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New York Jets' path to relevance starts with big week at Senior Bowl

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Why Kiper likes Kyle Hamilton to the Jets (1:25)

Mel Kiper Jr. breaks down the intangibles that make Kyle Hamilton a high draft pick, possibly to the Jets. (1:25)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- In the aftermath of the San Francisco 49ers' 2019 NFC Championship Game victory, Robert Saleh celebrated in the locker room by posing for a picture with the George Halas Trophy and a "Mobile to Miami" T-shirt -- Senior Bowl to Super Bowl. The then-defensive coordinator was part of the 49ers' staff that had coached the college all-star game 12 months earlier, the unofficial start of their memorable journey.

Saleh is back in Mobile, Alabama, next week to lead the New York Jets into a coaching assignment they haven't had since 1979, when they discovered a small-school pass-rusher named Mark Gastineau, now a member of the team's Ring of Honor. The Jets will coach the National team in the Feb. 5 Senior Bowl and, while it's a stretch to think about "Mobile to Arizona" T-shirts (the site of next year's Super Bowl), they will benefit from being embedded with 100-plus draft prospects for nearly a week.

The Jets' coaches will be around the players 16 to 18 hours a day, through meetings, meals and practice, allowing them to accumulate pre-draft intel. They can observe how they interact with teammates, how they behave in the classroom and how they spend their down time. In 2019, the 49ers fell in love with wide receiver Deebo Samuel, whom they wound up drafting in the second round. Now look at him.

"It’s huge, not only because you get that whole week of watching them practice, but you get the whole week of learning who they are," ESPN draft analyst Matt Miller said. "You get a jump start on filling in the blanks on, 'What is this person like?'"

Continuing a Senior Bowl tradition, the Jets and Detroit Lions (coaching the American team) will "team swap," allowing coaches to spend time with the opposing squad. That's how the Dallas Cowboys first got to know quarterback Dak Prescott in 2016.

None of this, of course, guarantees team success. Since 2010, only seven of the 24 teams that coached the Senior Bowl produced winning records in the following season. One team, the 2017 Cleveland Browns, went 0-16. The only team to reach the Super Bowl was -- you guessed it -- Saleh's 49ers.

With nine draft choices, including Nos. 4, 10, 35 and 38, the Jets have a lot riding on the week. Here's a look at five players who, considering the Jets' needs, should intrigue them. Conveniently, they all happen to be on the National team.

Trey McBride, TE, Colorado State

The Mackey Award winner is widely regarded as the top tight end in the draft. McBride is not in the class of Atlanta Falcons rookie Kyle Pitts -- is anybody? -- but he could land in the bottom of the first round. He's "a Mark Andrews type of player," said Miller, referring to the Baltimore Ravens' tight end who caught 107 passes in 2021.

McBride caught 90 passes for 1,121 yards with only one touchdown for a bad Colorado State team, but he has impressed evaluators with his two-way skills. He's 6-foot-4, 260 pounds and can block. Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur likes two-TE packages, but the depth chart is woefully thin. The Jets' coaches are eager to see how McBride handles himself next week against upgraded competition.

Jahan Dotson, WR, Penn State

Dotson, projected to go late in the first round or early in the second, would bring much-needed speed to the Jets' offense. The New Jersey native can fly, and he happens to be a very good route runner as well. The biggest concern is his lanky frame. He's listed at 5-foot-11, 184 pounds, but some suspect he's around 175. He torched the Big Ten, finishing with 91 catches, 1,182 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. A Dotson-Elijah Moore tandem would provide plenty of juice.

"He has an opportunity to really impress because he’s going to be the best athlete out there at the receiver position," Miller said. "He is the alpha prospect this year [at the Senior Bowl]."

Devin Lloyd, LB, Utah

He could crack the top 15, maybe the top 10, meaning he could wind up being the highest-drafted player in Mobile. The Jets' need for an off-ball linebacker depends on how much they value Quincy Williams, who impressed with his sideline-to-sideline speed, but Lloyd is the kind of player coaches want to have on their team.

He can do everything, evidenced by his stat line last season -- seven sacks, four interceptions and 111 tackles. Saleh, a former linebackers coach, will come away impressed after a week of being around him.

Trevor Penning, OT, Northern Iowa

The 6-foot-7, 321-pound left tackle is firmly in the first round -- and rising. Next week will be important because, after dominating FCS competition, Penning will get a chance to show his stuff against the big boys.

Even if the Jets remain all-in on injured left tackle Mekhi Becton, whose durability and conditioning are concerns, they still could add another bookend to protect quarterback Zach Wilson. "We’re always going to value the line of scrimmage here," general manager Joe Douglas said in addressing team needs during his end-of-season news conference. But where might they take one?

"At 10, it might be a touch early for him, depending on what happens, but if there’s an ability to jump back a little bit, he’d be a really good fit there," Miller said of Penning and the Jets. "He has the ability to play right tackle, too. He has the build for it."

Zion Johnson, G, Boston College

He's considered by some to be the top guard in the draft, probably a second-rounder. The Jets drafted left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker in last year's first round, but they have a gaping hole on the right side as Laurent Duvernay-Tardif prepares for free agency. Johnson would be an ideal fit. He's a violent run-blocker but agile enough to excel in an outside-zone scheme.

"He’s a fun to watch," Miller said. "He’s just a mauler. He’s one of those old school, beat-the-s----out-of-people-in-the-trenches kind of guy."