In college, he was capable of playing like the Roman god after which he was named, and now he’s needed on a reeling Minnesota Vikings defense. 

His name is Hercules Mata’afa, the team’s fifth-round pick in 2018. In college, he truly lived up to his name because of his production at playing defensive tackle at just 6-foot-2, 252-pounds. He was a relentless disruptor on Washington State’s defense with 36 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks in his final two seasons with the Cougars. 

Now, Mata’afa has played in 2020 already — a whopping 19 snaps across three games. And he’s been close on a few pass-rushing snaps, especially ones in which he was asked to simply get upfield with his first-step burst. With Yannick Ngakoue gone, the Vikings are down a pass rusher on a defense currently ranked 15th against the pass and 20th against the run in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. For a Mike Zimmer-coached team, those figures aren’t good enough. Last year they finished fifth and 12th in those respective categories. In 2018? Third and 10th. 

And while I sat in awe watching Mata’afa’s triumphs inside in college, maybe he deserves some looks at defensive end? I’m sure Zimmer will love that suggestion. If not, just give Mata’afa a one-way go to the quarterback. He has counter moves — mostly a swim back off his speed rush — that I believe, after he gets more reps in a single game, can be effective. 

Mata’afa is one of three new additions to the Practice Squad Power Rankings this week. The others? Bills cornerback Dane Jackson, Bengals defensive lineman Andrew Brown, and 49ers cornerback Parnell Motley. 

For those keeping score at home, entering Week 8, the PSPR tracker reads 11 call-ups from seven different players. Buffalo wideout Duke Williams got The Call last week. Although he didn’t find his way onto the stat sheet. That time will come at some point this season. Trust me. 

For those who missed it in the PSPR’s 2020 debut, I’m only including practice squadders who are rookies, second-year players, or third-year players. That’s it. And it aligns perfectly with my niche area of expertise because the 2018 draft class is the first I fully evaluated as CBS Sports’ NFL Draft analyst. 

And as you’ll see below, I couldn’t resist ranking more players, given the increase in practice squad sizes this season. To run parallel with the league’s figure, I hope to write about 16 individuals every Friday, 10 officially in the rankings and six honorable mentions. 

1. Antoine Brooks, S, Steelers

While Robert Spillane has played well, with Devin Bush out for the season with a torn knee ligament, Brooks is the type of second-level defender Pittsburgh should consider calling up. He looks the part of a trendy safety-linebacker hybrid at 5-11 and 220 pounds. He’s not fast — he ran 4.64 at the combine — but his short-area quickness and instincts were both outstanding on film at Maryland. Brooks overflowed the stat sheet in 2018 and 2019 with a combined 155 tackles, 18 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, two picks, and eight pass breakups. He’s often the first to (correctly) react to where the offense plans to go with the football and will make plays in coverage at the short-to-intermediate level. And he’s a sure tackler. Brooks has the athleticism to sift through the traffic to get the ball carrier too. 

2. Dane Jackson, CB, Bills

Jackson should’ve been a PSPR member a lot earlier than this. After all, he was my No. 92 overall prospect in the 2020 class and my 16th cornerback. Last week, as a practice squad call up against a beleaguered Jets team, Jackson had two pass breakups and an interception on a savvy zone sink near the sideline that fooled Sam Darnold. Yes, I know. This is a bit of a cherry-pick. But Jackson was a favorite of mine as a prospect and crushed his time at the Senior Bowl. While not a freaky, super-fast athlete for the cornerback spot, he plays a tick faster due to his instincts and has high-level awareness and ball skills when the pass is arriving.

Burnett was one of my first draft crushes, someone who finished as a second-round talent on my first Big Board at CBS Sports in 2018. At USC, he often was Sam Darnold’s first read. In 2017, he caught 86 passes for 1,114 yards with nine touchdowns. He’s a small but sudden slot wideout who can separate underneath and at the intermediate level. Why did I like him so much more than your average inside receiver? Burnett played bigger than his nearly 6-0, 186-pound frame. No pass was seemingly too far out in front of him. Burnett has played sparingly through two seasons, but later in his rookie season, he was elevated to the Jets active roster and demonstrated he still had a connection with Darnold. He had a four-catch, 61-yard effort in late October and a five-grab, 73-yard performance against the Patriots to end the year. Burnett proved in Week 3 he can get open and make catches in this league. In Week 4, he was elevated to the 53-man roster but only ran 10 routes and was not targeted by Carson Wentz.

Jones popped at the Senior Bowl, and I remember being impressed watching him on the flight down to Mobile, Alabama. He finished as my No. 198 overall prospect in the 2020 class — ironically one spot ahead of PSPR alum Ron’Dell Carter — but went undrafted. At 6-1 and 316 pounds with a poor combine performance on his resume, Jones doesn’t look like he’d fit in today’s NFL. But there is plenty of power in his hands, and some first-step quickness to threaten through one of the middle gaps. 

Early in the 2020 pre-draft process, there was an early-round buzz for Wanogho. Injuries led to a precipitous fall to the sixth round, but the tools are there for the Nigeria-born former Auburn star to ultimately be the bookend tackle to Andre Dillard in Philadelphia, a club that’s been outstanding at the tackle positions for a while now. Wanogho plays with requisite knee bend, so he’s not easily fork-lifted by smaller rushers, and he’s explosive off the snap and in the screen game. With better punch timing and added weight, he can be a consistent pass-protecting tackle in the NFL. This season, he’d mostly be useful getting to the second level in the run game.

6. Hercules Mata’afa, DL/EDGE, Vikings

A contender for the best name for a defensive player in the NFL, Mata’afa was a fascinating prospect and is still an intriguing player residing on Minnesota’s practice squad right now. Regardless of where Minnesota aligns him before the snap, Mata’afa has the juice to threaten the foot quickness of offensive linemen. 

Phillips is this small, twitchy back you think would have no power to his game. Then he runs through a linebacker and breaks off a 60-yard touchdown run. Well, that’s what he did at Ole Miss at least. He was on the draft radar two years ago as a key member of those Ole Miss teams with D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown. But his senior season saw his yards-per-carry average dip to 4.3 from 6.1. He then tested poorly at the combine, which further pushed him down boards, but he plays more athletic than his workout numbers indicate. Phillips’ game is predicated on suddenness through the hole, some bounce, and straight-ahead contact balance. 

Fields is a bit of a mystery because he was barely a part-time player during his career at Clemson yet flashed when he got onto the field for the Tigers. He looked the part at the Senior Bowl in 2019, ran 4.37 at a close to 5-10 and 192 pounds. His twitch is undeniable to click-and-close on short routes or follow when receivers completely change directions. As a rookie, Fields played just six snaps, but he has the natural talent to be a versatile inside-outside cornerback. There’s plenty of youth in Minnesota’s secondary now after the team heavily invested there in the draft. 

Johnson is our only new addition this week — and his story is a fascinating one. It seems like he was in college for a decade because there was draft buzz for the 6-4, 230-pound wideout after the 2017 season — his redshirt sophomore year — when he caught 54 passes for 701 yards with a score. Unfortunately, his statistics dipped in each of the following two seasons but, after a transfer to Oregon, Johnson did have four touchdowns in his final collegiate campaign. He had a flair for the dramatic catch and had a three cone drill of 6.94 seconds at his mammoth size. He could be a fun big slot receiver in New Orleans.

If you read Practice Squad Power Rankings, you know everything you never cared to know about Ballage. He needed a change of scenery and had to move across the entire country to free himself from Gase with the Jets and any residual Gase aura still floating around in Miami.   

Honorable Mentions

Jaleel Scott, WR, Jets

Scott, originally a fourth-round pick by the Ravens, essentially had a redshirt year to get stronger as a rookie then in Year 2 led the Ravens in receiving during the preseason. Now he’s on a hapless Jets club that could use Wayne Chrebet and Laveranues Coles at this juncture given the widespread injuries in its receiver room. Scott is nearly 6-5 and 218 pounds and excels when he needs to extend to make a catch outside his frame. 

Andrew Brown, DL, Bengals

Brown wasn’t in my Top 150 back in 2018, because the more tape I watched, the less impressed I was with Brown. But I’m including him in this week’s PSPR because I remember he was a five-star recruit — the top defensive tackle in the country in 2014 — and he had strong practice sessions at the 2018 Senior Bowl. And scouts and GMs love strong showings at the Senior Bowl. Brown didn’t test well at the combine despite carrying the “raw athlete” label, but there is some pop in his hands and he plays quicker through a gap than his workout numbers indicate. 

Duke Williams, WR, Bills

Williams was signed by the Bills in early January of 2019 to one of those futures contracts that are almost always overlooked and lead nowhere. But the physical rebounder made the team, scored a game-winning touchdown in a vital win over the Titans in Tennessee and had four catches for 49 yards in Buffalo’s playoff defeat at the hands of the Texans. He can play and saw his first action — albeit very limited — in Buffalo’s Week 7 win over the Jets. But no targets.

Parnell Motley, CB, 49ers

Motley was my No. 249 prospect on my 2020 Big Board, and while I obviously didn’t love him as a prospect, I felt he deserved to be included in my Top 250. Truthfully, he was a very difficult evaluation. All Motley did was make plays on an otherwise brutal Oklahoma defense in his career with the Sooners. He registered 33 pass breakups over his last three seasons in Norman and snagged six picks. In 2019, he forced five fumbles. Incredible. But he’s small and tested very poorly at the Oklahoma Pro Day. I don’t know if he has the physical tools to contribute on a steady basis in the NFL. But I know Motley’s instincts and ball skills can translate.

Stephen Sullivan, DE/TE, Seahawks

Apparently, in the most Seahawks move ever, Sullivan is practicing as a defensive end and tight end in Seattle. Of course, Sullivan didn’t receive many targets in 2019 at LSU given the presence of Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire on the roster. He’s a fine candidate to be a better pro than he was a college player because of his size/speed combination and the fact he’s playing with Russell Wilson, probably the best deep-ball thrower in the NFL. Sullivan blew away everyone at the Senior Bowl by continually winning down the field then ran 4.66 at 6-5 and 248 pounds at the combine. There’s not much nuance to his game right now, but Sullivan is magnificently long — 35 3/8-inch arms — and can really run.  

J.R. Reed, S, Rams

Reed has NFL bloodlines — his dad Jake Reed was Cris Carter’s sidekick for a period in Minnesota — and the former Georgia safety has similar speed when ranging from the deep middle in coverage. He intercepted five passes and broke up 14 more in three years with the Bulldogs and is a big safety at 6-1, 202. There’s not one area in which he particularly excels. Reed’s specialty is that he’s extremely well-rounded in all phases of the game. 

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