Jets build in trenches, add protectors for Rodgers in draft

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Robert Saleh couldn't help but smile, reach over in his chair and give Joe Douglas a big hug.

It has been that kind of week for the New York Jets coach, who has seen his general manager acquire Aaron Rodgers and then add seven young players in the NFL draft.

“We got better this week,” a grinning Saleh said Saturday. “A lot better this week.”

The Jets added a few big guys up front and some protectors for Rodgers to lead off their draft haul. They also got a speedy playmaker for their new quarterback.

It was all capped by that celebratory embrace during the Jets' news conference to wrap up the draft.

“It's been a fun week,” Saleh said.

Building in the trenches was the theme for the Jets early on, starting with the selection Thursday night of edge rusher Will McDonald with the 15th overall pick. McDonald is expected to be part of the Jets' defensive line rotation that gets even more speed with the former Iowa State star coming off the edge.

Wisconsin center Joe Tippmann was New York's second-round pick Friday night, and he will compete with veteran Connor McGovern for the starting job. Pittsburgh offensive tackle Carter Warren, who could also be an eventual starter, went in the fourth round Saturday.

The Jets also drafted Pitt running back Israel Abanikanda in the fifth round, Western Michigan linebacker Zaire Barnes and LSU cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse in the sixth, and Old Dominion tight end Zack Kuntz with their final pick in the seventh.

“Really excited to add these guys,” Douglas said.

The Jets began the final day of the draft by trading pick No. 112 to the AFC East-rival New England Patriots, of all teams, for Nos. 120 and 184.

New York selected Warren, a native of nearby Paterson, in the fourth round. He grew up a Jets fan and played high school ball at Passaic Tech, about 20 minutes from the team's facility. Warren also played some high school championship games at MetLife Stadium, which will now be his home field in the pros.

“Oh my God,” Warren said when his phone rang and he saw it was a New Jersey area code. “I was crying.”

Warren, listed at 6-foot-6, 311 pounds by the Jets, was a four-year starter for the Panthers — including 39 starts at left tackle. He was limited to just four games last season with a torn meniscus, but said he's “ready to go.”

And he could get the chance to block in front of Rodgers.

“I know he's all about ball and business,” Warren said. “And I'm the same.”

TAKING TEAMMATES

With their fifth-rounder, the Jets went back to Pitt and selected Abanikanda.

The New York native who went to Lincoln High School in Brooklyn gives Rodgers and the Jets a speedy option out of the backfield to team with fellow running backs Breece Hall, Michael Carter and Zonovan Knight.

Abanikanda ran for 2,177 yards and 28 touchdowns on 390 carries — a 5.6-yard average — in his three seasons at Pitt.

“When I see green,” he said, “I expect to score.”

His biggest performance came last season when he broke Tony Dorsett's school record by rushing for 320 yards and six touchdowns against Virginia Tech.

“I was just feeling it,” Abanikanda said. “I was in that vibe.”

BIRTHDAY BOY

Bernard-Converse celebrated his 23rd birthday by becoming an NFL player.

The sixth-rounder out of LSU played safety during his first four years at Oklahoma before transferring and playing cornerback with the Tigers.

Saleh said the Jets will determine where they'll play him when Bernard-Converse starts practicing.

“He's got tremendous versatility, can play all three spots in the back end,” Saleh said. “Very smart, good communicator, all that good stuff.”

FREAK FACTOR

Douglas said the Jets were ecstatic seeing Kuntz still available when they picked in the seventh round, saying he “tested through the roof.”

The big tight end — listed by the Jets at 6-8 and 251 pounds — transferred to Old Dominion after three seasons at Penn State. He had 73 catches in 2021 before an injury limited him to five games last year.

“Going through some of the guys who just had that freak factor to him, he was right there at the top,” Douglas said. “The size, the speed, the length, the jump — just everything.”

NOTES: Douglas wouldn't announce the team's decision on whether it would pick up the fifth-year option on OT Mekhi Becton, who has missed most of the past two seasons with knee injuries. The deadline to pick up the option is Monday. ... Douglas said the Jets are “keeping the door open” on potentially bringing back veteran LB Kwon Alexander. ... Douglas on signing LS Thomas Hennessy to a four-year contract extension: “One of the more consistent, one of the best long snappers in the National Football League. Having that type of consistency and stability at that position, it’s huge.”

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