Back in 2000, the New York Jets had a draft that shaped the team for a decade. They had four first-round draft picks (defensive ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham, quarterback Chad Pennington and tight end Anthony Becht), and in the third round, they added a receiver, Laveranues Coles. It was the only time in NFL draft history that a team made four first-round picks. Today, Ellis and Abraham are second and third on the team's all-time sack list, and Pennington went on to lead the team to three playoff berths.
That class returned the franchise to the postseason. All five of those players spent at least five years of their careers with the Jets. But the Jets never made that coveted run to a Super Bowl. A draft that deserved to be graded with an A fell short of its ultimate goal, a reminder of the possibilities and limitations of what, by any measure, would be considered a transformational draft.
Still, it was hard to resist leaning into what felt like a U-turn for New York football over the last three days. In part, that is because the last five years have been so dismal, with the Giants and Jets tying each other for the worst record in the NFL in that span. But what has the potential to be another transformational draft, with the teams both starting the 2022 NFL Draft with two picks in the top 10 (the Jets later made a third pick near the end of the first round), was conducted with reassuring competence and a commitment to plans. It may seem strange to applaud that, but it has been a strange time in New York football.
The teams got premium players with their premium picks. The Jets scooped up playmakers to help second-year pro Zach Wilson at QB, and to improve one of the league's worst defenses. The Giants got the pass rusher (Kayvon Thibodeaux, No. 5 overall) and offensive tackle (Evan Neal, No. 7) they were desperate for, then accumulated more draft picks and some developmental players to help with depth during a continued rebuild. The giddy reaction of fans and team brass alike tells you how badly that baseline had been missed.
"He's awesome," Jets coach Robert Saleh whispered of general manager Joe Douglas, moments after Douglas swooped into the end of the first round to grab pass rusher Jermaine Johnson II at No. 26 overall. It is not something we've always heard around these two teams.
What is obvious, in that quote and in this draft's selections, is what has been absent in the past: the Jets and Giants now have braintrusts that are in alignment. Even Jets owner Woody Johnson admitted recently that was not always the case at his team. The Giants likely set themselves back at least two years when, following the 2019 season, they did not clean house, instead retaining general manager Dave Gettleman after firing coach Pat Shurmur.
The Jets might have simply had the best draft in the league, selecting perhaps the best cornerback (Sauce Gardner, No. 4 overall), receiver (Garrett Wilson, No. 10 overall) and running back (Breece Hall, No. 36 overall) in the entire class.
As for the Giants, new GM Joe Schoen and new head coach Brain Daboll came from Buffalo together this offseason, and they clearly viewed the draft through a similar lens. The home-run first-round picks seem obvious now, but before the draft, there was some question about whether Thibodeaux's big personality would fit in the Giants' organization. Schoen made an observation that suggested the Giants, often perceived as one of the most old-school, conservative franchises in the league, may also be revamping their mindset. Schoen noted that college players and their experiences were changing, in some part because of their ability to earn money off their likenesses while in school.
"We have to evolve," Schoen said.
In the second round, the Giants picked a diminutive slot receiver -- Wan'Dale Robinson -- at No. 43, higher than most expected him to go. Robinson, Schoen said, is a "generator," a player who can get open and create space and work in Daboll's offense, the way similarly-sized receivers Cole Beasley and Isaiah McKenzie did in Buffalo. Schoen was picking players others may not have valued as highly, but who fit what Daboll needs.
In the days leading up to the draft, Schoen and Daboll game-planned a series of first-round scenarios. Schoen walked around with magnets in his pocket, designated for each player at the top of the round. He would repeatedly take the magnets out and switch around their order, preparing for what would happen, no matter how the top spots went. They had contingency plans and contingencies for those contingencies.
"We also had a contingency plan if our six guys that we liked were gone, we had a seventh, and if we had to make a pick and we couldn't move back, we were prepared for that," Schoen said. "Brian is not kidding around. We had every possible scenario based on how the top of the draft went, and it was really a unique draft. Typically, you have an idea of who is going to be first and second, and there were rumors of it and rumors of who was going to go third, but you didn't really know. Everybody was kind of speculating on that. So we were prepared for a lot of different scenarios."
Schoen added: "The exact scenario that played out, we've been through it probably 15 times this week. We would stay in my office and move stuff around, what do we do here, what do we do here. We had a couple rhymes in place for different scenarios. It was very seamless."
Even alignment of purpose doesn't assure success, and it certainly doesn't guarantee a quick turnaround. The Jets and Giants are almost certainly more talented now than they were at the start of the draft, but these teams are both rebuilding and their rosters still have weaknesses.
The 2000 Jets draft may be a cautionary tale about soaring expectations. But it might also be a road map for two teams that, after this weekend, feel a little more competitive and a lot more relevant. Those are wins, too, where there haven't been many.