FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — A few weeks before the 2017 NFL draft, the Jets hosted Jamal Adams, the safety from LSU who was considered one of this year’s best prospects, at their facility for a routine get-to-know-you visit. Adams met with several Jets officials that day, and each of them, in one way or another, joked with him: I don’t know why you’re here—there’s no way you’re still on the board when we pick. The Jets held the sixth pick.
Like most every other team, the Jets had put in a lot of work trying to predict how the first five picks would go. They gathered information and made projections, and then, finally, they actually ran a mock draft simulator and were able to determine what players would be available to them what percentage of the time. “In a lot of our projections,” says the Jets GM Mike Maccagnan, “we never really had [Jamal Adams] getting to us.”
But then the draft finally began last week, and everything changed. The Bears surprised everyone and traded up to No. 2 to take the North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, and then the Titans added another twist, choosing Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis at No. 5, which left Adams sitting there when the Jets came on the clock.
In years past, the Jets might have overthought this situation. They had several needs that they could have addressed with that sixth pick. After winning 10 games in 2015, Maccagnan’s first year as GM, the Jets had gone 5-11 in 2016, and Maccagnan had torn down the roster, ridding himself of several high-priced veterans—Brandon Marshall, Nick Mangold, Darrelle Revis and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. On the NFL Network’s draft telecast, analyst Daniel Jeremiah asserted that the Jets had the “worst” roster in the league. That 10-win season just two years ago looked like a mirage now.
With the sixth pick, the Jets could have used a cornerback, an offensive lineman or a linebacker. They could have also used a running back, a wide receiver or a tight end. But most of all, they needed a quarterback. Leading up to the draft, the Jets had worked out all of the top QBs: Trubisky, DeShaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and DeShone Kizer. And all of them except for Trubisky were still there.
This time, the Jets chose logic and reason over desperation. They chose Adams, the player who was firmly atop their draft board at the time, a physical safety who had a good chance of becoming a vocal leader on their team and cornerstone of their defense for years to come. The pick was immediately celebrated as steal, and the Jets praised as smart. Mike Mayock, another NFL Network draft analyst, called Adams the “safest pick in the draft.”
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How safe was the Adams pick?
Adams is the only son of George Adams, a former first-round pick of the Giants who won a Super Bowl with them in 1985. George coached his son in pee-wee football and guided him throughout his youth. Jamal blossomed into a five-star high school recruit and went on to LSU, where he started every game of his sophomore and junior seasons and became a First-Team All-American.
All along the way, Adams displayed traits of being an “Alpha,” as Jets coach Todd Bowles put it. George Adams recalled Jamal as a 12-year-old, leading his teammates vocally and by example. That carried over to LSU, where Adams approached everything as if he were already a professional. He showed up to practice early, got extras workout in and kept a healthy diet. In the defensive backs’ group chat, he stayed on his teammates about watching film. Around the football complex Adams made a point of knowing everyone in the building, from the secretary to the janitor. “There’s so many people there that I talk to, to this day,” he says.
Naturally, Adams spoke up in the locker room from time to time, too. When LSU fired its coach, Les Miles, midway through last season, Adams was one of the team leaders who arranged a team meeting to make sure the Tigers stayed together, mentally. He was someone who spoke up and addressed the room, telling everyone: We have to go out as winners.
With Adams leading the way, the Tigers rallied behind their interim coach, Ed Orgeron, and beat No. 13 Louisville in the Citrus Bowl, 29-9. Adams and LSU’s defense held Lamar Jackson, the newly minted Heisman Trophy winner, to 153 yards passing and 33 rushing. Adams finished the game with six tackles, one tackle for loss, and one pass deflected.
It seems inevitable now, that Adams will soon assume a leadership role on the Jets defense. “It definitely is expected in my mind,” Adams says. “All I can do is be myself. I’ve always been a leader. I feel like you’re born a leader. You just bring in the traits that you have, don’t change for anybody, no matter the circumstances, and continue to do what you do best.
“All I can do is come in as a rookie and work as hard as I can,” he adds. “Keep my head down, grind, and earn the respect of the building. That’s all I can do. The rest will follow.”
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The rest will follow.
The Jets, it seems, are trying to summon that same confidence as they start this massive rebuild. Just after the draft, owner Woody Johnson gave an interview to ESPN radio and indicated that he was fully committed to a prolonged rebuild through the draft, instead of what he had done in the past, trying to win now by signing pricey free agents.
“If you want to go to the promised land, you’ve got to go in a certain direction,” Johnson said. “I think this is a direction we’ve never tried in the 17 years that I’ve been involved with the Jets. We’ve never gone this way. Get the right type of player in the locker room”—young players like Jamal Adams, and then focus on developing them. “Your own guy, you train from day one,” Johnson added. “I think you’re better off with a homegrown guy.”
Maccagnan showed signs that he was following this new mantra throughout the draft. When the Jets had their turn to pick in the second round, at No. 39, they still had all those needs to fill—offensive tackle, linebacker, cornerback—and Maccagnan picked another safety, Florida’s Marcus Maye, because, again, Maye rated highly on their draft board. In the third and fourth rounds, Maccagnan picked receivers back-to-back, ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen, for the same reason. Maccagnan also traded back five times in total, which netted him a few extra late-round picks this year and an extra 2018 fifth-round pick.
What Maccagnan did not do was address the quarterback position. Perhaps that was smart for now. The Jets would be in no shape to properly support a rookie quarterback, and now they can at least try playing Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty—the quarterbacks Maccagnan picked in the last two drafts—and find out for sure whether they can play.
Johnson indicated that he would be patient during this rebuild, but how long will it last? One year? Two years? More? Who knows. If it does drag out, the question becomes: How long will the Jets stick to this new, patient drafting strategy? Especially if they’re still searching for their franchise quarterback. Early projections indicate that next year’s draft class will include several good quarterbacks. It may be one the strongest classes we’ve seen in years.
And some pundits already project the Jets to have a top-three pick.
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