As you probably know, I have been writing pre-draft breakdowns on some of the top NFL prospects for the last few years. During that time, I have been able to give my thoughts on a lot of good college players who went on to be selected in the first or second round. Because I was usually dealing with the cream of that year’s crop, it was important to me to be fair to all the draft prospects. While I strived to make each profile unique, there were rules I came up with to make sure that there were some common standards.
One of the rules I decided on was that I would only use tape from a player’s final season in college. The simple reasoning was that I had seen enough prospects look good one year and fall off the next, never to regain their mojo ever again. I only trust the impressions I can get from a player’s most recent action.
I also decided that I had to have access to at least three of their games, but ideally four or more. I just felt like any less than that and I wouldn’t have possibly been able to give a fair evaluation.
Following those rules over the years has meant I’ve missed out on doing breakdowns on several players, either because I couldn’t track down enough tape on them (seriously, if anybody has the plug to a college version of GamePass or something similar, holla atcha boy!) or because they got hurt during their last season of college football.
Such was the case with Nick Bosa this past spring. He only played in three games his last season at Ohio State because he had core surgery. For whatever reason, I could never track down the third game, which made it frustrating when he was projected as the top overall pick at one point. After flubbing his brother Joey’s pre-draft breakdown, I really wanted a second shot with Nick’s.
Nick Bosa didn’t end up going No 1; he “only” went a spot later to the San Francisco 49ers. Although he was hindered by an ankle injury for much of the preseason, it hasn’t taken Bosa long to bounce back and show everyone exactly why the 49ers picked him so high. After his breakout game in Week 5 against the Browns, it actually hit me that I now had plenty enough film to do a proper post-draft breakdown on him. It doesn’t make up for not being able to do the a draft profile of him, but at least I would be able to check out his game and explain to you noobs just how he is performing so far.
As you might imagine, there is a lot to like about his game.
What has impressed me the most is Bosa’s outsized power
The guy is 6’4 and almost 270 pounds, so he isn’t some runt to begin with, but when he comes off the ball he just looks like a man among boys. I am particularly impressed with his ability to use that power so effectively and efficiently early in his career. That helps him to maximize his production on the field.
As a run defender, I saw Bosa kicking tight ends’ asses whenever he lined up six-technique head up on them. I don’t think there are many, if any, tight ends currently in the NFL who can single-block him on a running play well. That’s just how strong he is.
Hell, most NFL offensive tackles would not only have a helluva time trying to move Bosa on a base block, a lot of them would end up smushed back in the hole and getting in the way of the runner. I’ve seen Bosa rag doll offensive tackles in every game he has played in so far as a pro.
Oh, and Bosa probably uses his power even more effectively as a pass rusher. He routinely starts off the game dump-trucking offensive tackles back into their quarterback. I am sure you probably saw that clip of him running right over Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth early on in the game.
Well, you can turn on the film of the other four games and see Donovan Smith, John Jerry, Alejandro Villanueva, and Greg Robinson catch that wreck just like that, too. And Donald Penn, you on deck!
I swear, it seems like Bosa uses his bullrush early in the games to intimidate the offensive tackle for the rest of the day. After he gives them a few sips from a Tall Boy Can Of Whoop Ass, you could almost see offensive linemen start flinching once he starts to come toward them again. That’s usually when Bosa would start faking a power rush initially to set up his finesse moves. It is a very effective pass-rush plan because nobody wants to keep getting run slap over on national TV.
Those guys have families, after all!
Mind you, I’ve seen enough of Bosa on film now to know that if he wanted to, he could just as easily run around a lot of those blocks. That goes for when he is playing the run or rushing the passer. And he would still be able to make a lot of the same plays. However, while he could do it, Bosa seems more than happy to just keep physically dominating the guy across from him almost all game.
It makes perfect sense because the quickest way to the guy with the ball, whether it be a running back or the quarterback, is a straight line. And the truth is I have yet to see him not be able to crush any blocker that he wanted to.
Bosa has the look of a veteran pass rusher — sometimes better
Just like his brother, Joey, Nick came into the league already possessing outstanding technique. I don’t know if I have ever seen a rookie with any better, or more consistent, hand placement than Nick has shown in these first five games of his career — and that includes his older brother. That matters a lot because regardless of how strong you are, if your hands are all over the place, you generally won’t be able to use that power in any meaningful way against quality NFL offensive linemen.
That great hand placement goes a long way in allowing Bosa to stand his ground against the blocker, control them, then shed that block when it’s time to go make a play.
Bosa’s footwork has also been top notch, not just “for a rookie,” but period. When his assignment is to line up and play ball, he’s always taking a good, quick first step straight upfield before he reacts to what he sees. That means he isn’t guessing pre-snap, and he trusts his ability to read his keys and adjust accordingly.
When he’s running a line stunt, I see Bosa consistently gaining ground with his lateral step, then exploding upfield just like you draw it up on a white board or exactly like you would see on a training tape. That may not sound significant to you, but it’s little technique stuff like those examples that help Bosa put himself in a better position to make plays than a guy who isn’t as precise and intentional with their movements.
I have also been really impressed with the way Bosa runs pass-rush games with his linemates. He looks better running them than some of the veteran defensive linemen I watch every week.
Bosa appears to understand clearly that the better he sets the table for the penetrator, the more likely it is that they will both have an opportunity to get to the quarterback on that play. He even knows how to use his hands to flash at the offensive linemen to really force them to keep their focus on him, when all the while Bosa’s teammate is coming to earhole them. There are plenty of veteran pass rushers who haven’t shown themselves to have the kind of feel for rushing the passer that Bosa has already shown as a rookie.
As for his position flexibility, Bosa definitely looks most comfortable lining up on the right edge than anywhere else. However, the 49ers have moved him around a bit at times, and he’s more than held his own from wherever he has lined up.
In the first game of the year against the Buccaneers, the 49ers rotated him as the left edge rusher quite a bit, but that was probably just because he was a backup at that time. He hasn’t been over on the left side nearly as much in the games since, and normally Bosa only lines up there in passing situations.
Don’t get it twisted, though: he looked good over there, too.
He has also lined up as an interior pass rusher on few occasions in the first five games. For the moment, however, the 49ers are pretty stacked up and down their defensive line, and don’t really need him to pass rush from there all that much just yet. Especially when he is doing so well and being so disruptive pass rushing from the edges.
Don’t judge Bosa by his numbers
Some of you may not have seen him play yet and are wondering what the big fuss is over a guy who “only” has three sacks so far. Others might even assume he has gotten off to a “slow” start because his stats don’t necessarily jump off the screen. That’s why you have to see this guy to understand the effect he has on a game.
Bosa’s sacks numbers by themselves don’t come close to giving a full picture of his impact. It’s not even a good reflection of him as a pass rusher, to be honest.
For example, in addition to those three sacks, Bosa has an impressive 11 pressures. There have also been five other plays where Bosa beat his guy and forced the quarterback to scramble out of the pocket. And just fyi, there is definitely value in forcing most quarterbacks not named Russell Wilson to scramble against their will.
Bosa also had five other missed sack opportunities in the first five games of this season. These were plays where Bosa came free by either beating a blocker or perfectly executing a pass-rush game. He ended up missing the quarterback on all five of those occasions, but that doesn’t change the fact that he got to them in the first place.
Of those five missed sack opportunities, only once did the quarterback go on to complete a pass for a first down. One time he forced the quarterback into a sack by his teammate, another time he forced the quarterback to try (and fail) to run for the first down, a third time the quarterback threw an incomplete pass, and on the fourth occasion Bosa got back in the hunt and got one of those 11 pressures of his.
I will note that the overwhelming majority of those missed sacks came in the first three games, while Bosa was likely still trying to get his feet under him after missing so much time in the preseason. As the season has progressed, I’ve noticed him playing more under control, especially when a quarterback is in the vicinity. That should lead to more actual sacks in the near future.
There are still things for Bosa to work on, however
Having pointed out all of the great things about Bosa’s game, I do want to mention one area where I think he can still improve. He sometimes, but not often, has what I would refer to as a “lazy arm.”
When a guy is rushing the passer and he is trying to escape off the block to get a sack, one thing that will always help is finishing the move with whichever arm is closest to the blocker. I generally prefer pass rushers finish with a rip because I think it is the most effective escape move there is, but taller guys like Bosa can use arm overs to great effect at times, too.
Regardless of which move guys choose, they need to do something with that inside arm to finish. Otherwise, they risk giving the blocker the opportunity to recover and grab them by that same arm and hinder their progress to the quarterback.
When a guy doesn’t finish his rush with his inside arm, that’s what I mean by having a “lazy” arm. It hasn’t happened a ton, but I’ve seen Bosa not finish his rush with his inside arm enough times that I do think it could at least mildly affect his production. So instead of Bosa being completely free to chase the quarterback, he ended up several times on film having to try to reach out and grab the quarterback with his outside hand as he came around the edge, and that usually didn’t end with a pressure or a sack.
I suspect part of that is just rust from not being able to practice his craft in the preseason. For a guy whose technique was so good otherwise, I have to believe he will fix that real soon.
On the positive side, once he does get to where he is always finishing his finesse moves, I’m not exactly sure how any offensive tackle in the league will be able to handle Bosa by himself for more than maybe a handful of plays during the game. When you are facing a dude who can run over you whenever he wants, and who can also run around you with ease, there ain’t much else you can do as an offensive lineman other than pray at that point.
It’s true that he has already been nicked up over the course of the last year or so, but if Nick Bosa is able to stay relatively healthy the rest of his career, there is no telling just how much of a monster this kid will develop into.
He has gotten off to a helluva start already — and he didn’t even start the season at 100 percent! I don’t think he’s scratched the surface of what he could be yet. If he continues to improve from week to week, and converts more of those missed sacks into actual sacks, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he makes a late push to get in the Pro Bowl at the end of this season.
I fully expect him to be joining his brother as an All-Pro player by the end of his third season, if not sooner. But again, that’s if he can stay healthy and not lose any of his progress to injuries.