With effective slot man Jeremy Kerley already on the roster, what kind of impact will new Jets' receiver Jalen Saunders have in 2014 and beyond?
When the Jets drafted Oklahoma wide receiver Jalen Saunders with the 104th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, many questioned the pick since New York already has a reliable slot receiver on the roster, Jeremy Kerley. But with Kerley in the final year of his contract before hitting unrestricted free agency, general manager John Idzik is looking towards the future with one of his 12 picks.
Kerley has been a key piece to the Jets’ offense over the past few seasons as a reliable playmaker in the slot. His body of work should net him a contract in the range of the 4-year, $12.2 million deal Andrew Hawkins received from the Cleveland Browns as a restricted free agent. The Cincinnati Bengals decided not to match that offer and it seems the value-oriented Idzik would be inclined to follow a similar path and let Kerley walk, rather than double his 2014 salary for the next four seasons.
While Kerley may be worth the money, he’s well-liked by Jets fans because he’s been the only reliable receiver on the team over the past two seasons. With the additions of Eric Decker and Jace Amaro through free agency and the draft, Kerley’s days as Geno Smith’s (or Michael Vick’s) first read are over. Without game-breaking skills or great deep speed, Kerley may not be the best choice for the roster as the offense’s third or fourth option.
Enter Saunders. With 4.44 speed and game-breaking skills as a slot receiver and return man, Saunders is looking likely to take on Kerley’s role full-time in 2015. Idzik claims he wants to establish the Jets’ own personal blueprint rather than follow the Seahawks’ plan, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities between the two organizations.
Seattle preaches “Next Man Up” more than any organization in the league and, while Saunders may not take Kerley’s job this season, he will see reps on offense in an attempt to groom him for 2015. By using all of their draft picks this year, the Jets are looking to bolster their roster depth while maintaining flexibility under the salary cap.
That flexibility comes from replacing mid-round draft picks (Kerley was a fifth-round pick in 2011) with mid-round draft picks, rather than signing role players for market value. The idea here is that players like Kerley are replaceable within an offensive system and by saving $2-3 million per season at these spots, higher-level upgrades are available. Decker was the best wide receiver on this year’s free agent market and while he isn’t a true No. 1, the Jets got him at great value and still have money to burn. Signing 3-5 mid-sized contracts for players like Kerley takes potential money away from higher-profile pickups.
This is where Saunders comes into the Jets’ plans. While Kerley’s toughness, route-running skills and reliability will be missed, the additions of Decker and Amaro will mute his impact on the roster. Despite his lack of size (5-9, 165), Saunders is a polished receiver who also gives the Jets a deep element they have been sorely lacking.
Saunders is a tough receiver who showed a willingness to go over the middle in college and make contested catches, even on third downs. Both of the following GIFs are third-down receptions that were converted into first downs by Saunders, who showed excellent field awareness to find the marker and quickly get there before the defensive backs could close.
Those are plays the Jets are used to seeing Kerley make to move the chains. While the extra 20 pounds Kerley has on Saunders help him absorb some of the hits he takes over the middle, Saunders is tough and fearless crossing the middle. His strong hands and route-running ability are evident on the play below, where he beats Packers’ first-round pick HaHa Clinton-Dix for a touchdown in last year’s Sugar Bowl.
While those plays demonstrate how Saunders can step in and fill Kerley’s role without a big dropoff, the route below showcases something Saunders can do that Kerley cannot: Take the top off of a defense. Kerley ran a 4.56 40-yard dash coming out of TCU and while Saunders’ 4.44 isn’t truly blazing for a player of his size, he’s far more technically proficient than most pint-sized receivers.
Saunders shows impressive commitment to the stop-fake, slowing his feet to a near standstill before quickly accelerating to top speed to beat the corner. His route precision and acceleration to top speed help him make up a 12-yard cushion in just 20 yards, an impressive feat even against a college cornerback.
Combining Saunders' skills as a receiver with game-breaking punt return ability that the Jets have lacked in the past few seasons, it's easy to see how Saunders fits their image of a slot receiver better than Kerley. Check out Saunders' vision and patience on this touchdown return against Oklahoma State.
So while the initial reaction of many fans and analysts, myself included, wasn't favorable towards this pick, further research shows that Idzika nd head coach Rex Ryan have a plan in place for Jalen Saunders. He fills immediate needs in the return game and as a deep threat and shows the receiving skills to match Kerley as a chain mover if and when the veteran moves on in free agency.
This pick also shows the Jets' willingness to commit to building through the draft, especially when it comes to niche players on the roster. Using a mid-round pick on a cheaper alternative will free up money as well, which can be put towards re-signing key players like Muhammad Wilkerson or free agents like Decker, Vick and Chris Johnson. No other pick in the 2014 draft represents the Jets’ new philosophy as much as taking Saunders, and that philosophy should lead this organization in a positive direction.
GIFs courtesy of Draft Breakdown.
Follow Chris Tripodi on Twitter.