In the summer of 1995 at their Hofstra University training camp facility, the Jets took a flyer on an undrafted free agent wide receiver coming out of their host school.
The Wayne Chrebet story was born.
Despite given scant odds to survive roster cuts, Chrebet made play after play throughout the preseason and earned the right to begin what became a celebrated 11-year career for New York.
While such achievements are rare for undrafted free agents, they do play more frequently than most folks think. A 2017 SB Nation study among players with at least 40% of their team’s offensive or defensive snap counts indicated that undrafted free agents accounted for 17% of the league. Wide receiver Robby Anderson, who signed with the Jets after going undrafted in 2016, was Gang Green’s most feared weapon last season.
As you’d expect from prior general manager Mike Maccagnan, the Jets’ recent record on undrafted free agents hasn’t exactly unearthed a host of hidden gems. Since 2016, only defensive lineman Kyle Phillips and linebacker Frankie Luvu have had more than a cup of coffee on the field.
Will any of the nine players new GM Joe Douglas signed in his first crop of undrafted free agents even make it to the regular season? Here are my best bets:
1) Lawrence Cager, WR, Georgia
With Quincy Enunwa sent to the PUP list last week, the Jets could use another possession receiver. They picked up Josh Doctson, a former Washington first-round pick who is on his third team in five seasons, in free agency. Since Doctson has zero special teams value, he might not beat out Cager for the spot.
Though lacking burner speed, the six-foot five, 220-pound Cager averaged 3.33 yards per route run last season, according to ProFootballFocus.com, which ranked 16th among 327 receivers in the nation with more than 30 receptions. And he catches almost everything. Of the 37 receivers selected in a super deep class, only LSU’s Justin Jefferson, Minnesota’s first-round pick, recorded a higher percentage of receptions when targeted—by a few thousandths of a point. Cager excelled at contested catches (12 of 14 targets, per PFF) and produced touchdowns once every 5.6 touches.
In a marquee matchup versus Florida cornerback C.J. Henderson, who Jacksonville took with the ninth overall selection, Cager went off for seven receptions for 132 yards with a touchdown and a two-point conversion (though not all when covered by Henderson). Earlier, he had 5/82/1 against then seventh-ranked Notre Dame. Cager likely dropped out of the draft due to injury concerns—shoulder woes sidelined him for a few weeks in October and then he hurt his ankle at a November practice. Surgery ended his season and prevented him from performing drills at the NFL Combine. Cager claims he’s healthy now—he’ll be a player to watch this training camp.
2) Jared Hilbers, OL, Washington
Douglas’ supposed area of expertise is offensive line, where he played at Richmond. He must have seen something in Hilbers, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound tackle out of Washington. A good bet is Hilbers’ versatility, since he was asked to swing between the left and right side in his three collegiate seasons. Hilbers is also sound fundamentally, according to scouts, which helps him make up for lagging quickness and strength. Per PFF, Hilbers allowed two sacks, three QB hits and seven hurries in 453 pass block snaps last season.
More importantly, PFF graded him out as above average in “true pass sets,” which doesn’t include screens, rollouts or play actions. Granted, the Jets previously ratcheted up their depth along the line this offseason. At tackle, Mekhi Becton was selected with the 11th overall pick in the draft and Cameron Clark was taken in the fourth round while George Fant got $8.85 million guaranteed this season from Douglas in free agency. Also, Chuma Edoga is returning for his sophomore season, making for a bit of a crowd for Hilbers to push through. Still, how high must Douglas be on Hilbers? Per ESPN’s Rich Cimini, Douglas gave Hilbers a $62,000 guarantee (teams have $123,279 in total bonus pool money for undrafted free agents, per spotrac.com).
3) Javelin Guidry, DB, Utah
In a close call with fellow undrafted free agent cornerback Lamar Jackson (Nebraska), I’m going with Guidry’s 4.29/40 speed. Memphis’ explosive edge rusher Bryce Huff also earned some consideration here, but I don’t see how he’ll beat out third-round pick Jabari Zuniga, who apparently entered this draft without the same work ethic concerns of former Florida teammate and 2019 third-round Jets bust Jachai Polite.
Guidry, though, has to shed the label that he’ll be the next Kyle Wilson/Buster Skrine, two former Jets stiffs who did a lot of things right in coverage until the ball actually arrived. Scouts have similarly knocked Guidry’s substandard ball skills at opposing receivers’ catch points. At 5 feet 9 inches, Guidry seems best suited to the slot, except he didn’t play it all that well last season at Utah, allowing a 70.3% completion percentage on 64 targets and 11.5 yards per coverage snap, per PFF.
In three seasons across 1,132 coverage snaps, Guidry only managed three interceptions and 13 pass breakups. So, why am I giving him the edge over the 6-foot-2, better playmaking Jackson? Fit—the Jets’ corners generally lack the speed to prevent bombs over the top. Guidry’s best trait is his downfield man coverage because of how quickly he makes up ground. Despite the size difference, scouts also consider Guidry a superior tackler than Jackson. At worst, Guidry has the potential to excel on special teams.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.