Bill Belichick can find his hidden gems in the draft. Rex Ryan chooses to go another route.
Over the past two years, the Jets have had just seven total picks in the NFL?draft, lowest in the league. Last year, the Jets’ class was top-heavy as they surrendered picks to move up and grab quarterback Mark Sanchez and running back Shonn Greene.
The Jets, however, are getting a certain bang for their buck out of the likes of Josh Mauga, Matt Kroul, Mike Devito and Jamaal Westerman, who all signed as undrafted free agents over the past two seasons. Their opponent on Monday night, the Patriots, had 12 selections in just this year’s draft alone.
“They have little to no margin for error. [General manager] Mike Tannenbaum has to have a higher batting average than most and he needs to hit extra base hits, if not home runs when he connects,” said Daniel Mogollon of CollegeFootballInsiders.com and an NFL draft analyst. “Since they don’t have a wealth of picks in terms of numbers they need to find many of their backups, special teams players and in some cases, starters via undrafted free agents. With only seven picks in two years, it definitely ramps up the importance of priority free agents for the Jets.”
Mauga is one the Jets appear to have high hopes for, and he’s responded to their trust with some solid special teams play. Last Thursday night in the win over Cincinnati, Mauga registered four tackles and is quickly earning the reputation as a playmaker on kickoff and punt duty. He’s also registering valuable time as part of the Jets scout team, preparing the first team offense with the look of their upcoming opponent.
“I think the biggest thing is that being part of the practice squad, I go up against that first team offense,” Mauga said. “That’s a good offense to go up against every day, to get better against.”
After the draft last year, Kroul got calls from Miami, Buffalo and the Jets but chose New York “because they called first.” Now in his second year with the team, Kroul has earned a nod within the Jets rotation at defensive tackle and with the special teams unit. He cites the fact that Ryan, a longtime assistant and coordinator at Baltimore, had success with undrafted defensive tackle Kelly Gregg.
Now in his eleventh year in the league, Gregg is prototypical of what Kroul calls Ryan’s love affair with “tough guys, guy who like to play the game.”
“When the Jets called, they said they wanted to bring me in to take a look because they liked the things I did in college,” Kroul said. “Coach Ryan isn’t going to blow any smoke up anyone’s butt. He wants you to come in and prove it.”
And like the other undrafted players, Kroul has a chance to prove it with the Jets. He’s getting time on the scout team and getting into the defensive line rotation come Sunday. Kroul, however, acknowledges the Jets held just three draft picks helped him get where he is with the team.
“The small amount of picks the past couple years definitely opens up doors for guys like me who didn’t get drafted,” Kroul said. “It gives me, gives us all, a chance to come in and prove our worth, when maybe not as many players would get a look or get a look at a certain position if they had more draft guys coming in.”
And for players like Kroul, the chance to be on the squad and get snaps such as the eight to 10 plays he sees on special teams every week is a chance to make an impression. Kroul hopes to join a long line of undrafted players who have made an impact in the league, including James Harrison, Antonio Gates and the Patriots own Wes Welker.
The need for the Jets to find value with cheap, young undrafted agents is further intensified by not just their small draft classes, but the fact that they feature several top heavy salaries on what is very much a veteran team. The undrafted player adds good bang for the buck and allows Tannenbaum the flexibility to keep his star-studded core in place.
But on the flip side, the Jets also hurt themselves with this past spring’s draft class.
Of the four picks, only first rounder Kyle Wilson has consistently seen significant snaps and his lack of development has frustrated the Jets. Two players, Vlad Ducasse and Joe McKnight, have rarely played and fullback John Conner remains on the second-team depth chart.
Mogollon points to a deep, veteran-laden team making it difficult for the rookies to break into the lineup, but he also sees the undrafted players sticking around and making an impact for the team.
“They aren’t just starters, but key players to high functioning units on one of the top teams in the league,” Mogollon said. “They aren’t simply a body filling in a spot, but contributors.”
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