one drop-back, he uprooted Indiana’s left guard, displacing him easily with his length and leverage, and cleared a path for a quarterback hit. It was the kind of interior pressure from an edge rusher the Ravens haven’t reliably had since Za’Darius Smith.
“Odafe is not a speed rusher. He’s not,” Ravens director of player personnel Joe Hortiz said Monday in a question-and-answer session with local media. “He is a power-bender, strong hands, [strong] core — that’s what translates to the NFL. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are guys that rush the edge as a speed rusher. … He has speed. But his rush is really a power, bend, hands, just core, and he’s got the speed. That’s where we’ve got to develop with him — using that speed and developing it even further.”
It is fair to wonder, though, how much to make of Oweh’s pass-rush performance. Yes, the Hoosiers led the Big Ten and finished 17th nationally in sacks allowed per game (1.25). But Indiana’s right tackle was also something of an easy mark for Oweh. According to PFF, among regular contributors, Matthew Bedford was the Big Ten’s lowest-graded pass-blocking tackle. He allowed the most pressures (35), hurries (26) and quarterback hits (eight) of any tackle in the conference — stats no doubt juiced by Oweh’s dominant performance, but poor nonetheless.
That shouldn’t devalue his day entirely. Bedford was also the Big Ten’s highest-graded run-blocking tackle, and Oweh made him look like just another guy. Indiana rarely bothered to run to his side. On a few runs up the middle, Oweh rag-dolled Bedford, forcing him to the ground as if the 304-pound junior were a flyweight. And on an outside-zone run to the left, Oweh wouldn’t let the opposing tight end reach him cleanly. Motoring across the line of scrimmage, Oweh shed the block — again, the tight end ended on the ground — before slamming into the running back after a minimal gain.
2. He’s fast, but he needs a better get-off
Ohio State made a lot of players on a lot of teams look bad last season. Oweh happened to be among them. Against Indiana’s Bedford, he’d dictated the terms as a pass rusher. Against Buckeyes left tackle Thayer Munford, an all-conference selection in 2020 and a potential first-round pick in the 2022 draft, Oweh imposed very little. He had no pressures in 23 pass-rush snaps.
An unexpected weakness in Oweh’s game is his get-off; he’s at once a 1-percenter athlete, as measured by 40-yard-dash times, but also a relatively slow starter off the line of scrimmage. Too often last season, he was the last Penn State defensive lineman to react to the snap of the ball. Take away an edge rusher’s ability to push upfield on drop-backs, and the battle’s already half-won.
That was partly Oweh’s problem against Ohio State. Because he couldn’t threaten Munford with his speed or change of direction, he couldn’t tie him in the knots that he left Bedford tangled in. The 6-6 Munford was long enough to keep Oweh’s hands from bothering him, balanced enough to mirror his feints and fortunate enough that he didn’t have a bag of reliable counters.
Hortiz said Oweh’s defensive responsibilities might have hamstrung him in some cases — “What’s the scheme requiring? Are they reading run? [Is it a] down-and-distance situation?” — as well as his lack of experience. The Ravens saw enough at his pro day and on film not to worry about his explosiveness. It just needs to be harnessed more effectively.
“It’s in the body, and he did flash it, but it may be not as consistent,” Hortiz said. “Again, I really do think the way they play and the way he played, he was more to the closed side [of the field] a lot. He’s reading the tight end. He’s reading the run. He’s making short and then inverting. I think in [terms of] just pin your ears back and go, I think he’ll be able to show some explosive bursts off the ball, because he certainly showed it when he ran his 40 and in his workout.”
3. He’s fast, and he’s eager to show it
After the Ravens drafted Oweh, the first question coach John Harbaugh took from reporters concerned his sack total. “That’s something we talked about,” he acknowledged, “but we also watched the tape.” Harbaugh pointed to something that could not be quantified: a raring motor and rare fifth gear.
Oweh is fast — his 40 time rivaled that of fellow first-round pick Rashod Bateman, a 190-pound wide receiver — but he also almost never stops running. Despite Oweh’s three-down workload, he played as if taking just one play off would cost him his scholarship. If he had to double back and chase down a ball-carrier, that’s what he’d do.
Early in the second quarter of their loss to Ohio State, the Nittany Lions trailed 14-3 but had the Buckeyes backed into a third-and-17 at their own 24-yard line. Ohio State called for a running back screen, but Penn State sniffed it out; quarterback Justin Fields, seeing the play blown up and Oweh looping toward him on an inside stunt, held onto the ball and scrambled to his right.
Oweh must have figured he probably wasn’t catching Fields, who ran a 4.4-second 40 himself and had a 5-yard head start. But by the time Field ran out of bounds for a 5-yard gain, Oweh had sprinted from the 24-yard line to the 14 and circled back to the 32 on the far sideline, by which point only one defender, a safety, was closer to Fields.
That effort shows up throughout his 2020 highlight reel. Against Rutgers, Oweh tracked down the Scarlet Knights’ ball-carrier on a jet sweep. Oweh was at a standstill; the wide receiver had a running start. Oweh still managed to catch him from behind just as he turned the corner. Against Nebraska, another jet sweep broke through, but in the open field, Oweh matched the Cornhuskers’ wide receiver stride for stride, nearly nabbing him before the goal line on a 45-yard touchdown.
“He’s fast. There’s no doubt,” Hortiz said. “I mean, I saw it live in person at the pro day. … You see it on multiple plays where he’s tracking guys down. Heck, if you guys saw him running around out here in rookie minicamp, there’s a couple plays where you just see him close fast in pursuit.”
4. Some roles will be easier than others
Just where will Oweh line up this season? Everywhere, probably.
“Just like I told him when he got here, he controls the narrative,” defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said last month, noting that Oweh could play on either side of the line. “So everybody is going to be asking this and asking what position you play. Trust me, he’s going to know what everybody is doing on the defense by the time we get in there and kick it off this fall.”
Some roles he’ll have more familiarity with than others. In Baltimore, even defensive end Calais Campbell has to drop into coverage every so often. According to PFF, Oweh had just seven snaps over the past two seasons in pass defense. He dropped back just once against Indiana — then immediately crashed down once he saw the Hoosiers were handing off the ball.
Penn State wasn’t afraid to send Oweh after guards and centers, but he did so mainly on stunts and twists. He lined up in the “B” gap — the space between the offensive guards and offensive tackles on either side of the line — on just 16 snaps in 2019 and seven snaps in 2020, according to PFF. He also lined up off the ball just once in both seasons. So it might be a while before Oweh’s comfortable enough to be used as a Matthew Judon-esque presnap chess piece.
Oweh could also struggle early on in goal-line situations. Against Indiana, despite a solid reaction time, Oweh couldn’t convert his strength into power quickly enough, and Bedford washed him out on a short Hoosiers touchdown run. Against Ohio State, a slower get-off allowed right tackle Nicholas Petit-Frere to clear Oweh out of his gap.
Fortunately for Oweh, the Buckeyes’ touchdown run was called back because of an illegal-formation penalty. And two plays later, on a third-and-goal quarterback draw, Oweh slipped past Petit-Frere with an inside move and helped bring Fields down just a yard short of the end zone.
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“You do go into it, with any player that you can keep track of [with] stats, and you see big grades on a player … you’re like, ‘Argh, what are our scouts looking at? What is this person looking at?’ " Hortiz said. “And then you put the film on and you’re like, ‘Holy cow, I see what he’s seeing.’ "