In what felt like the blink of an eye, the 2023 NFL Draft has come and gone. The Jets, who came into Thursday with five total selections, made seven selections over the course of the seven-round draft.
The team’s draft began in the first round, as with the 15th overall selection, the Jets took Will McDonald out of Iowa State. Initially, this pick caused some confusion, as other players on the board seemed like better fits for the Jets’ current roster. With offensive tackle Broderick Jones going one pick ahead of New York, wide receiver Jaxon Smith-Njigba would have been a great addition to the team’s collection of weapons. In addition, Georgia edge rusher Nolan Smith, who is a very similar mold to McDonald, would have been able to play a role as a pass rusher in the Jets’ defense.
Yet, the pick makes more sense once looking at what McDonald brings to the table and how the Jets may try to utilize him. McDonald possesses impressive athleticism and agility for the position, highlighted by a 6.85 three-cone, a 36-inch vertical, and an 11-foot broad jump. Using this athleticism and his above-average length, McDonald is a dangerous pass rusher; according to PFF, he posted an 84.2 pass-rush grade and had a 16.8 pass-rush win rate in 2022. And while he struggled in the running game, this may be a result of where he lined up. McDonald had over 50 snaps on defense lining up in the B-Gap or over the tackle.
One could argue that the Jets saw what McDonald could bring to the table as a pass rusher and knew they would not need to play him inside. In addition, McDonald gives the Jets future depth at the edge rusher position; if one or both of Carl Lawson and Bryce Huff depart after the season, McDonald would still be paired with Jermaine Johnson on the team’s defensive line.
Speaking after the selection, head coach Robert Saleh said that McDonald has “a unique ability to catch the corner, and he’s got elite length to get the ball out, so he’s going to be special.” Saleh and General Manager Joe Douglas also said that Randy Gregory or Brain Burns are two potential comparisons for the player that McDonald could become.
After adding to their edge rusher group, the Jets addressed the trenches on the offensive side with their next two picks. In round two, the Jets selected Joe Tippmann, the center out of Wisconsin, and then selected former Pitt offensive tackle Carter Warren in the fourth round.
Tippmann can potentially be the Jets’ current and future solution at the center position. As a run blocker, Tippmann has posted positive PFF grades of 85.0 and 78.3 in his past two seasons. He uses athleticism and strength to his advantage in this area; according to Bruce Feldman’s 2022 Freaks List published last summer, Tippmann runs a 4.31 20-yard shuttle and posts a 1.65-ten-yard split. In the passing game, Tippmann has only allowed one sack and four total quarterback hits over the past two seasons.
Tippmann’s size may sometimes cause leverage issues, as he stands at 6-foot-6-inches. But despite this, Tippmann should be an asset to a Jets offensive line that needs the depth and talent he brings.
Warren adds more depth to the Jets’ offensive line, specifically at tackle. Considered to be worth a possible Day Two pick if not for a knee injury, Warren’s best trait is his pass blocking. Warren uses his arm length, which measures 35 3/8 inches, to control rushers in the passing game. He improved his PFF Pass Blocking grade in his four seasons, culminating in an 81.5 grade in the 2022 season. In addition, Warren only gave up one sack in 103 pass-blocking snaps in the four games he started last season.
On Tippmann, Joe Douglas said he has “excellent size” and “excellent feet.” He also called the center a “natural fit for our offensive style” and someone that “can provide a lot of versatility to our interior.”
Douglas also spoke about Warren and what he will bring to the team’s offensive line.
“Again, his athleticism. It’s feet, balance, lateral agility. He’s a natural pass protector. Really good bend in his lower body, hips, knees, ankles. The length, 35+ arms, so he can keep those edge rushers off his body, out of his frame, so the natural pass protection ability is evident. Those guys are good at left and right tackle. Again, a smart, versatile guy, which is key for our unit.”
After the Warren selection, the Jets went with the University of Pittsburgh running back Israel Abanikanda. Abanikanda brings more explosiveness and speed to the Jets’ backfield and running back position, highlighted by his unofficial 4.39 forty-yard dash and a 41-inch vertical jump. With his speed, Abanikanda threatens to break open plays at any level of the field. He had 19 carries of over 15 yards or more, had 46 missed tackles, and had 782 yards before contact. Abanikanda, in the Jets’ zone-based scheme, could potentially be a nice complement to Breece Hall this upcoming season.
The Jets selected Zaire Barnes, Jarrick Bernard-Converse, and Zack Kuntz to round out the draft. Barnes, who is out of Western Michigan, should be able to use his athleticism to add value to special teams and have a shot in the future for reps at the linebacker position. Bernard-Converse, who played at Oklahoma State and LSU, adds depth to the secondary, as he is experienced playing both cornerback and safety.
Saleh spoke about Bernard-Converse, saying that “he does fit the mindset that we play with on defense” and that the LSU prospect is very smart and instinctive. The Jets’ head coach also spoke about Barnes’s fit on the Jets’ roster.
“We just felt like with his makeup and his versatility and speed, especially his speed, and length, that he would translate really well into our system, so he’s going to come in here and get an opportunity to compete for that third spot and contribute on special teams and see where he takes it. Really, really excited about that kid.”
Kuntz is an ultra-athletic tight end from Old Dominion; he posted a 4.55 40-yard dash, a 40-inch vertical, and a 10-foot broad jump. Combined with his frame of 6-foot-7-inches and 255 pounds, Kuntz has the best RAS score ever recorded by a tight end at a perfect 10.00. With this frame, Kuntz could immediately provide some value in the red zone and potentially develop into another weapon for the Jets offense.
Douglas discussed the team’s reasoning for adding Kuntz in the seventh round.
“Yeah, he tested through the roof, so we were sitting there at the top of the seventh round and just going through some of the guys who just had that freak factor to him, and he was right there at the top – the size, the speed, the length, the jump, just everything.”
Even with all of the team’s additions, it is reasonable not to be completely thrilled with the Jets’ 2023 draft class. Between not adding a premium offensive tackle, passing on both safety and interior defensive linemen, and reaching for players seemingly available later in the draft, this class does not line up for what many would consider a team in a “win-now” window.
Yet, this draft class showed the Jets’ commitment to their team-building philosophy and strategy. The team filled current holes, such as linebacker and center, while reinforcing other positions, such as edge rusher, tackle, and running back, to ensure they are strengths on the roster. In addition, the team added plus athletes at almost every selection; out of their seven picks, McDonald, Abanikanda, Barnes, Bernard-Converse, and Kuntz all had RAS scores of 9 or higher. The Jets seemingly want to add athleticism at almost every level of their roster, and this draft showed the attempted execution of that goal.
The truth about the Jets’ 2023 draft class will not start to unfold until the live reps of the regular season begin. But unlike past seasons, where the class would have been in a rebuilding window, this draft class will have their outlook judged upon their ability to contribute to the success of the contending, Aaron Rodgers-led Jets. If they can contribute to helping break the longest playoff drought in professional sports, this draft class will already have a positive outlook.
Many months still need to pass to determine whether the Jets made the right selections and, ultimately, how those selections will impact their season. Regardless of the choices being right or wrong, though, this past draft class showed an increased commitment by the organization to continue adding athletic ability and depth to an already talented roster.