Ranking New York Jets' Top 7 Sleepers to Watch in Camp
Without fail, every year there are scores of players who emerge from the unknown to have a massive impact on the NFL season.
Last year, the New York Jets struck gold when Damon Harrison exploded onto the scene. The former undrafted free agent from William Penn University was among the very best players at his position in just his second professional season, his first as a starter.
Who will emerge as this year's version of Harrison? with twelve drafted rookies to go along with a handful of undrafted commodities, there is no shortage of young, talented players who can make the unpredictable leap from irrelevancy to stardom.
Here are some of the top sleepers on the Jets to watch in training camp.
Advanced statistics provided by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
7. Kenrick Ellis
Thanks to Damon Harrison's borderline-miraculous emergence in 2013 as one of the NFL best nose tackles, Kenrick Ellis has become a forgotten man along the Jets' loaded defensive line.
The former third-round pick was expected to be the starter, but injuries (in combination with Harrison's outstanding play) not performance, led to a dramatic decrease in playing time.
When Ellis finally did get healthy, he was very comparable to Harrison in on-field production. Ellis wound up as the Jets' third-best defender last season, according to Pro Football Focus.
If Ellis was on most any other team, he would be the unquestioned starter—but the talent and unusual depth on the Jets defensive line has limited him to being a rotational player. However, now that the Hampton product has found a way to get back to full health, he can certainly earn a bigger role in 2014 and help take some pressure off Harrison, who played 300 more snaps than Ellis did last year.
6. Darrin Walls
The Jets have spent plenty of resources on the all-important cornerback position these past two years, which included investing a third- and a sixth-round pick in this year's draft.
But they may have had on their roster a viable solution at the position the whole time in Darrin Walls.
The former undrafted free agent has not gotten a ton of regular-season experience, but he has performed well in just about every situation he has been placed in. The highest-rated cornerback from the 2013 preseason (according to Pro Football Focus), Walls outplayed Dee Milliner whenever he was asked to enter the game when the 2013 first-round pick was benched.
Despite Walls' on-field performance on game days, the coaching staff has been reluctant to give him anything more than a part-time or backup role on defense. As much as Walls has exceeded expectations, the fact that the Jets have continued to bring in cornerback help from all angles while refusing to bench Milliner over the long-term suggests that Walls may never get the chance he deserves.
Still, at age 26, Walls has plenty of time to improve his game to the point where he can be considered a starter. If Walls is ever going to make the next step in his development, now is the time to do it while he is in the prime of his career.
5. Ras-I Dowling
After the New England Patriots parted ways with Ras-I Dowling last season, it appears as if injuries had consumed the career of the once-promising second-round pick out of Virginia.
However, now that he has finally found a clean bill of health with the Jets, Dowling's career may be back on the upswing. Costello also notes that Dowling was one of the most impressive players in OTAs, showing off the skills that made him a second-round pick in 2011.
Dowling's resurgence comes at an excellent time for the Jets, who need as much help at the cornerback position as possible. Not only is Dee Milliner off to a slow start with a hamstring injury, but New York will be relying on Dimitri Patterson to start 16 games this year despite making just eight appearances over the last two seasons for the Miami Dolphins.
The real test for Dowling will be to hold up for more than a few weeks at a time, which could be a tall task for a player who has made just nine appearances in three years. If he can stay healthy, he can essentially be an extra draft pick for the Jets, given his youth and upside.
4. Greg Salas
Last year, Greg Salas was a midseason addition from the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad to simply bolster depth to a dangerously thin receiving corps.
While he only had eight receptions on the season, he averaged over 17 yards every time he caught the ball. He was especially effective on screen passes where his speed and acceleration made him as dangerous as anyone on the Jets receiver depth chart, as atrocious as it was.
While it will be more difficult for Salas to build upon his production from last year after the Jets brought in so much help at the position this offseason, the upside of the 25-year-old will entice the Jets enough to give him a legitimate chance to make the roster.
If he can improve upon his route-running and be more than just a weapon on screens, Salas has a chance to be a contributor to the Jets new-look offense this year.
3. Rontez Miles
There will be plenty of buzz around the Jets' safety position with first-round pick Calvin Pryor added to the group, but second-year safety Rontez Miles deserves some attention in his own right after beating the odds to cut an unlikely path to the active roster last year.
Originally signed to the practice squad at the end of training camp, Miles was the next man up to the active roster during tight end Kellen Winslow's month-long suspension. While he did have to return to the practice squad upon Winslow's return, the fact that Miles, a defensive player, was called up in place of Winslow shows how close the Jets were to putting Miles on the roster full time.
The addition of Pryor to the safety group does complicate the path for Miles to return to the active roster, but he could be an ideal replacement for Dawan Landry (who was been seen running with the third-team defense) if the Jets decide to move on from the aging veteran.
Miles has a long way to go before he earns a more visible role in the regular defense, but his youth makes him a interesting special-teams candidate to round out the bottom of the roster.
2. Dalton Freeman
After being cut at the end of training camp due to a poorly timed high ankle sprain last summer, Dalton Freeman has become a forgotten piece of the Jets' offensive line puzzle. Now that he has a clean bill of health, expect Freeman to make a strong comeback in his sophomore training camp.
Brian Costello of the New York Post notes that Freeman is already off to a strong start to the offseason, continuing the relatively high level of play that he showed prior to his injury last training camp. He has been getting work at guard (he was a former center at Clemson), which makes sense given the uncertainty surrounding Willie Colon's health.
Freeman will have additional competition from fourth-round pick Dakota Dozier, but he could at least steal a backup job from William Campbell, who did not find a way off the inactive list last year.
If Freeman can prove that he can play both guard and center, his value will only make it more difficult to move on from him after camp.
1. Colin Anderson
Even after using a second-round pick on Jace Amaro, the tight end roster is a long way from being set, especially on the bottom end of the totem pole.
The incumbent No. 3 tight end, Zach Sudfeld, is an intriguing prospect in his own right with his 6'7" frame, but undrafted free agent Colin Anderson may give him a run for his money. After getting cut by the Minnesota Vikings, Anderson spent the 2013 season on the Jets practice squad.
Rich Cimini of ESPN mentioned Anderson as one of five possible New York players to be this year's version of Damon Harrison, after the former Furman standout made some plays as a receiver in minicamp.
Anderson's downside is that he does not provide much value as a blocker. With receiving specialists Jeff Cumberland and Amaro taking up the top two spots, the Jets would prefer their third tight end to be more of a blocking specialist.
A descendant of General Robert C. Anderson (who commanded Union Army forces early in the Civil War), the rookie tight end has shown the Jets enough promise to keep him around on the practice squad for a whole year.
If he can develop into a more well-rounded player in camp, he can be a legitimate challenger to Sudfeld for what is likely to be the final spot at the position.