From MetLife to Mobile, Jets head coach Robert Saleh was his usual affable and positive self during Wednesday's early-morning press conference as he and his coaching staff power through their week of preparation and up-close-and-personal interactions with players on the National team ahead of the Reese's Senior Bowl on Saturday.
In possession of nine total picks in April's NFL draft (two each in the first two rounds), Saleh will work more in the background after appointing Ron Middleton (the Jets' tight ends coach) as head coach, and tabbing Mike Rutenberg (linebackers) as the defensive coordinator and Rob Calabrese (quarterbacks) as the offensive coordinator. This year's Senior Bowl is the first time since 1979 (led by HC Walt Michaels) that the Jets' coaching staff has worked the game.
Saleh said that the Jets (and the Lions, under HC Dan Campbell) each has a unique opportunity to do deep dives with about 160 players while coaches and scouts from the other 30 NFL teams look on. The week of on-field and off-field interactions is also a challenge and opportunity for the college players.
"You know, it's been said that you can hide at Combine, but with a week's worth of work it's a lot harder to hide," Saleh said. "So one of the things, maybe the biggest thing is their mentality, their ability to absorb the playbook. So we bring in a playbook that's not so hard that they can't get it, but we also don't want it to be so easy that you can't see if they're able to absorb the information you're giving them. So the mental part is really really big, what they can grasp and how quickly. Remember, NFL game plans change every week.
"The other part is you'll see it's going to be adversity for these kids. Someone's going to drop a pass, miss a block. Think of the pressure on these young men to perform their job under this pressure. When they make a mistake, how do they respond? When they get to a place like New York and get pounded [for a misplay], can he handle it?"
Saleh is not a newbie on a Senior Bowl sideline, having worked the game in 2015 with the Jaguars and in 2019 with the 49ers.
Speaking in general about the challenges faced by these college players -- with a more specific reference to quarterbacks -- Saleh said: "There's a lot of different things I've tried to explain to people. [In the NFL] the windows are a lot tighter, the speed is faster, the defensive lines rush faster. Adjustment is not so much their ability to play football. It's the processing, getting the ball out, how will they respond when that first 300-pound lineman with the 4.8 in the 40 lands on top of you. There's things, challenges that you never quite know until what happens happens. You do as much research as you can find out about their makeup. Playing quarterback is not easy, it's the hardest job in pro football. You look at the ability to process information, physical toughness and arm talent. The biggest thing is mental toughness."
Though Saleh said on Wednesday that he and his staff would look at quarterbacks leading up to the 72nd edition of the Senior Bowl (he mentioned that Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett "has been great in the room"), Saleh says he's all in on Zach Wilson after the No. 2 draft pick's first NFL season.
"It was cool to see Zach, especially after he had a first half of the season where things weren't going well for him," Saleh said. "Then he missed four games and really got to see the game run through the lens of Joe Flacco, Mike White and Josh Johnson -- all three of those guys performed at a high level. When he came back in he was able to reset and create more consistency in the way he played, he was able to get better every single week. Nothing he did was fake. He hit kind of an apex with the Tampa Bay game. He's got tremendous arm talent, he's got the toughness we look for. And for him, it's just a matter of feeling the pocket and under pressure how to play in the pocket. All that off-sked stuff is going to happen, and that's what he's great at. I feel he took a great step this year. Now it's a matter of attacking the offseason and doing all he can to prepare himself for OTAs, training camp and Week 1."
He added: "Even when we have our starting quarterback, we're still zoning in on quarterback. You have to keep your mind fresh, homed in on all of them. You never know where you're going to find someone special. If we do anything less than exhaust our energy at all position groups we might miss something cool. So we're always looking as hard as we can."
Some of Saleh's other quick hits:
• On strengthening the defensive line: "Obviously this is the on-the-fence answer ... you know how I am about the pass rush. It's the one group that makes everyone better on defense and it's the one group that can take away everyone on the offense. And so improving the D-line is always going to be important. Even when it's as good as it's going to get, we're always going to want to improve that group. So it's something we're always looking at and will always look at no matter how good we get."
• On Brian Flores and minority head coaches, of which Saleh, an Arab American, is one: "From my interactions with BFlo, he's a phenomenal coach who always gives us a headache wherever he's been. A standup guy, a good man. I know they're [the league office] working diligently to try to rectify this thing and thrust minorities into prominent roles. Is it tough right now? For sure. But I know the NFL is trying hard and we're eventually going to get there and get it right. From my personal experience -- I can only speak for me -- you try to do good by people. I'm an eternal optimist, I always see the good in people."
• On the biggest challenge as a rookie head coach: "The administrative part was tough. The media ... they're wonderful but they can be hard, but they're awesome. The administrative part was the biggest thing, making adjustments with a constant to-do list instead of watching teape. But it's a blessing. I'm one of 32. I'm blessed every day."
See head coach Robert Saleh and the Jets staff on the practice field with the National Team leading up to the Senior Bowl in Mobile.