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One week to go before the NFL Draft begins and the picture of the top of the board is becoming a lot clearer. There’s still some mystery about what the Jets will do and when, and some unanswered questions about what will happen before their first selection. But it’s all getting a little easier to predict.
So here is my penultimate look at how all seven rounds of the Jets’ draft will work out. And this time, no trades:
First round (4th overall) – Oregon DE Kayvon Thibodeaux
There is a very real chance we’re going to get the "bare knuckle boxing match" that Robert Saleh (jokingly … I think) promised he and GM Joe Douglas would have over whether to take an elite offensive lineman or defensive lineman in the draft, because their choice here is expected to come down to the 6-5, 258-pound Thibodeaux or N.C. State tackle Ikem Ekwonu.
Douglas loves Ekwonu, according to a source, but I think Saleh will win the brawl here. Thibodeaux had a "very impressive" meeting with the Jets last week, the source said, where they grilled him on his "fire" and tested the parts of his personality that worry some around the NFL. The Jets seem comfortable with him, from what I can tell. The bottom line, though, is he’s a top-tier pass rusher with speed, burst, strength, and enough moves to get by and take some pressure off the returning Carl Lawson. With those two up front, the rebuilt defense could be fierce.
Ekwonu might be the best offensive lineman in the draft, but he wouldn’t be an immediate starter for the Jets. And while I can’t rule him out completely here, I just don’t believe you can take a non-QB at No. 4 who might not play right away. The Jets think they can take a big leap this season. They need guys who will help right now. Plus, Saleh is bigger and stronger than Douglas. It won’t be a fair fight.
First round (10th overall) – Ohio State WR Garrett Wilson
It still feels like a lock the Jets will take a receiver here, unless there’s a surprise player at the top of their board who somehow slides this far. They do have several options, though, including a trade down, which is something I still believe Douglas would prefer to do. If they stay here, their choices figure to be the 6-foot, 192-pound Wilson, USC’s Drake London (6-4, 213), or Alabama’s Jameson Williams (6-2, 189), who I’m told is definitely in the mix here. In fact, I was real close to making him the pick since a lot of NFL people think he has the biggest upside of all the receivers in this draft.
But he’s recovering from a torn ACL and might not be ready until midseason. And again, I just don’t see how you can take a player at 10 who might not play much his rookie year. The Jets obviously did a medical evaluation of him, though, so if their doctors think he can be back sooner … again, don’t rule him out. Also, London is a risk, too, as he recovers from an ankle injury. And he opened up some eyes (not in a good way) by refusing to run the 40 at his recent Pro Day.
Wilson, if he’s not snatched by the Atlanta Falcons at No. 8, is the safest bet, has 4.38 speed, and is just the kind of explosive receiver the Jets seem to love. He’s a little bit like Elijah Moore, but I’m not sure that matters. A speedy weapon is a speedy weapon.
Second round (35th overall) – Tulsa OT Tyler Smith
Douglas may lose the boxing match on Day 1, but he’s big and resilient and he’ll get off the mat at the start of Day 2. Again, continuing my theme of this mock, I still don’t love the idea of taking a player this high who might not play much as a rookie, but the 6-6, 332-pound Smith is an impressive prospect whom scouts seemed to love more and more as the draft process went on. He gives the Jets depth for now (he might work as a guard, too) and more options for their future.
Remember, no one is sure where Mekhi Becton fits into the Jets’ plans anymore and George Fant is in the last year of his contract, so anything seems possible at the tackle spots. Even if Fant and Becton begin the year as the starting tackles – which isn’t a guarantee – Smith would likely slide in to a starting role in 2023. And he’d be good insurance if Becton gets hurt again.
Second round (38th overall) – Auburn CB Roger McCreary
Cornerback isn’t exactly a premium position in Saleh’s defensive scheme, but it’s still important and the Jets are searching for the right mix. Adding the 5-11, 189-pound McCreary into it gives them a deep talent base with all the young corners they’ve added the last few years. He doesn’t have ideal size, but that doesn’t scare the Jets, who just signed the 5-9, 193-pound D.J. Reed to be their top corner. McCreary has ability, though, and could’ve been a top 20 pick if he was an inch or two taller. He’s got the speed and skills to be a very good nickel back in the NFL.
Third round (69th overall) – Maryland S Nick Cross
The Jets have only just begun to rebuild their safety corps, which they did by signing Jordan Whitehead and bringing back Lamarcus Joyner. They need more for the future, though, and a much deeper bench. The 6-1, 215-pound Cross would be a good addition and the Jets seem to really like him, even sending their DBs coach to watch him at his Pro Day.
He’s a hard hitter with good instincts and he wowed some scouts by running a 4.34 at the Combine. The combination makes him ideal for a variety of roles, from covering tight ends to playing up near the line of scrimmage. I’m not so sure the Jets won’t consider him with one of their early second-round picks, but he’s better value here.
Fourth round (111th overall) – Tennessee-Chattanooga G/C Cole Strange
In his three drafts running the Jets, Douglas has only taken two small school players – both in the fourth round in 2020 – Florida International QB James Morgan and UNC-Charlotte OT Cameron Clark – and neither of them really worked out. Clearly, he prefers big school guys who have proven themselves against better competition.
But the Jets’ experience coaching the Senior Bowl might change that approach, and they did leave Mobile, Alabama very impressed with the 6-6, 301-pound Strange. He’s a tough-as-nails guard who can still bulk up and get a little stronger. He can also play center, which might be how the Jets see him. He won’t need to play this season, so he’ll have time to develop into Connor McGovern’s eventual replacement in the middle.
Fourth round (117th overall) – South Dakota State RB Pierre Strong
It would be quite a leap for Douglas to go small school twice in the fourth round, but again, he did it in 2020, so why not? The 5-11, 205-pound Strong tied for the fastest 40 at the combine when he ran a 4.37. He was also absolutely dominant at the FCS level for the Jackrabbits, with a ridiculous 1,673 yards and 18 touchdowns last season.
He won’t be a power back in the NFL, but he makes smooth, quick cuts and has breakaway ability. He’d fit nicely as a third option to the Jets’ tandem of Michael Carter and Tevin Coleman, with the possibility for being a lot more (especially if Coleman continues to get hurt).
Fifth round (146th overall) – Arkansas DT John Ridgeway
The Jets have built a nice, deep, big defensive line, and they even replaced the departed Foley Fatukasi with former San Francisco 49er Solomon Thomas. But Thomas isn’t really the run-stuffer that Fatukasi was, plus he and veteran DT Sheldon Rankins are only signed through the end of this season. The Jets need to develop some rotational DTs for the future to play alongside Quinnen Williams.
That’s where the 6-6, 320-pound Ridgeway comes in. One scout called him a "brawler," saying he doesn’t have the greatest skills but he gets into the middle of the trenches and finds a way to bully blockers. He won’t help much in the pass rush, but he’ll clog things up for someone like Williams to burst through. He also has plenty of time to develop those skills.
Fifth round (163rd overall) – Miami (Ohio) S/LB Sterling Weatherford
The most interesting thing about this 6-3, 225-pound safety is that the Jets coaching staff listed him as a linebacker at the Senior Bowl. And that said a lot considering they drafted two college safeties one year ago – Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen – who immediately became linebackers in the NFL. It’s what Saleh likes for his defense – linebackers who are a little undersized but have good speed and the instincts of a defensive back.
Basically, he wants guys on the second level who will fly around and hit. That’s what they saw in Weatherford at the Senior Bowl. The fact that he’s sort of between positions could cause his stock to drop for most teams. That should give the Jets a chance to grab him late.