INDIANAPOLIS — Before he had even stepped onto a football field, David Ojabo was receiving interest from Division I colleges.
“I won’t lie. My first-ever football helmet was a Rutgers helmet,” Ojabo said. “They found out I was going to start playing football, and they invited me up to Rutgers. My second helmet was a Maryland helmet. Then the third was my Blair Academy [high school] helmet.”
Less than five years later, Ojabo is a projected first-round edge rusher. NFL teams have more information than the colleges that initially recruited the football neophyte. But many view the same traits — his prodigious length and athleticism — as potential upside despite his just one full season at Michigan.
Ojabo is one of two edge rushers — Purdue’s George Karlaftis is the other — some draft analysts have pegged to the Eagles who arrived comparatively late to football. Born overseas, they arrived in America as teenagers who played other sports before eventually gravitating toward the country’s most popular pastime.
“My buddies were playing it. … I could see that I was physically dominant over my friends at West Lafayette [Indiana} High School,” Karlaftis said. “So I was like ‘I’m going to try it out. It can’t be too hard. I’m faster, I’m bigger, and I’m stronger than everyone.’ So that was the initial thing.
“I started playing it about a year later, and I just completely fell in love with it.”
The Eagles were once snakebitten when they drafted an inexperienced prospect in the first round. Ojabo and Karlaftis have more football under their belts than Danny Watkins did when the Eagles selected the guard in 2011.
But the lesson remains for general manager Howie Roseman, who was part of the front office that took the wannabe-firefighter: Make sure your draft picks who are relatively new to football have a passion for the game.
Or don’t expend high picks on those gambles. The Eagles have done better when rolling the dice in later rounds (see: current left tackle Jordan Mailata).
Ojabo and Karlaftis, at least based upon 20-minute interviews conducted on Friday at the NFL combine, didn’t seem to be lacking in their love of football. The Eagles surely quizzed the pair during meetings this week.
It’s likely one or both will be available when/if they use their three first- round picks — the 15th, 16th, and 19th overall. It’s hard to imagine the edge rusher-needy Eagles not coming away with one if they are to make all three selections.
“It’s probably going to be like a Karlaftis, Ojabo,” NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah said recently.
Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson and Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux are Jeremiah’s top two edge rushers and should be top 10 picks. The Eagles have the ammunition to move up for either, and maybe to a lesser extent Florida State’s Jermaine Johnson, but they may need only to stand pat in the first round or even later to get comparable value.
While Roseman declined to assess the edge-rusher class, many NFL evaluators consider it the deepest group in this year’s draft. Minnesota’s Boye Mafe, Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie, and Oklahoma’s Nik Bonitto could fall anywhere from the late first to second round.
The Eagles don’t necessarily have to focus on the edges to improve their pass rush, whether in free agency or the draft. There are quality defensive tackles in both regards. But they have a greater need at defensive end with Derek Barnett a free agent and the soon-to-be 34-year-old Brandon Graham slated to take a lesser role.
Versatility is always desirable, but coordinator Jonathan Gannon’s multiple alignments up front have added more responsibility to the defensive ends. Most played a traditional edge role, whether in base or nickel, but Gannon had some slide inside in the 4i-technique spot in 3-4 looks. And some dropped in coverage more than in Jim Schwartz’s previous defense.
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Ojabo said that Michigan moved him around away from the edge and that he was sometimes lined up as a stand-up “Joker.” The 6-4, 275-pound Karlaftis seemingly has the size to juggle multiple roles. But both are likely first-rounders because they can pressure the quarterback from the edges.
Ojabo recorded 11 sacks in 13 games despite starting last season in a part-time role.
“He’s got a big-time get-off,” Jeremiah said. “He can bend better once he gets to the top of his rush than Karlaftis. He just needs to be a little stronger, more consistent, and kind of earn more reps to play the run, which he didn’t get a ton of there at Michigan.”
While Ojabo benefited from rushing opposite Hutchinson, Karlaftis saw his share of double-team blocking and notched only 4½ sacks in 12 games. But scouts see more than just his ho-hum numbers.
“I know some people think of that as a knock on somebody when you say he’s got a real big motor and plays really hard,” Jeremiah said. “It’s like you’re trying to cover up for something else. But no, this guy has got some quickness. He’s got some power. He’s just not real loose or bendy at the top, but I think he’ll be in that mix about where [the Eagles are] picking.”
There’s always a leap that teams have to make in their evaluations. But it takes a little more imagination and investigation to project the relative newcomers or prospects who change positions.
The 21-year-old Ojabo was born in Nigeria, emigrated to Scotland, and as a 15-year-old moved to America and enrolled at Blair Academy, a boarding school in northwest New Jersey, partly in pursuit of athletic opportunity.
He played soccer and basketball in Scotland, but chose the latter at Blair until he realized that he was at a significant disadvantage in the post.
“I ain’t seen a 7-footer in my life,” he said.
He said he switched to football when he saw classmate Odafe Oweh receive multiple scholarship offers after just one year of playing the sport. Oweh, a class ahead, went to Penn State and was drafted in the first round by the Ravens a year ago.
Even though Ojabo was already on the college radar before he played a down, he said he was “getting smacked around by little dudes” when he first made the transition.
“The toughest thing was definitely the contact aspect,” Ojabo said. “Coming from basketball, if you bump someone too hard, it’s a foul. Soccer, if you bump someone too hard, it’s a foul. With football, if you’re not bumping somebody, you’re not playing.”
Karlaftis, who turns 21 next month, was born and raised in Athens, Greece, and made the U16 national team as a 13-year-old goalie.
“I was damn good at it, too,” he said.
When his father, Matt, died of a heart attack, his mother, Amy, moved her family back to her native West Lafayette, Ind. Matt Karlaftis went to the University of Miami to throw the javelin, but he was persuaded to also play football.
He suffered a gruesome head injury after his helmet fell off, however, and he never played again. Having known of his father’s accident and the reminder of it that the long scar on the back of his head provided, George approached football with trepidation.
He tried out in eighth grade, quit once, but decided to return midseason. Like Ojabo, it took some time for him to understand the finer details of playing an alien sport.
“I didn’t know anything about the game really,” Karlaftis said. “I was relying on my athletic ability, my natural instinct. I didn’t know what a first down was, how to get in a stance, how to throw a spiral. I still can’t really throw a spiral.”
NFL teams aren’t interested in his arm, though. They aren’t likely interested in his water polo skills, either. But there are transferable traits — just as Rutgers and Maryland figured with Ojabo and basketball — especially when you’re an elite athlete.
“I had to hold a chair with my shoulders out of the water, my chest out of the water for 10 minutes in a row,” Karlaftis said. “That’s what I attribute my strong legs to.”