Saalim Hakim had a 44-yard kickoff return to open the Jets' 19-14 Week 1 win over the Raiders, but that wasn't his highlight of the game. Instead, it was getting snaps on the defensive side of the ball. The most versatile athlete on the roster is a secret no more.
Hakim's path to the NFL was anything but ordinary. He didn't play high school football until his senior year and then went to a junior college followed by a Division II school before he landed in the now defunct UFL in 2011. The next season, he had stints with the Cowboys, Rams and Saints — all teams that unceremoniously cut him. The Jets offered him a spot on the practice squad, choosing to take a flyer on his athletic talent. Yet for someone so new to the sport, he came to New York still very much learning the game.
He was often looked over by fans and the media when projecting the team's 53-man roster but his speed and special teams play stood out in training camp and preseason. He made the roster but the Jets upped the learning curve last week when the coaching staff approached Hakim with the idea of him not just playing on special teams and on offense
“I'm here to play any position they want me to play,” Hakim said. “On Sunday, I was a nickel safety. I'm here to do whatever they want me to do. I'm here to learn; I'm here to play.
“You will see things. We've got things planned for other teams. We've got things planned.”
He said the role could call for him to blitz or drop back into coverage. The Jets did this before with Joe McKnight, who was listed as a running back, but would return kicks, split out wide as a receiver and once played cornerback during an injury crunch.
Hakim, whose older brother Az-Zahir played in the NFL for nine seasons, has such versatility because of his world-class speed. He clocked a 4.2-second time in the 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2010.
He admits he is a work in progress but he's come a long way.
Hakim often pauses to collect his thoughts when asked questions and punctuates statements with a soulful “mhmmm.” But on the field, he's a blur of speed. He may have been on NFL rosters and practice squads in the past but he wasn't always a football player.
“I didn't play football very long, so at first I didn't know certain routes and certain positions,” Hakim said. “So being on different teams and learning and being available, you learn different positions and learn different plays. I feel more like a football player now. Since I've been here, they've really taught me. They showed me how to play receiver, showed me how to play different routes.”
There have been three other NFL stops for Hakim before he landed with the Jets and four including his season in the UFL. He's thankful for those places and the opportunity to learn. Never, he says, did he think about quitting.
“When you always dream about doing something you want to do, you want to keep trying, keep having faith and that's what it's all about,” Hakim said. “Don't let your dreams stop. You always have to keep going. I've learned different things from different teams that brought me here. Those lessons from all those places, just learning and growing, got me here right now. I'm blessed.”
Hakim said he will get more plays on defense, along with his role as a wide receiver and on special teams.
But playing on three units means getting three paychecks, right?
“They pay me enough to do what I do,” Hakim said with a laugh. “That's why I'm here to do whatever they want me to do to help us win.”
Follow Jets beat writer Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer.