I previously wrote that I wasn’t in love with the Jets offseason, but that it was decent enough. Like any other fan, I’ve been slowly coming around on that. Unlike most other fans, it has been due to watching 2013 film of these prospects.
It’s been a very long time since anyone has felt afraid of the Jets receivers, and last year was no exception. Jeremy Kerley lead the team with 43 catches and 523 yards. David Nelson who was cast off by the rest of the league, became the #2 receiver despite getting signed 4 weeks into the season. Physical phenom Stephen Hill has not produced anything.
Signing Eric Decker has helped some, but the roster clearly needed some additional talent. In previous drafts the WR’s may have been ignored, but this year multiple young talents were taken. TE Jace Amaro has seen plenty of headlines, but 4th round WR’s Jalen Saunders and Shaq Evans have flown under the radar. Let’s take a closer look at what kind of added depth the Jets are getting.
Upon first look I didn’t really approve of Evans, casting him off as a reach. However, one of the major details I had previously missed about Evans was his route running ability; it’s actually very polished for someone of his size and speed. Take a look at the first play of the Sun Bowl against Virginia Tech. Evans is on the bottom of your screen, matched up against a CB playing nearly 10 yards off the ball at the snap. Evans immediately begins to run directly towards the CB, freezing him in position. By the time Evans cuts outside and crosses the 40, the CB has only just begun to accelerate, yielding a good few steps of room for Evans. Hundley releases a perfect ball, but unfortunately Evans is unable to finish the play and drops the ball. Much later in the game we have a very similar example: Evans runs a quality route, stopping on a dime turning into perfect stance to look for the ball. The throw is slightly off target, but still catchable, and he fails to come up with it. Later on, he fumbles a punt after signaling for a fair catch, and in the 4th quarter against Arizona, he drops a wide open pass on 3rd and 14. This is probably a major reason that Evans was not a highly touted prospect; his focus catching the ball is quite lacking at times.
While the potential for headaches has been demonstrated, Evans can also make nice plays like this one near the end of the 1st quarter. He is again at the bottom of your screen against a CB in off coverage. He runs a very nice deep out, and while the throw from Hundley is very good, it’s close to the sideline. Take a look at the instant replay right after; Evans is able to get both feet down a tight area, showing that he does have the potential for good focus when catching the ball. Here against Arizona, Evans is able to catch a tipped ball for a touchdown in an even tighter area than before.
The final of play of his film against VT showcases what he can do when it all comes together. Like the first play of the game, he runs straight toward the CB, setting him up in position to make his cut at the right moment. The timing of the cut is perfect, and Evans flies straight past the CB who is caught completely flat footed. The throw is on time, the safety has no chance, and it’s an easy touchdown. This 3rd down play against Cal again shows off his route running ability, as he is able to beat man coverage for a 14 yard gain. His cutting and stopping ability is very strong, and its not surprising to see it translate into well run routes.
While he doesn’t exactly embrace contact, Evans has some physicality to his overall game. In this play as Hundley throws on the run, Evans catches the ball off balance and then holds on after taking 2 hits. In the redzone against Cal, he pancakes his defender without even trying, and if the play wasn’t designed to be in the other direction, this would have been an easy touchdown. Not long afterwards, UCLA is back in the redone and Evans has a CB in his face in outside position. It should not be possible beat the coverage for a fade in this positioning, but Evans does exactly that, shoving the CB inward and getting wide open in the end zone. Unfortunately, Hundley makes a rare poor throw and the pass is out of bounds.
As a blocker, Evans has the body and strength to be a good contributor. His downfield blocking is already fairly impressive. In this play, he helps clear the last line of defense on a long touchdown run by Hundley, completely taking his man out of the play. He seems very aware of the game around him, as here he seems to be blocking as soon as the ball is caught (perhaps even a little early) by his teammate. He doesn’t seem physical enough to take on linebackers, but I think he could hold his own with plenty of defensive backs.
I’m happy I rewatched Evans, because I can confidently say I mislabeled him the first time around. His route running is impressive enough to help out any team right away, and his size is good enough to play on the outside. While there is nothing overly impressive about him physically, his size (6’1” 210lbs) and decent combine (4.51 40 yd, 10’02” broad jump) are more than enough to make you excited for the potential revealed on film.
Saunders was actually the first of these two 4th round picks, taken 4th overall in the round. He is quite small, barely sniffing 5’9” and 165 lbs. However his style of play is very much like that of a guy of similar stature; DeSean Jackson. His speed and quickness instantly jump out at you on film, while his small stature seems to not matter too much. There are few plays that highlight speed and quickness like a punt return for a touchdown. In just one burst he clears a gap between 4 defenders and after changing direction is all of a sudden running in space.
Ok so he has some speed. But he’s still small for a receiver, how does he deal with that? Well, Saunders has some pretty good route running skills. Here is Saunders matched up against Justin Gilbert: the top CB in this years draft, taken #8 overall. Gilbert is up at the line in Saunders face, and mirrors Saunders the whole way. However Saunders is able to stop on a dime, creating more space between them. The throw is on time and Saunders pulls in a catch against tough competition. In addition, he has shown an aptitude for setting up defenders well on out routes. Here is another nice out route with a good adjustment for a low thrown pass. In the red zone, Saunders again sets up his defender well, securing an easy touchdown catch on a corner route.
My favorite of these highlights is this play in the Sugar Bowl, where Saunders is matched up in single coverage against 1st round pick HaSean Clinton-Dix. Saunders runs a simple out route with a nice cut, and catches the ball in tight coverage. Despite having the defender already draped over him, he is aware of where he is on the field and successfully stretches for the end zone. The touchdowns aren’t limited to short routes; later in the Alabama game, he hauls in his second touchdown on a simple stop and go. Early against Texas Tech, he beats his man on a go for a long touchdown. As you continue to watch his highlights, you will see that Saunders consistently displays potential for explosiveness.
Even his physicality isn’t bad for his size. He’s not always helpless, as shown here against HaSean Clinton-Dix. Saunders holds very well on a block for an extended period of time against a talented NFL level safety. He won’t be a very effective blocker at the next level, but Saunders will compete and put in the effort to make some sort of difference, at least against defensive backs.
I feel a lot better about the Jets draft after watching more film on these guys. Saunders is most likely to contribute right away, at least in a slot receiver role. Evans might be able to get some snaps as well, though it may take him a little longer to catch on. The Jets receiving corps was desperate for an infusion of youth, and they finally got it this offseason, no small thanks to the selection of these two young receivers. Geno Smith may make his share of mistakes this year, but I’d expect a more talented receiving corps to make more plays in the passing game for him.