The New England Patriots targeted versatile Kyle Van Noy/Jamie Collins replacements early in the 2020 NFL Draft, selecting Josh Uche in the second round and Anfernee Jennings in the third.
Once undrafted free agency began, they went looking for the next Elandon Roberts.
They found Arkansas’ De’Jon Harris and San Diego State’s Kyahva Tezino, very similar players to both Roberts — the undersized, hard-hitting, run-focused linebacker who played four years in New England before signing with Miami earlier this offseason — and each other.
We took a closer look at Harris earlier this week. Based purely on contract value, he should have a better chance of securing a 53-man roster spot than Tezino. The latter received half as much guaranteed money from the Patriots — $70,000 to Harris’ $140,000.
But there’s plenty to like about Tezino, who spearheaded one of college football’s top defenses last season.
San Diego State ranked second in the FBS in scoring defense and rushing defense, fourth in total defense, sixth in takeaways per game and eighth in yards allowed per play in 2019, and Tezino was its centerpiece, tallying 99 tackles, 10 1/2 tackles for loss, 3 1/2 sacks, two interceptions and two forced fumbles from his middle linebacker post.
In 31 career starts for the Aztecs — he earned a starting role during the second half of his sophomore season and never relinquished it — Tezino racked up 282 tackles, 29 1/2 tackles for loss and 13 sacks. He was voted team MVP and first-team All-Mountain West in 2018 and 2019, served as a team captain as a senior and was recognized as San Diego State’s “most inspirational player” last season.
On the field, Tezino plays a lot like Roberts and Harris, doing his best work when he’s shooting downhill in run defense. His 12.4 percent run-stop percentage in 2019 ranked 24th among 476 qualified NCAA linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus.
In a game against Colorado State last October, Tezino was in on three consecutive tackles during a goal-line stand, including a fourth-down stuff that turned the ball over on downs. Minutes later, he tore through the line on a B-gap blitz, nailed the running back at the mesh point and jarred the ball loose.
Tezino finished that game with 13 tackles, 2 1/2 tackles for loss, one sack and one forced fumble.
Tezino wasn’t just a run-stuffer for the Aztecs, though.
Head coach Rocky Long and defensive coordinator Zach Arnett also frequently utilized him as an off-the-ball pass rusher — far more than the Patriots ever did with Roberts or the Razorbacks did with Harris. These included both traditional blitzes and scenarios in which San Diego State would deploy three down linemen and have Tezino rush through the A- or B-gap from his linebacker spot rather than using a stand-up edge rusher.
All told, Tezino rushed the passer on 509 snaps last season, per PFF, fourth-most among all FBS off-ball linebackers, and registered a team-high 21 quarterback hits. His 17 QB hits in 2018 also led all Aztecs defenders.
“He certainly plays bigger than his size,” Arnett told The San Diego Union-Tribune in October. “If you watch the number of times we blitz him to be the fourth pass rusher, he’s on the center or guard or a tackle at times. There’s really no reason a guy of his stature should be as productive as he is as a pass rusher, but he can flip his hips and get on edges. He’s got a good feel for when he needs to strike and take on a blocker and when he can slip the blocker.”
Tezino’s biggest weakness? The one Arnett mentioned: his size. He was listed at 6 feet, 235 pounds in college, nearly identical to Harris (6-0, 234 at the NFL Scouting Combine) and Roberts (5-11, 234 at his pro day in 2016) but far smaller than many NFL teams — the Patriots included — typically like their linebackers.
Roberts was an outlier in New England’s linebacking corps. Players like Van Noy, Collins and Dont’a Hightower all are 6-foot-3 and 250-plus pounds. Ja’Whaun Bentley is 6-2, 255.
Another issue with Tezino — one that also applies to Roberts and Harris — is his lateral speed. He attacks ball-carriers in front of him with authority but looks sluggish when moving sideline to sideline. (Tezino wasn’t invited to the combine and had his pro day canceled, so he doesn’t have any official athletic testing numbers.)
In the games we reviewed, we saw two quarterbacks outrun Tezino around the edge and two running backs burn him on wheel routes. He seemed to hold up fine in zone coverage — this interception was a nice play — and even lined up in the slot from time to time, but smart offensive coordinators will find ways to exploit his man-to-man deficiencies.
Tezino and Harris also might not have as much special teams upside as sixth-round draft pick Cassh Maluia, who reportedly ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. It’s unlikely more than one of those three ‘backers will make it past cutdown day.