At one point during the 2021 NFL Draft, it didn’t appear the New York Jets were ever going to select a defensive player.
Then everything changed at No. 146 overall in the fifth round when the Jets selected Jamien Sherwood out of Auburn. Gang Green went on a historic run closing out the draft with six straight picks on the defensive side of the ball after starting the class with four straight offensive players.
A couple of historical nuggets for context (via Pro Football Reference):
- This was the first time in 38 years that the team had opened an NFL Draft with four straight picks on the offensive side of the ball. The last time that occurred was the 1983 NFL Draft.
- While on the other side of the coin, this was the first time this century that the Jets had closed an NFL Draft with six straight defensive players. The last time that happened was the 1997 NFL Draft.
The Jets proved they clearly have a type on the defensive side of the ball
When you inspect some of the defensive players the Jets selected in the 2021 NFL Draft with a closer eye it’s easy to sense a trend:
- Jamien Sherwood, linebacker/safety, Auburn (fifth round)
- Hamsah Nasirildeen, linebacker/safety, Florida State (sixth round)
After missing out on former Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal in free agency, the Jets tried everything in their power to find a carbon copy during the draft.
— Paul Andrew Esden Jr (@BoyGreen25) May 2, 2021
While they may not have found an exact carbon copy, they did find a few players who could be categorized as poor man versions of Neal.
The former first-rounder played the majority of his career in the pros as a versatile safety on the backend of Atlanta’s defense. When he reached free agency this past March he revealed to NFL insider Josina Anderson that he would transition to weakside linebacker.
When the Jets missed out on him on the open market, they didn’t seem to have a proper backup plan at linebacker.
Heading into the 2021 NFL Draft it was the most underrated position of need that no one was talking about. Then the Jets said to themselves, if we can’t have Neal, we’ll make a new one.
The Jets selected two players that played safety in college and that fit the athletic profile of what they were looking for.
Jets head coach Robert Saleh spoke to the media after the 2021 NFL Draft and shared a few nuggets on some of the defensive players he added to the rotation:
“At the linebacker level with Sherwood and Hamsah, those are two very long fast, and versatile athletes. They fit the mold of what we ask out of our linebackers: run, hit, speed, and coverage ability.”
It was a unique strategy that could pay major dividends down the line. Instead of drafting straight-up linebackers from college, they drafted athletic pieces of clay that they can mold into what they’re looking for.
Is there a better coach to trust with the development of linebackers than Robert Saleh?
— Paul Andrew Esden Jr (@BoyGreen25) May 1, 2021
When asked about that particular mindset of drafting safeties and converting them into linebackers, Saleh shared his thought process:
“I don’t know if it’s the new NFL, we just look at it differently in our scheme. With the chaos that we create upfront, they’re more run and hit lateral players. Look at Fred Warner who basically played nickel in college and he’s turned out alright. We think these guys will be able to translate to linebacker pretty easily.”
If the Jets can find a player half as good as the San Francisco 49ers All-Pro linebacker, the team is going to be in very good hands.