By MICHAEL FAIRLIE //
As the 2017 NFL Draft approaches, several questions remain when it comes to the New York Jets’ roster. Although they have filled some holes through the free agency process, there is still much to be done, while keeping both the present and future in mind.
One of the biggest questions on the roster is who will be the starting quarterback come week 1 of the 2017 season? As currently constructed, the team has journeyman Josh McCown, 3rd year prospect Bryce Petty, and 2nd year prospect Christian Hackenberg.
Although opinions vary on the potential of the signal callers in the upcoming draft, it certainly appears as if there is nothing close to a sure thing in this quarterback class. The promising Mitch Trubisky, of North Carolina, has one year of starting experience under his belt. Deshaun Watson, Deshone Kizer and Patrick Mahomes all seem to have great growth potential but none of them seem to be worthy of the risk inherent at pick number 6 and all need a decent amount of technique tweaking and familiarity with an NFL playbook before they are ready to take over a huddle.
Considering that Mike Maccagnan and the Jets have taken two quarterbacks with potential in the past two drafts that they have been grooming, it makes more sense to let them battle it out with McCown for the starting role in 2017. Why not see what you have before you add another mind to mold? There are only so many snaps to go around on the practice field and unless they have already made the decision to give up on Bryce Petty it makes little sense to bring on another developmental prospect.
Assuming that Bryce Petty, who has four starts with a patchwork offense on a downward spiral, is a bust would be way premature. The same can be said for Hackenberg, who did not even see the field in 2016. The book is far from closed on either one of these two, so why not at least give them a chance?
Another position of need on the team is cornerback. Adding Morris Claiborne to take over for the underachieving Darrelle Revis was a start, but it is only a one year fix, and that is if Claiborne can even make it through the year. Justin Burris, who is in his second year, has displayed the potential to be a shutdown corner but is far from having proven that consistently on the field. He has flashed at times, but given the limited reps he received in 2016 it is hard to tell what he can develop into in the long run.
Also competing for the starting spot opposite Claiborne is Marcus Williams, who has shown a nose for the ball but has also displayed maddening inconsistency over his three years with the team. Buster Skrine, who is best suited covering the slot, has struggled when put on the outside to say the least. He has not exactly shut down receivers in the slot either. The Jets also have New England castoff Darryl Roberts, who has flashed at times when thrust into the starting role, but he too has battled with consistency as well as injury issues.
Dexter McDougle, a 3rd round pick in 2014, has struggled to stay on the practice field, let alone get quality playing time in games. All the potential in the world means nothing if he can’t even get on the field. Nick Marshall is a special teams player at best, and Bryson Keeton is an unknown commodity at this point.
The safety position was a big reason why the pass defense struggled for the Jets last season. Free Safety Marcus Gilchrist has not even come close to living up to his generous contract and who knows how healthy his knee will be when it comes time for training camp?
At the Strong Safety position, the Jets currently have former first round pick Calvin Pryor penciled in. Despite the fact that he has shown a willingness to knock offensive opponents out of their cleats with devastating hits, he far too often looks lost out there in both the run and pass game.
There is some hope at the position with Rontez Miles, although he has done his best work on special teams and appears to be more of a part-time player. Ronald Martin and Doug Middleton are young players to keep an eye on, but neither appears to be incredibly proficient in pass coverage and both are still unproven at this point.
Tight End is a position that has been a gaping hole on the Jets’ roster since the days of Dustin Keller. Even that only lasted a few years as injuries derailed his career in his fifth season, and it promptly ended in the 2013 preseason with the Miami Dolphins. Besides using jack-of-all-trades, Quincy Enunwa, in a hybrid role the past two years, the Jets have not received consistent production from the position in a long time. They have also had an offensive coordinator who did not put much stock into the role of TE for the past couple of years. That should change with the addition of John Morton as the new sheriff in town on the offensive side of the ball.
As the roster stands now, the incredibly talented Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the only accomplished TE on the team. The problem is that he is suspended for the first two games of 2017 and it is not as if he has exactly been a consistent performer in his four years in the league, nor is he without his off-field issues. Braedon Bowman, Eric Tomlinson and Jason Vander Laan and their combined 0 NFL catches are not exactly awe-inspiring. This is arguably the team’s biggest hole.
There are still some questions on the offensive line given the departure of LT D’Brickashaw Ferguson and C Nick Mangold in the past two years. The Ryan Clady experiment at LT lasted less than a full season, but the addition of Kelvin Beachum could be a nice fix if he could put his bad, post-injury 2016 season behind him and get back to his prior form. Wesley Johnson has filled in nicely at Center, but time will tell if he can consistently anchor the line, and he will have some competition from newcomer Jonotthan Harrison.
The OG position is locked up with James Carpenter and Brian Winters returning to their starting roles in 2017. Winters, who struggled to catch on in his first few years, has finally started to come into his own.
Last year’s fifth round pick, Brandon Shell, put forth a solid performance in the last few weeks of 2016 and will compete with veteran Ben Ijalana for the starting RT spot.
The team also has Brent Qvale, Dakota Dozier, Craig Watts and Donald Hawkins battling for the backup roles. The OL is far from perfect, but with no quick fixes available in the draft they may have to roll with what they have and hope for the best. If healthy, this unit should improve on last year’s lackluster performance.
Since the days of John Abraham, the Jets have not had a consistent threat on the edge of the defense, so finding a pass-rusher would be a huge score for a team with a solid front three in Wilkerson, Williams and Richardson as well as Simon and McLendon.
Jordan Jenkins and Lorenzo Mauldin do a decent job against the run and are both players on the rise, but pass-rushing does not seem to be their strongest attribute. Freddie Bishop and Corey Lemonier are nice role players, but neither appears to be the long-term solution on the edge. Josh Martin is a great special teams player, but does not seem to be their answer either.
Inside Linebacker can use an infusion of youth to eventually replace David “The Hitman” Harris, who is nearing the twilight of his career. Darron Lee showed a lot of promise as his sidekick, but he has a long way to go to reach his full potential and will never be the thumper that Harris has been throughout his career. Julian Stanford is a nice backup, but I cannot see him ever taking over for Harris. They also have a few other camp bodies, but no true replacement for Harris is currently on the roster.
With the aging Matt Forte and the occasionally dynamic Bilal Powell as the only two experienced HB’s on the team, the Jets could benefit from bringing in a youngster to mold and fit in as a third back. Brandon Burks, Romar Morris and Brandon Wilds are the current competitors for that role on the team, but none of them stand out as a long-term solution.
With all of that said, I will go forward with my 2017 New York Jets Mock Draft. There are many holes to fill and only so many picks to fill them with. I will do my best to fill holes while trying to stick to the Best Player Available strategy. No matter what you think of the Jets chances in 2017, I think we can all agree that an infusion of youth and speed can do a lot for the team going forward.
I will be using a draft simulator, so I can only go by who is available at the time of the pick. I am not an aspiring NFL GM nor do I pretend to be one, so take these picks with a grain of salt.
Round 1 Pick 6: TE – O.J. HOWARD – ALABAMA
Before you shoot flaming arrows my way, please understand that taking a Tight End in the first 10 picks of the draft is not normally something I would even consider. Myles Garrett, Jamal Adams and Malik Hooker were off the board and I thought it was about time for the Jets to use a first round pick on offense.
My choice was between Leonard Fournette and Howard, and it was quite a difficult one for me to make. I know that taking a HB in the top 10 is also taboo, but I think Fournette would be worth it, and if I thought Miami University’s David Njoku would be there in the 2nd, I would have gone with Fournette.
So now to the reason for my choice of O.J. Howard. Everyone knows that a TE can be a quarterback’s best friend, especially a young, inexperienced signal caller, and Howard is the best of the bunch. If ever there was a TE worthy of a pick so high, it is O.J. Howard.
Compared to Jimmy Graham by some draft experts, Howard is a 6’6, 251-pound machine who ran a ridiculous 4.51 forty-yard dash at the combine. His experience in a pro-style offense gives him an edge over other TE’s in this year’s draft class as well.
After not being used extensively as a receiver at Alabama, there is a question as to how high his ceiling really is, so this is certainly a risk so early in the draft. But it is a risk I am willing to take, because if he lives up to his potential, he can be one of the best TE’s the NFL has seen in the last two decades and a major addition to an offense that truly needs a difference maker in the middle of the field.
Round 2 Pick 7 (39): S – OBI MELIFONWU – CONNECTICUT
We all know how badly the Jets’ secondary needs help after surrendering countless big plays to opponents’ passing games in 2016, especially down the seam. When I saw that Obi Melifonwu was available in the 2nd round, I had no choice but to pounce.
Standing at 6’4, 224 pounds, Melifonwu has the size, strength and athleticism to cover Tight Ends. Posting a 4.40 40 time at the combine, he also has the speed and versatility to play all over the secondary, even getting some snaps at CB in certain packages. With 8 INT’s and 16 PD’s during his career at Connecticut, he has shown his ability in coverage, which was reinforced during the Senior Bowl.
Depending on the status of Marcus Gilchrist, Melifonwu could potentially step into the starting role at FS from day one. The guy is a physical freak with the type of size that Bowles loves to have in the secondary.
Round 3 Pick 6 (70): CB – AHKELLO WITHERSPOON – COLORADO
Continuing along with the task of fixing up the Jets’ broken defensive backfield, I was pleasantly surprised to see another big, physical DB waiting there for me in the beginning of round 3.
Utilizing his flexible hips and quick feet, the 6’3, 198-pound Witherspoon tied for second in the nation with 20 PD’s in 2016 as well as allowing a completion percentage against of only 26.5%.
While he has displayed all the tools to be a solid cover corner, Ahkello only notched three interceptions during his college career. He needs to work on his tackling, especially in the run game, along with his overall technique.
Although far from a finished product, Witherspoon has drawn comparisons to Patrick Peterson and did an excellent job covering incredibly speedy fellow prospect John Ross during the 2016 season. It may take some time for both of them, but I could certainly envision Witherspoon and Burris manning the outside for the Jets for years to come.
Round 3 Pick 43 (107): DE/OLB – TREY HENDRICKSON – FLORIDA ATLANTIC
Regardless of the fact that the Jets have Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins penciled in as the starting OLB’s, they could use a boost in the pass-rushing department. The 6’4, 266-pound Hendrickson could possibly fill that role for the team and maybe eventually take over for Mauldin if he does not step his game up a notch in 2017.
Seen as more of a 4-3 DE than a 3-4 OLB, Trey will definitely need some work to make the transition to the outside in the pros. With 29.5 sacks during his college career, including 23 in his last two years, as well as his 4.65 40-yard dash at the combine, Hendrickson has surely displayed the ability to get to the QB.
Being that Mauldin and Jenkins are currently starting, Trey will be given time to learn the finer points of the position while getting some playing time in passing situations. Although he is a bit of a tweener, he is well worth a shot on a team that is starving for a pass rusher, especially at the end of the third round.
Round 5 Pick 6 (150): RB – JEREMY MCNICHOLS – BOISE STATE
With Matt Forte’s body breaking down a bit after nine years as an NFL bell cow and the uncertainty of Powell’s durability as an every-down back, it makes sense for the Jets to begin looking towards the future at the running back position. They could also use a third back for the present, and in the fifth round, McNichols just might be their answer.
In three years at Boise State, two as a starter, Jeremy amassed 3,205 yards and 44 TD’s on 571 carries. He also added 103 receptions for 1,089 yards and 11 TD’s in the passing game.
While he is not known for his game-breaking speed or power, he has excellent vision and patience as well as running with a low pad level, making the 5’9, 214-pound McNichols difficult to tackle. His 4.49 forty time at the combine is not exactly slow for a HB either.
Jeremy is an incredibly versatile back with the ability to contribute in both the running and passing game. He will need to work on his pass protection, but with Bilal Powell currently on the roster, McNichols is not likely to see the field much on third downs, while he refines his blocking skills.
Round 6 Pick 7 (191): CB MARQUEZ WHITE FLORIDA STATE
Being that the Jets’ secondary was a complete mess last year, it would not hurt to add another CB in the draft. Low and behold, an intriguing prospect was available in the 6th round and I was not about to let him slip away.
Marquez White is an incredibly gifted athlete who played both football and basketball at Florida State, although he decided to place his focus on the gridiron after playing in just six games for the basketball team.
Playing as mostly a reserve in his first two years, White was thrust into a starting role in his junior season, recording three INT’s and 6 PD’s during the past two seasons.
At 6’0, 194 pounds, White has good size and length for the position. More quick than fast, he ran a 4.59 forty at the combine, which is not an ideal time but he seems to play faster than that would suggest.
White will need some time to work on his overall awareness and could benefit from some time in the weight room to add bulk to his frame and strength to his game. The potential is there though and given the time and proper tutelage, he could eventually step into a nickel role, taking over for Buster Skrine if his play continues to decline. At worst, he will provide competition for guys like McDougle, Keeton and Roberts for the final CB spot, while he works on bringing his game to the next level.
Round 7 Pick 6 (224): ILB – BEN GEDEON – MICHIGAN
The writing is on the wall for David Harris, who is entering his 12th season, and in the last year of his contract. I am not about to say that you can find his immediate replacement in the 7th round, but Ben Gedeon, who played his college ball at Harris’ alma mater, could be a steal at the end of the draft and could eventually develop into a solid contributor on the Jets’ defense.
Gedeon, who stands at 6’2, 244 pounds, did not get his chance to be a full-time starter until his senior year in 2016, but when he did, he surely took advantage of it. He compiled 94 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 15 tackles for loss in his final season with the Wolverines.
At the very least, Gedeon can come in and be an immediate contributor on special teams, utilizing his incredible instincts and fearless nature. He can also provide needed depth at the ILB position while he finetunes his game at the NFL level.