'It could really be special': Jets' Joe Douglas prepares for potentially historic draft

NC State OT Ikem Ekwonu could be in play for the Jets at No. 4 in the NFL draft. Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It's déjà 2k for the New York Jets.

Twenty-two years after a watershed draft that included four of the first 27 picks, most notably quarterback Chad Pennington, the Jets are in position again to alter the course of the franchise with four choices in the top 38.

Based on the trade-value chart, this year's top four picks actually are more valuable than those four first-rounders from 2000 -- 4,170 points to 3,930. That's because they own the fourth and 10th picks, making it potentially historic. They've never made two top-10 picks in the same draft.

"There’s pressure every offseason, but obviously this year, having four picks in the top 38, if we do this the right way, it could really be special," general manager Joe Douglas said.

Quarterback Zach Wilson, drafted second overall last year, will always be the most important pick of the Douglas-Robert Saleh era. But this is the most important draft, the one that can return the franchise to relevancy and validate a regime that's 13-36 since Douglas become the GM in June 2019.

"It’s everything. It’s huge," NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. "He’s got to hit it in this draft, and he’s got the resources to do it."

Let's dive into the top storylines:

Dilemma at No. 4: Saleh joked recently that he and Douglas are going to have a "bare-knuckle boxing match" to determine if the first pick is an offensive or defensive lineman. There's an old saying that the truth is told in jokes. This isn't to suggest a brawl is looming. Actually, it could be offensive lineman versus defensive back.

Tackle Ikem Ekwonu (North Carolina State) and cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner are thought to be the top candidates, assuming edge rushers Aidan Hutchinson and Travon Walker (Georgia) are off the board.

Douglas is smitten with Ekwonu, according to sources, but they have bigger needs on the defensive line and in the secondary. In recent days, Gardner has gained momentum. Gardner might be the best of the bunch in terms of pure talent -- some talent evaluators rate him the No. 2 prospect in the draft -- and the Jets believe he can be a true lockdown corner. He could be the guy whether Ekwonu is available or not.

In Saleh's attacking scheme, a top edge rusher is more important than a top corner. Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon) and Jermaine Johnson II (Florida State) are popular choices among fans. The Jets like both pass-rushers, especially Johnson, but No. 4 is too high for him. He’d be a strong consideration at No. 10.

Thibodeaux has the higher ceiling, Johnson the higher floor. One key difference is that Johnson has a better motor than Thibodeaux, according to scouting sources -- and motor is important in Saleh's world.

Mt. Becton looms large: There's a ton of speculation surrounding tackle Mekhi Becton, whose standing with the team could determine whether they pick a tackle. The Jets have said all the right things about Becton, who has a surgically repaired knee and a weight issue (he was up to 400 pounds last season), but there's concern within the organization. There also seems to be tension between the team and Becton's camp.

If the Jets draft Ekwonu (or Alabama tackle Evan Neal, for that matter) over the top available defensive player, it will raise questions about Becton’s future. He's already on notice, with Saleh saying in January that Becton will have to battle George Fant to get his starting job back. If they stick to that plan, it means one will begin the season on the bench -- hardly an ideal situation. Fant, entering the final year of his contract ($10.7 million cap hit), is a coaching-staff favorite.

Douglas likes to have a veteran swing tackle, so it's conceivable he could draft Ekwonu and keep Becton and Fant. They'd have great depth, but it wouldn't be the best use of salary-cap funds.

Could Becton get traded during the draft? Never say never in the NFL. It would be a shame to trade a player who was drafted 11th overall only two years ago, a player with obvious talent, but the feeling could change if Ekwonu or Neal falls into their lap. It would be a bad optic for the Jets, who have traded every first-round pick from 2014 to 2018.

A sleeper: Northern Iowa left tackle Trevor Penning is a name to watch but probably only if they trade down from 10. Douglas spent time with him at the Senior Bowl, and he really likes Penning's upside. If they go defense at No. 4, it wouldn't be a total shock if they take Penning at No. 10.

If they pick Gardner or Ekwonu at No. 4, the choice could be Johnson or their highest-rated receiver at No. 10. If they don’t take Gardner, cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. (LSU) would be in the conversation as well.

Deebo vs. draft: As of late Tuesday, the Jets still were interested in disgruntled San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel. There was a feeling that the 49ers are more open to trading him than a few days ago -- if they get their price. Failing a trade, the Jets could find their much-coveted receiver with the 10th pick.

There are mixed signals on which receiver they prefer among Garrett Wilson (Ohio State), Drake London (USC) and Jameson Williams (Alabama). Evaluators seem to agree that Williams has the most upside, but he's coming off ACL surgery and might not play until late fall. It sounds like Wilson could be the preference, but there’s sentiment for London as well.

The Jets could also target a receiver in the second round, considered a sweet spot for the position. Jahan Dotson (Penn State), George Pickens (Georgia) and Treylon Burks (Arkansas) could be intriguing options.