Finding (their) Deebo: Inside the New York Jets' Senior Bowl experience

MOBILE, Ala. -- At a rain-soaked practice, New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas -- sans umbrella -- walked to the middle of the field and chatted up a highly-rated offensive tackle in between series. As the league's scouting community watched from afar in the stands at South Alabama's Hancock-Whitney Stadium, Douglas held a two-minute, get-acquainted visit with Northern Iowa's Trevor Penning, who flattened a defender upon returning to the action.

For Douglas, an NFL lifer experiencing the Senior Bowl for the first time from this angle, it was a pancake with whipped cream on top.

After practice, Jets coach Robert Saleh bounced around the Mobile Convention Center, which was transformed into a multiplex theater of sorts -- a giant ballroom divided into smaller rooms for each position group. Toting a leather backpack and a legal-sized leather binder, Saleh -- in an advisory role for the week -- was seen slipping quietly into the back of each film session and jotting observations on his pad, according to staffers.

This was how it went all week for the Jets at the Senior Bowl, where they coached the National team in the annual all-star event. (The Detroit Lions coached the American squad.) No team covets this assignment -- it goes to the two teams with the worst records that didn't change coaches -- but it's a valuable tool in the pre-draft process.

From Monday to Saturday, for 16 to 18 hours per day, the Jets' coaches enjoyed hands-on access to 60-plus players. That covered practice time, meeting time, meal time, elevator rides, chance meetings at the hotel coffee shop, you name it. On Friday, the coaches met with the personnel department at the team hotel to exchange intel, building a dossier on each player as part of their draft prep.

For the Jets, who own four of the top 38 selections in the April draft, the Senior Bowl was more than an opportunity to evaluate on-field performance. It was a people search. In an effort to build a winning culture, they want strong-minded, high-character players who won't crack at the first hint of adversity. New York is a tough place to play, and it can be downright nasty for a perennial loser. The negativity seemingly never stops.

For instance: On Wednesday night, Stephen Colbert of CBS' "The Late Show with Stephen Colbert" trolled the Jets in his monologue. Referencing former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores' allegations against owner Stephen Ross, whom he accused of offering $100,000 per loss in 2019, Colbert cracked, "Wow, what a waste of money. The Jets will lose for free."

It's the Kermit Syndrome: It isn't easy being green, especially with the NFL's longest active playoff drought (11 years). The relentlessly optimistic Saleh wants to change that perception, but he needs to fill his locker room with the right people, team-first players who won't pout when something goes wrong.

"When a player gets to New York and he gets pounded for something, can he handle it?" Saleh said. "That's a real thing. Those are things we're always looking at."

Which made their six days in Mobile so important.

True character revealed

A dazzling week at the Senior Bowl can launch a player's career. Take defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, for instance. He was a one-year player at the University of Hawaii, an unheralded linebacker who raised his pro stock at the 2000 Senior Bowl. He wound up a third-round pick that year, three rounds ahead of legendary quarterback Tom Brady, he likes to tell people.

Ulbrich seized his moment and enjoyed a 10-year career, and now he and his fellow staffers were on a mission to find players who wanted to grab their moment. They studied the players, looking for positive and negative tells, on and off the field.

They noticed how Boston College guard Zion Johnson, trying to learn the center position, stayed after practice to work on his snapping. They appreciated Penning's willingness to take some reps at guard, which will increase his draft value.

They also noticed how certain players, notably Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett and Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder, were able to learn their plays in short order, a sure sign they had studied during their free time. They saw which players took notes in meetings, which players asked perceptive questions and -- on the flip side -- which players seemed disinterested.

Basically, it was a week-long job interview.

"You can hide at the combine, but in a week's worth of work, it's a lot harder to hide," said Saleh, explaining the benefit of coaching the Senior Bowl as compared to evaluating players at next month's scouting combine in Indianapolis. "Your true character reveals itself."

In Mobile, every team was permitted to interview each player for 15 minutes, the NFL version of speed dating. (They actually had a buzzer at the two-minute warning.) The Jets conducted those interviews in addition to their all-day access to the players, which 30 other teams didn't have.

"It's immeasurable," said tight ends coach Ron Middleton, the Senior Bowl head coach. "It's huge."

There's a scouting axiom, "The tape doesn't lie." It doesn't, but the tape doesn't show a player's leadership traits and mental makeup. Those characteristics are especially important for the Jets, who recognize that a rebuilding phase isn't for everyone. Losing can erode a player's competitive soul and turn him into a malcontent -- i.e. safety Jamal Adams and running back Le'Veon Bell, both of whom were shipped out of town in recent years.

"I try to tell them, everything you do is being evaluated, from the way you act in the dining hall to how you treat the housekeeping," Middleton said at mid-week. "Are you attentive and engaged in meetings? If I had my choice, I'd rather not be with a butthole and dealing with that."

With Middleton serving as head coach, Saleh and his coordinators stepped to the side, giving the less experienced assistants on the staff a chance to lead position groups and entire units -- a new format hatched by Senior Bowl organizers. It was Middleton's fifth Senior Bowl as a coach, prompting him to joke, "I think they have a plaque up."

Saleh, too, had done this before, most recently as a San Francisco 49ers assistant in 2019. That year, they were blown away by a wide receiver named Deebo Samuel, who impressed the 49ers' brass with his competitiveness and love of the game. They detected an aura that could only be felt by being near him, as opposed to watching from the bleachers. They also noticed how he always took the early practice shuttle to the stadium, just to get extra work.

"Our guys, coach Kyle [Shanahan] and his offensive staff, absolutely fell in love with that young man," Saleh said.

Three months later, the 49ers drafted Samuel in the second round, and now he's one of the sport's young stars.

Can the Jets find their Deebo?

In a bygone era, their version of Deebo was pass-rusher Mark Gastineau, an 11th-hour invite in 1979 -- the Jets' previous Senior Bowl coaching assignment. A relative unknown out of East Central Oklahoma, he blew it up with his speed, got drafted in the second round and enjoyed a Ring-of-Honor career.

The Senior Bowl's history is filled with famous marriages. In 2004, the San Diego Chargers developed a crush for quarterback Philip Rivers, who would become their all-time leading passer. In 2007, the 49ers drafted linebacker Patrick Willis and tackle Joe Staley in the first round after coaching them in the Senior Bowl. They noted how Willis was voted a game captain by his teammates at the end of the week, and "that kind of solidified it for us," former 49ers coach Mike Nolan recalled.

"If you've coached a guy for a week, you know a lot more about him than you would just going and working him out and taking him out to dinner and shooting the bull with him," said Nolan, who coached nine Senior Bowls. "It's not even close."

This doesn't mean the Jets will use a bunch of their nine draft choices on players from their Senior Bowl roster; in fact, statistics show teams that coach the game aren't more likely to draft those players. But all it takes is one special player to make it worthwhile.

High-energy approach

For the most part, the Jets' coaching staff is young and energetic, reflecting Saleh's personality. That was apparent on the practice field, where the coaches were loud, active and supportive. At times, mainly off the field, they lightened the mood and tried to inject some fun into a tense week for the players.

Aside from relieving stress, it allowed the Jets to see how the players reacted to their coaching style. After all, not every team coaches the same way. Fit is so vital at all levels of the NFL.

"I definitely got that vibe," Ohio State tight end Jeremy Ruckert said of the high-energy approach."[Saleh] really cares about the guys and you could sense the respect he has for us. He explained everything, telling us what to do and what not to do. We saw his culture on the first day. I appreciate that. I like that in a coach."

Colorado State tight end Trey McBride said of Saleh, "I really like what he's doing. He'll tell you straight up how it is."

Another objective was to test the players' mental acumen. How quickly can they absorb a playbook? Game plans change every week during the regular season, so players have to learn new concepts and take them to the practice field. The Jets tried to find a happy medium, not overwhelming them with information but not skimping, either. It's the old Dixie-cup approach: Fill it up until it's full.

Nevada quarterback Carson Strong said he botched a couple of playcalls at practice, "which is never a good position to be in when you play quarterback," but he appreciated that his coach didn't yell and criticize. The coaches tried to create a positive environment.

Of course, none of this "insider trading" guarantees anything. Exhibit A: Cincinnati Bengals tight end C.J. Uzomah, who played in the 2015 Senior Bowl.

Middleton, who coached that game as a member of the Jacksonville Jaguars' staff, was struck by Uzomah's physical attributes -- "A big, pretty thing" -- and toughness. Uzomah practiced with an injury, refusing to sit out, but it affected his performance. The coach second-guessed himself for failing to recognize his talent. That they shared the same alma mater -- Auburn -- added to Middleton's lament.

"At the end, I didn't see it," he said, shaking his head. "Now look at him. He's all-everything and the kid is going to the Super Bowl and all that."

The Jets haven't been to a Super Bowl in 53 years. They have a long way to go, coming off a 4-13 season, but they see hope for 2022 and beyond. Maybe their week in Mobile will be remembered as the turning point.

ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter Mike Triplett contributed to this report.