The draft may still be several months away, but the scouting process is well underway as the Senior Bowl commences this week.
While the Senior Bowl is not the ultimate indicator of success at the NFL level, it is the first time many coaches (not scouts, who have been watching these players all season) get a look at the top senior prospects. They also get a chance to see how they look against players who will likely play in the NFL next season.
Here is a list of some players the Jets should keep an eye on based on their Senior Bowl performance.
Blessed with tremendous size (6'3") and top-end acceleration, Vanderbilt receiver Jordan Matthews has been one of the top players to watch at the Senior Bowl this week.
Matthews is known for his ability to make contested catches as well as explosive plays after the catch, but Matthews has been turning heads for reasons that go beyond what happens in between the white lines.
According to Terez A. Paylor of the Kansas City Star, Matthews has done some extra preparation for the Senior Bowl that will certainly please evaluators:
Matthews an intriguing prospect for May's NFL draft. In fact, Matthews, who caught 112 passes for 1,477 yards and seven touchdowns this season, even asked Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage to send him game film of the cornerbacks in attendance, all for the sake of gaining even the slightest advantage.
The sheer fact that Matthews was looking to gain an edge in practice with some extra film preparation sends an obvious signal to scouts and general managers alike that Matthews' work ethic is not something they should be concerned with.
It remains to be seen whether or not Matthews winds up being the first-round pick that he aspires to be, but he certainly gave his stock a boost with his strong showing at the Senior Bowl this week.
The Jets will be deep in the market for new offensive weapons and kick returners, and Solomon Patton should be near the top of their list.
Patton is undersized for a "traditional" wide receiver at just 5'10", but he brings a lot to the table with his top-end speed and acceleration. Patton was always an elusive kick returner (he scored two return touchdowns in his career at Florida), but it was not until his senior season that Florida finally unleashed him with an expanded role in the regular offense.
Patton was utilized as expected for a shorter player as a slot receiver who would occasionally take end-arounds and screens, and he figures to play a similar role in the NFL.
Patton's size limits his upside in the NFL, but the weapon-needy Jets need to collect as many weapons as possible this offseason. If Patton is still available in the later rounds, the Jets could be a prime candidate to draft him.
Logan Thomas has endured a very up-and-down career at Virginia Tech, but he brings a lot of talent to the table that could help the Jets in more ways than one.
The biggest quarterback at the Senior Bowl (6'5"), Thomas has a great arm and size that will draw comparisons to Cam Newton.
While he is a talented thrower and certainly looks the part in pads, he has struggled with accuracy and decision-making while quarterbacking the Hokies, throwing 13 interceptions in 2013. However, he appears to be thriving in the professional environment so far at the Senior Bowl, NFL.com's Bucky Brooks observes:
Not only does Thomas have a lot of potential as a quarterback, but he could potentially make a position move to tight end if quarterback does not work out at the next level given his size. In fact, he was recruited to Virginia Tech as a tight end before switching back to quarterback, which he played in high school.
As it turns out, the Jets need a tight end as badly as anyone in the league with both of their incumbent starters, Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow, set to hit free agency.
The true test for Thomas as a quarterback will be in live action at the Senior Bowl when the bullets are flying, but so far, Thomas looks like a player who will be a better professional than college player.
As much help as the Jets need on the offensive side of the ball, their exterior pass rush continues to be an issue.
Auburn's Dee Ford has been one of the most impressive players during the week of practice. NFL.com's Bucky Brooks notes how Ford has been able to separate himself from the competition with his impressive athleticism and burst:
Ford has been one of the stars of the week, according to several scouts I spoke with on the practice field. Evaluators have been impressed with his first-step quickness and burst in pass-rush drills. Additionally, Ford has shown the ability to turn speed into power off the edge and dominated offensive tackles with his overall athleticism.
While he does not have any experience at the position, at just 240 pounds, Ford seems like the ideal candidate to make the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker. His movement ability will allow him to play in space much easier than most ends trying to make the same transition.
The problem for the Jets (and every other team) is that Ford's showing in the Senior Bowl may make him too valuable on draft day for anyone hoping to land a steal outside of the first round.
Based on the sad state of their tight ends, the Jets must be heavily invested in finding as many tight end prospects as possible to fill their two open roster spots.
C.J. Fiedorowicz may not have the first-round name recognition as someone like Eric Ebron, but he brings a level of versatility as both a blocker and a receiver that has become a lost art at the position.
According to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, Fiedorowicz has "impressed NFL scouts and coaches this week with his blend of size and mobility. He's a throwback to the days when tight ends were mauling blockers who could also provide a downfield threat when called upon."
Meanwhile, the Jets must be salivating over a prospect that can fill their need as both a blocker and a receiver, especially when two-way tight ends are so difficult to come by in the modern game. While there are a handful of quality tight end prospects that could wind up in the first round, Fiedorowicz separates himself with his versatility.
With their massive needs at the skill positions, the Jets may want to wait until the second round to address their need for a young pass-rusher.
Jeremiah Attaochu stands at a lean 6'3", 250 pounds, but he has tremendous length and burst that can make him a terror on the edge. While undersized to be a defensive end in the NFL, he has the perfect frame to make the transition to outside linebacker (even after adding a few pounds of muscle).
While he may not be the most powerful player at his position, his athleticism and versatility make him an intriguing prospect who can be played at almost any linebacker position. He also has a mean streak that defensive coaches will love.
In the Senior Bowl, it will be interesting to see how Attaochu holds up against some of the bigger offensive lineman, as power seems to be the biggest concern regarding this prospect.
With right tackle Austin Howard a pending free agent, the Jets may find themselves back in the offensive tackle market.
Seantrel Henderson checked into the combine with one of the most impressive physiques at a lean 6'6", 331 pounds—and it translated onto the practice field.
Henderson has the power to block in the run game with authority as well as the athleticism to hold up in the passing game. One of the most athletic tackles in the country, Henderson excels when pulling or blocking downfield, where he can be devastating against smaller linebackers.
Talent was never much in question with Henderson. Rather, it was his inability to stay focused on football and out of trouble that concerned scouts. Following three suspensions, Henderson's draft stock was in a freefall following the 2012 season, forcing him to stay in school for one more season.
However, his 2013 season did not go nearly as smoothly as planned, as he struggled for most of the season, all but destroying his status as an elite tackle prospect.
Despite his strong showing during the week of practices at the Senior Bowl, Henderson still has a long way to go in order to convince people that his career at Miami is not an accurate depiction of the type of player he will be in the NFL.
Shaq Evans may not be the most highly touted receiver in this class, but he definitely made his presence known at the Senior Bowl with his physical play.
Any questions regarding whether or not Evans is capable of playing physical against press-man coverage have been all be erased, Jimmy Kempski of Philly.com observes:
Another receiver that has caught my eye is Shaq Evans of UCLA. A corner came up to press Evans, and Evans just put him on the ground. Very physical play. He also showed good long speed on a deep ball, and he has decent size at 6'1", 210.
As Kempski notes, Evans' best attribute as a runner is his speed. He was also a punt returner at UCLA, which makes him even more valuable to a returner-needy team like the Jets.
Evans is not the cleanest of route runners, but he is fearless going over the middle and has an aggressive attitude that coaches will love. While a bit of a project, Evans could be a quality investment in the mid-to-late rounds.