UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu could derail Bills' wide receiver train


Staff member

UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu (15) had 23.5 sacks over the past two seasons. Ross D. Franklin, Associated Press

A prospect who draws a comparison to T.J. Watt on his scouting report would figure to be a sure thing in the NFL draft.
In the case of UCLA edge rusher Laiatu Latu, however, it is not that simple.

Latu’s production and athleticism are why that comparison to the Pittsburgh Steelers’ star is made. But a looming question about a neck injury that kept him out for two full seasons in college is the reason why one of the draft’s most complete edge rushers could still be on the board when the Buffalo Bills are scheduled to pick at No. 28 overall in the first round next week.

How the Bills – and the other 31 NFL teams – view Latu’s medical report is one of the biggest draft mysteries a little more than a week before the start of the first round.

“Latu possesses the kind of rare maturity to his game that you usually see from NFL veterans,” his NFL.com scouting report reads. “Everything about Latu’s skill set and production is translatable to the NFL, and he could become a Pro Bowler as a 3-4 outside linebacker with a heavy influence on the game.”

Latu did not play in the 2020 or 2021 seasons after the medical staff at the University of Washington advised him to “medically retire” from football. Latu was hurt during preseason workouts leading up to the Covid-19-shortened 2020 season and later had neck fusion surgery to repair lingering numbness.

A native of Sacramento, California, he transferred to UCLA, and for the past two years has been both durable and productive. Over that time, he has played in 25 games and made 23.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and 85 tackles. He was a first-team All-Pac-12 Conference selection in 2022. In 2023, Latu won the Lombardi Award as the nation’s top offensive or defensive lineman, as well as the Ted Hendricks Award, given to the top defensive end. He was also a first-team All-American (UCLA’s first since 2014), as well as the conference defensive player of the year and a finalist for the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player.

“I didn’t develop the saying, but there’s a saying, ‘Like your last,’ and I take that into the classroom,” Latu said at the NFL scouting combine. “I take that into the meeting room. I’m writing it at the top of my notes, really, just reminding me to do everything like it’s my last. Not even just playing football, but when I’m studying and stuff like that, really just knowing this could be my last opportunity to do it, this could be my last time doing it, and really remind myself give it all you got.”

If Latu makes it to pick No. 28, he just might be too attractive for the Bills to pass up. Buffalo has Von Miller, Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa and Casey Toohill under contract for the 2024 season. That is expected to be the top four at the position, but long term, moving on from Miller after the 2024 season is a distinct possibility, because it would provide savings under the salary cap.

Whether he’ll last that long is another question. Latu is No. 16 on NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah’s list of the top 50 players in the draft, and is the No. 15 prospect in the class, according to Scouts, Inc.

“Latu is a technician,” Jeremiah said. “He is really good with his hands. He can win a variety of ways. He has a natural feel for pass rush. Some parts of the pass rush remind me of wide receivers – they are route runners. There’s an artistry to it. Latu is an artist.”

It wasn’t until Latu’s mother, Kerry, researched his injury and set up a meeting with Dr. Robert Watkins that he was able to resume his career. Watkins – who had previously worked with NFL players Danielle Hunter and Peyton Manning on neck issues – cleared Latu to return to football after a thorough battery of tests. But when the Washington medical staff wouldn’t do the same, he transferred in January 2022.

“I’ve been dreaming of the NFL since I was a kid, and I never gave up on it all,” Latu said. “ ... I just understood what I wanted to do and that I wanted to get back to playing football again.”

Latu is 6-foot-5 and 259 pounds. He ran a 4.64-second 40-yard dash and posted a 32-inch vertical jump at the combine – solid numbers for someone his size. A total of 31 teams had a representative at UCLA’s pro day.

“Every time I was told I probably wouldn’t be able to play football again, it wasn’t a low point, I kind of just took it for what it was,” he said. “It was hard not being able to play football, the sport that I love since the age of 6. I really just locked into myself, don’t worry about what they’re saying, God has a plan and I made it this far.”