Over the next few months, we’ll be taking an in-depth look at each of the Jets’ rookies. However, before we start, there was one more veteran addition made that we need to break down.
Wide receiver Matt Cole is 24 and listed at 5’10” and 197 pounds. He was undrafted out of McKendree and has only played in one NFL game, in which he only played on special teams, although he did record two tackles. He was claimed off waivers from the 49ers on Wednesday.
Cole didn’t receive any offers from FBS schools, despite having a good career as a slot receiver and cornerback in high school. His offensive numbers had been somewhat restricted because he played in a run-based offense.
He ended up attending McKendree University in Illinois and playing at the Division 2 level, making his debut in 2016.
Cole caught just eight passes in his freshman year but did show some big play capabilities and made good contributions on special teams. His role increased over the next two years and he caught 20 passes as a sophomore and 22 as a junior. He also took over as the full time kickoff returner in his junior year, earning an All-Great Lakes Valley Conference honorable mention as a return specialist after scoring twice and averaging over 35 yards per return.
Having entered his final year with less than 700 career receiving yards and four touchdown catches, Cole broke out in his senior year with 43 catches for a team record 939 yards and 12 touchdowns. He again contributed well on special teams, earning all-conference first team honors as a receiver and return man, along with some all-American recognition.
Cole wasn’t invited to the combine or any all-star games but made his way onto some teams’ radar with his senior year performance and a solid workout at Northwestern’s pro day. After going undrafted, he signed with Miami and went to camp with them, earning a spot on their practice squad after final cuts.
The 49ers poached Cole right before the end of the season and gave him his NFL debut on special teams in the season finale, but released him following the draft with the Jets claiming him ahead of two other teams on Wednesday.
Now let’s take a look at what Cole brings to the table, divided into categories.
Cole is small and, as such, probably projects to a slot receiver role if he is to play on offense at the NFL level. His film is somewhat misleading in this regard because he looks big compared to some of his opponents. Obviously, he would be small by NFL standards though. He also has small hands and a below average catch radius.
He ran a 4.48 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day workout but may have viewed that time as disappointing since his coaches had previously described him as having 4.3 speed. His 10-yard split was clocked at 1.46 which would be elite if accurate.
Cole did post outstanding explosiveness numbers with a 37.5” vertical and 127” broad jump, but his agility numbers and bench press were disappointing.
He has a background in gymnastics and has been known to show off some impressive tumbling abilities.
Cole played both outside and in the slot on offense with the Bearcats, as well as on every main special teams unit. He caught a lot of short passes and receiver screens and also got plenty of touches on jet sweeps and end arounds.
We’ll begin by looking at Cole’s contributions on special teams because this is almost certainly the reason he’s been brought in by the Jets. As noted, Cole played a big impact on special teams with the Bearcats, recording four total touchdowns in the return game. However, he was also a major contributor in kick coverage with an outstanding 61 tackles in four seasons.
Cole obviously has the speed to run past his man when operating as a punt gunner and gets downfield fast on kickoffs, but he offers more than that with an ability to close and tackle in pursuit, break down in space, display physicality against blockers and display discipline in terms of staying in his lane. His film gives the impression he has natural ability but is also a student of the craft, just as Justin Hardee’s film does.
Whether those abilities covering kicks are transferable to the pro level remains to be seen but the early signs are good as he made two plays in his only NFL game so far.
On this play, he displays his closing speed as he ranges across the field and gets to the return man for the tackle.
Here, he beats his man cleanly with an inside move, but shows good discipline to fill the cutback lane and gets off a block to make the stop.
In addition to his production as a tackler, Cole has also displayed an ability to get downfield to down punts near the goal line and forced a couple of fumbles in college.
In terms of his return abilities, Cole posted excellent kickoff numbers in his last two years with three touchdowns and the 49ers had him back deep as a return man in his one game with them, but each kickoff was a touchback so he didn’t get to run one back.
As a punt returner, he had outstanding results in his senior year with an average of 26 yards per return, including two returns of over 70 yards, one of which was a touchdown.
However, he lacks experience in this role with just eight returns in his entire college career, so the team would have to be comfortable with his ability to field punts safely before they’d hand him the job.
Cole also took some reps as a vice on the punt return unit while in San Francisco.
While the majority of his production comes on dump-offs, Cole has got downfield to make some big plays during his career.
He has successfully got behind the defense on blown coverages or when a safety has been tasked with picking him up downfield in zone coverage and hasn’t been able to turn fast enough to run with him, but proving he can burn a cornerback in man to man coverage isn’t really something he’s displayed much of on film.
Dropped catch numbers for Cole are not readily available but you’d expect him to have a good catch rate because he catches so many short passes. However, even on these, there are signs he’s not a completely natural pass catcher.
Nevertheless, he’s made some catches in tight coverage and showcased some highlight-reel abilities on this one-hander.
Cole doesn’t display much in terms of route running ability on film, as much of his production comes on routes to the flat or underneath drags. There are a few examples to look at though.
On this play, he runs the slant successfully for a first down catch. However, you can see there’s no deception in his release and he doesn’t sink his pad level or plant his outside foot when making his break. This is a tell-tale sign of someone whose speed alone was good enough to get him open so he would just aim to beat his man to a spot and rely on that to get adequate separation.
This likely means he’ll really need to sharpen up his route running skills if he wants a chance to see the field on offense against NFL defenders. He’s probably already been working on that though and could progress quickly once he starts to see the benefits of improved techniques.
Yards after the catch
Cole’s ability after the catch is one of his best attributes on offense, as he shows the ability to accelerate past defenders and break or elude tackles. He may need to add some strength to break tackles from NFL-level players though.
He sometimes doesn’t protect the ball and lost a fumble on a running play in the last game of the 2019 season.
Cole had 16 receiving touchdowns in his college career and many of these came on long plays. However, he did have a few scores in the red zone, including this one.
In one game, the Bearcats got inside the 10 and looked for him twice but he wasn’t able to get open.
There’s not much evidence of Cole making contributions as a blocker on film because he was often just used as a decoy or taken out of the game altogether in running situations. However, he made the effort to block down on a linebacker from the slot a few times and he makes a functional block in space with a good understanding of angles here.
Cole displays some good physicality on special teams with some big hits on his highlight reel and an ability to light up blockers as he does here.
He can catch the ball in traffic and will battle for yardage with the ball in his hands but will need to improve his strength or bulk up to be able to compete when running routes and contesting catches at the NFL level.
Due to his role on offense, Cole hasn’t had much chance to showcase a mastery of finding gaps in the defense or improvising when a play is extended. However, he does display some good instincts and vision as an open field runner or in terms of following his blockers.
Cole is a player who has said he loves special teams and he’s been praised for his toughness and heart. He has a young child and is determined to make a success of himself for his family.
Cole hasn’t had any serious injury issues in his career so far. He missed just two games in his career at McKendree; one in the middle of the 2017 season and once in the 2017 season finale.
Cole is most likely to compete for a role as a primary gunner and kickoff returner with the Jets. While they’ll hope to harness his natural athletic ability and turn him into an offensive weapon in time, this won’t be something they’re counting on.
He was a teammate of Tevin Coleman while in San Francisco and obviously all the coaches who came over with Robert Saleh from there will know him.
Even though it was at the Division 2 level, 61 career tackles is an eye-opening number that suggests Cole could make an impact on special teams at the pro level and the plays he made in his lone NFL appearance are further evidence of this.
Having already picked up one of the league’s best gunners when they signed Hardee in free agency, the Jets may have found someone who could pair with him to spearhead a potentially elite punt coverage unit and make a big difference to punter Braden Mann’s production.
Whether he can make the same kind of an impact as a return man or contribute anything at all on offense remains to be seen, but the 49ers looked set to at least experiment with that because he would be a valuable asset it he can fill multiple roles to free up a roster spot for someone else.