The New York Jets have a terrible track record when it comes to drafting and developing wide receivers. The last homegrown wideout to register a 1,000-yard season was Jerricho Cotchery, who was drafted in 2004. The last one to make a Pro Bowl in a Jets uniform was Keyshawn Johnson, selected No. 1 overall in 1996.
The Jets need to end the ugly trend, and there has never been a better time than now.
With Robby Anderson seemingly headed to NFL free agency, and with Quincy Enunwa facing an uncertain future because of a lingering neck injury, the Jets soon could be in the market for two starting receivers. While the free-agent market appears thin (unless Amari Cooper somehow shakes free from the Dallas Cowboys), the 2020 NFL draft is absolutely loaded with playmakers. Talent evaluators are calling this one of the best wide receiver drafts in history, with some projecting as many as 20 could be chosen in the first three rounds.
"There's a lot of them," Jets coach Adam Gase said at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis this week. "There's a lot of guys with speed, there's a lot of guys with experience and there's a lot of guys that can do a lot of good things."
Gase's 32nd-ranked offense will be hard-pressed to improve with the current cast of characters under contract. The Jets have a good slot receiver (Jamison Crowder) and a lot of question marks, including the recently signed Josh Doctson, a 2016 first-round pick who washed out with the Washington Redskins.
"We need explosive, dynamic playmakers," Jets general manager Joe Douglas said.
The Jets haven't ruled out the possibility of re-signing Anderson -- they expect to meet with his agent at the combine -- but it sounds as if they're reluctant to meet his asking price, which could be north of $13 million per year year. Asked if he views Anderson as a WR1, Douglas said, "I view Robby Anderson as a dynamic wide receiver that can take the top off any defense. I think he has a skill trait that a lot of teams are looking for. He can run by anybody."
For WR1 money, the Jets expect more than a speed receiver, which is why there's a hesitancy to break the bank for Anderson. If the Jets lose him, they will have a decision to make with the No. 11 overall pick: Select the third- or fourth-best offensive lineman (a huge need) or take the first- or second-best receiver. They could have their choice of Jerry Jeudy (Alabama), CeeDee Lamb (Oklahoma) or Henry Ruggs III (Alabama), who could blow up the 40-yard dash Thursday night when the receivers participate in on-field drills.
For a variety of reasons, Lamb might be the best fit for the Jets.
Jeudy and Lamb are rated as the seventh and eighth prospects, respectively, on Mel Kiper Jr.'s Big Board. Speaking specifically about the Jets, the ESPN draft analyst said Lamb is "a little more versatile in that he can be a slot guy or be an outside wide-receiver threat." Jeudy is a terrific route runner, but he might have benefited from being surrounded by so much talent at Alabama, according to Kiper.
"He'll have a lot to adjust to teams pressing him more, getting in his face more, being a little more aggressive at the line of scrimmage with him than they were at the collegiate level," he said. "Lamb was the guy everybody knew. You identified Lamb and they still couldn’t stop him." He racked up 1,327 receiving yards and 14 touchdowns last season.
In theory, the Jets could wait until the second or third round to find an impact receiver. A year ago, Deebo Samuel, A.J. Brown, Mecole Hardman and DK Metcalf went in the second round. If this year's class is superior to that of the 2019 crop, it could be a Day 2 bonanza.
It could be like shooting fish in a barrel, except the Jets have a history of missing the barrel.
Remember the 2014 draft? It produced some of the best receivers in the game -- Odell Beckham, Jr., Mike Evans and Davante Adams, et al. The Jets used three of their 12 picks on receivers, whiffing on the first two (Jalen Saunders and Shaq Evans) and finding Enunwa in the sixth round. He's productive when he plays, but he has missed 40 games because of injuries.
The three GMs before Douglas all suffered big misses. There was Stephen Hill (second round, 2012), Devin Smith (second round, 2015), ArDarius Stewart (third round, 2017) and Chad Hansen (fourth round, 2017). Those four have a combined total of 75 career receptions. Hill and Stewart are out of the league; Smith and Hansen are barely hanging on.
Truth be told, the Jets' best homegrown receiver in recent years has been Anderson, whom they signed as an undrafted rookie in 2016.
Because the game has evolved into wide-open passing, colleges are producing more wide receiver prospects than ever, but the scouting process can be tricky. College stats are inflated because of mediocre defenses and vanilla schemes. A player with 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash might have dominated against "off" coverage in college, but how will he respond to bump-and-run in the NFL? Sometimes the athleticism gets lost in translation.
Some teams (see: Pittsburgh Steelers) have figured out the secret sauce and know how to draft receivers. Douglas still is looking for his first gem. In three years of coordinating the Philadelphia Eagles' draft (2017-19), he drafted three receivers, none of whom has emerged as a starter. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, a second-round pick in 2019, received mixed reviews after a 10-catch rookie season.
Look for Douglas to use free agency and the draft, especially if he loses Anderson. He could sign a veteran free agent (perhaps Emmanuel Sanders or Breshad Perriman) and then tap into the riches of the draft, hoping to find a future WR1. While Douglas noted that "God didn't make many Julio Joneses and Calvin Johnsons," he should be able to find a quality player.