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NFL Draft Profile: Defensive Back Elijah Molden

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Read this in Larry David’s voice: Pretty, pretty, pretty, good.

NCAA Football: Las Vegas Bowl-Boise State vs Washington Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

With the NFL Draft coming up, we at UWDP are doing some profiles of departing Huskies who should hear their name called soon. Today we start off with Beloved Character Actor Nickel Cornerback Elijah Molden.

If you’re a Dawg fan, shed a tear with me as we say goodbye. If you’re a fan of whatever NFL team just drafted him, congratulations! You’ve just made a good decision! Please take care of our lil boi. Here’s what you should know:

Career So Far

The son of former NFL player and Oregon legend Alex Molden, the younger Molden committed to UW over primary competition from Stanford and Oregon near the end of his senior season in November 2016 while being, ahem, generously listed at 5’11.” A four star from West Linn High School south of Portland, he also had offers from most of the Pac-12.

Upon arrival, Molden played in every game of his true freshman year and continued to be liberally rotated in and occasionally start (two games, including the Pac-12 Championship) in 2018. Despite being the UW secondary’s sixth man of sorts his first two seasons, he’s recently said that, in hindsight, he cringes when watching film from earlier in his Husky career. Not that he was bad by any means those first two years, but it’s easy now to see why he’d say that — if the first two seasons of his career were holding his own, the 2019 and 2020 years were rarely short of dominant. Not only were his instincts and pure physical abilities apparent, but his intelligence on the field took a clear step up.

While it stinks for a number of reasons that the Dawgs’ 2020 year was cut short due to COVID, one of those was not being able to see Elijah Molden play more than four games. And even worse, not knowing, in that last moment of seeing him in purple and gold, that that was what we were seeing.

Measurements

I referenced above that he was generously listed at 5’11,” 185 lbs on 247Sports coming out of high school. The height at least was, uh, inaccurate. His pro day measurement is a more modest 5’9.5” plus 192 lbs.

Other standard measurements:

Vertical: 36.5”

40: 4.41 unofficial, timed by an NFL scout at 4.62 and 4.59 (although there were rumors he had tweaked something during one of those).

Broad jump: 10’5”

On-Field Look

He’s been pretty frequently compared to Tyrann Mathieu and it’s not too hard to see why: Molden’s undersized, instinctual, and unafraid.

As I alluded to above, what really elevated his play the last two seasons compared to his first two was an improved on-field intelligence that went beyond his natural defensive instincts. This high IQ and ability to read an offense turned his innate, almost omniscient anticipation even more deadly. Sure, he’s neither a huge player nor blazing fast, but if there’s a more harrowing combination of intangibles for opposing receivers and quarterbacks, I don’t know what that would be.

Another occasionally overlooked aspect of Molden’s improvement was his tackling. While it was never a weakness per se, the last two seasons saw it go from a non-noteworthy, more-or-less average trait of his to something he really shined at. For Dawg fans it could be easy to take this trait for granted regarding safeties and nickels protecting the middle of the field — we got really spoiled first with Budda Baker and then Taylor Rapp being absolute monsters here. But after Rapp’s departure there was, for the first time since Sark, some weakness in the middle of the field where no defensive back was a natural open-field tackling enforcer. During this time in the beginning of the 2019 season there were definite hiccups but, after an originally bumpy transition, Molden did end up stepping into that role of the reliable, center-of-the-field open-field tackler. Granted, he was doing that from a different position than the other two more often than not (and no one would accuse Molden of being enforcer-y in the same way that Baker and Rapp were), but the important takeaway was how much his open-field tackling improved when he had to step up.

Also, while we’re at it comparing Molden to his undersized DB predecessor in Budda Baker: it’s worth noting that, while he lacks Baker’s outstanding athleticism in flashy measurement numbers and eye-popping on-field moments, I’d argue Molden actually has superior athleticism in a more subtle capacity — his coordination and body control. Obviously the point of this write-up is to focus on Molden, but it became something of a running joke in our UWDP writers group how Baker was such an incredible athlete but had some of the most hilariously terrible moments of non-contact coordination (or lack thereof). Side by side, you’d see fewer awe-inspiringly athletic plays by Molden — but the ones he does make will be finished off superbly in a way that Budda sometimes flubbed comically.

The irony about Elijah Molden is that all his traits are by themselves rather uninteresting — then you put them all together and the end result is anything but.

He’s not a bone-crushing thumper, he’s fast but not a burner, he makes athletic plays but not ones that make you question if he’s human. He’s tenacious, he has high-level innate instincts, he’s intelligent, he’s a good open-field tackler, he has fantastic body control athleticism. Any one of those qualities by itself is not particularly sexy. But then you put them all together and it’s fun to watch and, most importantly, really effective.

Lastly, it would be naïve to not include that Elijah Molden is a leader.

This is both on and off the field; he was the head of the defense at nickel and was a core member of the Pac-12 Unity movement regarding COVID and player and civil rights. He’s been a pillar of this defense for years and, if I were a GM, he’s someone I want in the locker room.

Projection

As far as draft position, there are players every year who kick ass but are smaller than average for their unit and so get picked later than their actual ability would otherwise indicate. Elijah Molden might be the best example of this case this year.

Part of that is reasonable on GM’s parts. This isn’t because his being relatively diminutive is that big of a deal in a vacuum, but rather because it limits him position-wise: he’ll almost certainly not be able to play outside cornerback in the NFL. And while that logic mostly makes sense — he is technically considered a “cornerback” after all — it’s also somewhat misdirected because of how modern offenses and subsequent nickel defenses work. Not drafting a slot coverage player like Molden because he’s not the ideal height and length for playing outside corner is, in a modern defense, analogous to not drafting a quarterback because he doesn’t have the right size to block a defensive end.

Simply put, Molden couldn’t (well, probably) play outsider corner in the NFL, but that’s not you’re drafting him for anyway so stop overthinking it.

And although traditional cornerback is out of the question, it’s worth noting that he’s not necessarily only limited to playing nickel. Sure, ideally that’s where you want him and it’ll certainly be what he’s drafted for, but he’s played safety for the Dawgs too and his skillset does make that a somewhat intriguing plan B if, down the line, he ends up in an organization with a backlog of nickels and scarcity at safety.

In the end, Molden will naturally slip due to his size, meaning one GM is going to be getting pretty good value by picking him. Most projections have him going somewhere in the second round of the draft and I agree that’s most likely.

Wherever he goes, we’ll miss him very much *lone tear drops onto the keyboard.*

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.