A Cannon ball! Why Jets took the plunge for a small-school RB

When New York Jets special-teams coordinator Brant Boyer checked his inbox last season, he'd periodically find an email from Reggie Barlow, one of his old teammates with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Boyer knew exactly what each one contained:

Video clips of Trenton Cannon, a touchdown machine at Division II Virginia State.

Barlow, the school's head coach, did the work of a skilled PR man, promoting his player by sending out clips to some of his NFL friends. He and Boyer have what he describes as "a real cool relationship" -- Barlow returned punts and kickoffs for the Jaguars and Boyer blocked for him -- so he made sure to keep his buddy in the loop on Cannon.

Thanks to the Boyer-Barlow relationship, the Jets developed an affinity for Cannon and drafted him in the sixth round, making him the first player drafted from Virginia State since 1996. They believe Cannon can make an immediate impact as a return specialist, a position that has haunted the Jets in recent years. His first real opportunity will happen Tuesday, when the team conducts its first OTA practice.

This is how it goes in scouting. Coaches, general managers and scouts rely on their connections to get inside information on potential sleepers. Everybody knows about the big names such as Sam Darnold, Saquon Barkley and Baker Mayfield, prospects whose pro days and combine performances are featured on national TV. It's a different ballgame with small-school players. NFL evaluators need to be like investigative reporters, digging from crumbs of intel.

"Brant Boyer did a great job with researching this guy and studying him over the last two years," Barlow told ESPN. "Coach Boyer and I have a relationship where he can trust that we see this guy and we think he's an NFL-caliber player. I think it's great that the Jets did their homework."

Barlow sent a variety of clips to Boyer, showing Cannon as a running back, slot receiver and kickoff returner. Boyer watched every video, often responding to Barlow with an enthusiastic comment about Cannon's potential.

There was a lot to like last season as Cannon scored 22 touchdowns -- 17 rushing, three receiving and two on kickoffs. He averaged 33 yards per kickoff return, which excited Boyer, who spent two days at the Petersburg, Virginia, school during the run-up to the draft. He met with Cannon and worked him out, mainly studying his ability to return punts, something he didn't do in college.

"He was extremely thorough," Barlow said of Boyer. "He came down, spent some time on campus, watching film. What I thought was really huge was [him saying], 'Let's make sure this guy fits the pedigree of a New York Jet. Let me talk with him.'"

So they talked.

"Typically, the first-round guys and maybe the second-round guys get that type of detailed attention," Barlow said. "[Boyer] knows how critical that position is to create that positive field position for yourself. I commend him on doing his homework and finding the guy that fits what the New York Jets are all about. He took the time to get to know him as a person."

Cannon created a buzz in the scouting community when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds at his pro day at the University of Richmond. It was a chilly day, with temperatures in the mid-40s. The perimeter of the field was covered with snow, but Cannon came out smoking.

"This was a guy that really kind of caught [Boyer's] eye, and our scouts liked him, too," Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan said. "He's an interesting guy. He's very athletic, maybe slightly undersized (5-foot-11, 185 pounds). We're going to use him as a running back, or line him up as a running back, but obviously our focus is to see how he can impact us as a returner. That's the part where we're very interested to see how he does."

Let's not sugarcoat it: The Jets are desperate for a competent returner.

In 2017, they averaged a league-low 4.5 yards on punt returns, barely exceeding what their leading rusher, Bilal Powell, averaged on runs from scrimmage (4.4). Since 2013, the Jets are ranked 32nd in punt return average and 22nd in kickoff return average. The Jets are one of only six teams since 2013 that hasn't returned a punt or kickoff for a touchdown.

So, yes, they need an explosive player. Who better than someone named Cannon?

"I played in the league for eight years and I know the pyramid you need to fit as far as size, weight, ability and explosiveness," Barlow said. "There aren't very many people I've seen that have that like Trent."