A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:
1. Hack is back: For those befuddled and frustrated by the Jets’ refusal to play Christian Hackenberg in 2016 and 2017, well, now is your chance to see him in a game that means something. The former second-round pick is expected to start Sunday for the Memphis Express of the Alliance of American Football, an eight-team developmental league that kicked off this weekend. Kickoff is 4 p.m. ET on CBS Sports Network.
Hackenberg, who bounced around in 2018 from the Jets to the Oakland Raiders to the Philadelphia Eagles to the Cincinnati Bengals, sounds excited about the prospect of rebooting his career. He was a bitter man on his final day with the Jets (last May 22), criticizing the team for turning its back on him. He claimed the coaches refused to help him fix a mechanical flaw in his throwing motion. A few hours later, he was traded to the Raiders for what amounted to a bag of kicking tees.
He will be remembered as one of the worst draft picks in Jets history, and that’s saying something. To say general manager Mike Maccagnan miscalculated would be an understatement. With the 51st pick, he chose a quarterback who couldn’t throw straight and played as if he had blinders on. Former coach Todd Bowles thought Hackenberg was so ill equipped that he wouldn’t play him in the ultimate garbage-time situation — the final half of the final game in the 2017 season. (Word has it that Bowles wanted to draft defensive end Yannick Ngakoue, who went to the Jacksonville Jaguars early in the third round.)
Hackenberg apparently doesn’t want to revisit that chapter in his life; he turned down an ESPN interview request at the time of the AAF draft in November. He’s focusing on the present, hoping his revamped throwing motion can save his career.
“I don’t think I’ve thrown the football this good ever,” Hackenberg told Penn Live. “Like, I wish I had this five years ago. But the good news is I’m 23, I’m sure I can do it and I did it. Now it’s just about going out and playing.”
The Memphis offensive coordinator is David Lee, a former NFL quarterbacks coach who worked with Hackenberg last offseason. Lee believes Hackenberg, after thousands of reps, has shortened his elongated throwing motion, which included a ball flip at the top of his delivery. Basically, he was a mechanical mess, but now he gets a fresh start in a new league.
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2. Blasts from the past: No fewer than 12 ex-Jets are playing in the AAF, including four former draft picks: Hackenberg, linebacker Dylan Donahue (Atlanta Legends), cornerback Dexter McDougle (Arizona Hotshots) and linebacker Trevor Reilly (Salt Lake Stallions). Former Jets kicker Nick Folk (Arizona) also is playing.
You will also recognize some of the assistant coaches — Pepper Johnson (Memphis, linebackers), Dennis Thurman (Memphis, defensive coordinator), Ted Cottrell (Birmingham Iron, defensive coordinator) and Donnie Henderson (Salt Lake, defensive coordinator). To me, the most intriguing coaches are Anthony Becht (San Diego Fleet, tight ends) and Lamont Jordan (San Diego, running backs), both of whom played for the Jets in the early 2000s. Jordan, one of the most enigmatic players I’ve covered, never struck me as the coaching type.
3. Good for Sam: One underrated aspect of the Gregg Williams hire is the impact he will have on quarterback Sam Darnold. Williams runs a high-energy, attacking defense that will blitz from the moment it steps out of the locker room (maybe before). Darnold will benefit because he will be exposed on the practice field to various looks he’s never seen before. Practices won’t be easy, and that will make him better in games.
Yeah, that was a rough game for Darnold, who completed only 15 of 31 passes for 169 yards and two interceptions. Interestingly, Williams didn’t blitz that much in that Week 3 contest; he confused Darnold with his pass coverages.
4. CAA connection: Darnold said one other thing in the SI interview that jumped out at me. He mentioned that he was part of the head-coaching search and that he “interviewed” Adam Gase. That he spoke to Gase isn’t news — it was previously reported — but this time he made it sound like his involvement was deeper than initially thought.
Either way, it raises a question because Darnold and Gase have the same agent, Jimmy Sexton of CAA. You can bet Sexton gave Darnold a glowing scouting report on Gase. Presumably, Darnold gave positive feedback to ownership after his conversation with Gase, based on his effusive public comments about the new coach. Ownership wants to keep Darnold happy, so …
We’ll never know how much the Darnold/Gase/Sexton connection influenced the final decision, but my gut tells me it was more than a little. Gase also received a strong recommendation from Peyton Manning, who called CEO Christopher Johnson. Manning is represented by — you guessed it — CAA.
5. Draft buzz: We’re still two months from the draft, but you can start to see how things will play out for the Jets, who own the third pick. In my opinion, it’ll come down to an inside vs. outside debate. Let me explain.
Defensive end Nick Bosa and defensive tackle Quinnen Williams are the consensus top players in the draft. The Jets should pounce on Bosa if he falls to 3, but that seems unlikely unless the Arizona Cardinals (No. 1) and/or San Francisco 49ers (No. 2) trade out. If the 49ers take edge rusher Josh Allen, who would fill a huge need for the Jets, Maccagnan has a choice: best player available (Williams) or an edge player, such as Rashan Gary.
Williams is a 295-pound monster who would be the ideal 3-technique in the Jets’ new 4-3 front, but do they really need another big body? They need a sleek defensive end who can scare the daylights out of quarterbacks. Plus, they already have Leonard Williams, who can play the 3-technique.
Mark my words, this will be one of the narratives as the draft draws closer. It’s also one of the reasons they shouldn’t close the door on trading Leonard Williams.
6. Cap update: After cutting center Spencer Long, a $6.5 million cap savings, the Jets are $99 million under the cap, per ESPN data. The next name to watch is running back Isaiah Crowell, who has a $5 million cap charge. They can clear $3 million of that by releasing him before March 15, when $2 million of his $4 million base salary becomes fully guaranteed. Something tells me he’ll be wiped off the roster.
7. Take a bow: Congrats to former Jets offensive lineman Matt Slauson, who announced his retirement after nine years, four teams and 113 games. Slauson, a sixth-round pick in 2009, played more games than any Jets pick in the past 10 drafts. The thing I’ll remember most about him is that he never let a stuttering problem stand in his way. Instead of shunning the spotlight, he embraced it. In fact, he won a media good-guy award in two of the biggest markets, New York and Chicago. A good dude.
8. The last word: “I don’t know that much about him. All I know is what he’s done in Miami, which hasn’t been great, but there are other coaches who haven’t had good starts. You look at [Bill] Belichick. He’s an example of that, but I don’t know how many Belichicks there are out there.” — Pro Football Hall of Famer Curtis Martin on Gase.