Malcolm Koonce could be the first player from the Mid-American Conference selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. Longtime ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. lists Koonce as high as a mid-second round pick, citing his length and disruptiveness and distinctive features.
That disruptiveness is what Koonce brought to the table in four years at Buffalo. The definition of “athletic”, he was always the most physical, aggressive player on the field and channeled that aggression into a strong pass rushing résumé. Koonce led the MAC in sacks in 2019 with 8.0 and followed that up with 5.0 sacks in just six games in 2020.
Listed as a defensive end in college, Koonce received numerous accolades including First Team All-MAC honors as a junior and senior and a Bahamas Bowl MVP for smothering Charlotte’s offense in Buffalo’s first-ever bowl victory in 2019. That Bahamas Bowl showing (5 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 1 forced fumble) felt like the moment it became clear that Koonce was a future NFL prospect.
TURNOVER, BUFFALO!— Hustle Belt (@HustleBelt) December 20, 2019
Malcolm Koonce relentlessly pursues Chris Reynolds, he fumbles, and Ladarius Mack scoops up the ball!
Absolutely dominant defensive effort. pic.twitter.com/28jRr32xq8
At the professional level, Koonce (6’2”, 249 pounds) is expected to play more of an outside linebacker role for a 3-4 base defense. It isn’t too uncommon for the MAC’s premier pass rushers to experience this position change, especially for college defensive ends under 270 pounds. Former Northern Illinois star pass rusher Sutton Smith — also a two-time First Team All-MAC selection — faced a similar transition after the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted him in 2019.
The Peekskill, NY native’s main calling card is his physicality in the pass rushing game. At Buffalo, he was able to overpower opposing linemen and tight ends with long arms (measured at 33 3⁄8 inches) and a great degree of strength. Koonce also attacks with speed around the edge, where he exhibits impressive speed and a crafty set of feet. The dangerous combination of strength and speed makes him an adept block shedder, which should come in handy as an EDGE rusher at the professional level. All of these qualities allowed Koonce to accumulate 13 sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss, and three forced fumbles in his combined final two seasons as a Bull.
Malcolm Koonce’s pass-rush wins are among the fastest in the country, this AND last year. pic.twitter.com/dudwcKqdoq— Cam Mellor (@CamMellor) November 28, 2020
It’s typical for young mid-round linebackers to contribute on special teams and Koonce may need to learn how to thrive in that aspect of the game when he first enters the NFL, after scarcely appearing on special teams at Buffalo.
But the main concern for Koonce’s transition to linebacker involves how he will fare in the coverage. As someone who operated in the trenches on nearly every snap, not much is known about Koonce’s coverage ability. A solid coverage game is an attribute he will hope to cultivate this offseason before stepping on an NFL gridiron. If that feature is added to his arsenal, his versatility becomes a useful feature for any defense. As someone who is a weight room warrior, Koonce’s work ethic should come in handy when adding these facets to his repertoire.
There is high variability in where Koonce is expected to land at the 2021 NFL Draft. Some of that variability stems from the lack of recent tape on Koonce, as he missed the 2020 Camellia Bowl, the Reese’s Senior Bowl, and Buffalo’s Pro Day due to a foot injury.
It is very likely that the team that selects him runs a 3-4 defensive scheme, as that is where he should operate best at the professional level. Kiper lists Koonce as high as second round prospect, but some outlets envision him as late as the fifth round. Regardless of when the former Buffalo standout lands, one franchise is about to add one of the more powerful pass rushers in this draft to their roster.