Four years after coming to Penn State as a highly-talented four-star recruit in 2018, linebacker and defensive end Jesse Luketa is preparing to enter the 2022 NFL Draft as a potential mid-round pick.
After jumpstarting his career in the 2018 and 2019 seasons, Luketa was selected as a team captain for the 2020 campaign. He registered 59 tackles, including 31 solo tackles and one fumble recovery across a fruitful slate of games that truly helped put his name on the map.
In his senior season, Luketa broke out for the Nittany Lions, this time playing at defensive end instead of linebacker. The Ottawa native registered a career-high 61 tackles and an interception returned for a touchdown, all en route to third-team All-Big Ten honors.
Even though most of his draft-bound peers opted out of the Outback Bowl, Luketa decided to play and had a career performance at linebacker for the game. His nine tackles and leadership on the field were influential for Penn State’s short-staffed defense.
Now, his eyes are set on the NFL Draft.
Luketa turned heads at the 2022 Reese’s Senior Bowl and had the most impactful Senior Bowl week of the four Penn State prospects. Recording two sacks, including a strip-sack, and a bunch of quarterback pressures, Luketa’s draft stock climbed from a late-round selection to a potential day three draft slot.
Unfortunately, Luketa had a limited performance at the 2022 NFL Scouting Combine after suffering an apparent injury during the second run of his 40-yard dash. He did record a 4.89-second 40-yard time, a 37.5-vertical jump, and a 114-inch broad jump, though.
Now, his draft stock remains solid as a mid-round pick, but some teams might be worried about his poor instincts and flexibility as a pass-rusher, according to NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein. While complimenting his flare and toughness, Zierlen noted that his lack of pursuit speed could have some teams looking into his potential as an outside linebacker.
“He lacks instincts and pursuit speed and is best suited as a 4-3 SAM linebacker, but his lone season as a 4-3 end could have 3-4 teams exploring his potential as a developmental outside linebacker,” Zierlein wrote.
Perhaps the weakest part of his game is acting as a pass rusher, a sentiment shared by most analysts. Oliver Hodgkinson of Pro Football Network notes that even though he has disruptive ability in the passing game, his limitations as a pass rusher could limit his value for NFL teams.
“The Penn State linebacker doesn’t routinely win as a pass rusher, rarely getting to the quarterback,” Hodgkinson wrote. “He doesn’t appear to possess an arsenal of pass-rush weapons.”
On the other hand, Luketa did stand out as a pass rusher during the Senior Bowl, though, and helped reverse that narrative a little bit.
Despite Luketa’s below-average length, his tackling ability remained solid throughout his career, which feeds into his superior skill to stop the run. He’s able to quickly get through offensive linemen to completely shut down the opposing team’s rushing attack. His vision and football IQ allow him to effortlessly bounce to where he needs to be.
In addition to his physical strengths, Luketa’s strength as a leader cannot be matched by anyone. As a 2020 team captain, “Ottowa’s Very Own” displayed high character and leadership throughout his entire career at Penn State, which was evident in his impactful Outback Bowl performance.
His ability to take down blocks against offensive linemen could also boost his value for NFL teams. Kyle Crabbs of The Draft Network mentioned that Luketa’s upper-body power allows him to move linemen and get through blocks.
“This is an area of Luketa’s game that I think really stands out in a good way,” Crabbs wrote. “He’s got length, he’s got heavy hands, and, just as important, he’s violent with them to stun and create excellent knockback against both skill players and offensive linemen.”
As the draft is only one week away, many analysts also see Luketa as a mid-round pick. CBS Sports and The Athletic both predict he will be taken in the fifth round, while ESPN pegs him as a mid-fourth-round selection.
Even though Luketa isn’t the flashiest linebacker to emerge from Penn State recently, his superior run defense and versatility give him the potential to perhaps shine in the NFL. It is safe to say, though, that the Ottowa native could earn a respectable backup role on defense or special teams units on Sundays.