Every year, injuries, suspensions, and tough contract situations ravage rosters and open doors for players that had been previously written off as mere camp depth. Last season, undrafted quarterback Joe Callahan was the definition of an underdog. Undersized at only 6’1, and coming out of Division III Wesley College, Callahan was actually denied a spot at Monmouth’s local pro day. Although he was signed post-draft, it was in the same wave as other undrafted quarterbacks like Max Wittek, Dalyn Williams, and Joe Licata, who never made it past training camp. On top of this, Callahan was likely only kept because current Packers’ backup Brett Hundley was nursing an injury. He was never expected to be more than just a camp arm. However, after a strong showing, and the surprise release of Josh Sitton, Callahan not only made the Packers’ roster, but also spent time on Cleveland and New Orleans’ active squads.
Callahan is not an isolated case. Every year, there are players that make their respective teams in spite of the odds. This is, after all, how guys like C.J. Anderson, Tony Romo, and Malcolm Butler all started. Though some players seem to have their spots entrenched on the team, there are no guarantees in the NFL, and so there are bound to be surprises. With a roster as young and inexperienced as the Jets’, this figures to be especially true. So, here are five dark horse candidates to sneak onto the Jets’ roster:
1. Gabe Marks, undrafted rookie WR out of Washington State
Marks is a quick slot receiver that can move the sticks. Though he is only 5’11”, and ran a fairly modest 40 time at 4.56, he has the most valuable tool a wide receiver can have, that being the ability to separate. Besides being a savvy route runner, Marks is adept at quickly releasing off the line and beating corners into pockets of space, whether that be on slants, red zone fades, or drag routes along the line of scrimmage. Marks also has an innate awareness of the space around him, and is able to use teammates running routes that intersect with his to his advantage in getting him open. This, coupled with steady hands out of the slot, makes Marks a reliable possession option. Marks is also a technician in tracking the deep ball, which makes him more than just a one-dimensional possession receiver, and adds a red zone and deep threat element to his game. If fellow rookie slot receiver ArDarius Stewart is not 100% following his surgeries, look for Marks to make the roster in his stead.
2. Brandon Wilds, RB
Though I projected Jordan Todman to make the roster behind Bilal Powell, Matt Forté, and Elijah McGuire, it was mostly done on a whim. During his brief stint with the Steelers, Todman showed flashes of power and energy while filling in for Le’Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams, and that left an impression on me. However, after a lackluster season with the Colts, I recognize that Todman is no lock to make the team. In fact, there are many ways for Wilds, not Todman, to be the guy when all is said and done. Mostly, it is because the Jets seem to have a “type,” and Wilds fits it. Forté and Powell are both quicker backs that are also adept receivers out of the backfield, with the innate ability to turn upfield and follow blockers. Wilds fits this same mold: though he lacks elite power and vision behind the line, he makes up for it with burst in space. This style of play likens him to Bears running back Jeremy Langford, who was actually supposed to be Forté’s replacement in Chicago at one point. Having already spent a season with the Falcons, Wilds could now make the Jets’ roster with a strong preseason showing, especially if the team decides to move on from Forté.
3. Derrick Jones, rookie CB/Gadget out of Ole Miss
At Mississippi, Jones produced very little. Initially a wide receiver, Jones was a reserve for most of his career, accumulating under 200 total yards over four years. However, when he stepped in at corner, Jones seemed to make an impact from the beginning. In just three starts in his senior season, Jones snagged two interceptions and already began to showcase ball skills and instincts. This, along with great height (6’2”) and athletic testing (11’8” broad jump and 41” vertical), gives Jones real potential to make the 53. Having used guys like Marcus Williams in specialized, “ballhawk”-type roles before, the Jets are no strangers to molding a raw defensive back. With Jones’ explosiveness as a receiver and potential as a return man and special teamer taken into account, Jones could make it extremely difficult for Todd Bowles to cut him.
4. Chris Harper, WR
Like Marks, Harper is another candidate for the Jets’ backup slot receiver position. In terms of physical traits, he is very similar to Marks. Also 5’11”, and with a similar 40 time, Harper projects to have a similar role that Marks would for the Jets. However, his game does differ in a number of ways. While Marks is more reliant on technique and instincts, Harper is far more explosive. While teaming up with Jared Goff at Cal, Harper made numerous diving and leaping catches downfield to secure misplaced throws. Harper is also adept at making players miss in the open field, which could make him a threat both off screens and in the punt return game. This could be what puts him over the top, as Harper has already had experience as a return man while with the Patriots in 2015.
— Bryon Campbell (@BryonCampbell51) June 14, 2017
5. Jason Vander Laan, QB-turned-TE
As a quarterback in a run-centric, read option-heavy offense at Division II Ferris State, Vander Laan did not have a future as an NFL signal caller. However, what he did have coming out of college was a unique athletic skill set and explosive tape. At 6’4” and around 245 pounds, Vander Laan has the frame to be an NFL tight end, and complements that with a lumbering, powerful running style. While running the ball, it often took multiple hits to bring him down. The finishing tackle often had to be a shot at his lower legs to trip him up rather than a true wrap-up tackle. This gives him legitimate upside as a receiving threat, as someone with his size and balance is extremely difficult to bring down after the catch. Vander Laan also regularly broke away from defenders, including smaller defensive backs, which indicates that he is likely faster on the field than his 40 time (4.78) may suggest. After spending time on the Jets’ practice squad last season, Vander Laan figures to really be in the mix this year. With Austin Seferian-Jenkins suspended to start the year, there is a vacancy at tight end, and, depending on his development, Vander Laan could fill it.
Though I only listed these five, there are many more players that could make the roster with a good camp. Brian Parker and Eric Tomlinson are both also competing for the backup tight end spot, and both spent time on the Jets’ roster last season. In fact, Tomlinson actually started multiple games. Linebacker Julian Stanford also has a legitimate shot, as he spent parts of his last two seasons with the Jets. Talented young kicker Ross Martin is another possibility, as he could come improved into his second camp and push Chandler Catanzaro. With as long and unpredictable as this process is, anything is possible.