For the 2017 New York Jets, the upside of having the league’s weakest roster going into training camp is that there’s nowhere to go but up.
With team owner Woody Johnson serving the Trump Administration in London, third-year general manager Mike Maccagnan has taken control of the dire roster situation when it comes to the New York Jets. If Woody was still looking over his shoulder in Florham Park, “Trader Mike” likely could not have fully purged this overpriced underachieving roster and pursued that long hard reboot this franchise has needed for the better part of a decade.
For most every Gang Green fan, this has been a brutal offseason. But it had to be done. It was relatively easy to watch Brandon Marshall and Geno Smith shuffle off to the other side of the MetLife parking lot. And it was the end of all hope when they shed David Harris and Eric Decker. But there’s also a good reason that Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis are still looking for work.
Many experts are predicting only 1-3 wins for the Jets as they tank the season in search of a franchise quarterback. But despite all the obvious deficiencies, this team as currently constructed, possesses an above-average defense, a solid rushing tandem backed by a stout run-blocking offensive line, and a locker room flushed of toxic, over-entitled veterans. Head coach Todd Bowles has reinvigorated his staff, and he is coaching for his professional life. So even if Christian Hackenberg does not grab the mantle, this still has all the makings of another 4-12/5-11 season and not that desired top three pick in the 2018 NFL Draft.
The bloodbath will result in roster spots and playing time for young hungry ballers. Maccagnan will be looking to add “assets” — young developmental players with the hunger and ability to produce in 2018 and beyond. With 18 draft picks and undrafted free agents in camp, don’t be surprised if at least a dozen of them stick, to the opening roster or the practice squad. Here are the top five most intriguing, lesser-known options to root for, starting this week.
Next: 5. Lindenwood Calling
5. Connor Harris, ILB, Lindenwood
This writer’s 2017 Jets mock draft had Trader Mike pouncing all over this high-motor NCAA-record-setting tackling machine from a small Missouri Christian college located a stone’s throw from the Chiefs’ Arrowhead Stadium.
But even better, Maccagnan was able to wheel-and-deal low-round draft picks to acquire other possible small-college contributors like Dylan Donahue (West Georgia) and Elijah McGuire (Louisiana-Lafayette), yet still, nab the Lindenwood BMOC as a priority UDFA.
Harris displays crazy versatility. Along with his jaw-dropping 633 career tackles at linebacker, this three-time first-team All-Midwest Intercollegiate Athletic Association selection has also quarterbacked, punted and kicked (a two-two time All-State booter with a career long 49-yarder).
Detractors point to Harris’ short arms (30.1″) and his lack of size (5’11”, 242 lbs.) and speed (4.85 40-yard dash). But he is that relentless downhill attacker with the right mental makeup (gym rat, film junkie, leader of men) that the Jets expected last year from first round linebacker Darron Lee. A few draft prognosticators compared Connor to the retired Chris Borland. For Jets fans, he’s a bit of that Bart Scott overachiever UDFA chip-on-his-shoulder type. Realize that this is all high praise for a small-town 24-year-old who’s never taken an NFL snap.
Next: 4. X-Offender
4. Xavier Coleman, CB, Portland State
This man shouldn’t even be playing football. Prior to his senior year at Portland’s Jesuit High, Coleman overcame life-threatening open heart surgery — due to a heart deformity known as bicuspid aortic valve disease — and has since developed into a legitimate professional prospect.
The 5-foot-11, 190-pound, two-time PSU Vikings team captain with nine interceptions in 45 career games, was a two-time All-Big Sky Conference selection, and a third team All-American selection in 2016. The shut-down corner’s numbers were relatively low because most opposing defenses wouldn’t dare throw his way. Xavier is a dogged defender with precise technique and fluid hip rotation, who really likes to hit people.
Defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers and new defensive backs coach Dennard Wilson were duly impressed by Coleman’s minicamp play and offseason regimen. That cannot be good news for Idzik-era acquisitions Marcus Williams and Dexter McDougle.
The Jets of 2015 and 2016 lacked heart. Few people have more heart than Coleman. He has an excellent chance to join former Portland State NFL standouts like Dolphins tight end Julius Thomas and Seahawks cornerback DeShawn Shead. Opposing receivers should prepare for a rude awakening on Coleman Island.
Next: 3. Poison Ivy
3. Anthony Firkser, FB/TE, Harvard
First, this Harvard H-back needs to make the difficult transition to NFL fullback and beat out the Jets’ most intriguing UDFA signing of 2015, converted Clarion University defensive lineman Julian Howsare. But it’s nearly impossible for a fan of the Green-and-White to not to quietly root for a Central Jersey product, born in Englishtown and raised in Manalapan.
Frisker’s All-Ivy League pedigree has drawn comparisons to former Harvard Crimson fullback Kyle Juszczyk. It goes without saying that the suits of the Jets front office will breakdance on the blacktop of One Jets Drive if Anthony comes close to producing like the league’s highest paid full back.
Pardon the pun, but the receiving specialist Firkser is facing a Catch-22 situation. His versatility as an athletic 6’3″ 250 lb. route-running tight end on a team devoid of many tight ends gives him a clear inside track to the final 53-man roster. However, his sloppy blocking makes him a liability for the starting fullback position that he is fighting for. Pass-first tight ends with gaudy college stat lines are a dime a dozen — think of 2014 second-round bust Jace Amaro.
Next: 2. Loud N' Proud
2. Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State
Marks is that classic overachiever with an undeniable work ethic, setting the Pac-12 career reception record (312) in his senior year, and second in career TD receptions (39) under Mike Leach‘s vaunted Air Raid offense, played in that booming metropolis of Pullman, Washington.
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The 5’11, 189 lb. Venice (CA) High School product has had his share of issues with maturity and police run-ins, for which he was redshirted in 2014. Marks certainly has the requisite big personality necessary to shine in the Big Apple limelight.
Critics point to some frustrating limitations in Gabe’s game. For example, he’s got great hands and good body control but has ball security issues after the catch. He displays excellent footwork and can create separation from defenders, but can also get physically dominated by bigger and more powerful secondary members. And while Marks looks the part of a Jalin Marshall-style special teamer, he is relatively slow and ill-suited as a punt or kickoff returner.
It’s hard to tell if he’ll get a fair chance in New York with all the young receivers in the Jets future plans. If he doesn’t stick here, he will find a job somewhere. But if Maccagnan and Bowles can carve out a role for Marks, he may turn out to be that slot receiver Jeremy Kerley never was. His battle for a coveted organizational spot will come from Baylor undrafted receiver KD Cannon.
Next: 1. In the Flat Fields
1. Chris Bordelon, OT, Nicholls State
The Jets may have found a gem in this long-shot O-lineman. Of the dozens of post-draft bodies brought in for tryouts, only Bordelon and Michigan guard Ben Braden won training camp invites.
Perhaps the Second Team All-Southland Conference left tackle — a 6’6” 315-lb. behemoth from the swamps of Thibodaux, Louisiana, who blocked for 2018 NFL QB prospect Breaux Hebert (son of NFL/USFL “Cajun Cannon” Bobby Hebert) — got overlooked working in the trenches of the fourth-place FCS-level Colonels. But he will get a long look this month in Florham Park, to stake his claim for a practice squad position.
He may not win a 40-yard dash, but Bordelon has shown the coaches flashes of that coveted ability to cover the quarterback’s blindside. At minicamp with the pads off, he displayed good blocking technique and mature mental instincts. Bordelon is the kind of roughneck bruiser that every NFL coach wants to develop in their system.
But he will first have to separate himself at camp from another promising road-grading UDFA tackle, Javarius Leamon from South Carolina State. The winner of that battle — with a year or three of coaching-up (under Bowles?) — may one day become a Sunday contributor.