LAS VEGAS, Nevada — One of my favorite parts about the NFL Draft is hearing a new crop of stories about how each prospect got to where they are. The anecdotes that especially stand out to me are the ones that show how much the game has grown, like Pittsburgh defensive lineman Habakkuk Baldonado’s.
While Baldonado grew up playing several sports in Rome, Italy, he didn't pick up American football until he was 16 years old. The Roman only played one year of high school football in the United States before suiting up for the Panthers and becoming a draft prospect who stood out during the East-West Shrine Bowl in the Las Vegas Raiders’ backyard.
I got a chance to chat with and get to know Baldonado at the beginning of the Shrine Bowl, and below is a transcript of our conversation.
MH: What’s your goal for this week? What are you trying to prove that scouts?
HB: I’ll say my main goal for this week is to learn and prepare for the next step, and for sure to compete. I’m playing football, man, I’m excited. I can’t wait to compete against every o-lineman, and every d-lineman, and show who I am and what I can do.
MH: What is something you’re trying to work on throughout this draft process to elevate your game?
HB: I would say my pad level, you know, you can always improve pad level. My pass rush, sometimes I can use power a little more and open-field tackling [to defend against] boots and stuff like that. Those are the three main things I’ve been working on during the offseason.
MH: What would you say your favorite pass rush move is and why?
HB: Cross-chop. I don’t know why, though. I just picked it up, it just came easy so I started using it and it just works, haha!
MH: How has it been being around the other prospects at the Shrine Bowl and being able to bounce things off of one another?
HB: It’s been great. Like, I’m surrounded by great players that had great careers. So I’ve tried to learn what I can from each one. And the crazy thing is that I haven’t been playing football as long as they have so trying to just like be like a sponge. Just get whatever [knowledge] I can from everybody.
MH: Building on that, you played with other defensive linemen who have recently been through this process like Patrick Jones — Minnesota Vikings 2021 third-round pick — and Rashad Weaver — Tennessee Titans 2021 fourth-round pick. Have you leaned on them for any advice as you go through the pre-draft process?
HB: Yeah, Rashad and Pat, they definitely helped me improve in my game and learning how to study film. Those are two people that I really lean into coming out since I was a freshman. And they’re great players. And they’re showing it in the league and have been a huge part of my development.
MH: I know you said you didn’t pick up football and have been playing less than some of the other guys. So, when did you start playing, and what kept you from the game initially?
HB: I started playing when I was about 16. I just didn’t know what football was, to be honest. I grew up playing all different sports; soccer, swimming, mixed martial arts, etc. Then one day I just came across American football and I was like; “What is this?” I [had] never seen it before and I got interested in it, and I got into it.
MH: Do you think that’s something that can almost serve as an advantage to you, just knowing that there’s still so much for you to soak in, and then elevate your game?
HB: 100 percent. That’s what I believe, because like there are people that have been playing since they were a peewee or little kid and they’ve learned everything. But me, I just started and I’ve been rising at a pretty high [rate]. I’ve been improving on the daily and I think that I haven’t reached my potential yet. By playing more, getting more reps or whatever, I can get way better than what I am right now.
MH: Where do you see yourself playing at the next level? Do you think you’re more of an outside linebacker type or hand-in-the-ground defensive end?
HB: That’s the million-dollar question! I feel like I could play both. [I played the two spots] really well at Pitt this year. I had a lot of like, standing up and playing as a linebacker and had a little bit of dropping [in coverage]. Most of the time I’ve been playing with my hand down, so that’s what I’m good at. But on the line, I can play everything from a 3-technique time to a standup backer.
MH: How have things been so far in the classroom with installing the playbook at the Shrine Bowl?
HB: It’s interesting to see all the NFL terminology and how they teach. But back in college, I was a film junkie. I love learning about defense and offense, so I knew my defense inside and out. So it’s been really easy to pick up all the stuff that they’ve been throwing at us. The playbook is not huge so everything that they’ve been talking about, I’m on it already.
MH: So you said you’re a film junkie. Who do you like to watch or whose game do you try and emulate?
HB: I really love Chandler Jones. I study his game a lot and all of his techniques. So I’ll say that’s one player that I try to mirror.
Who knows, maybe Baldonado will get a chance to meet and learn from his idol next season...