Sunday, May 1, 2011

New York Jets draft review

The 2011 draft was one of the strangest in its long history. With the lockout off, then back on again during the three days, it's unsure whether or not this is the last football transactions we will see this year. Nevertheless, it was another banner draft for Mike Tannenbaum and the New York Jets, as the Jets did a great job matching need and value.

1. Muhammad Wilkerson - DT - Temple
At 6-4, 315 pounds running a sub 5-second 40-yard dash, Wilkerson is an athletic specimen. His wingspan is over 7 feet, and his production matches his measurables. Wilkerson had 70 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 13 tackles for a loss as a junior.

With Kris Jenkins out last season, the Jets relied on quiet but dependable veterans on the line like Sione Pouha, Shaun Ellis, and Mike DeVito. Wilkerson adds an athletic specimen to the list who is an ideal fit for the five-technique on first and second downs. On third downs, he's big and athletic enough to shift inside to get more pass rushers onto the field.

While several pass rushing outside linebackers were on the board like Akeem Ayers, Brooks Reed, and Jabaal Sheard, the Jets felt Wilkerson would add the most to an already potent defense. Most mock drafts had him going higher in the first round, so the value matches the need moreso than the linebackers.

The two biggest flaws on Wilkerson are that he occasionally takes plays off, and the competition level isn't that high in the MAC. However, his production and athleticism make the sky the limit for Wilkerson in Rex Ryan's defense.

3. Kenrick Ellis - NT - Hampton
It didn't seem possible, but the Jets actually drafted someone even bigger than Wilkerson with their second pick. A man Mike Tannenbaum called one of the two true nose tackles in the draft (along with Baylor's Phil Taylor), Kenrick Ellis will have the task of replacing Kris Jenkins. The Jets were happy to grab the 36th ranked player on their board late in round 3.

At 6-5, 345, Ellis is one of the biggest men in the draft. His size helped him dominate competition at Hampton as a senior, tallying an astounding 94 tackles. He's surprisingly athletic for a man his size, with a much bigger motor than one might expect.

Of course, a productive and athletic 345 pound behemoth wouldn't fall to late round 3 without some risk involved, and Ellis certainly has that. He's facing a trial later this year for assault that could put him in jail for 20 years. However, it's expected since the man he assaulted first attacked him with a baseball bat. Could you blame him for breaking the guy's jaw?

There are also the multiple failed drug tests that got him kicked out of South Carolina his freshman year. So there are plenty of red flags with Ellis. But the Jets did a lot of background work on Ellis, and they feel that he has learned from his previous mistakes and is ready to become a successful NFL player. If he can, the Jets may have just found their future nose tackle.

4. Bilal Powell - RB - Louisville
A runningback? That's the first thought many Jets fans had when they first heard this pick. With Shonn Greene, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Joe McKnight already on board, runningback wouldn't seem to be a glaring need.

Still, Powell is the pick, and looking further into it, the pick makes sense. Greene showed up in less than ideal shape last season and has been prone to nicks and bruises. Tomlinson is entering likely his last season as a Jet. McKnight was less than impressive as a rookie. So while the Jets have three good options at runningback, there is opportunity to be seized if Powell can impress.

Like Greene, Powell is a one-year wonder known for his physicality. While not as bruising as Greene was in college, Powell is a more well-rounded back, who can catch the ball, show good vision, and contribute on special teams. For a team intent on being a run-first team, the more backs with fresh legs, the better, and Powell will offer that.

Clearly, the Jets valued Powell very highly. He made an appearance at the Jets' Florham Park facility in the pre-draft process, and the Jets chose him over more obvious needs like depth in the secondary. In year one, he'll likely compete with Joe McKnight to be active. If all goes well, it's not impossible he can compete with Greene for the starting job next season.

5. Jeremy Kerley - WR - TCU
Finally, the real Mike Tannenbaum showed up. He couldn't sit back without making any trades up. When the list of approximately five players he wanted dwindled down to one, he jumped up eight spots to secure Kerley, a receiver who projects as a special teamer and slot receiver.

While he doesn't have great size or straight-line speed, Kerley has some of the quickest feet among receivers in the draft. He's been one of the top return men in college football three years in a row. An extremely versatile player, Kerley probably will replace Brad Smith, who is likely to leave as a free agent.

He also offers protection in case Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards leave. It's very possible the Jets lose one of them and Smith as well, which would leave Patrick Turner as the main receiver after Holmes/Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery. Kerley projects as a shifty slot receiver who could be an ideal compliment to Cotchery and whichver receiver the Jets resign. There's also a good chance Kerley becomes the new kick or punt return man, though he'll have a lot of competition for those jobs.

7. Greg McElroy - QB - Alabama
The Jets are going back to the Alabama quarterback well, hoping to relive the magic of Joe Willie Namath. Not Richard Todd. McElroy wore number 12 at Alabama in honor of Namath, and he lived up to the number's reputation with his play on the field. McElroy finished his college career 24-3 as a starter, completing 66% of passes in his college career.

While he lacks the upside of many of the other quarterbacks in this class, McElroy is known as a cerebral, accurate quarterback. He threw one interception every 65.8 attempts in college, the best mark in SEC history. McElroy projects to be a game manager type in the pros, with good accuracy on short passes, and the intelligence and leadership to win games. He lacks great arm strength or a super compact throwing motion, but the Jets don't need him to be the starter.

The Jets' backup quarterbacks currently are the ancient one Mark Brunell, former 2nd round pick bust Kellen Clemens, and former Jackass 3D star Erik Ainge, who spent all of last year in drug rehab. There is room for a developmental quarterback type on the roster, with either Brunell or Clemens as the primary backup for now. McElroy will never likely challenge Sanchez for the starting job, but if he can be the long-term backup, the Jets would be very happy.

7. Scotty McKnight - WR - Colorado
No pick made Mark Sanchez happier than this one. Scotty McKnight has probably been Sanchez's best friend since the age of 8. They've developed a rapport throwing the ball around the yard from a young age, so you know Sanchez loved this pick. He was even presence at McKnight's draft party to help him celebrate the news.

As a player, McKnight lacks the ideal measurables of a receiver, at 5-11, 182, but he's also not too short to succeed. He doesn't jump as high or run as fast as people look for, but he catches everything thrown his way. He wasn't invited to the combine because of these measurables, but he was a productive college player, and he'll be a feel good story in camp. He'll draw the inevitable comparisons to Wayne Chrebet, another undersized white Jets receiver with hands of glue, and with his relationship to Sanchez, he'll be a feel-good story.

His chances of making the team will depend largely on who the Jets sign in the offseason. If Holmes and Edwards are both brought back with Cotchery, and Kerley the higher drafted player, McKnight be battling Sanchez's college teammate Patrick Turner for a roster spot.

Sanchez said before the draft that whoever got McKnight would be getting a steal. Little did he know that it would be his own team heeding his advice.

Overall, this was a great draft on paper by Tannenbaum. Obviously, grading the draft the night it finishes is a completely inexact science, but Wilkerson, Ellis, Powell, Kerley, and McElroy were all largely predicted to go earlier than when the Jets picked them. Wilkerson and Ellis also directly addressed the need for size and youth on the defensive line. While the Jets didn't grab a pass rushing linebacker as expected, this wasn't a great draft class for that type of player. Instead, the Jets will keep doing what they do to generate pressure, hoping bigger and more athletic bodies up front will create bigger holes for blitzers to run through.

Day three brought all offense on board, which may surprise people thinking the Jets might look to upgrade the defensive backfield, but that was another position this draft class wasn't particularly strong in. A late round defensive back would be unlikely to beat out Dwight Lowery, Drew Coleman, Emanuel Cook, Marquice Cole, or James Ihedigbo. Adding an impact safety or cornerback would have been helpful, but depth wasn't really that big of a need. With three Jets' receivers free agents, the Jets looked to upgrade the back-end of their receiving corps, which have provided very little in previous seasons. Powell and Kerley also should provide a boost on special teams, which should be among the best in the league again with Mike Westhoff at the helm.

Without a 2nd round pick thanks to last year's Antonio Cromartie trade, the Jets were hamstrung to fill all of their needs. However, with the picks they had, it's hard to argue the Jets did anything other than a great job. They added 660 pounds of beef to the defensive line, while adding young skill players that could help provide a spark at some point this season on offense or special teams. There were no picks here that left you scratching your head for long.

Whenever the lockout ends, the next step for the Jets is to try to resign their own players. Without adding any defensive backs in the draft, keeping Antonio Cromartie and Brodney Pool, or replacing them with similar or better players, becomes imperative. Brad Smith's days as a Jet appear numbered, while Braylon Edwards and/or Santonio Holmes are just as important as they were before the draft. Shaun Ellis and LaDainian Tomlinson have certainly been put on notice as well.