Last week, the Jets signed safety JT Hassell and he has joined up with the team for practice this week. Today, we’re going to take an in-depth look at his strengths and weaknesses.
The 25-year old is listed at 5’11” and 200 pounds and was undrafted out of Florida Tech in 2019. Campbell played in four games with the Cleveland Browns as a rookie, registering seven tackles, but did not make the team in 2020. He has also spent time with New England.
Hassell was born with just two fingers on his left hand due to a birth defect. However, he overcame this to establish himself as an effective defensive playmaker in high school, racking up 20 forced fumbles, five interceptions and four touchdowns in his career.
He headed to South Dakota State in the FCS and had an impressive season as a true freshman with 41 tackles in 14 starts. However, in his sophomore year, his production was down with just 21 tackles in 12 games and he decided to transfer to Division 2 Florida Tech to be closer to his family.
Having been required to sit out a year due to the transfer, Hassell made his debut in 2018 and racked up 78 tackles to earn second-team all-Gulf South Conference honors.
However, his best season was his senior year, as he set career highs in tackles (124), tackles for loss (9.5), sacks (4.5) and forced fumbles (three). He was named an all-American, an all-GSC first-teamer and the GSC defensive player of the year as well as being a finalist for the Harlon Hill trophy.
After an impressive performance at his pro day, Hassell was still a long-shot to be drafted but signed as an undrafted free agent with the Browns and played well enough in camp to earn a practice squad spot. He was activated midway through the season and played in four games down the stretch, albeit mostly on special teams.
Having been released in final cuts, Hassell briefly earned himself a spot on New England’s practice squad, but lasted just over a week before he reportedly released himself from that deal so he could sign with the Jets.
Let’s move onto some more in-depth analysis of what Hassell brings to the table, based on in-depth research and film study.
Hassell lacks ideal size but posted some excellent numbers at his pro day including a 4.44 in the 40-yard dash. He has been clocked at sub-4.4 in the past.
He also posted a 42” vertical, 6.84 three-cone drill and 23 bench press reps, all of which are excellent numbers. However, his broad jump and short shuttle were only about average for the position.
Hassell was a linebacker in college but is obviously too small to play that role at the NFL level, so the Browns set to work on converting him into a defensive back.
In his brief regular season action with them, he saw action on just 14 defensive snaps, all in one game against the Steelers. On nearly all of those, he lined up deep. However, in preseason, while he played a lot of single-high, he also came up into the box a little more often.
As a converted linebacker, Hassell doesn’t necessarily have the natural coverage abilities or flexibility of movement that you’d typically see from someone who had instead converted from cornerback.
He is unable to stay with the receiver on this zone coverage assignment, which eventually led to a 38-yard play:
Nevertheless, he brings some good athletic ability and showcases excellent range when playing center field.
Being new to the position he may need to learn some of the nuances of the role. For example, on this play, he is tasked with latching onto a downfield assignment but gives the tight end too much room to release cleanly to the outside.
Although he is missing three fingers on his left hand, Hassell has the ability to intercept passes, which he did twice in college and five times in high school. He showcased those abilities in Browns practice:
He has the ability to make plays on the ball, as evidenced by his 11 passes defensed in two seasons while at Florida Tech, during which time he showed an ability to break up or disrupt passes with a hit.
On his college film, there were plenty of examples of Hassell making some big hits, like on this play:
Generally speaking, he isn’t a particularly imposing figure and looks like he would struggle to get off blocks or bring down bigger ball carriers easily at the NFL level.
In college, Hassell certainly proved he can be a productive tackler and displays good closing speed. However, he occasionally exhibits a habit of diving in low to upend bigger ball carriers. He can be quite effective at this, but more athletic big men at the NFL level will exploit that by eluding or running through his hits.
Even so, he has only missed a couple of tackles during preseason and regular season action at the NFL level:
As a safety, Hassell has had fewer chances to get involved in the running game than he would have had as a college linebacker. He’s shown a willingness to rally to the ball and dive on some piles but hasn’t made any plays himself against the run in his limited NFL experience.
On this play, Hassell comes up into the box, but the tight end on the right side pulls across the formation and drives him out of the hole, although he does make the effort to come off that block and still get in on the tackle:
Hassell has only blitzed a couple of times at the NFL level, and didn’t generate any pressure, but he’s shown he does have the potential to be an effective blitzer in a 2018 game against Wingate where he set a school record with four sacks.
He actually only had 3.5 sacks in the rest of his career combined, though. In two years at Florida Tech, he had 6.5 sacks and only two other quarterback hits.
Special teams are where Hassell should be able to make an immediate impact. He’s been extremely productive in kick coverage at the NFL level with eight tackles in eight preseason and regular season games.
On kick coverage, he impresses with an ability to get down the field, which he displays here:
On punts, he has had some experience as a gunner. On this play, he beats his man down the middle and there’s a danger he could get sealed inside if the return man is able to bounce it to the edge. However, he gets downfield fast enough to get in on the play:
He had a special teams score in 2018 when his teammate recovered a fumble on a botched extra point try and lateraled it to him for a 98-yard two-point runback. He also blocked a kick while at SDSU.
At the NFL level, Hassell has only had two penalties, both of which came on the same play. Hassell got downfield well for this big hit but was called both for going out of bounds and not returning immediately to the field of play and also for leading with his helmet on the hit.
At South Dakota State, he contributed to their opening day upset of Kansas in 2015 but was called for pass interference on a play where the penalty was declined because it went for a 35-yard gain anyway. Otherwise, Hassell doesn’t seem to have had many penalties.
Hassell is still quite early on in terms of his position change so it may be too early to say how well he’s going to adjust. As a former linebacker, he should read the field well but he’ll obviously have to learn the vagaries of downfield coverage requirements as he goes.
Here’s one example of a play where his awareness perhaps let him down:
Hassell’s story is an inspiration to many and he’s regarded as a positive locker room influence with a good attitude. You can see this from game footage as he’s constantly clapping his hands and encouraging his teammates.
He’s regarded as a leader, role model and someone who remains positive at all times. He’s also considered to be a popular teammate who is funny off the field.
Hassell hasn’t let the limitations of his disability affect him in his career so far and otherwise doesn’t seem to have had any serious injuries during his career. He was an apparent healthy scratch a few times at the end of last year.
As we said last week with Elijah Campbell, it’s a bit difficult to say what the Jets’ scheme will be now that Gregg Williams is gone. While it will likely remain the same for the rest of the season under Frank Bush, we could get a totally different system next season.
As he’s new to the position anyway, it shouldn’t be too much of an adjustment for Hassell to adapt into whatever system the Jets decide to operate if he’s back with the team next year. With Cleveland, he often operated within the kind of zone-based coverages the Jets currently operate.
Hassell was a teammate of recent waiver-claim Trevon Coley with the Browns last preseason.
Hassell is a great story and signing with the Jets offers him an opportunity to further that story. With the Jets losing three safeties in the past two weeks, there’s a potential opportunity for Hassell to get some defensive reps in the last three games.
Assuming he’s active, he can also contribute on special teams, where his production has been good and his skill-set enables him to contribute in a variety of ways.
If Hassell returns next year, he’ll be one of several young defensive backs with good athleticism, all of whom will be battling for roles. This is the type of cheap option the Jets will be looking for contributions from as they seek to upgrade their roster next year.