PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 28: Laiatu Latu #15 of the UCLA Bruins celebrates during the first half of a game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rose Bowl Stadium on October 28, 2023 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CALIFORNIA - OCTOBER 28: Laiatu Latu #15 of the UCLA Bruins celebrates during the first half of a game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rose Bowl Stadium on October 28, 2023 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images)

Quarterback Minded: Laiatu Latu

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PASADENA, CALIFORNIA – OCTOBER 28: Laiatu Latu #15 of the UCLA Bruins runs around the edge during the first half of a game against the Colorado Buffaloes at Rose Bowl Stadium on October 28, 2023 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images)

“Quarterback minded,” is a term that fits UCLA Edge rusher, Laiatu Latu. It’s a scouting term that I coined to describe a defensive player that has one singular focus: getting to the quarterback.

Latu brings it.

Sometimes, he puts his hand down in the dirt, but more often, he prefers standing up off the edge, where he looks coiled and ready pre-snap.

With the quarterback in his sights, he makes his moves. Latu has elite traits to win either edge. Opposing offenses always have to account for him and to know where he is.

He showed against Colorado this past season he could flat-out take over a game.

I can’t help but think of Dolphins’ Edge, Jaelan Phillips when I see Latu on game film. Playing the same position is not all these two have in common either. Phillips also played at UCLA (like Latu) before transferring to the Miami Hurricanes. During his time, Phillips had to ‘medically retire,’ but came back and played again before being selected No. 18 in the 2021 NFL Draft by the Dolphins. Latu also had to ‘medically retire,’ due to a neck injury. Latu, like Phillips, was able to resume his playing career.

At one point according to that Sports Illustrated story, “Medical personnel suggested Latu risked being paralyzed if he continued playing football.”

Undoubtedly, NFL medical personnel will determine the extent of Latu’s injury and the long-term prognosis, but on game film, Latu sure looks the part.

Force to be reckoned with

Latu roams from one side of the defensive line to the other like a defensive predator, testing the offensive tackles, and trying to find a way into the pocket.

An athletic ‘finesse pass rusher,’ perfectly describes him.

There is nothing wrong with that, it just needs to be understood.

LIGHTNING-FAST HANDS AND HE’S JUST PLAIN FAST OFF THE EDGE ⎯THESE ARE HIS TWO BEST ATTRIBUTES

Good things happen, or should I say, bad things happen to opposing quarterbacks. It depends on the perspective.

The thing that makes Latu so good ⎯is his mindset.

RELENTLESS

The value of pass rushers

The NFL game is about two things:

1. Pass the ball

2. Stop the pass

According to teamrankings.com, 31/32 teams pass the ball more than 50% of the time (seven of those teams, more than 60%, including the Super Bowl Champion Chiefs (60.34%). The first round is all about finding difference makers, but specifically what’s trending are quarterbacks, elite receivers (or tight ends), pass rushers, cornerbacks, and offensive tackles, in that order.

That’s the order I evaluate the positions when setting my final first-round board leading up to the draft.

That being said, you’ll hear the name “Latu” for this very reason in the opening round of the 2024 NFL Draft.

He put up 10.5 sacks in 2022 and 13 sacks in 2023.

Per Pro Football Focus, in 2023, Latu posted a 27% ‘win rate,’ meaning “that for every four passing plays, Latu was going to make his impact felt at least once.”

#15 Laiatu Latu 6-foot-5, 265 pounds

Daniel Kelly’s 2024 NFL Draft Grade: First-Round (I would select him)

Projected by 83.8% of the NFL Draft Community to be a first-round pick as of February 14, 2024 (nflmockdraftdatabase.com)

Pocket Wrecker: UCLA Edge Laiatu Latu (5 games evaluated)

2023 game film reviewed: Arizona, Oregon State, Utah, USC, Washington State, and Colorado (click to view games watched to form this evaluation).

2023 stats: 49 tackles (28 solo), 21 assists and 13 sacks and 36 pressures (PFF)

Note: Neutralized vs. Oregon State RT Taliese Fuaga

2024 NFL Draft Scouting Report

Dedicated pass rusher with speed, determination, great hand technique, and athleticism who is not as interested in defending against the run. Thick legs. Stealth muscular lean aerodynamic frame. Fluid movements. Keeps eyes on the quarterback. Mirrors quarterback. Instinctual. Opportunistic. Smooth. Master of the art of leverage. Exploits inside gaps. Coiled. Fast swim and spin moves. Lacks raw strength at the point ⎯gets neutralized straight up. Bursts into the pocket. Springs in. Fast and disruptive close. Below average changing direction. Needs it lined up. Willing run defender, but would rather not. Solid wrapping tackler. Unimpressive against the run.

Final words

Latu looks like he was born to put pressure on the quarterback.

Daniel Kelly is a former NFL Scout with the New York Jets. He was hired on the regime which featured Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, Scott Pioli, Mike Tannenbaum, and Dick Haley. He is currently the Editor-in-Chief for First Round Mock, contributes at Yardbarker, and has written for Sports Illustrated Lions, Jets, and 49ers, as well as a featured guest on ESPN Radio and Fox Sports Radio. For more information about him visit his website at whateverittakesbook.com. He can be followed on Twitter @firstroundmock.

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