James Skalski is the ultimate college football player. The sixth-year senior was the alpha on Clemson’s defense for years and the unit’s captain. Producing as Skalski did for such a long time at the college level is crazy. He’s won a handful of silverware and throws it back with his hard-nosed style of middle linebacker. Skalski even has the old-school neck roll almost to promote the traditional linebacker mantra.
Unlike a lot of Clemson’s talent, Skalski was a three-star recruit and was one of those guys that played his way to success. As he finally looks towards the draft, there are some issues. First, Skalski is 24 years old. This will be a concern for teams looking to develop young players. However, a team could see that experience as a great asset, leading to an earlier selection. These issues and counter-issues are plentiful in Skalski’s play as well, but the burning question is how will he fare in the NFL after a great college career?
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Name: James Skalski
Jersey: No. 47
Weight: 240 lbs
Games Watched: Georgia (2021), Florida State (2021), Pittsburgh (2021)
Major Injury History: None
As we’ll learn quickly, Skalski is an inconsistent football player. For example, on the first play of the Georgia game, he was quite patient to filter out a play-action, misdirection, bootleg and attacked quickly to shut it down. But then, there are times in the same game where he gets completely faked out by an end-around toss. Against Florida State, though, he was able to stand his ground on almost the same play.
Skalski can be a little slow to burst out the gate from a more general sense. At times he’s overshot plays misread the field, but the flashes are there. He’s no Devin Lloyd or Chad Muma in this area, but Skalski made it work with his instincts; however, it could be a bigger weakness at the next level.
Another inconsistent category. It’s almost funny how different two consecutive plays can be for Skalski. On one, Georgia running back, Zamir White slipped right under him. The very next play, Skalski got White’s legs and brought him down with ease. That’s about the best and simplest explanation we can give on Skalski’s tackling.
Some other notes, Skalski had a very nice tackling game against Pittsburgh. Here, he made 16 total tackles with six solos. Against Florida State, you could tell that Skalski allows ball carriers to get out of his tackle radius too much but can still make a play. Finally, Skalski can lay the boom stick. He’s one of the hardest hitters around and actually went viral for the hit he laid on Ohio State’s Justin Fields in the 2020 college football playoff.
Block Shedding (6/10)
Skalski has a little less than average block shedding. He might honestly be better than Lloyd in this category because of the flashes he’s given us, and the limited reps cause a question mark. He sheds blocks well against second-level blockers. This changes when he is actively going downhill at the lineman. Skalski can simply get stood up by lineman, and it’s too much of a struggle for him for this grade to come close to average.
Run Defense (4/10)
This is where it gets really tough. Skalski was not providing any value in the run game, and this is problematic for a linebacker his size. Skalski gets know push on a lineman and is often sent back the wrong way by them. Now it’s not all too bad. He loves getting involved and plays with a great mentality against the run. That’s pretty much the only reason why he has a grade of four instead of down in the twos.
Pursuit/ Closing Speed (6/10)
Sometimes, Skalski looks like he has cinder blocks on his feet; others, he looks pretty quick for someone that’s 240 pounds. Verse Pittsburgh, Skalski was on a spy assignment against Kenny Pickett. Skalski was easily the slower player but was able to give enough to get the mobile quarterback out of bounds for a four-yard gain. So, Skalski doesn’t have great speed in the end; however, he can make it work.
Pass Rush Ability (3/10)
Skalski was almost never used on the pass-rush. The only two real examples came against Florida State and Pittsburgh. Florida State he actually showed a competent pass-rush move and some bend, but against Pittsburgh, he did nothing. So obviously, the Brent Venables and the Clemson staff did not play him to rush the passer, and Skalski won’t in the NFL.
Man Coverage (4.5/10)
This was another category with limited reps. Skalski was put in man coverage about three times total but did well to maximize his opportunities. The most important rep for Skalski was lined up outside against pass-catching running back James Cook of Georgia. Cook had a quick stutter release to get to the inside on a slant, but Skalski did well to stay with Cook enough to prevent a target. While this is a great sign, it’s just that. There needs to be more here for Skalski to raise that grade.
Zone Coverage (8/10)
This is where Skalski played the most often. The speed hinders him here, although he’s a smart player who knows where to be. Skalski is used on lots of middle hooks but has also dropped into deep zones in dynamic looks. The negatives are that he can be too quick to leave his zone but then is too patient to jump. Nevertheless, Skalski is a nice linebacker to have in-zone coverage when he finds that middle ground.
Ball Skills (3/5)
For only being 6’0″, Skalski has very long arms. These are used to disrupt passing lanes and throw quarterbacks off a tad. The problem, zero interceptions in an almost six-year full-year playing career, is brutal. Surely he got his hands on at least one, but this wasn’t the case. Still, the ability to annoy the passing lanes is good enough for him to have above-average ball skills.
The versatility is a little tricky. Even so, we’ve seen Skalski move around a bit. He’s most comfortable in that traditional linebacker spot. Clemson runs a 4-3 scheme, and he fits in nicely. We mentioned the play where he lined up on the outside verse Cook and how he can drop into deeper zones. The versatility is solid even for someone who may not get moved a ton in the NFL.
As we know, production in college does not correlate to the NFL. The film never lies, and it isn’t here with Skalski. He is a player that has some strengths that he can use in the NFL to succeed, but eeking out a role early, or ever really, will be hard. Special teams will be a big factor for Skalski; if he can do well there, then at least he’ll see next-level reps. Skalski should be a very late Day 3 pick in terms of a projection. Don’t be surprised if he doesn’t even get drafted, at which he will most likely be a priority UDFA. Overall, Skalski needs to do the little things right and bring that leadership from Clemson over to the NFL if he wants to make something out of his career.
Rookie Projection: Practice Squad
Third-Year Projection: Low-end Backup/ Special Teams Role
Player Grade (59.5/100): Seventh Round
Player Comparison: Connor Strachan
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