Amid Jets' slump, Bryce Huff enjoying breakout season

Rodgers focused on health, not committing to return this season (1:45)

Aaron Rodgers joins Pat McAfee to discuss the next steps in his recovery and the possibility of returning this season. (1:45)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets defensive end Bryce Huff needed to get out of the house, pronto. He wanted fresh air and solitude, because that was the best way to cope with the hurt of having a lifelong dream crushed.

The 2020 NFL draft had just ended. Despite 18 sacks and 39 1/2 tackles for loss in his college career at Memphis, Huff wasn't among the 255 players to have his name called. So he left his mother's house in Mobile, Alabama, walked to a wooded area in the neighborhood and climbed a 20-foot mound of clay dirt.

He sat at the top, staring out at the tree line and wondering about his football future. He didn't move for two hours.

"I was pretty stressed out, I'm not going to lie," Huff told ESPN. "I was trying to decompress, just trying to get my thoughts together."

He got everything together quite nicely. Not even four years later, he's one of the most effective pass-rushers in the league and one of the bright spots on the 4-7 Jets.

Huff is generating pressure on 24.4% of his pass rushes, the best rate in the NFL (minimum: 150 rushes), according to NFL Next Gen Stats. The former undrafted free agent is ahead of stars such as the Cowboys' Micah Parsons (22.9%) and the Browns' Myles Garrett (18.4%), proving that draft stock isn't everything when trying to defeat a 6-foot-6, 310-pound offensive tackle. Huff is on pace to become the first player to lead the league in pressure rate in back-to-back seasons since NFL Next Gen Stats started tracking it in 2015.

Not bad for someone who, despite lobbying efforts, couldn't get an invitation to the Senior Bowl even though the all-star game is based in Mobile, his hometown. "That was really hurtful," his mother, Colette Huff, said. "That's something he always dreamed of doing."

He also was snubbed by the 2020 scouting combine, which was particularly frustrating because he trained for the combine with other draft prospects at a facility in Fort Worth, Texas.

"Everybody started getting their combine invites. Mine never came," said Huff. "I was calling the combine office every other day. I was like, 'Is my name on the list yet? I know it has to be on there.' Dude was like, 'Nah, it's not happening.' So then I just went back to working out and get ready for my pro day."

Oh, yeah, the pro day. Like most pro days in the spring of 2020, it was cancelled due to COVID-19 -- another door slammed in his face.

Huff's tweener size -- 6-foot-3, 255 pounds -- likely played a part in his going undrafted. The Jets saw enough in him to offer a free agent contract that included a $90,000 guarantee. Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams ran a 3-4 scheme, and they liked his long-term potential as an outside linebacker.

The switch to a 4-3 scheme in 2021 took some adjusting, but Huff -- now a defensive end -- has grown to the point where he's not just a third-down rusher. He has played more on first and second down than ever before. He leads the team with 6.0 sacks (a career high) even though he's fifth among the defensive linemen in total snaps (288).

Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich called him "one of the best pass-rushers in this league, and I don't think anyone can argue that anymore."

Defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson, 30, the senior member of the line, said Huff reminds him of Elvis Dumervil. The 5-foot-11 pass-rusher amassed 105.5 sacks over 11 seasons with the Denver Broncos, Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers.

Huff isn't that undersized, but he doesn't have the prototypical body type for an edge rusher. He's on the squatty side, with a powerful lower body. "He's a weird-built dude -- in a good way," Jefferson said. "He is one-of-one. His speed and bend off the edge are just unreal."

Huff has improved each year, adding wrinkles to his game along the way. Going into this season, his objective was to add countermoves to his pass-rushing repertoire while putting an emphasis on the quarterback's location in the pocket. By studying film of the quarterback's tendencies, he can better plan his pass rush.

Against the Philadelphia Eagles, Huff recorded nine pressures and 1.5 sacks. Afterward, he got a chance to speak with Haason Reddick, telling the Eagles' pass-rusher that he'd been studying his tape for years. He was surprised when Reddick told Huff he'd been watching his tape.

Against the Los Angeles Chargers, Huff made seven pressures and 1.5 sacks, receiving a postgame compliment from Chargers star Khalil Mack. Mack was blown away when Huff told him he watched his tape from his days at the University of Buffalo.

"Then he was like, 'I've seen you turn up this year. Keep doing what you do. You're a dog,' and stuff like that," Huff said. "So that was really cool, just being able to talk to guys that I've been looking up to for years and respecting my game."

At St. Paul's High School in Mobile, Huff was listed as a two-star recruit by Rivals.com -- the proverbial late bloomer. His older brother, Jordan was the football star in the family. He was a running back who had a successful career at Northern Illinois, where he rushed for 2,167 yards. Of the two, Jordan, 28, three years older than Bryce, was considered the more likely to play pro ball, according to Colette Huff.

"Bryce took a different route," she said. "Everybody always said he was underrated this, underrated that. He never stopped working toward his dream."

Recalling Bryce as a ninth-grader, former St. Paul's coach Steve Mask referred to him as a tagalong, the little brother in his big brother's shadow. But by Bryce's junior year, "It was like, 'Oh, wow, look what's happening now,'" Mask said. He was taken aback by Huff's improvement.

The "oh wow" moment, as Mask called it, occurred on a rainy day. They moved practice into the weight room, where they conducted one-on-one drills. Displaying exceptional burst, Huff blew past blockers, one after another. He still has an impressive get-off time -- 0.77 seconds, which ranks 11th among pass-rushers, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

"I knew then that he had a chance to be something special," said Mask, who won a state championship with Huff on his defense.

From a modest start, Huff is now on the verge of a huge pay day. He's making $4.3 million this season on a one-year contract, but he's expected to more than double that on a per-year basis when he hits free agency after the season.

"It doesn't really seem like that big of a deal," he said of his improbable journey, "but when you look at the macro and the things that have happened, it is kind of crazy."

He has gone from the top of a 20-foot clay dirt mound, upset that he wasn't drafted, to the king of the hill.