Dec 5, 2015; Houston, TX, USA; Temple Owls wide receiver Robby Anderson (19) makes a touchdown reception during the second half against the Houston Cougars in the Mid-American Conference football championship game at TDECU Stadium. The Cougars defeated the Owls 24-13. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
The New York Jets are building a winner from within as here are the top five undrafted free agents with a chance to contribute in 2016 and beyond.
The New York Jets and their diehard fan base can now breathe a sigh of relief with the signings of team leaders Ryan Fitzpatrick and Muhammad Wilkerson, and focus on the business at hand — improving on last season’s gut-wrenching 10-6 non-playoff season that ended with a thud on the shores of Lake Erie to their nemesis Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills.
Questions remain as the Jets hit the practice field, readying for the 2016 season against their ever-improving AFC East rivals. But one thing is for certain, unlike previous Gang Green regimes, the tandem of general manager Mike Maccagnan and head coach Todd Bowles are quietly stocking the franchise’s once-bereft back end of the roster with young, fast, hungry, high-motor, high-character overachievers.
Naysayers point to mixed reviews of Maccagnan’s 2015 NFL Draft — and one can now question the selections of second-round receiver Devin Smith, fourth-round quarterback Bryce Petty and fifth-round guard Jarvis Harrison. But the team expects big things in 2016 from top pick Leonard Williams, third-round outside linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin and seventh-round nose tackle Deon Simon.
Top NFL franchises excel at finding gem undrafted free agents. This front office think they’ve already produced from 2015 UDFAs a potential NFL starter in outside linebacker Deion Barnes, and see future contributors in inside linebacker Taiwan Jones, tight end Wes Saxton and outside linebacker/fullback Julian Howsare.
One or two of the 2016 players discussed below could possibly make the 53-man roster, but they all have shots to stick on the practice squad, and develop within this organization. But if they don’t make it here, expect to see a few of these names in the future — on any given Sunday.
Next: 5. Time to burn
Oct 2, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Temple Owls wide receiver Robby Anderson (19) celebrates his touchdown during the second half against the Charlotte 49ers at Jerry Richardson Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports
5. Wide receiver Robby Anderson, Temple
This impressive 6-foot-3, 190-pound wide receiver out of Temple — the alma mater of Bowles and Wilkerson — was projected as a mid-round draft pick after his 70 receptions in 2015.
The Teaneck-born, Ft. Lauderdale native, an electrifying athlete with big-time size and speed, torched Cincinnati Bengals first-round selection William Jackson III of the University of Houston for 12 catches and 150 yards in the American Athletic Conference title game last December.
People talk about Anderson’s tenacity — about how he started as a cornerback at Temple, before running into academic and personal problems, going home to Florida to get his priorities straight, and then returning to Temple with a fresh new attitude as a non-scholarship athlete playing wide receiver — and how all that earned him the unending admiration of his coaches and teammates.
A hamstring issue at this spring’s mini-camp didn’t advance Anderson’s uphill battle to compete for a Gang Green roster spot. He has a legitimate shot, if he can prove himself as a special teams ace and kick return stud.
Critics point to a raw project with the type of rail-thin frame that may not withstand the rigors of the NFL. And they cite that his explosive speed didn’t exactly result in great kick return statistics for the Owls — which is a difficult point to argue with because numbers don’t lie.
Proponents called Anderson one of the college game’s best one-on-one receivers in jump ball situations, and point to his great footwork, football acumen and flashes of big play ability.
In other words, there’s a chance he could be that deep threat that Gang Green’s passing attack has sorely lacked for years.
Next: 4. Jump in the fire
Jul 28, 2016; Florham Park, NJ, USA; New York Jets wide receiver Jalin Marshall (89) makes a catch during training camp at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports
4. Wide receiver Jalin Marshall, Ohio State
This 5’10”, 200-pound flanker will soon learn if it was a mistake to leave Ohio State with two years of college eligibility remaining, declare for the draft, and then going undrafted.
In 2003, the Middletown High School hero was rated the No. 1 football prospect in the state of Ohio. In 2016, he’s got $12,500 in guaranteed pay to prove his abilities on special teams — and to prove his Big Ten critics wrong.
Suffice it to say, Marshall has a Midwest-sized chip on his shoulder, and has a great deal to prove to the close-knit Columbus crew. But if Maccagnan is correct, this raw, versatile prospect could turn out a better pro than his former Buckeye receiving mate, the heretofore disappointing Devin Smith.
Marshall was the talk of Jets mini-camp with some nice catches from an array of backup quarterbacks. He has a chance to one day fill that RB/WR-hybrid role that Jeremy Kerley, Percy Harvin, etc. never quite lived up to. You can see offensive coordinator Chan Gailey putting the versatile game-breaker into the backfield, taking screen passes and the occasional draw play, a bit like like what he does with the oft-injured Bilal Powell, or what he did in Buffalo with C.J. Spiller.
But after a decade or so of Jets’ punt returners serving as fair-catch machines, Trader Mike has offered college football’s tenth-ranked punt returner at 13.5 per a legitimate chance to contribute in his rookie season.
The final wide receiver roster spot will likely come down to Marshall, the aforementioned Anderson and seventh-round pick, Clemson star Charone Peake.
Marshall had been developing a nice rapport with quarterback Geno Smith; let’s hope Jalin’s Jets career follows a different trajectory.
Next: 3. Ram it down
Jan 23, 2016; Carson, CA, USA; National Team full back Patrick Skov, of Georgia Tech, (37) carries the ball in front of American Team defensive back Doug Middleton, of Appalachian State, (36) during the second half of the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl at StubHub Center. The National Team won 18-17. Mandatory Credit: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports
3. Safety Doug Middleton, Appalachian State
The 6’1″ 210-lb. safety prized for his punishing hits and fiery leadership skills, was the heart and soul of the nation’s 11th-ranked unit in total defense. He is a ball hawk with impressive downfield closing speed, and just seems to make every play in front of him.
The converted cornerback out of Winston-Salem, NC voted All-Sunbelt Conference safety got nominated for the Jim Thorpe Award for best college defensive back, and has been regularly recognized for his devotion to community service, mentoring and counseling at-risk youth.
Immediately after the draft, the Jets scooped up the Appalachian State Mountaineer and gave him their highest UDFA signing bonus ($15,000).
Middleton turned heads at mini-camp, and that was before they put on the pads. He possesses that ferocious train-wrecker mentality, and has a little bit of Calvin “The Louisville Slugger” Pryor in him. He was widely-predicted as a late-round pick, but what scared off a few teams from this projected strong safety was that he’s an average-at-best open-field tackler in need of some real technical development.
Like any free agent, Middleton could get on the field right away if he can establish himself as a balls-to-the-wall special teamer. He’s the type of player this new regime craves. He’s one of those guys with average measurables and off-the-charts immeasurables. Middleton shares many physical attributes and clock-cleaning tendencies with the team’s fourth-round cornerback Juston Burris.
Fan favorite backup strong safety Rontez Miles may now be facing his toughest roster battle.
Next: 2. Heavy duty
2. Defensive tackle Helva Matungulu, Western Carolina
As a freshman studying molecular biology, this 6’5’ 290 pound student from Nairobi, Kenya stumbled upon his Western Carolina University football field, and his size caught the attention of the Catamounts coaching staff.
The concept was not entirely foreign to this African national champion rugby player, yet he had never experienced the gridiron before.
During his four years of study in Cullowhee, NC, he developed into a preseason All-Southern Conference selection. Against SEC teams Texas A&M and Tennessee, he decimated his opponents through pure will and athleticism.
Scouts were buzzing over Matungulu’s NFLPA Bowl performance, and Maccagnan and his scouting staff certainly know talent when they see it. They also know, better than anyone, that any player with no red flags and such size and speed (timed at a 5.00 40-yard dash) flashing that coveted combination of explosiveness and athleticism and untapped potential, is worth a flyer on.
This erudite speaker of three tongues (English, French and Swahili) has mad rush-stuffing skills. He has all the makings of a 2016 practice squad warrior, who with his blend of desire, coach-ability and D-line flexibility could thrive at defensive end or defensive tackle in the Bowles/Kacy Rodgers system — not to mention by learning the pro game from lead-by-example future legends Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson and Williams.
Bowles has made it clear that he expects last year’s practice squadder Simon to step in and produce this season. Charley Casserley on the NFL Network said that he thinks Simon could be the next Damon “Snacks” Harrison.
But if Simon doesn’t deliver, he better make way for Helva Kayembe Matungulu, because this young African man is highly motivated — if for no other reason than there’s a big difference between a $3,000 signing bonus and a $450,000 guaranteed contract.
Next: 1. Stand and deliver
1. Tight end Jason Vander Laan, Ferris State
This tantalizing small-college prospect was a legendary quarterback at Michigan’s Ferris State — the 2014-2015 Division II Scholar-Athlete of the Year and two-time Harlon Hill Award winner, as the best Division II player in the country (the small-college Heisman Trophy).
The 6’4 250-lb. bruiser holds the NCAA career record for most career rushing yards by a quarterback (5,953), and was the first quarterback in NCAA History with both 1,000 yards rushing and passing for four-straight seasons.
Now he is trying to catch on the NFL as a tight end. Who knows what’s gonna happen, but this suburban Chicago kid is one of those fierce all-round athletes who spent the off-season working on his blocking, something he’d never had to do. Vander Laan has impressed Jets’ tight ends coach Jimmie Johnson, who went out of his way to compliment his smooth transition to the tight end position, citing natural receiving skills and dedication to the playbook.
Food for thought: fellow undrafted Harlan Hill Award winner Danny Woodhead rushed for 7,962 for the Chadron State Eagles; rushing-machine Vander Laan led his Ferris State Bulldogs to a 37-9 overall record and two straight Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference titles.
Julian Edelman has credited his success as a wide receiver to having been a college quarterback and understanding both sides of the ball exchange. Not to suggest that he can deliver the goods on a similar level, but Vander Laan has all the makings for that H-back role currently occupied by former general manager John Idzik late-round pick wide receiver Quincy Enunwa.
A year under Gailey’s tutelage might possibly uncover a Gronk-esque open-field matchup nightmare for opposing defensive coordinators for years to come. He certainly can’t be any less productive than 2014 second-rounder Jace Amaro.
This raw NFL project, like all of those discussed, embody why the NFL has expanded practice squads, and how franchises look everywhere to find new talent!