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Projecting the Jets Round One Draft Strategy

Here's how GM Joe Douglas and the Jets will approach the first round of the 2022 NFL draft later this month.

Joe Douglas is a man of few words. Trying to crack New York’s general manager and the poker face that hides behind the scruff of his beard is a virtual impossibility. So it’s no wonder that in the heat of mock draft season, there is still no real consensus on who the Jets plan to select on April 28. 

New York made strides in the free agency period to address some of the biggest holes on the roster, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. Luckily, Douglas has stockpiled enough draft capital to help bridge the gap that exists between the Jets and the rest of the AFC East. New York holds the No. 4 and No. 10 picks in the first round, with the ammunition to jump back into the late first round if need be. So how will the Jets make use of the two top-ten picks at their disposal? 

The tone-setter is that No. 4 pick. It will dictate the decisions the Jets make for the remainder of Round One and likely Round Two. Barring a trade back — and there hasn’t been much discussion about that prospect, especially with an uncharacteristically quiet quarterback discourse — New York will stay put and make their fourth top-five pick in the last five years. Offensive line and secondary are certainly in play, but the Jets made moves in free agency to foreshadow the fact that edge is probably at the top of their minds here.

Adding D.J. Reed to pair with Bryce Hall gives the Jets a solid enough cornerback duo where that isn’t an immediate need in the top-five. Laken Tomlinson sures up the interior offensive line to the point where any tackle selected here wouldn’t even kick in to guard his first season. He’d be an insurance policy for Mekhi Becton to start a year later, but is Douglas willing to call it quits on his first-ever pick from just two years ago? Is he ready to let George Fant walk next offseason if Becton does regain form? Is he prepared to potentially redshirt his No. 4 overall selection and lose a year of team control?

The Jets were very much in the Chandler Jones sweepstakes this offseason, and while Douglas might not say as much, it’s hard to ignore New York’s desperate desire for a pass rusher. Carl Lawson missed all of 2021 with an Achilles tear. Vinny Curry missed the entire season with a blood disorder. Lawson should be back and healthy by September, but in a quarterback-heavy AFC, the Jets need to be able to rush the passer with the best of them. Douglas and Robert Saleh know that. 

Aidan Hutchinson will be gone by New York’s first pick. If he’s not, that will likely be the direction the Jets take. That leaves Travon Walker and Kayvon Thibodeaux, the next two edges in this class. The Jets should be expected to turn to one of those two pass rushers, with the choice likely made for them by the Lions at pick No. 2. If New York does have the option to pick between the two, it’s anybody’s guess which way the front office will turn, but the little this draft process has revealed hints that Walker might be just ahead of Thibodeaux on the big board. 

First, Walker’s stock is rising faster than any player in the draft, while Thibodeaux’s has ever-so-slowly fallen since the end of the college football season. That is in part thanks to the clinic Walker put up at the combine, running a 4.51 40 with a 6.89 three-cone at 6-foot-5, 272 pounds with 35.5-inch arms. Thibodeaux also wowed at the combine, but there are (somewhat unfounded) concerns about his effort and drive as a guy who is passionate about his brand off the field.

“We're just trying to figure out what makes these young men tick, why they play the game,” said Saleh. “Do they play the game because they like it or because they love it? There's a distinct difference between the two as well because when you look at guys who play the game because they like what it does to their brand, or are they playing the game because they absolutely love everything about it.”

That might not be a direct shot at Thibodeaux, but it’s enough to assume the Jets might lean the other way if given the choice. And these two players are still very different from one another. Walker is more of a force against the run, an area in which the Jets struggled mightily a year ago. He also profiles like a slightly smaller John Franklin-Myers with his versatility on the line, and can kick inside for third-down pass situations where New York wants someone like Bryce Huff or newly-signed Jacob Martin rushing off the edge. If the Jets are going edge, and conventional wisdom suggests that is the lean at No. 4, then Hutchinson, Walker, Thibodeaux are the three names at the top of the big board.

In the unlikely event that those three players go back-to-back-to-back to start the draft, New York likely won’t take the fourth best edge at No. 4. The pivot should probably be to Ahmad Gardner or maybe even Kyle Hamilton in order to help address a defense that was 32nd in the NFL last year. New York still needs a safety to pair with Jordan Whitehead, and with the wide receivers emerging in this division, corner will always be a need. Still, it’s hard to shake the notion that if his hand is forced, Douglas will draft another offensive lineman, no matter the situation. Ikem Ekwonu would be the anticipated selection and would slide into whatever spot on the line opens up due to injury first before assuming a full-time role in 2023. 

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If the Jets do end up selecting an edge at No. 4, wide receiver feels like a must-have at No. 10. Between the Tyreek Hill near-deal, the DK Metcalf and AJ Brown rumors, and the alarming lack of production and health from the receiver group a year ago, New York knows it needs a WR1. As the draft process has progressed, two names have emerged as worthy of a top-ten selection: Drake London and Garrett Wilson. If New York keeps pick No. 10, those are the two guys to watch. 

The Jets have given no indication of which receiver they’d prefer if they have the choice, and London and Wilson couldn’t be more different. London is a big-bodied X-receiver that can go up and make contested catches with ease. His size and his hands are his biggest strengths that allowed him to manhandle college corners en route to Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors, despite playing just eight games. London’s speed and route-running ability aren’t strongpoints of his game, especially compared to some of the other guys in this class, but they aren’t outright weaknesses either.

Wilson is the exact opposite of London. A versatile receiver that can line up outside or in the slot, he shines in the early part of his routes, shaking defenders out of his breaks and winning by creating the necessary separation to not just create a target for his quarterback, but to earn yards after the catch. Wilson forced 19 missed tackles on 70 receptions in 2021, the best rate of any player projected in the first two rounds. His 4.38 40-time and his impressive catch-radius for a guy at just six-feet tall firmly places him in the top half of the first round.

All signs point to the Jets taking either London or Wilson at No. 10. Only a player like Gardner or Hamilton falling that far figures to buck that notion. New York could also trade down and grab a receiver there. There is direct precedent for a team jumping from No. 20 to No. 10 and what it would take to make that move. The Bears did just that, swapping picks giving up a first in 2022 to go get Justin Fields. The Steelers currently hold 20, and if they want to move up for Malik Willis or Kenny Pickett, the Jets would certainly entertain that call. That would likely leave New York with a different crop of receivers in Chris Olave, Jameson Williams and Treylon Burks. 

Olave visited the Jets this week, along with Wilson. Williams would likely have been the top wide receiver off the board if not for a torn ACL against Cincinnati in the CFP Semifinal, so if the Jets believe he will be ready early in the 2022 season, he could be a bargain. Burks has had an up-and-down draft process, but he’d be in play if the Jets move down as well.

Those same receivers are likely the targets if the Jets choose to trade back into the first round, using their No. 35 or No. 38 picks as ammunition. If New York somehow comes out of its first two draft picks without a receiver, a trade up becomes much more of a possibility. Other guys New York might look to move up for if they have already locked down a receiver include Tyler Linderbaum — the Iowa center that could step in right away and take over for Connor McGovern — as well as Lewis Cine and Daxton Hill, both safeties from Georgia and Michigan that can line up alongside Whitehead and help revamp a tattered secondary that just lost Marcus Maye to the Saints.

The Jets are a closed book when it comes to the NFL Draft. Very little leaks out of One Jets Drive, so projecting their player evaluation is far from straightforward, but their strategy from a positional standpoint, if it is “edge then receiver” with built-in contingency plans, is logically sound. Douglas might not give away in pressers, but the leaves in his tea are hard to deny.

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