With a Roster Full of Holes, the Jets Tried to Place Their Draft Bets Wisely Express News

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — This was the fun part for Mike Maccagnan. The Jets’ general manager sat at a table on Thursday flanked by two of the team’s new Gotham Green helmets happily sharing a story about a pre-draft meeting with Quinnen Williams, the team’s first-round draft choice.

Williams, who went to the Jets with the third overall pick, had watched film with the team’s coaches during the visit. The 303-pound defensive tackle, who’d taken care of three siblings after his mother died when he was 12, impressed the coaches with his insight, proving to be a student of the game.

“He’s a guy we feel very good about,” Maccagnan said, “and he’s just scratching his potential.”

One night later, Maccagnan took a seat at the same table, still adorned with the two helmets, and had considerably less fun talking about his next draft choice, Jachai Polite, a linebacker from Florida. Polite, who on talent might have been a first-round pick, knocked himself down many lists with an awful showing at the league’s scouting combine in March.

Maccagnan found himself defending using a third-round pick on a player who had been labeled lazy, difficult to coach and disruptive in the locker room. Polite had added to the knocks against him by grumbling that the Green Bay Packers “bashed” him in a pre-draft interview.

“We know some of the risk in him,” Maccagnan said of Polite. “We also think there are some very good qualities about him.”

In the world of the N.F.L. draft, a player with certain limitations is much more common than one with a résumé as spotless as Williams’s, and figuring out which ones can overcome those limitations is a key part of an N.F.L. executive’s job.

In addition to Williams and Polite, the Jets added four more players in the draft, two of whom are defensive players — Minnesota linebacker Blake Cashman and Rutgers cornerback Blessuan Austin — who have rebounded from surgery.

Though the Jets could still use a center, Maccagnan used the draft to continue fortifying the team’s defense, which ranked 25th in the N.F.L. last year in terms of yards allowed and 29th in points allowed. The Jets went 4-12, missing the playoffs for the eighth consecutive season, and Todd Bowles was fired as their coach.

The Jets had already addressed some of the team’s offensive deficiencies by signing Le’Veon Bell, a three-time All-Pro at running back. Many expected the team to use the No. 3 pick on an edge rusher, as that was a distinct position of need, but Williams proved to be too enticing.

Williams said Thursday that his mother, Marquischa, “drove me a lot — just to be humble and disciplined and not get complacent. Just thinking about my mom staring down at me is an amazing thing.”

While Williams is expected by many to thrive, with his game having been compared favorably to the Hall of Famer “Mean” Joe Greene, Polite offers the potential of a somewhat richer reward, simply because so many analysts had written him off.

In 2018, Polite — whose first name is pronounced juh-KAI — forced six fumbles and had 11 sacks and 17½ tackles for loss after being benched for the first series of the season opener because he “failed to meet the Gator standard.”

Polite did himself no favors at the combine, openly complaining about questions from the Packers’ staff who had used film to point out some of his bad plays in college.

“I regret saying any team was bashing me because they weren’t really bashing me,” Polite said in a conference call with reporters Friday night. “They were just trying to interview a guy to come play for their team. They wanted to see how I was, how I react. It was all my fault, and I learned from it.”

Polite then said, “I have a lot of people to prove wrong. Growing up, there were always a lot of negative things said about me, and I just worked my whole life to not let them get in the way of my work.”

Even after the combine, Maccagnan decided to bring Polite to the Jets’ facility for a closer and more relaxed look. Interviews between draft prospects and N.F.L. teams at the combine are only 15 minutes long, and as Maccagnan said, “for a lot of those guys it’s a fairly high-stress environment.”

Maccagnan said he thought the Jets had some “character guys” who could help Polite make the transition to the N.F.L. But considering Polite’s strong play against top-caliber opposition in the Southeastern Conference, the Jets know he is capable of handling the on-field aspects of the game.

The Jets rounded out their draft with Chuma Edoga, an offensive tackle from Southern California; Trevon Wesco, a tight end from West Virginia; Cashman; and Austin. Each comes with some baggage while also offering some potential.

Austin, who played sparingly over the last two years after surgery on his left knee, was perfectly happy going in the sixth round.

“I’m just thankful, and I’m actually humble, too,” Austin said. “But at the same time I have a burning fire in my chest right now that I don’t think can be put out as long as I’m playing this game.”

Even with six new draft picks and a few new free agents, Maccagnan acknowledged on Saturday that when you work to reshape the roster of a struggling team, there is no time to sit back and relax.

“You’re never really done,” he said.

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