It’s a long road from Monrovia, Liberia to Lawrenceville, Georgia. And it’s an even longer road from the small practice field at Troy University in South Alabama to the big stadiums of the National Football League. But it’s not impossible. And a hard journey is a welcome friend for defensive lineman Jonathan Massaquoi, originally from West Africa, who has already gone from Butler County Community College freshman to solid NFL prospect in only three years.
Along the way, Massaquoi has amassed a slew of achievements and awards, including 39 sacks, 48.5 tackles for loss, and recognition as first team All Sun Belt Conference for both of his years at Troy. Now, Massaquoi looks to carry on the tradition established by his cousin, Browns wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi, as well as fellow Troy football alums DeMarcus Ware and Osi Umenyiora, by making his mark in the NFL.
He knows that the road will be hard. In fact, his head coach at Troy, Larry Blakely, calls playing in the NFL the “hardest job in America to get and definitely the hardest one to keep.” Massaquoi will worry about keeping the job later. For now, he’s focused on one thing, improving himself before the scouting combine, draft, and start of NFL training camps. And he’s approaching this task with a zealot’s passion, because there are naysayers to convert, and Jonathan Massaquoi is a man on a mission.
Not blessed with great size for a defensive end, Massaquoi stands 6’2” with 250 pounds packed on an athletic frame. Though strong in the upper body, his lower core is slightly undersized, not providing the leg drive required to consistently move NFL-sized offensive lineman. He coils well in his stance, then displays excellent jump at the snap and initial burst off the line. Able to engage opponents quickly, Massaquoi exhibits fluid athleticism and the speed required to both attack the quarterback and chase plays downfield.
His strength is as an edge pass rusher, where he compensates for average snap anticipation with a genuine suddenness off the ball and excellent short area burst. Typically, he does a solid job of not exposing his frame to blockers by getting too upright, as he drops his inside shoulder and utilizes his speed to get around the corner. He makes use of a variety of moves but focuses on the arm-under technique coupled with acceleration off the edge.
Massaquoi has an effective bullrush, where he will drive offensive linemen backwards, but he’s not a threat to habitually overpower an opponent and collapse the whole pocket, or to beat a doubleteam on a routine basis. At times, he employs either a rip move or a club technique, each with respectable success; however, he doesn’t possess an advanced repertoire. I’d like to see him employ some spins and double moves, and especially to use his arms more aggressively to slip and counter back inside. He is still raw as a player. As such, another year at Troy would have provided the opportunity for further maturation and development of technique. Instead he’ll have to evolve as a rusher while cutting his teeth in the NFL.
Though a dangerous pass rusher, Massaquoi struggles versus the run, both at the point of attack and on plays run away from him. His lack of girth significantly hurts him here, as bigger offensive linemen consistently impose their will. At times, initially he gets his hands on the lineman well, maximizing his arm length, but then is not strong enough to redirect the opposing player; he may hold his position, but he doesn’t free himself and make the play. In situations when the offensive tackle gets into his frame, he can’t disengage, and is easily turned, often so much that his shoulders are square to the sideline.
On inside runs, he gets caught in the wash easily and doesn’t regain lost ground or effectively work his way through traffic. On the outside, because of an inability to slip his man, he gets sealed and too frequently loses edge containment. He does do an admirable job of sure tackling and chasing plays down from behind, exhibiting speed, range, and closing burst when he’s given space. As such, he’s the type of defender that teams will rather run at, than away from. And he also struggles to recognize misdirection in the running game, often getting fooled and sucked inside on counters and read options.
To his credit, Massaquoi displays better instincts in the passing game, where he shows the ability to diagnose screens or to stop his rush and get his hands up on quick hitting routes. Also, on passing downs, he was used in coverage a fair amount of the time, mostly in conjunction with zone blitz packages, and he showed some promise here, looking fairly raw, but comfortable. In fact, Massaquoi’s NFL future most likely will include a good amount of coverage responsibilities, and this is an area in which he has limited experience, but noticeable untapped potential.
Ultimately, I see Massaquoi having a successful NFL career as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He simply doesn’t have the size or strength to play 4-3 defensive end, especially against the run; however, outside in a 3-4, he could showcase his edge pass rushing skills, and occasionally drop into coverage, maximizing his talents to chase and tackle in space without having to fight through bigger bodies at the line of scrimmage. He may not be a full-time, three down player, but he should be effective in a rotational system, getting 20-25 snaps per game. And, in a league moving more each year towards situational substitutions, and where rules favor the passing game, there will always be a spot for a talented edge pass rusher.
But Massaquoi won’t succeed in the NFL just because of talent; rather, his ability is complemented and emboldened by a sense of commitment and purpose. As he, himself, states, “I’ve exceeded all the things they’ve asked of me as a student athlete, and I feel it’s time to make this move in my life, not just for me, but for the ones around me.” Clearly, it is with an ingrained sense of tradition, as well as an awareness of the importance of taking care of his family, that he is applying for his next job.
Is it, as coach Blakely said, the “hardest job in America?” Maybe. Will it be difficult to transition from Sun Belt star to NFL standout? Probably. Is Jonathan Massaquoi the right man for the job? Absolutely. Whether it’s adding strength to better defend the run game, learning the nuances of playing outside linebacker, or polishing his pass rush techniques, a difficult road is laid out before him. But he’s determined to meet the challenge, carrying on both family and school traditions. The road ahead may be long, and the journey hard, but it’s not impossible. And Jonathan Massaquoi is a man on a mission.