The New York Jets' wide receiver position is easily the worst position on the team's roster, and the only way Geno Smith is going to take the next step in his development as a quarterback is if the Jets do a better job of surrounding him with receiving talent.
The 2014 draft will present plenty of opportunities for the Jets to upgrade the position, and the Jets can get a closer look at this year's crop of receivers at the combine.
At present, the best receiver on the roster is Jeremy Kerley. The 5'8", 188-pound slot receiver has blossomed over the past few years, developing into one of the more reliable receivers due to his ability to get open in short areas and to use his deceptive speed to make some big plays.
The Jets, however, need a more explosive, dynamic playmaker with all the physical attributes necessary to consistently win one-on-one matchups on the outside.
They were hoping it would be former second-round pick Stephen Hill, but it may be time to move on after his first two years, in which he failed to show major signs of improving his route running and fundamentals. He totaled 45 receptions for 594 yards and four touchdowns in 23 games over the first two years of his career. For perspective, nine rookies had 45 or more receptions in 2013, and two of them were running backs.
Veteran receiver Santonio Holmes is due to count for $10.75 million against the cap, but the Jets can save $8.25 million of that if they cut him, which seems likely given his injury problems of late. He has played just 15 of the past 32 games and has 43 receptions over the past two years, fewer than any single season in his career prior to 2012.
Safe to say, the Jets could be in the market for some new wide receivers. In fact, NFL Media's Mike Mayock thinks the Jets could double dip at the position, and he sees some good candidates.
"You're sitting there at 18, I've said earlier I think any one of three receivers sitting there," he said of the Jets' options in the draft, according to Dan Hanzus of NFL.com. "Marqise Lee who is a different guy that fits in that slot, outside and helps in the return game, versus the two big-bodied guys—Evans and Benjamin.
"I think all three of them are talented enough to work with that group. Kerley's already a slot, Holmes is at the end of his career, Stephen Hill's an outside guy. I just think you pick less about X's and O's ... my perspective would be you can't go wrong with Marqise Lee or Mike Evans."
Mayock's draft analysis is second to none, so let's take a look at the potential first-round receivers he mentions, in addition to a few more the Jets could have their eyes on.
Marqise Lee, USC
At 6'0" and 195 pounds, Marqise Lee isn't as big a receiver as some teams might prefer, but he has great short-area quickness and agility to get open on short routes and enough long speed to create big plays.
The combination makes him a a dangerous runner after the catch once he gets the ball in his hands. Yards after catch are at the foundation of every good West Coast offense, and Marty Mornhinweg's is no different.
One ominous problem with Lee, however, is his propensity to drop easy passes. That's been a problem for Hill in his limited time with the Jets, and it's something Lee has to work on, as well. According to Rotoworld's Greg Peshek, Lee dropped 12.3 percent of the catchable passes thrown in his direction. He'll also have to learn to run the whole route tree consistently after spending most of his time running drags, curls, screens, outs and ins at USC.
Mike Evans, Texas A&M
If Lee is one end of the spectrum, Texas A&M's Mike Evans is the other. Evans is a 6'5", 225-pound monster who, according to CBS Sports, "uses his size and strength to simply bully defenders." He is simply too big and physical for most college cornerbacks to handle, but he could have a harder time winning the physical matchups against bigger, tougher NFL corners.
Still, the Jets will surely be intrigued by his ability to contribute in the red zone, where the Jets struggled in 2013, notching just nine receiving touchdowns in the red zone (tied for 28th in the NFL) and an 18.1 conversion percentage overall (29th).
He does, however, struggle to create separation from defensive backs at times, relying on that size to win matchups. With over 20 yards per catch in 2013, it wouldn't seem like long speed is an issue, but scouts will be watching Evans closely during the 40-yard dash, the three-cone drill and other timed drills that could give them a better idea of exactly how much athleticism he brings to the table in addition to all that size.
Evans declared for the draft as a sophomore and will be just 21 years old entering the 2014 season. He has much to learn but possesses rare physical attributes that could make him a top choice in the draft.
Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
Speed, agility and strength will be on display at the combine, but the Jets must also be looking at size. At 6'3" and 205 pounds, Jordan Matthews has the prototypical size to play on the outside and to contribute in the red zone. If the Jets miss out on Evans, or opt not to take him, Matthews would be a nice alternative in a later round.
He may not time well in the 40-yard dash or three-cone drill, which could drive his stock down, but his above-average athleticism shows up on game tape, which is infinitely more important.
Matthews came on strong as a sophomore and led the SEC with 19 yards per catch, but he rounded out his game over the years, catching more passes for more yards each year, and ended up being the best wide receiver at the Senior Bowl.
He has the potential to bring some of the long speed the Jets have been missing. The Jets must feel the same way, because they interviewed him at the Senior Bowl, according to Brian Costello of the New York Post. This week could go a long way in determining whether or not the Jets take another wide receiver with a Day 2 pick.
Martavis Bryant, Clemson
The Jets are probably out of range for Clemson's "other" junior wide receiver Sammy Watkins, who will be drafted somewhere in the top 10. They could instead land Watkins' teammate Martavis Bryant. Currently projected to be a second- to third-round pick, he could improve his stock if he times well at the combine, according to CBS Sports' Dane Brugler—and Bryant is expected to do just that.
Listed at 6'4" and 200 pounds, he is a terrific athlete with the speed/size combination to create mismatches at all levels of the field. Similar to Stephen Hill a few years back, Bryant could launch himself into the top-40 discussion with impressive agility numbers, including a sub-4.4 40-yard dash.
Yes, the dreaded name of "Stephen Hill" appears in Brugler's analysis of Bryant. That should be a cautionary tale, especially since this excerpt of Bryant's weaknesses from CBS Sports' official scouting report reads like a profile of Hill's problems since joining the NFL:
Wasn't asked to run a full route tree in Clemson's offense and unrefined in this area. Room to learn patience, hesitation and better body language in his patterns to hold defenders and better sell routes. Needs to get stronger to match up better in tight coverage and show better power after the catch. Only one year of starting experience.
If the Jets want to take a mulligan on the Stephen Hill project and roll the dice trying to identify a physically gifted receiver who needs time to polish, Bryant could be someone they look at. From this perspective, a player like Bryant shouldn't be thrust into the spotlight immediately and would be better off if given time to develop. Unfortunately, the Jets' dire situation at receiver may not present the right environment for Bryant to flourish.
Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
If Bryant is the physical specimen who needs to refine his fundamental skills as a receiver, Jared Abbrederis is a fundamentally sound receiver who lacks the physical tools of other top wide receivers.
He is a polished route-runner, and according to Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Ryan McCrystal, "it's tough to find another prospect in this class who gets more out of his skill set." McCrystal sites Abbrederis' route running as one of his biggest strengths, which holds true with most other scouting reports across the Web. He knows how to sell routes, getting defenders out of position and setting them up for double-moves.
One of the knocks on Abbrederis is his lack of size. He's 6'1" but weighs just 189 pounds. He has the frame to add more bulk, and he would benefit greatly from adding muscle to help him win against press coverage. A couple offseasons with an NFL strength and conditioning program should help him get up to snuff.
Scouts also have their doubts about his speed. The 40-yard dash could be important for Abbrederis. A good time could help his case dramatically, but since scouts already have a feel for what kind of player he is, they've likely already formulated their opinion of his football skills.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand or via team news releases, and all scouting information was obtained via CBS Sports.
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