The NY Jets have already done an excellent job of addressing their pass-rush this offseason. But if they’re looking to add another promising young player to an already-strong front-four, Houston’s Payton Turner could be an ideal Day 2 target.
A two-sport star in high school, Turner committed to his hometown Houston Cougars and found his way into the defensive line rotation in his true freshman season.
Turner primarily played an interior role in his first two years at Houston before switching over to his natural edge rush position in his junior season. That’s when his production, at least on the stat sheet, began to pick up.
He finished off his college career with perhaps his best season recording a whopping five sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in just five games. At 6-foot-5, 270 pounds, Turner has excellent size for the position, incredible length, and natural athletic gifts.
Primarily seen as a Day 2 prospect, Turner has a chance to be picked inside the top-50 selections, and could be a target for the Jets if they choose to address their pass-rush in either Round 2 or 3.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Turner about his football journey, the 2021 NFL Draft process, if he sees himself as a fit with the Jets, and if the Jets have shown interest.
Below is a transcription of our interview.
Interview with NY Jets draft prospect Payton Turner
Justin Fried: “Let’s start from the beginning. You’re a two-sport athlete at Westside High School in Houston, Texas playing basketball and football. You’re doing your thing on the gridiron, earning some interest from major schools like Michigan and Texas, and then you tear your ACL a few games into your senior season. Talk to me about what your mindset was after the injury. What was going through your head?”
Payton Turner: “That was definitely a time where I learned a lot about myself. Sports was kind of my identity, especially when I was younger. So I got that taken away from me for the first time ever. I didn’t really know what to do. I was really stressed out because I planned on putting everything into my senior season and deciding what I was going to do, whether it be basketball or football. I was talking to a lot of big schools and then I tore my knee up and I was like ‘what am I going to do now?’ I wouldn’t say I was depressed, but I was down for sure. I had about two weeks when I was just down on myself after surgery. Then I just started going to rehab. My parents would take me every day. My mom made my dad take me every day, she hated driving in downtown Houston.
I was just grinding every day to get back, and then I came back four months later to actually play my last few games of basketball right before the playoffs. First playoff game I had like 20 points or something like that, so that was pretty awesome. At that point, Houston had stayed in contact. I was told that I was going to end up with an offer from Texas, but they were actually at the game where I tore my knee so they backed out. But Houston kept recruiting me and that’s just how it all unfolded.”
JF: “Yeah and it definitely worked out. Plus you’re from the Houston area so that’s a bonus.”
PT: “I always say the only two places I would’ve ended up were Houston or Texas. I just love Texas.”
Next: Career at Houston
NY Jets, Payton Turner Mandatory Credit: Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports
Payton Turner’s career at Houston
JF: “So you get to Houston and you spend your first two years as more of a true defensive tackle playing in the interior. Was that something that you wanted to do or was it more of a schematic/personnel decision from the coaching staff?”
PT: “It was personnel. I came in a little lighter at around 237 pounds so I was expecting to play on the edge. But they saw how long I was and I was doing really well at fall camp when they tossed me in there. They just left me on the inside because we were a little thin there. And I ended up playing defensive tackle my first two seasons.”
JF: “And then it was your junior year where you made the transition to more of an edge role. That’s when you really start to see the production pick up, at least on the box score. What was that transition like for you?”
PT: “The way we played our 4i was just two really quick steps so you didn’t really gain a lot of ground. Me going back on the edge, where I hadn’t been since my junior year of high school, wasn’t new, it was more like deja vu. On top of that, I was coming off my foot injury. Not that I didn’t have confidence in my foot, because I definitely did when I came back, but I was just stiff from not moving a lot.
I missed the spring and summer, and then I come into fall camp thinking I’m playing 3-technique with this new staff in a new four-down front, and think ‘I’m playing 3-tech, no doubt. I’m 280 pounds, I’m playing 3-tech.’ And then [Defensive Line] Coach [Brian] Early was like ‘You want to hop on the edge? We need some help on the edge.’ I told him ‘shoot coach I used to play that in high school.’ So I hopped out there and there was a little bit of a learning curve my junior year. And then I played well my senior year.”
JF: “Right so you probably had to drop a lot of weight in a short amount of time then, no? Since you didn’t know you were playing edge until you got to camp.
PT: “So I was 290 pounds in my sophomore year, right before I broke my foot. I dropped a little bit of weight with the new staff coming in. I wanted to play at 285 at 3-tech so I was going to drop a little weight already. Then they transferred me out to edge and I dropped a little more weight. I played at 280 my junior year and 270 my senior year.”
JF: “Your senior season at Houston was a bit of an odd one, mostly due to COVID stuff. You only played in five games, really like 3.5 based on snap count, but still finished with 5.0 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss. Tell me about the ups and downs you faced last year from dealing with COVID-19 yourself to putting together the best year of your career.”
PT: “I was definitely due for a special year last year based on how I was trending. But as you said, I really only played like 3.5 games based on snap count. I played a few snaps in Memphis which was my fifth game and then UCF is when I had that calf strain so I missed a pretty good amount of snaps there. There were a lot of ups and downs across the board with every team.
We had our first three games canceled I believe. We were supposed to play Baylor, but that got canceled. We were about to go out for our last little walkthrough and get on the bus, but then they told us we couldn’t play. I think we had eight games either canceled or rescheduled last year. I finally got on the field verse Tulane which was great. Everybody was really happy to be out there. Beat them, played well. Then we took on BYU and Navy. BYU’s a good team, they got a good quarterback.”
JF: “That’s right they do. Damn good quarterback (laughs).”
PT: “Oh yeah that is right (laughs). But yeah I was playing at a really high level, then I got that calf strain against UCF on a TFL on a draw. I went to the sideline and stretched it out, made sure everything was all good. You know, it hurts a little, but you don’t really feel it until later with that adrenaline pumping. We came out of halftime and I wanted to continue playing, but then the game got a little out of reach so coach just told me to rest up for next week. That’s why I missed more snaps in that game. Then I come back to play Cincinnati that next week, and like I said, you don’t really feel it in the game, but once I got home, I really felt that calf strain. I ended up doing some rehab and missing that Cincinnati game.
Come back for the USF game the week after that and I get hit with COVID. I get a text while I’m in the hotel and they tell me I got contact tracing and that I have to go home. That next Monday I tested positive. I couldn’t work out or do anything while in quarantine so I’m out of shape when I come out. They lock you in a room for two weeks and you can’t really do anything. I come back from Memphis and I was mostly just playing third-down situational football. And then that was the end of my season.”
JF: “Definitely a lot of ups and downs in there. That feeling when you’re all ready to play and then the game just gets canceled, that’s the worst feeling. That happened to me in high school, obviously not with COVID stuff, but with lightning. Two undefeated teams, big rivals, all ready to play. We get out on the field and then lightning strikes and the game is canceled. Worst feeling in the world.”
Next: NFL future
Payton Turner’s NFL future, potential fit with the NY Jets
JF: “Obviously now you’re seen as a potential top-50 pick and one of the best edges in this class, but it wasn’t too long ago that you were a two-star recruit coming out of high school. When was the moment that you realized that the NFL could be a real possibility?”
PR: “I think it’s more surprising to other people. I think other people thought I was average. I never thought that. My family never thought that. Having that confidence in myself really carried me through it. Obviously, the goal is to make it to the NFL. Then you get a new set of goals once you make it to the NFL. But yeah, I was a two-star recruit. I don’t really buy into that stuff though because I’ve seen four-star recruits that are outplayed by two-star recruits. I was never too concerned about it. I always knew that someone would see that potential in me and I’m happy that Houston did.”
JF: “So you’ve played all over the defensive line in your football career. Where do you think your best fit is in the NFL? Is it inside as a 3-tech or 4i guy or do you prefer to be on the edge?”
PT: “I think my best projection in the NFL is on the edge whether it be defensive end or outside linebacker. That’s what I’ve talked about with teams, all but one or two have me there. Obviously, I have the ability to play inside so that versatility is always great. My ability to move inside on third down and rush from the interior is pretty unique. In today’s game, they want guys who can rush from the inside. You see what [Aaron Donald] does for the Los Angeles Rams. Changing the game and getting interior players paid more. I think it’s a good deal for everyone involved. We’ll see how much teams value that in a week from now.”
JF: “Versatility is always something that’s super valuable, no matter where you play on the field. You mentioned Aaron Donald, do you have any NFL players that you model your game after or just like to watch on film?”
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PT: “Yeah I like to watch a lot of edge players, a lot of the longer guys. Chandler Jones, the two defensive ends up in Green Bay, the two defensive ends down in New Orleans, Cameron Jordan and Marcus Davenport. Of course, I’m going to watch J.J. Watt. DeForest Buckner is fun to watch too, especially when he’s on the interior. Just a lot of those longer guys, I like seeing how they play. And I like watching physical players as well so Donald’s going to pop in there too, he’s a freak. My eyes are going to be glued to the defensive line every time football is on.”
JF: “All great options, some of the best players in the game. Finally, before I let you go, I do have to ask if the Jets have shown any interest. I know you met with a lot of teams at the Senior Bowl. Have the Jets met with you and do you see yourself as a fit for the defense they’re trying to run under Robert Saleh?”
PT: “Yeah I’ve talked to both New York teams and both coaches in New York. I’ve talked to [Jets Defensive Line] Coach [Aaron] Whitecotton, I’ve talked to the GM. We watched some film. I definitely like the way [Saleh] coaches and I love the scheme so I could definitely see myself up there in that green.”
Special thanks to Payton for taking the time to chat with us. The Jets will possibly look to bolster their pass-rush in the 2021 NFL Draft.
And Payton Turner makes sense as a potential Day 2 target who can make an early impact.