M.J. Stewart is one of my favorite players to come through the North Carolina Tar Heels football program in some time, even more so than his 6 arguably more-heralded teammates who were drafted in the 2017 event. He was consistently one of few bright spots on a defense that ranged from horrendous to mediocre during his time at UNC, and now, headed to a Tampa Bay team that ranked last in the NFL in passing yards against and net yards/attempt against, will help revolutionize the back end of the Buccaneer defense. Here’s what you should be looking out for from him:
1. Stewart is the best run defending DB in this class.
A close second in my opinion, incidentally, is fellow Buccaneer 2nd round draftee Carlton Davis, so it’s clear what the Bucs front office is trying to value in their DBs: Guys who aren’t scared to mix it up near the line of scrimmage. Stewart takes excellent angles to running backs on the edge and rarely misses his target; even on the odd play where he can’t finish the tackle, he doesn’t let the runner advance more than two yards before his teammates finish the job. Few receivers can handle blocking him on the edge. He’s a fine form tackler and doesn’t shy away from anybody. Here he is against Miami, taking down fellow draftee Mark Walton:
MJ Stewart on the first play of the game vs Miami.— Jack (@PintOfJack) April 20, 2018
Goes through the WR for fun and ruins the play. He does this regularly to any screen or outside run. pic.twitter.com/Jh4wlxdeNh
He shows similar prowess on screens, such as in this play against Clemson in the 2015 ACC Championship:
MJ Stewart in the ACC championship game vs Clemson. Watch him take on two blockers here and blow up the screen by himself. Just slipped off the tackle but this is a high quality play for him. pic.twitter.com/0EvHxfqn68— Jack (@PintOfJack) April 4, 2018
Stewart will not let you get past the line of scrimmage, and it’s one of his best traits.
2. Stewart is a physical, lockdown corner on short/intermediate routes.
While his deep speed isn’t on par with the speediest receivers in the NFL and he can get beat down the field, Stewart is incredibly quick to change directions and has great make-up speed. This helps with his projection to nickel cornerback, where most of his work would come 20 yards or less down the field. His press technique is excellent when he isn’t worried about bailing, and he frustrates receivers with his hands and body to the extent of legality. He did this to the noticeably bigger Equanimeous St. Brown of Notre Dame regularly when the teams met in 2017:
He showed this at the Senior Bowl as well, against Marcell Ateman (also a much bigger man) this time:
You see here the mentality he plays with in run support is carried over to his coverage. Stewart simply plays with the belief that he will not be outfought. Of course, this leads to...
3. Swagger for days
M.J. Stewart will make you pay for underestimating him, and then continue to let you know that he’s better than you. Check him out here as he announces his arrival to Louisville:
He's fiery as fuck and loves to talk trash so he'd fit in reaaaaal well on that side of things too. pic.twitter.com/NwL8ca8i4d— Jack (@PintOfJack) April 3, 2018
Or here, as he lets the Senior Bowl North team that they won’t complete a pass on him no matter if they think they’ve won at the line:
This is the norm for Stewart, whose game is just as mental as it is physical. He will beat you into passivity by imposing his presence both with his play and with his attitude. He can help change a culture of soft pass defense, and with the Bucs needing to motivate former first-round pick Vernon Hargreaves to get back to his physical self, Stewart could be the perfect presence to do so. His influence is already clear in the UNC secondary, as our young defensive backs are clearly following his example as far as announcing themselves on the field. This is particularly important for the Bucs with Brent Grimes nearing retirement age. The best defensive backs all have some dog to them, and Stewart is this in spades. He’ll be fun to watch.
4. He’s intelligent and versatile
In 2017, MJ Stewart was UNC’s best nickel corner, but he was also UNC’s best outside corner. He played on the outside in base packages and shifted inside for nickel and excelled in both roles, and while he never played safety at UNC, he reportedly feels pretty confident that he could play there as well. It’s been reported that playing safety was part of his discussion with the Buccaneers, so we’ll see how that goes, but he certainly has the traits to succeed there. His football IQ is excellent, he plays with his eyes up, and he plays the ball when it’s in the air. He matches up athletically, too, with above-average speed and elite change-of-direction for the position. His 20-yard shuttle was sub-par, oddly, but he made up for it with his good 3-cone drill and excellent 60-yard shuttle, which translates more to safety than the 20-yard shuttle. His combine measurements and percentiles compared to NFL safeties, per Mockdraftable, are listed here:
Sure, he’s short for the position, but that doesn’t matter too much. His Pro Day added a quarter of an inch to his height, for whatever that may be worth. The only concern I have with Stewart as a safety is his ability to finish catches, which is a nice skill to have as a center fielder. Stewart hasn’t recorded an interception since his sophomore year. Defensed passes are good plays and Stewart has those in spades (more on this later), but picks are great ones, and the ability to turn the former into the latter is important in a game with margins as razor-thin as football. Stewart’s hands look fine in drills and practices, from what I’ve seen, and he had a very productive sophomore year with 4 picks, so I don’t know what the problem is now, but it’s fair to worry a little about it. It’s nothing to lose sleep over with him, though. Like I said, PDs are good plays.
Stewart also offers value in the return game. He stepped in at emergency punt returner after a rash of injuries to the UNC squad and held the spot for about the entire latter half of the season and was more than serviceable, averaging 11.3 yards per return. This was good for 6th in the conference, and when stacked up against career returners this is a very good mark indeed.
5. Stewart’s ball skills are top-notch
This might seem a strange thing to say after the above note about him failing to finish interceptions, but ball skills include more than catching the ball for defensive backs. A key part of ball skills is playing the ball in the air instead of the man next to you, and Stewart does this as well as anybody in this class. Stewart holds the ACC record for passes defensed in a career, with the caveat that the stat has only been recorded since 2005. With the ACC’s pedigree of defensive backs, though, this is no small feat. As you can see from several of the plays displayed above, Stewart knows how to get his hands to the ball no matter how he has to contort to get them there. He will lay out to close windows, reach back to make plays on underthrown balls that might accidentally beat him, beat receivers to comeback routes, and center-field on arm punts against taller receivers. If he has a chance at the ball, he will knock it down and prevent the offense from making a play. His hands can be refined to turn him from black hole into legitimate weapon, but as is, Stewart will not allow himself to be beaten by any hint of inaccuracy from the opposing quarterback.
Wherever the Bucs staff desides to deploy M.J. Stewart, he figures to be an impact player. At nickel, he’s a lockdown corner. At safety, he’ll take guys’ heads off. In the locker room, he’ll enforce a culture of toughness. He’s an extreme competitor and was going to make any team better. Tampa fans should be excited for this one.