Jer’Zhan Newton Reaffirms Round 1 Standing Against Penn State

In Week 3 of the 2023 college football season, Illinois and Penn State clashed. And in the process, Fighting Illini DT and 2024 NFL Draft prospect Jer’Zhan Newton gave us some of his best film yet. What did Newton show in Week 3 that validated his standing as a Round 1 talent?

Jer’Zhan Newton Shines in Illinois vs. Penn State Showcase

The Penn State Nittany Lions may have largely dominated in a 30-13 road victory against the Illinois Fighting Illini. But Illinois DT Jer’Zhan Newton was a bright spot — as he often is.

Newton — who logged 5.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss in an All-American campaign a season ago — menaced the Nittany Lions’ offensive line through all four quarters, in both the passing and running phase. He ended the day with six tackles, a TFL, and two pass deflections, and he generated consistent pressure on quarterback Drew Allar.

The 6’2″, 295-pound Newton now has two sacks and three TFLs through three games, and he’s on track to sustain his high-level production all the way to season’s end. But numbers are one thing. What does the tape show, and what makes Newton a projectable difference-maker at the NFL level? The Scouting Spotlight is back to answer these questions.

2024 NFL Draft Scouting Spotlight: Newton Is a Two-Phase Terror

Production is often, in a sense, a form of confirmation for a player’s talent. And that’s the case for Newton. It’s not the end-all-be-all when it comes to NFL Draft analysis. But sometimes, if the numbers say a prospect consistently disrupts, you listen and keep digging to find out what makes them so productive.

For Newton, let’s start with the simple things. He’s unnaturally explosive, like a supernova off the line. And standing at 6’2″ at most — potentially closer to 6’1″ when he measures in — he has a type of natural leverage that’s extremely difficult for taller linemen to combat.

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To see how those two traits can work in tandem with each other, view the play below. Watch Newton as he works against the left guard from a 3-tech. His lightning-quick first step allows him to generate overwhelming force at contact, and he uses this burst along with his natural leverage to slab the left guard, drive him back, and occlude the running lane.

Right away, we can see that Newton has an elite explosive capacity to go along with a rare level of natural leverage. In the trenches, that’s a very dangerous combination to have. But it goes even deeper than that.

Two more traits that routinely assist Newton are his flexibility and strength. He lacks high-end mass at defensive tackle, which can impact his ability to take on double teams. But for his size, he packs very impressive core strength and has the grip strength and torque to control and shed blocks.

The play below shows all of these traits working in conjunction to constrict the offense. Newton is aligned at a 3-tech, outside the right guard this time. He’s on the play side. It’s an outside-zone run, on which the RB appears to be attempting to press outside behind the right guard.

The goal for the RB is to press outside just far enough to bait the LB into attacking the A gap, clearing the B gap for a cut upfield. But, as you can see from the end-zone angle, Newton immediately asserts control of his gap, wedges his blocker upright, and prevents displacement. He shortens the RB’s track, thus forcing him inside prematurely.

The RB does a nice job reacting and adapting to what Newton gives him, but because he wasn’t able to clear out the LB, the LB can circle around and contain him inside for a short gain. Newton not only created this stop, but he was also nearly able to bend around the block and enter pursuit on his own.

Below, you’ll find another example of Newton’s one-gapping ability — afforded to him by his strength and leverage. This time, he’s working from a 4i against the right guard, who’s attempting to drive him outside and clear space inside the A-gap.

Right away, Newton has the take-on strength and pad level to absorb contact, preventing the guard from displacing him. This helps contribute to the clogging of the A-gap, forcing the RB to hesitate. Then, as soon as the RB bounces to the B-gap, Newton violently sheds his block and envelops the ball carrier for no gain.

Newton isn’t the largest interior presence. He’s 295 pounds and very compact. Despite this, his mix of strength and leverage allows him to stay in control on one-gapping reps, and he has the violent hands and shedding ability to make plays when runners enter his wheelhouse.

All this, and we haven’t even talked about Newton’s pass-rushing ability yet. As impressive as Newton was in run defense against the Nittany Lions, he was arguably more impressive attacking downhill, making the quarterback uncomfortable.

Just as his one-gapping ability is top-tier in run defense, Newton can also be a menace 1-on-1 for offensive guards. He’s an explosive pass rusher who also brings incredible nuance and efficiency with his rushes.

There were many examples of Newton’s rushing prowess in Week 3, and the play below is just one example — but it shows how quickly Newton can win.

Less than two seconds into the rep, he has a free lane to the QB, and his rapid acceleration forces a check-down. It’s a perfectly executed, violent club-swim combo that beats the guard.

Newton won over a half-dozen times from the interior. His double-swipe rip combo is particularly effective, and he also showed he could feign club moves to widen blockers before surging inside with powerful bull rushes. But the fusing agent of all of Newton’s moves is his hyper-elite flexibility — a trait that perhaps best embodies his Round 1 ability.

The best example of Newton’s flexibility can be seen in the clip below. Here, he’s working from a 5-tech, head-up from the tackle, and he somehow still manages to generate quick pressure and force a throwaway.

Newton’s natural leverage is tough to combat here, and his efficient double-swipe rip combo gets him past the tackle. But it’s ultimately his rare ankle flexion and cornering ability — at 6’2″, 295 pounds, no less — that gets him into the pocket so quickly.

Newton effortlessly bends the arc and shortens the corner at his size. It’s a brand of flexibility that’s actionable from across alignments. But on the interior, splicing through gaps and eliminating step-up lanes for QBs, it’s a particularly deadly quality for a defensive lineman to have.

Newton’s physical framework isn’t perfect, and that’s something Penn State left tackle Olu Fashanu — a fellow first-round 2024 NFL Draft prospect — helped bring to light on this next play.

While Newton has elite natural leverage at his size, he also lacks great length — which puts a cap on his maximum power capacity and ease of power generation.

As shown below, Newton has the lateral agility to be used on stunts, and he also has the active hand usage to decouple blocks quickly while working across-face. Moreover, he does a great job realigning his base ahead of contact against Fashanu.

Nevertheless, Fashanu is still able to stall out Newton quickly after contact. Part of this is just great execution by Fashanu. He responds instantly to the stunt and gives Newton no imbalance to exploit. But Newton also simply lacks the elite length and power capacity to consistently plow through 320-pound blockers while working across alignments.

Newton Is a DT1 Candidate, Even With His Limitations

Newton’s lack of length hurts him in more ways than one. Not only does it naturally detract from his raw power output, but it also forces him to do more work to achieve angle advantages against blockers.

When he has an angle advantage, Newton is absolutely lethal 1-on-1 with his burst, hyper-elite flexibility, leverage, strength, and active hands.

But if he doesn’t get an opening early on in reps, he sometimes stalls out, and he doesn’t have the natural power to consistently forklift through blocks without the aid of his initial momentum.

Nevertheless, while Newton has some limitations to note, he’s still a first-round worthy DT prospect in the 2024 NFL Draft, and his showing against Penn State only reaffirmed that notion.

Newton is a phenomenal one-gapper in run defense who can use his explosiveness, leverage, angle IQ, and violent style to control and erode gaps.

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And as a pass rusher, he’s an extremely slippery attacker with rare size-adjusted burst and flexibility, and he has the amalgamation of traits to disrupt anywhere from a shaded 1-tech to a 5-tech.

To bottom line this: If you have a scheme that isolates Newton in 1-on-1 matchups, he is built to be a consistent disruptor in both phases. And on tape, that absolutely rings true.

Ian Cummings is an NFL Draft Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Ian’s work here and follow him on Twitter: @IC_Draft.

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