Javon Hargrave recorded six sacks in one game during his junior season of college. The then-South Carolina State defensive tackle tied a Division I FCS record and went on to win the first of back-to-back player of the year honors. But those six sacks would have as much of an impact on his NFL prospects as anything.
“I think that was the game that really put me on the map,” Hargrave said Monday. “Everybody started talking about me. I was having a solid college career [until] that point, but that game really put me up and I think that’s what brought the scouts.”
The Eagles were among the NFL teams that started scouting Hargrave heavily and when the predraft process began a year and a half later, they were still on the stocky, North Carolina-born interior lineman.
Hargrave may have been built like a nose tackle, but his athleticism made him suited to play the three-technique position. Hence, the six sacks he piled up against Bethune-Cookman in Oct. 2014. But Hargrave was in many a backfield. Overall, he had 37 sacks and 63 tackles for losses in four college seasons.
South Carolina State’s 4-3 defense allowed for him to use his quick-twitch get-off and light feet to penetrate gaps between interior offensive linemen. The Eagles had switched back to a 4-3 during the 2016 offseason and they envisioned Hargrave as an ideal fit in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz’s scheme.
But when the third round of the draft rolled around, the Eagles selected offensive lineman Isaac Seumalo to help protect the first-round merchandise – quarterback Carson Wentz. The Steelers, 10 picks later, took Hargrave.
The Steelers projected the 6-foot-2, 305-pound Hargrave [No. 79] to play nose in their 3-4 base defense, and he would do plenty of that – lining up directly over the center on run downs – during his four seasons in Pittsburgh.
But the Steelers had long abandoned a dogmatic 3-4 system. They still employed three down linemen with two stand-up outside linebackers up front on run downs. And the zero-technique and the two five-techniques would two-gap to free up the linebackers. Hargrave sometimes even filled the latter role.
But Pittburgh’s defense allowed for more flexibility. Hargrave, for instance, could shade the center or he could he line up as the three-technique in a 4-man front.
Schwartz asks his linemen to mostly do one thing, even on run downs, and that’s get up the field. Hargrave said that he didn’t envision much of a learning curve with the Eagles, despite the increasing probability that offseason workouts will either be shortened or canceled because of COVID-19.
“It might be a little bit of learning because I’m switching defenses and [haven’t done] it in so long,” Hargrave said during a conference call. “I don’t think it’s going to take too long to pick up. I have to switch up my stance a little bit and get used to do what they asked, but I’m eager to learn that.”
The Eagles had previously tried to convert a traditional 3-4 interior lineman when they traded for Tim Jernigan two offseasons ago. While the Ravens scheme was more traditional than that of the Steelers', it took Jernigan a few months into the 2017 season before he felt comfortable.
Run-stopping rather than pass-rushing came more naturally to him, however, contrary to the Eagles’ projection. Hargrave shouldn’t be as much of a blind leap because of his experience in a similar scheme in college, and also because the Steelers often had him rushing as a three-technique.
“I make plays. I get off the ball, I get up the field,” Hargrave said. “That’s kind of what I was known for in college. It’s just something, I think, that really fits me in the league, or it’s going to fit me in the league. And I’m just happy to show and see if I can do it.”
Hargrave got to display it more when he rushed 65.7% of pass plays last season as opposed to 41.3% in the previous two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.
While his sack numbers dropped from 6½ in 2018 to 4 in 2019, his quarterback hurries jumped from 13 to 43. No other NFL interior lineman with as many snaps had a higher percentage of hurries than Hargrave.
The early-season loss of Stephon Tuitt led to more playing time. But Tuitt’s return this season, along with fellow interior lineman Cameron Heyward, meant that Hargrave was expendable. The Steelers may have been able to keep all three had they signed Hargrave before last season, but his increased production and the cap hits for the other two took them out of the running.
The Eagles pounced and agreed to a three-year, $39 million contract with $26 million guaranteed on March 23. The college prospect who first intrigued them had developed into a versatile lineman. But the explosion was still there, if not greater.
The swim move has long been one of Hargrave’s best. But he also has the power to bull rush and walk centers and guards back into the pocket.
“I guess my legs,” Hargrave said when asked for where he gets most of his strength. “They’re always like, ‘You got squatty legs.’
"It’s funny, I used to hate everybody talking about my lower half, my legs, when I was younger. And now I just realize that God was really getting me ready … to bull-rush guards and centers in the NFL.”
Most defensive linemen love playing in Schwartz’s scheme because they can play at one speed and get after quarterbacks. Hargrave said he was no different. He should also benefit from playing next to defensive tackles Fletcher Cox and Malik Jackson and defensive ends Brandon Graham and Derek Barnett.
Cox should help the most.
“We know who’s going to get the double teams playing with him,” Hargrave said. “I pretty much know he’s going to get most of the attention. He can boost me. I know there’s a lot to learn from somebody who’s been doing it so long and being so good as his craft.”
Hargrave came close to spending his first four seasons under Cox’s tutelage, but the late arrival shouldn’t set him back for very long once he arrives in Philly. But nothing is guaranteed, just as he learned during the draft when he thought the Eagles would call.