Jun 9, 2015; Florham Park, NJ, USA; New York Jets safety Durell Eskridge (35) during New York Jets minicamp at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
On the current New York Jets roster, there are only 9 undrafted free agents from the 2015 class. Like every NFL team, Gang Green acquired these players in hope that a few turn out to be diamonds in the rough as the season arrives. You could definitely say that New York would be lucky to find a decent player out of this group of guys, but starting nose tackle Damon Harrison was one of those guys not too long ago. “Snacks” went back and forth from the practice squad to the roster multiple times in 2012 before finally breaking out in 2013. Wayne Chrebet was another undrafted free agent, and he turned out to be pretty good, didn’t he?
With that being said, it takes time for undrafted free agents to progress even if they have a ton of upside. This is because they get buried on the depth chart behind the more proven players. Starting an undrafted free agent right off the bat could stunt the player’s growth, so it’s best that the player sits back for at least one if not multiple seasons.
Rontez Miles is a player who has been in the Jets’ organization since the summer of 2013, and 2015 may be the year he makes the final 53. As a safety, he had the privilege to practice alongside veteran Dawan Landry who helped him develop rapidly these past two years. Miles was also lucky enough to learn from Ed Reed for part of the 2013 season.
If an undrafted free agent is in a system with the right players and coaches, progression becomes a lot easier. Luckily for the Jets, new general manager Mike Maccagnan has provided the newbies with an experienced roster and coaching staff to bring them along properly. Unfortunately, New York still has over 80 players on the roster, so the undrafted free agents have a tough road ahead of them.
With competition present in almost every positional unit, players on the roster bubble or on the outside looking in will need to turn heads this summer in order to make the cut. Let’s take a look at 5 undrafted free agents who are in a good position to find themselves on the practice squad or even the final roster when September hits.
Next: 5. Wes Saxton, TE
Nov 16, 2013; Annapolis, MD, USA; South Alabama Jaguars tight end Wes Saxton (13) attempts to avoid Navy Midshipmen linebacker Chris Johnson (46) following a catch at Navy Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
5. Wes Saxton, TE
The former South Alabama Jaguar is one of the more intriguing undrafted free agents that the Jets acquired. Saxton sits at 6’4, 235 lbs. which is pretty much the average size for a tight end in the NFL. In his 3 years of college ball, he caught 96 passes for 1,126 yards and one TD. He had a team-high 50 catches in 2013 which was surprising because he is more of a blocking tight end.
Last season, against a premiere program in Mississippi State, Saxton hauled in a season-high 6 passes. That may not be saying much, but production against any SEC school is always looked highly upon. Not to mention, blocking tight ends rarely catch 6 passes in a game on any level.
Saxton joins 4 other tight ends in Jace Amaro, Jeff Cumberland, Kellen Davis, and Zach Sudfeld, so he does face an uphill battle in terms of making the roster. In a spread offense, it is very unlikely that New York keeps 5 tight ends, let alone 4. Amaro and Cumberland are sure bets to make the team while Sudfeld has been with the Jets the past two seasons.
As of now, Saxton’s competition seems to be Davis who is also a blocking tight end. Davis has become less productive as the years have gone on, therefore Saxton has a realistic opportunity to edge him out. Ultimately, it all comes down to whether Maccagnan wants 3 or 4 tight ends when Week 1 comes around. If it’s 3, then Saxton will be fighting for a practice squad spot. If it’s 4, then he may have a chance to make the final roster.
Next: 4. Deion Barnes, OLB
Oct 12, 2013; University Park, PA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions defensive end Deion Barnes (18) during the first quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Beaver Stadium. Penn State defeated Michigan 43-40 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Matthew O
4. Deion Barnes, OLB
Out of all 9 undrafted free agents on the roster, Barnes has probably produced the most in his college career. In his 4 years at Penn State (one redshirt year), he racked up 14.5 sacks and 26.5 tackles for loss. As a 4-3 defensive end in college, Barnes will have to make the move to a 3-4 outside linebacker in head coach Todd Bowles’ defense. A player who actually had to make a similar transition when he first entered the NFL was his teammate Quinton Coples.
At North Carolina, Coples played defensive end in a 4-3, so he had to lose weight when he first joined the Jets in order to convert to a 3-4 outside linebacker in Rex Ryan’s scheme. Barnes does weigh less than Coples did as a rookie, so he may not have to lose much weight, but the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 is difficult nonetheless.
The Jets outside linebacker unit currently consists of Coples, Calvin Pace, Lorenzo Mauldin, Jason Babin, IK Enemkpali, Trevor Reilly, and now Barnes. Last season, the Jets kept 5 outside linebackers and they might have kept 6 if Jermaine Cunningham did not go down in the green-white scrimmage with a torn ACL. Enemkpali and Reilly did not play much in 2014, therefore making them guys on this year’s roster bubble without question. Veterans in Pace and Babin should make the final cut simply because of their experience in the locker room that will assist the youngsters.
If there is any chance for Barnes to make the team, he will have to beat out Enemkpali and/or Reilly. Both guys were drafted by the incumbent ex-general manager John Idzik, so don’t be surprised to see Maccagnan continue to move on from the old regime and part ways with them. Barnes is most likely a safe bet to make the practice squad, but hard work throughout training camp and the preseason could put him on the 53-man roster.
Next: 3. Taiwan Jones, ILB
Oct 4, 2014; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans linebacker Taiwan Jones (34) looks over Nebraska Cornhuskers offense during the 1st half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
3. Taiwan Jones, ILB
Jones put together a solid 4 years at Michigan State. He racked up 182 tackles, 5.5 sacks, and one INT over the course of his college career. What is most impressive is that 127 of those tackles along with 19.5 tackles for loss came in his last two seasons. Jones also brings durability and leadership to the table given the fact that he saw action in every game since his freshman year. He also started all but one game in his last two seasons and never suffered an injury in his 4 years as a Spartan.
Many people say that Jones is a lot like his teammate David Harris in the sense that he is a tackling machine opposed to a guy who could drop back in coverage. Thankfully, the Jets have Demario Davis to make pass coverage less stressful for linebackers of the Jones and Harris variety. Let’s not forget, Harris came from the University of Michigan in 2007, so Jones and the former Wolverine both played their college ball in the same state.
Gang Green currently has 7 inside linebackers on the roster. The corps consists of Harris, Davis, Erin Henderson, Joe Mays, Jamari Lattimore, Julian Howsare, and Jones. When September hits, the Jets usually keep 4 inside linebackers, but that may change in the new regime. Assuming that Maccagnan decides to keep 4, the locks to make the team are Harris, Davis, and most likely Henderson who put together a solid career in Minnesota before taking 2014 off to resolve his drug issues. Mays and Lattimore are experienced veterans too, but they could just be camp bodies when it is all said and done.
If Jones wants to make the team, he must show off his ability to rack up tackles. He also needs to show coach Bowles that he can be a leader as well, even as a rookie. Effort on special teams will also help out his cause. In his freshman year at Michigan State, he excelled as a special teamer before taking on a bigger role as an inside linebacker. At the moment, Jones is probably fighting for a practice squad spot. Although, if he continues to impress through training camp and the preseason, he may be on the sidelines when Cleveland comes to town week W.
Next: 2. Julian Howsare, LB
Jul 27, 2013; Cortland, NY, USA; General view of a New York Jets helmet during training camp at SUNY Cortland. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
2. Julian Howsare, LB
Even though it was on the Division II stage, Howsare had an incredible 4-year career at Clarion University. Over his 4 years, he racked up 256 tackles, 39 sacks, 57 tackles for loss, 3 INTs, 9 forced fumbles, and 2 fumble recoveries. To go along with that, he broke up 14 passes and blocked 10 kicks on special teams. Yes, 10 kicks on special teams. With those stats, it’s pretty surprising he didn’t play Division I football.
Like Howsare, safety Rontez Miles played Division II football. Miles might now find himself on the 53-man roster in 2015 after sticking around on the practice squad the past two seasons. However, what makes Howsare more unique is the fact that he can play outside linebacker or inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. An eye-opening 256 tackles shows he can tackle like no other, and 39 sacks to go along with 57 tackles for loss displays his ability to get in the backfield.
What gives Howsare a good chance to grab a roster spot is his versatility. He can do what Deion Barnes does on the outside and he can do what Taiwan Jones does in the middle of the field. A guy who he can definitely compare to is former Jets linebacker Jason Trusnik. Trusnik played with the Jets from 2007-09 and did most of his work on special teams as well as getting after the quarterback on 2nd and 3rd down.
Howsare’s path to a roster spot is quite simple. He has to beat out guys at both inside and outside linebacker. It will be an interesting summer for the Division II standout, and it may end up with him as a part of the practice squad or even the final 53.
Next: 1. Durell Eskridge, FS
Nov 8, 2014; Syracuse, NY, USA; Syracuse Orange safety Durell Eskridge (3) tries for a interception in front of Duke Blue Devils wide receiver Max McCaffrey (87) that would fall incomplete during the second quarter at the Carrier Dome. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports
1. Durell Eskridge, FS
Eskridge spent 4 years at Syracuse University (one redshirt year) where he stood out as one of the best safeties in the ACC. He finished his college career with 178 tackles, 5 INTs, 2.5 sacks, and one forced fumble. He recorded 4 of his 5 INTs during the 2013 season, but his lone INT in 2014 came in a matchup against Notre Dame which he returned 29 yards for a TD. He also broke up 7 passes in his 3 collegiate seasons.
Eskridge is one of 3 true free safeties on the Jets roster. The newly-acquired Marcus Gilchrist and Jaiquawn Jarrett who is in his 3rd year in New York are the other two. Calvin Pryor did play free safety last season, but he is making the switch back to his natural position of strong safety in 2015. The other two safeties on the roster are Antonio Allen and Rontez Miles. Both of these guys are considered to be strong safeties because like Pryor, they like to play up in the box.
What gives Eskridge the advantage over not only the strong safeties, but Gilchrist and Jarrett as well, is his quickness at his 6’3 height. He did run a disappointing 4.63 at the combine, but he was able to trim it down to about a 4.45 according to pennlive.com. Eskridge also posted a 31-inch vertical leap at the combine which obviously helps him make plays on the ball.
Gang Green is very young at the safety position this year, so won’t be out of the ordinary if Maccagnan decides to keep 5 safeties. Due to that possibility, Eskridge will get his chance at a roster spot if he can find a way to beat out Miles. That will be tough to do since Miles has had a great offseason thus far, specifically in minicamp. If Eskridge cannot get over the hump and onto the final roster, it’s not the end of the world. As stated previously, Miles was stashed on the practice squad in 2013 and he still remains part of the organization to this day. Eskridge could be in the same boat not too long from now.
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