Evaluating Jalen Saunders’ Fit With the New York Jets
The New York Jets ignored all conventional expectations for how they would approach the NFL Draft by waiting until the fourth round to select a receiver, when they chose slot receiver Jalen Saunders. The Jets needed a faster receiver to pair with Eric Decker, but they already have Jeremy Kerley in the slot. Still, Saunders gives the Jets another weapon, and they will find a way to work him into the rotation at receiver.
Saunders is very small, checking in at just 5’9″, 165 lbs. However, he has 4.4 speed and is very quick in and out of his breaks, with good hands and route running ability. Saunders has the potential to turn every short catch into a big gain, something the Jets lacked last season. He is essentially exactly what you would expect from an NFL slot receiver.
The first thing Saunders will do for the Jets is take over punt return responsibilities, and he will probably handle kick returns as well. Offensively, however, things are less clear. The Jets already have a solid slot receiver in Kerley, who has led the team in receptions and yards in each of the last two seasons. Kerley is physically bigger and stronger than Saunders, but no taller, and doesn’t fit well on the outside. The Jets also will likely use a two tight end set as the base offense, with Jace Amaro as the de facto No. 2 receiver. The addition of Saunders means that Marty Mornhinweg will have to do a lot of mixing and matching with personnel.
Saunders’ after the catch ability does demand some time on the field, however, so look for the Jets to get creative with three and four receiver sets that move Kerley and Saunders around and try to get them into space. They only have to look to the rival New England Patriots to see how to run an offense focused on slot receivers, and the Jets should have plenty of ideas of how to use Saunders and Kerley together.
Saunders is the safest bet to make the team at receiver after Decker and Kerley, and he was certainly a high enough pick to warrant a roster spot. However, playing time could be difficult to come by as a rookie, because he is simply too similar to Kerley. Kerley is just a better player than Saunders at this point, and although they will certainly share the field some, Saunders will likely make a bigger impact as a return man than a receiver as a rookie.