With Jeremy Kerley already on the Jets roster, what was the plan behind drafting Jalen Saunders in this years draft?
An Oklahoma product, wide receiver Jalen Saunders was drafted by the New York Jets with the 104th pick overall in the 2014 NFL Draft. I, like many, question the reasons behind the pick since New York already had a reliable slot man on the roster, Jeremy Kerley. But when I began to dig deeper into the situation, general manager John Idzik’s philosophy became that much more clear. Kerley’s contract is entering its final year, and he will be hitting free agency at the end of the 2014 season, so it seems that Idzik is looking into the future with Saunders at the least.
Over the past few seasons, Kerley has been the reliable slot receiver that became a key piece of the Jets offense. Because of this, one can expect that he will receive a nice contract in the neighborhood of $12 million over four years, much like Andrew Hawkins from the Cleveland Browns received. The Cincinnati Bengals chose not to match the offer from the Browns and it seems like Idzik is following the same value-oriented approach and could let Kerley walk, instead of doubling his 2014 salary over the next four years.
Arguably Kerley is worth the money; the Jets fans seem to like him as he has been the most reliable receiver on the roster over the last two years. Now that quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick have new targets in Jace Amaro and Eric Decker, the days of Kerley being the first read might just be over. Without great deep speed and game breaking moves, Kerley may not even be the offense’s best choice as the 4th or 5th option.
Here is where Saunders comes in. With a combine 4.44 40 time and game breaking abilities as a slot receiver and/or return man, Saunders might just take Kerley’s role in 2015. Idzik has been adamant about establishing the Jets’ very own blueprint for success and that he is not looking to follow the Seahawks’ lead, but the similarities between the two clubs is just too much to ignore.
The Seattle Seahawks preach the “Next Man Up” philosophy more than any other team in the NFL, and while Saunders might not be taking over Kerley’s spot on the team this year, I see him taking some reps throughout the season to get him ready for 2015. The Jets used all of the 12 picks handed to them this year, so it is logical to see their plan as depth building with out losing the flexibility of maintaining under their cap numbers.
Where you can really see the flexibility is in how mid-round picks are being replaced by other mid-round picks (Kerley was a 5th rounder in 2011), instead of opting for role players with market value. The concept here is that players like Jeremy Kerley are interchangeable within an offensive scheme, and when one saves up to $3 million in that one spot, a higher value player can be added to other areas. Eric Decker is such a player, as he was the best WR available in this years free agency, and while he is not a true #1, the jets still got him at great value with money left in the coffers. So in essence, signing 3-4 mid round picks like Kerley takes potential dollars away from higher profile additions.
Here is where Saunders enters the Idzik model for the Jets. Even though the toughness, route running ability and consistency of Kerley will be missed, having Decker and Amaro on the roster will reduce Kerley’s impact on the field. Saunders, on the other hand, even at 5’9″ and 165 pounds, is a polished receiver that adds a deep ball element the Jets haven’t had in a long while.
Saunders exudes toughness as a receiver and has shown his willingness to go over the middle and go to the ball, even in crucial third down situations. If you look at the video below, you can clearly see how how his field awareness puts him in a position to catch the pass before the defense has a chance to close.
That’s the kind of play that the New York Jets are used to seeing out of Kerley to move the chains. Even though Kerley has some 20 pounds on Saunders that can help absorb some of the hits, Saunders makes up for it in toughness and fearlessness as he crosses the middle. Saunders also shows strong hands and crisp route running skills as he beats first round pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix on a touchdown catch on last years’ Sugar Bowl in the following clip.
The above clips really show how Saunders can easily fill the role of Kerley without any significant drop off in production. But this next clip is telling of what Saunders can do that Kerley cannot. Watch as he just takes the top off the defense for a touchdown against Texas Tech in 2013. In comparison, Kerley ran a 4.56 40 in his combine while Saunders managed a 4.44 40 out of his. Granted, it is not blazing speed for a player his size but he is far more proficient in his technique than most receivers that are on the small side.
Something else that is not talked about often enough is how Saunders has the ability to stop fake; he can slow his feet to almost a standstill, and then burst to top speed and beat the coverage. With this ability, Saunders can easily get a 12-yard cushion in just 20 yards, quite an impressive move even against college corners.
Now add those aforementioned skills to the fact that Saunders can also make game-breaking punt returns, something the Jets haven’t seen either in many seasons. Just by looking at his film tape it is almost undeniable that Saunders fits the role of slot receiver better than Kerley.
The first reactions that came out of the draft pundits (including myself) and fans was flat, some downright unfavorable; if you really look at his game tape, you can almost see the vision Idzik and Rex Ryan put together regarding Saunders. He fills the need at punt returns and as a deep ball man but can also match the skill set of Kerley as a first down man when the veteran moves on in free agency.
The selection of Saunders also shows how the Jets are committed to building a team through the draft, specifically through niche type acquisitions. A mid round pick is by far a cheaper alternative as money will be freed up (something the Jets learned the hard way to do) to resign key players on the roster like Muhammad Wilkerson. Not to mention free money can also allow room for free agency nuggets like Eric Decker, Michael Vick, and Chris Johnson. This pick by far represents more of what the new Jets philosophy embodies more than the rest and should lead the organization to success in the coming seasons.