The New York Jets have a large contingency in Indianapolis this weekend as the National Football League holds its annual combine at the RCA Dome. With more than a year of head coaching experience, Eric Mangini talked Friday in Indy about the advantage of both familiarity and balance.
"It seems like we were here not too long ago, but it's been an exciting year," he said during a 15 minute briefing with the media at the Dome. "Obviously for us, this is a different draft and a different experience because we have worked together as a staff. We have more familiarity with our players and more familiarity with the system. We have the ability to evaluate what we did last year, take that into account and use that moving forward. The players and coaches have a better understanding of expectations, so it is an exciting time for us."
While the NFL Draft is still two months away, the League's free agency/trading period commences next Friday – March 2 – at midnight.
"I think you can build a team both ways and be successful. What we are trying to do is use the two and make sure we are addressing the needs of the team in every area possible," Mangini said. "You may be able to fill a need in free agency, than we don't have to fill in the draft or get something in the draft that we don't have to address in free agency. It's balancing the different elements to try to improve the team."
Last April, the Jets earned high marks for their first draft under GM Mike Tannenbaum and Mangini. Both of the club's first round selections in '06 – left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson (#4 overall) and center Nick Mangold (#29 overall) – started every game their rookie season, but Mangini was quick to praise the entire class.
"They consistently made progress throughout the season and made significant contributions to the success of the team. It just wasn't D'Brickashaw and Nick," he said. "It was right on down the line whether it was Leon (Washington) or Brad (Smith) or Drew Coleman, Eric Smith, Kellen (Clemens)… I was pleased with that group as a whole and the type of people they were."
Kellen Clemens, a strong-armed passer who was selected in the second round from Oregon, took a few snaps for the Jets last season. But Clemens spent the majority of the time learning in a reserve role behind Chad Pennington, the AP Comeback Player of the Year.
"Chad did an outstanding job for us as the starter and he is the starter," Mangini said. "Kellen has a better understanding of what it takes to be a starter in the NFL after spending a year in the system. As with every position we have, each week you have an opportunity to move forward and each year you have an opportunity to move forward. That is going to take a lot of hard work and Chad has done an outstanding job, and he'll be the starter into camp."
Leon Washington, a fourth round selection in 2006 from Florida State, emerged as the Jets' leading rusher with 650 regular season ground yards. The Jets used a committee approach at running back last year and Mangini is not prepared to name a feature back.
"Whoever gives us the best chance to win that week is who is going to play," he said Friday. "I don't necessarily think it's a set formula going into the season."
The Jets do have a formula for building a winner. After their 10-win campaign and postseason berth, the Green & White have positioned themselves with flexibility under the cap. Mangini says a selling point for New York's AFC representative is equity.
"One of the things Mike and I are very proud of is we do consistently play the best players," he said. "Everybody has an opportunity to play regardless of contact, draft status, or whatever the case may be. We are committed to that and that is a compelling thing to any free agent looking to join a team."
But don't expect the Jets to throw huge money at a bunch of high-priced free agents at the expense of depth. Even though they escaped major injury last season, the Green & White want to maintain a roster with competent reserves.
"You are always trying to have balance, to be able to build the front line but also depth, and be able to spend money as wisely was possible," Mangini said. "You are always going to have to deal with injuries. To be able to have that next player step in and do the job again is why the draft is so important because the younger players provide a foundation and provide some balance for the cap."
The Jets will watch the college prospects perform this weekend in a myriad of speed, strength and agility drills. But they will also interview potential prospects and challenge them, testing both character and intelligence. Due to free agency, Mangini says the draft is more important now than ever before.
"I think the draft has always been very important, especially the need to get good young players in and develop those young players," he said. "With free agency and people moving on, you need to have young players in place to assume their role. I think it has always been an extremely important and especially now it may be even more so."
There will be a number of roster changes in the coming months for the Jets. Talent is important but personnel will only be considered if they fit the system.
"I think every year there are good players available," Mangini said. "It's important not just to find good players but the players that are good for you. That is something we try to do is identify the players that are the best for the New York Jets. Even though they are outstanding players, they might not be quite the right fit for your system or your team."
Notes: The Jets formally announced their coaching staff changes this past week. Brian Daboll, who spent the previous seven seasons in New England, is the club's new quarterback coach. Mangini said Daboll worked under him as a defensive assistant with the Patriots. "I really respected him – not just as a person – but what he did with the group he had this year and what he did when he was working directly with me."… The Jets removed one player from their offensive backfield when they released veteran RB Kevan Barlow on Wednesday. "I really like Kevan personally and he did a lot of good things for us," Mangini said. "At this point it was just good for both of us to move forward. I was pleased with the things that he did, and I had a really great conversation with him the other day. I wish him nothing but success in the future."