Perhaps the most unpopular Jets Draft Pick of Day 2 is Florida Defensive Lineman Jabari Zuniga. Zuniga is simultaneously an intriguing and confusing prospect: despite being listed as an EDGE Rusher, Zuniga is far more effective on the interior. Adding even more complexity to his evaluation is the fact that, when lined up as a 4-3 end, Zuniga’s above-average explosiveness is often nullified by his inability to consistently react to the snap on time.
Finally, although Zuniga possesses the strength to consistently cave the pocket with his bull rush, he rarely sacks the Quarterback. The question is inevitable: how should we view a player with such anomalous versatility and evident physical talent, who consistently fails to show up on the stat sheet.
First, it’s worth examining how he performs in the two most important phases of play for defensive linemen: pass rush and run defense.
As a pass rusher
Zuniga is a strong pass rusher who will make weaker linemen pay (watch out Chuma!). His bull rush is incredibly effective, even against top tier talent such as LSU’s Damien Lewis. If the Jets need a “compression end” who can make the walls close in on the opposing quarterback, Zuniga is the obvious choice. Zuniga is incredibly versatile and can rush from nearly every spot on the line. In fact, he is arguably better as an interior rusher than as a true EDGE, as he consistently times the snap better when located inside. Even against quality interior linemen, who often outweigh him by 60-70 lbs, Zuniga can generate a few yards of push instantly.
The vast majority of Zuniga’s unsuccessful pass rushes can be attributed to two factors: inability to time the snap and lack of pass rush counters. The closer Zuniga is to the football, the more successfully he times the snap, so I would recommend the Jets use him on the interior when he plays in games, while honing his ability to rush as an end in practice. The second recurring issue—Zuniga’s lack of pass rush counters—results in plenty of stalemates with opposing tackles. If he can add a few more moves to his repertoire, Zuniga will be able to convert more pressures into sacks.
As a run defender
Run defense, particularly on the interior, is Zuniga’s forté. Zuniga’s consistent penetration often forces opposing running backs to find an open gap on the other side of the line. Zuniga’s presence may not always result in a TFL, but often limits the opposing offense to a one or two yard gain. Much of Zuniga’s work goes unrewarded on the stat sheet, but is crucial to forcing opponents into 3rd and mediums. Zuniga is immediately ready on day one for deployment in goal line packages.
The bottom line
Zuniga can immediately contribute as a run defender and core special teamer. I expect him to be used occasionally on passing downs, often as an interior rusher. At a minimum, the Jets have drafted someone who can be a Jordan Jenkins. Zuniga’s upside will be difficult, but highly rewarding, to unlock. If he can learn to time the snap better and develop more counters, Zuniga has the upside of a borderline Pro Bowler.