When football decisions are made with the heart instead of the head, bad results usually follow
Why does Jeff Smith hold a roster spot?
How is Quincy Williams a starting linebacker?
Which other team would keep Justin Hardee after he committed more big penalties than big special teams plays last season?
The answer to these questions seems to be the same: “The Jets love him.” That kind of approach will rile up fans and reporters who wonder if the NFL is a business or an emotional affair.
In the NFL, 53 roster spots are held selfishly. Due to the violent nature of the sport and the physical toll taken on players’ bodies, having talented and capable depth is often just as important as the caliber of the starting players.
More than ever, teams are trimming their rosters of extra fat in order to carry maximum depth at key positions. Fewer teams carry a third quarterback. Almost none have a guy who plays exclusively special teams coverage. Former mid-round picks who are workout warriors might get a couple of seasons, but in the absence of any production, they’ll be cut.
While other teams make such chess moves, the New York Jets seem to keep playing checkers. Though not every fan knows all the Xs and Os of each assignment and whether a player who made a big play actually deserves the credit for it, they can certainly tell when a player has been called for more penalties than made tackles on special teams.
Head coach Robert Saleh has his favorites. Nathan Shepherd, a former surprise third-round pick of ex-GM Mike Maccagnan, has put up nothing but penalties (six in 495 snaps last season with zero sacks) and missed tackles (16.3% career rate) in his seasons in the NFL. After initially letting Shepherd go, the Jets re-signed him this offseason.
The same is true of Justin Hardee. The Jets loved Hardee as a special teamer from New Orleans, but he got called for five big-time penalties on special teams (including unnecessary roughness and unsportsmanlike conduct) last season while also missing five tackles. He recorded 10 special teams tackles and two assists without making a noticeable impact.
However, listening to special teams coach Brant Boyer rave about Hardee makes it clear that he will make the roster despite his utter incompetence at the cornerback position, which has been on display this preseason.
Jeff Smith is another one of these Saleh favorites. Smith seems to have a roster spot locked up despite showcasing mostly shaky hands during preseason. Calvin Jackson Jr. and even Tarik Black have outshone him in camp. Denzel Mims has production from his rookie season that exceeds anything Smith has ever done. But because Mims plays special teams poorly, he’s most likely going to be the team’s WR5 come Week 1, unless the team reconciles with Mims. Even then, Smith will most likely be WR6.
Meanwhile, the reverse also holds true. The aforementioned Mims flashed some talent in his rookie season, catching 23 balls for 357 yards and putting up a 69.0 Pro Football Focus grade.
However, the minute Saleh and Mike LaFleur came in last season, it was clear that they did not like the former second-round pick. Fans know the saga at this point: food poisoning, Covid-19, drops, penalties, laziness, lack of knowledge of the playbook. It was an ugly 2021 season for Denzel Mims. Still, the coaching staff clearly did not like Mims from Day 1.
Do teams normally ask their big-bodied second-round receivers to play special teams coverage? Additionally, when a team has a player with a skill set like Mims’s, they usually find ways to incorporate that talent into the offense. Is Mims going to be an inside-outside receiver who can run the full route tree on a dime? Probably not. But could he have brought an element that the Jets were lacking, the combination of size and speed downfield? Possibly, had LaFleur given him a shot.
Though the behind-the-scenes story of Denzel Mims will probably never be fully known, he remains a polarizing player among Gang Green diehards. Michael Nania detailed how dismal Mims’s play was last season. Still, it’s hard to fathom why the coaching staff gave up on him so fast. At the very least, he has more potential as a WR5 than Jeff Smith.
Why does Saleh love certain players and dislike others?
There is no one good answer to this question. However, we can try to take a look at some of the different factors that may cause this phenomenon.
How common is this?
First of all, it’s fair to assume that if we took a hard look at the other 31 NFL rosters, we’d find other Nathan Shepherds. It’s easy to spotlight specific players on the team you cover on a day-in and day-out basis without focusing on the overall NFL trends.
Still, in such a ruthless league, the question remains about Saleh, even if it applies to other coaches, as well.
It’s all about the people
Another answer lies in greater human psychology: football may be a business, but it’s also a people game. Fans often view players and coaches as robots who go about their business emotionlessly. It’s easy to underestimate the importance of rapport between a coach and his players. However, having veterans on the same page as the coach is important for the overall team chemistry.
Furthermore, having a player who brings leadership to the table is critical for a young team. A guy who can coach up other players may be worth a roster spot to some even if they’re not inherently valuable otherwise. Perhaps that’s why Saleh likes Shepherd, at the very least. Agree or disagree, this may be the rationale.
When it comes to a player like Ashtyn Davis, another guy whose roster spot continues to confound fans, it could be unwillingness to give up on investment. Joe Douglas was ruthless in trading Mike Maccagnan’s pricey former picks (see: Adams, Jamal and Darnold, Sam), but so far he has shown no inclination to move on from his own draft picks.
Ironically, Mims was one of Douglas’s highest picks in his first draft, and perhaps one of the most talented. He deferred to the coaching staff in terms of his guy’s role. Still, Douglas refused to release Mims and will trade him only for an adequate return.
It seems like Douglas may be suffering from the sunk-cost fallacy, which, according to the Decision Lab, “describes our tendency to follow through on an endeavor if we have already invested time, effort, or money into it, whether or not the current costs outweigh the benefits.”
When it comes to a player like Quincy Williams, a lot of the love has to do with the scheme. The Jets want linebackers who will aggressively hit a run gap and hit hard. The whole point of the Cover-3 Press/Bail is simplifying things for the defense to allow players to attack. Williams is undeniably an attacker at linebacker. Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich obviously feel that they can coach up his overpursuit and maximize his ceiling as a thumper.
This is the toughest part to explain. The NFL really has moved away from coverage specialists. In the days of two-high safeties and a physically smaller defensive backfield, teams usually want their special teams players to do something else. To carry not only Justin Hardee but also Jeff Smith because of special teams seems egregious. It’s even possible that Del’Shawn Phillips finds his way onto the 53-man roster for the same reason.
This team has holes at linebacker, safety, offensive line depth, and possibly defensive tackle. To let one-dimensional players hold multiple roster spots is head-scratching, to say the least.
Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh – together
Ultimately, I think this is where the general manager needs to step in. From the way Douglas structured both free agency and the draft, it seems that he has given Saleh full autonomy on personnel decisions. For a savvy business guy who knows his football, I think Douglas should step in and curb some of the enthusiasm for players who are not pulling their weight.
For example, the Jets carry many interior defensive linemen with similar skill sets. Sheldon Rankins, Solomon Thomas, Nathan Shepherd, and Jonathan Marshall are all somewhat undersized defensive tackles who provide some value as pass rushers but little to none as run-stoppers.
Faced with that kind of redundant talent, it might be up to Douglas to put his foot down and trim some of the fat. If Saleh insists on keeping Shepherd, then Rankins is the next cut candidate. He underachieved last season (34.4 PFF run defense grade, 20.6% missed tackle rate, and only 5.8% pressure rate), and the team can save $3.9 million by letting him go.
The same applies to Justin Hardee. The Jets may have thought it was a good investment when they signed the special teamer, but he did not live up to his contract. He has no guaranteed money left, and the Jets can save $2.35 million by cutting him. For many other teams, that would be an obvious cut.
This is not just about the players’ relative lack of value, but also about the team’s roster needs. There will most likely be some cap casualties from other teams who are worth signing, but the Jets have only $5.7 million left to work with. They can save quite a bit from cutting just Rankins and Hardee. Releasing Nathan Shepherd would add $895,000 in space, per Over the Cap; Ashtyn Davis would net another million with just $284,000 dead. The Jets can use that additional cap space to pick up a free safety and swing tackle, for example.
The Jets have until Tuesday at 4 PM to finalize their roster. Perhaps some or even many of the moves mentioned above will be made. But if not, the pressure will be on those players to justify the coaching staff’s faith in them.