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NFL Draft

Who Is Malik Reed And Why Is He Having So Much Success?

  • The Draft Network
  • November 4, 2020
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I’m going to start listing the current NFL sack leaders. You stop me when I get to a name that shocks you.

  1. Myles Garrett: 9.0
  2. Aaron Donald: 9.0
  3. Brandon Graham: 7.0
  4. T.J. Watt: 6.5
  5. Khalil Mack: 6.5
  6. Jason Pierre-Paul: 6.5
  7. Za’Darius Smith: 6.0
  8. Stephon Tuitt: 6.0
  9. Bud Dupree: 6.0
  10. Emmanuel Ogbah: 6.0
  11. Bradley Chubb: 5.5
  12. Trey Hendrickson: 5.5 (okay, this one is kinda surprising, but it’s not my point, so stick with me here)
  13. Malik Reed: 5.0

Malik Reed—ever heard of him? A second-year UDFA from Nevada, Reed has found himself forced into a starting role alongside Chubb after injuries to Von Miller and Jeremiah Attaochu this season. Reed and Chubb make the Broncos one of three teams in the NFL with multiple players having at least five sacks: Tampa Bay has both Pierre-Paul and linebacker Devin White with 5.0 sacks on the year, and Pittsburgh has three players with at least 6.0 sacks—a ludicrous number.

Because Reed was only a rotational player after the Miller injury and later a starter after the Attaochu injury, his 5.0-sack figure is even wilder when you consider the snap counts on which he’s done it. All five of Reed’s sacks have come in the last three games against New England, Kansas City, and Los Angeles (Chargers), which puts him as the most productive sack-getter over the last three weeks. 

Now, it’s important to check in on the quality of those sacks. Reed’s been productive in the stat sheet, but he’s not dusting Mitchell Schwartz with side-scissors and bull-rushing Bryan Bulaga. Rather, Reed’s sacks have come in clean-up, against tight-ends, or when working off of play-action protection that gives him a runway to the quarterback.

This doesn’t mean Reed is bad. Rather, it means Denver knows what he is. Head coach Vic Fangio and defensive coordinator Ed Donatell added Reed in 2019 from a Nevada team that largely played him at off-ball linebacker, as a quarterback spy, and as a passing-down, stand-up 9-technique rusher. Not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, Reed tipped the scales at his Pro Day at a mere 234 pounds, which would have made him one of the lightest EDGEs to ever come through Indianapolis. The win for Reed was his agility numbers: he ran a 4.4s short-shuttle (76th percentile for EDGE defenders) and 6.89s 3-cone drill (95th percentile), which detailed his ability in space to take tight angles and react to misdirection. Reed has definitely put on some weight in the pros, but remains a quick rusher along the corner. Reed has credited the study of some squatty EDGE rushers like former Bronco Elvis Dumervil and quoted Miller when describing his growth as a smart pass-rusher as “chess, not checkers.” From my scouting report on Reed from 2019: 

“Nevada EDGE Malik Reed has every secondary box checked. He's a workout warrior, a team captain, an unselfish player who jumped position, an all-conference academic. According to people close to Reed and the program, he's as quality of a leader as you can find...any team with stand-up 9-technique rushers should look to take Reed late as a special-teams maven and high-upside depth piece.”

So Reed has put in his hours, and his emergence was something Bradley Chubb and the EDGE room in Denver anticipated as the product of his hard work. But the Broncos are doing that which all teams should do when suffering from a major injury at one position: they took their backup and put him in a familiar situation; a context that would make him successful. Reed lines up in that stand-up 9-technique alignment almost exclusively for the Broncos, sometimes even widening out beyond the innermost receiver against bunch formations. Unlikely to win without a runway and a wide outside track, Reed gets that advantage via alignment from the Broncos front.

And even with inflated sack production considered, Reed’s Pass Rushing Productivity as measured by PFF is competitive with the league’s more established rushers. Over the last three weeks, Reed’s the 32nd-most productive pass-rusher in the NFL, with nine pressures on 83 pass-rushing snaps. His success in this stat will fall as fewer of his pressures turn into sacks, but he has clearly established himself as the starter over Attaochu, who has returned from injury, and will retain the EDGE3 job and a sub-package role when Miller returns, either late this year or in next season. Consider the possibilities with Chubb, Miller, and Reed all on the field on 3rd-and-long situations, with Chubb as a 5-technique and Reed outside him on the Wide 9. That’s nightmare stuff for opposing offensive lines.

Reed’s brief flash of brilliance will dull as the lady luck that is sack totals eventually escapes him; that’s okay. When undrafted free agents land with smart front offices and good coaching staffs, they have the ability to carve out minor roles that fit their skill set, and from there, their destiny is in their own hands. That’s how quarterback Brett Rypien was able to carve up the New York Jets defense with a well-sculpted game plan from offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur earlier this year; how Philip Lindsay put together back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons; how Reed has led the NFL in sacks the past three weeks. 

The Broncos are able to survive injuries and encourage camp competition with undrafted players because they understand how to maximize limited, but still talented backups. Reed is just the latest example, and if his production continues, he has a chance to be the stickiest option in the Broncos’ long-term plans.

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