By MICHAEL FAIRLIE //
When it comes to the NFL Draft, everyone is suddenly an expert, but there is a reason why the vast majority of people involved in the “evaluation process” are analysts and fans as opposed to being General Managers. We can sit and watch game tape until the cows come home, but to pretend that we know more than those who actually have control over choosing players is ignorant at best.
Year after year, the “experts” tell us who is going to excel and who is going to flop when it comes to making the leap to the NFL, and year after year they are wrong. Tom Brady is too skinny and has a weak arm. Ryan Leaf is going to be a superstar. Wrong and wrong, and the list goes on and on.
This is not to say that General Managers and their staffs do not make mistakes as well, which is why there is so much turnover in the front offices of NFL teams on an annual basis. We all know that evaluating college talent and how it translates to the NFL is far from an exact science. This also does not mean that none of the “experts” or fans have a working knowledge of the game or the players coming out of the draft.
But still, the real experts are sitting in the war rooms of teams around the league, not at Starbucks with their laptop, in the basement of their parents’ house on their iPhone or even at a fancy desk at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University in Chicago.
When a General Manager and Head Coach take over a 4-12 team in shambles and make them into a 10-6 team with a lot of promise within a year, you have to at least acknowledge the fact that they might possibly know just a little more about football and what makes an NFL team work than you do.
Well, Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles did just that, yet they are already getting criticized left and right for the picks they have made so far in this year’s draft. Darron Lee is undersized and not strong enough. Christian Hackenberg is inaccurate. Jordan Jenkins is not a dynamic pass rusher.
Listen, I understand the longtime frustration of being a Jets’ fan, and the pessimism that comes along with it, as I have been on board the Gang Green Express for the past 35+ years. But at the same time, I can see when my team has the right people in charge, and this is one of the few times in my history as a fan that they do.
So let us take a look at what the Jets have done through the first two nights of the 2016 NFL Draft:
Round 1 Pick 20: Darron Lee – OLB/ILB – Ohio State
To be honest, this pick definitely came as a surprise to me, but it was also one that fits right into the Maccagnan philosophy of taking the best player available in the first round. He also happens to fill a big need for speed and youth in the middle of the Jets’ defense.
Standing in at 6’1, 232 lbs, Lee certainly does not have the prototypical size expected for a player who was listed as an OLB coming into the draft, but I’ll take a speedy play-making performer with superior instincts who is “undersized” over a 6’5, 260-pound beast with stiff hips and poor intuition any day of the week.
Given the fact that the Jets plan on using him mostly as an ILB as well as lining him up in different spots to accentuate his abilities, it is not our job to worry about what his height and weight are.
Lee is an incredibly athletic and agile linebacker with extremely quick feet and a nose for the ball. His background as a high school quarterback and cornerback arm him with the ability to quickly change direction and the instincts to diagnose where a play is going in a flash.
Despite his size, Darron has no fear when it comes to challenging blockers as well as the adequate strength and exceptional flexibility that allow him to make his way through gaps on his way to the ball carrier or quarterback. He also has man-coverage abilities, which the Jets have not had in the middle of their defense in quite a long time.
He definitely needs some work on his tackling technique and will benefit from an offseason of strength and conditioning with an NFL staff, but Lee has the speed, range, instincts and violence as a tackler to excel on the next level. He has also played big in big games throughout his career with the Buckeyes, always saving his best for the best.
Lee can be a threat as a pass rusher and run stopper as well as in coverage, and he is sure to fit nicely in Coach Bowles’ versatile defensive scheme.
Round 2 Pick 51: Christian Hackenberg – QB – Penn State
This seems to have been more a pick of need than a best player available selection, although Hackenberg did receive a second to third round grade by many of the prognosticators, so it is not as if it was a major stretch, totally out of left field.
For what it’s worth, at 6’4, 223 lbs, Christian does fit into the prototypical size parameters for his position. He also has the arm strength to successfully complete throws anywhere on the field along with the toughness and durability to take a shot for the sake of making a completion.
Hackenberg displays an excellent capacity to read blitzes pre-snap and adjust on the fly along with the ability to keep his eyes on his targets while stepping up into the pocket. He also demonstrates great touch on his throws downfield.
With experience in a pro-style offense, Hackenberg has the ability and knowledge needed to work his way through progressions as opposed to staring down his first option and telegraphing throws. Christian excelled in his freshman year, under Head Coach Bill O’Brien, receiving honors as the Big Ten Freshman of the Year in 2013.
While it is true that his play has slipped over the last two seasons, so did the talent he was surrounded by and the coaching that led the way, as HC Bill O’Brien made his way to the Houston Texans in 2014. His accuracy was a question mark as he was constantly battered, to the tune of 82 sacks in the past two years, due to poor pass protection and his receivers’ inability to get open.
It remains to be seen if his accuracy problems during his sophomore and junior seasons were simply a product of a lack of talent surrounding him, and he certainly needs to work on the consistency of his mechanics, footwork and ball placement.
The bottom line is that he has the leadership qualities sought in a signal caller and the talent needed to be successful in the NFL. Whether or not he can do that from day one is another question, and he can surely benefit from the guidance of Chan Gailey and company to take the next step. Considering the present makeup of the Jets’ roster at quarterback, we may find out sooner rather than later if he is ready for the big stage.
Round 3 Pick 83: Jordan Jenkins – OLB – Georgia
In the third round, the Jets continued their makeover at the linebacker position, getting themselves a true gamer with the addition of Jenkins.
With an uncanny awareness and incredibly high football intelligence, Jenkins can quickly diagnose what an offense is attempting to do on any given play. He plays with the physicality desired and has an ideal build for a 3-4 OLB at 6’3, 259 pounds.
Blessed with outstanding arm length and extremely large hands, Jenkins has the ability to shed blockers and successfully set the edge in the run game, making him the perfect replacement for Calvin Pace. Jordan could easily step in as a starter opposite Lorenzo Mauldin from day one, providing the Jets with a younger faster version of Pace.
In addition, Jordan is a true team leader who served as a team captain at Georgia and has the attitude required of a player that can truly shine as a pro. He certainly plays with the confidence and maturity of a starter on the NFL level.
Although he is not considered to have the explosion necessary to be a dynamic pass rusher, Jenkins has the instincts and strength as well as adequate speed to get to the quarterback at times. The good news in that department is that with Mauldin on the other side and the addition of Darron Lee in the first round, Jenkins will not be expected to be the team’s sole answer on the pass rush.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and as a lifelong Jets’ fan I understand the skeptical nature of our fan base, but I have to say that I am thrilled with what Maccagnan and his staff have done in the first three rounds of this draft.
There is no question in my mind that the Jets made a major improvement to their linebacking group, which is something they were in desperate need of. The speed and athleticism of Darron Lee along with the leadership and football instincts of Jordan Jenkins will be solid additions to the defense for years to come.
And despite the fact that Hackenberg might not be 100% ready to step in as an NFL starting quarterback, the Jets have taken a leap forward in the retooling of the quarterback position with his and Bryce Petty’s additions in the past two years. They both possess the skillset and leadership abilities to thrive under the proper circumstances and will make for a great competition at the spot in the next few years.
Despite the fact that I do consider myself to be a knowledgeable fan of the game of football, I also understand and admit that I am far from an expert, nor would I ever claim to be one. That is a bit of humble pie that I wish a lot of other writers, reporters, draftnicks and so-called experts would take a bite of. So take my opinion for what it’s worth and feel free to disagree, but I feel pretty damn good about the selections made by our New York Jets with the three picks they have made so far in 2016.