There aren’t many things in the NFL that genuinely shock me.
The Jets waiving Jachai Polite before Week 1 of his rookie year genuinely shocked me. Why wouldn’t it? Teams don’t give up on early picks so soon.
The Jets are cutting third-round LB Jachai Polite, source confirms. I believe this is the first time since 1986 (!) they’ve cut a rookie picked in the first three rounds before the regular season. FYI: Doug Williams, OT, second round, 1986. #Jets— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) August 31, 2019
I have tried to sort through my thoughts over the last day or two. Here is what I came up with.
Not about talent
If you are only viewing this decision through the lens of talent, it makes no sense. The Jets have nothing at edge rusher. While Polite was a nonentity in preseason, he had the most upside of any edge player the Jets had in camp.
Talent isn’t everything
Talent is a very important in the NFL, but it is not the only thing that matters.
In college football the chasm between good players and bad players is large. Somebody can coast on their raw ability and still produce.
The difference between good players and bad players is much smaller in the NFL. Those in NFL training camps are the top 3,000 football players in the world (give or take). You can have all of the ability in the world. If you aren’t willing to put in the work, you won’t succeed.
It isn’t an either/or deal. The top players in the league have talent. They also watch film, work on their technique, get themselves into shape, and are receptive to coaching. The competition is too good in this league to have success while coasting.
This speaks to the balance teams need to strike. Talent matters quite a bit in the NFL, but it is not the only thing that matters. The talented underachieving team is almost a cliche at this point.
The best teams don’t just have talent. Their best players lead by example. They are the hardest workers in the building. It sends a message to everybody else. If our best player is working this hard, I don’t have any room to slack off.
Sometimes teams get into trouble by letting talented players get away with too much. The top players on a team will always have more leeway than bottom of the roster types, but at some point the line needs to be drawn.
Polite’s issues went beyond an invisible performance in preseason games. He was apparently able to rack up over $100,000 in fines in his short time with the Jets, indicating his poor on field showing was likely the residue of poor preparation habits.
In this context it seems to me like this was the right move. Every decision a team makes sends a nonverbal message to the players in the locker room. Keeping Polite would have said status as a high Draft pick allows you to get away with anything.
By letting him go, the Jets sent a different message. If you don’t do what you are supposed to do, you will be gone. If you think we are joking, we cut a premium Draft pick.
Of course you don’t want to take things to the extreme and start running players out of town for minor infractions. It is also easier for Joe Douglas to do this with a player somebody else drafted and his head coach never wanted. Still for a locker room that has seemingly lacked accountability for years, it feels refreshing to see an undeserving player not saved by his Draft status.
Maccagnan’s final gift
Everybody knew the story on Jachai Polite prior to the Draft. He had some very impressive tape paired with red flags from a disastrous pre-Draft process.
Sometimes red flags are signs of danger. Sometimes they are overblown. The most important job of scouts might be in figuring out what red flags actually mean.
There are fans who can break down film just as well as the professionals in front offices. That might sound ridiculous to hear, but it is true. You can find tremendous film analysts on the internet who put together scouting reports comparable to those you see in the NFL.
What scouts have is access. They have the ability to learn about a player’s life. They can find out what makes these prospects tick. It is their job to project how hard these prospects will work once they get into the NFL. They need to get to the bottom of how legitimate these red flags were. If there are issues, is the player likely to mature? Can your locker room provide the infrastructure to allow the player to flourish?
These aren’t easy questions to answer, but that’s why NFL teams want them. They are supposed to come up with accurate answers.
Polite is the type of player that tells you about how good your general manager and scouting department are. I said it myself when the Jets picked him. I could judge Polite’s film, which was first round material. The red flags were not something I was in a position to judge. Neither were you. Neither were those in the media. The teams had to figure this out.
What we have learned in the last few days is that Mike Maccagnan and his front office whiffed terribly. It isn’t just that they got this one wrong. The evidence suggests that the Jets were the only team in the NFL that rated Polite as anything close to a third round prospect.
Just think about it. Imagine you had a third round grade on a pass rushing prospect. He gets waived at the end of preseason a few months after the Draft. Wouldn’t you put in a waiver claim? It’s not low risk-high reward. It’s no risk-high reward. You don’t need to give up a pick to get this player. His contract will be practically nothing against the cap. If he causes problems at any point, you can cut him. If it pans out you get an impact player at one of the most important positions in the league.
Nobody claimed Jachai Polite. Nobody even gave him a roster spot. He is on a practice squad.
This suggests nobody else had anything close to a third round grade on Polite. The Jets used an early pick on a player they could have gotten much later. He might have even gone undrafted had the Jets not picked him.
Why was Mike Maccagnan not able to figure something out that the other 31 teams knew? It is a question that applies to a lot of Maccagnan moves.
The cost of dysfunction
The Jets might have ultimately found the right leadership by hiring Joe Douglas in June. If that is true, it will bring good things in the future. What it does not mean is any negatives from previous poor decisions automatically disappear.
The Jets caught a lot of grief for the way they handled the general manager job this offseason, and I think much of it was deserved. Ownership was indecisive and erratic. Mike Maccagnan was kept to run a critical offseason and tied to a coach he could not work with. Maccagnan was only fired after being allowed to make consequential decisions that will impact the team in the future.
Dysfunction is an abstract term, and it can be difficult to explain exactly how it impacts a team. For this reason it can be easy to dismiss claims a team is dysfunctional.
If you want a concrete example of how it impacts a team, this is it. The Jets essentially lit a valuable third round pick on fire by keeping a bad general manager for too long. They ended up with a player the coaching staff clearly didn’t want. They also failed to see problems that every other team saw.
So ultimately ownership holds a lot of the responsibility for this fiasco.
A value proposition
How little value does Polite have? Just ask the Seattle Seahawks. They invested more to get Parry Nickerson (a conditional seventh round pick and a roster spot) than they did to get Polite (a practice squad spot).
Nickerson wasn’t even good enough to make a Jets roster with a shaky group of corners.