The New York Jets cutting third-round rookie Jachai Polite will go down as one of the highest picks in recent years to be let go before he played a regular-season game.
It was a shocking development, and it raises questions of how this could happen so soon. And how teams can avoid making this level of mistake so early in the draft in the future.
Draft picks have been quickly traded, even as rookies. Higher picks have been sent packing after one full season on a team’s roster — does Malik McDowell ring a bell? Just the other day the mighty New England Patriots traded 2018 second-rounder Duke Dawson to the Denver Broncos for nickels on the dollar.
Busts happen every year and will continue to happen. Certainly Polite’s NFL career isn’t over, and this is a player who was one of two in all of FBS last season to register at least 10 sacks (11), 15 tackles for loss (17.5) and five forced fumbles (six). Pass rushers carry high premiums in the NFL, and they’re often the toughest spots to fill during the season with free agents, pro scouting directors say. Yet Polite went unclaimed by the other 31 teams and eventually signed with the Seattle Seahawks’ practice squad.
For a productive college pass rusher to be drafted 68th overall and go unclaimed following his release? That’s extremely rare — and it doesn’t portend well for his future success in the league.
“You’ll see a few [fourth-round picks] cut loose every August, maybe one or two a year,” a veteran NFC scouting director said. “But cutting a high three? I’d have to think about that. I can’t think of a team I’ve been on that did that four months after we took a guy.
“I know one fourth-rounder we cut when he reported [to camp] late and ended up giving up football shortly after we cut him. But yeah, it’s pretty unusual in my experience.”
The lesson that the Jets — and every other team — will try to learn is first how to avoid picks such as Polite from happening again. It seems simple, but making higher-round draft picks also needs to include a basic conversation before that player’s name is called in.
Said the director, “A GM I used to be with, we’d always have this brief conversation on the clock with any of our picks in the first four rounds. ‘Will this guy for sure make our roster,’ [the GM would ask] before we took him. His thinking was, ‘I can cut a fifth-round pick and sleep that night. Fourths are tough … but a three? That hurts.’ And [Polite] was a high three, too. That just shouldn’t happen ever.”
But it did.
It was somewhat reminiscent of the Denver Broncos’ major whiff in taking Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett with the 101st overall pick in 2005. A more recent example is the Houston Texans cutting former 2013 third-rounder Sam Montgomery (95th overall), reportedly after he was caught smoking marijuana at the team hotel the night before a game his rookie season. Neither Clarett nor Montgomery ended up playing a game in the NFL.
We issued the Jets an instant grade of B-minus during the draft for the Polite pick, figuring that his top-25 talent made it worth the selection some 40 slots later. It’s fair to say that our regret on that assessment is darned high now, even if the Jets are feeling that sting a bit more.
History played a part, but Jets’ future did too
Keep in mind, too, that Polite went 33 selections higher than Clarett did, and this is a Jets organization that has had a brutal record with Day 2 (second and third round) picks in recent years — Christian Hackenberg, Devin Smith, ArDarius Stewart, Chad Hansen, Dexter McDougle, Stephen Hill, Lorenzo Maudlin, Jace Amaro, and so on.
That, along with a few first-round misses and free-agent mistakes, is a big reason the Jets are on their fifth GM (six if you count head coach Adam Gase’s brief interim tenure in that role this summer) since 2012.
The circumstances with Polite allow for some small measure of plausibility in that the general manager who drafted Polite for the Jets, Mike Maccagnan, was since fired. Clearly, the man who replaced him, Joe Douglas, didn’t want Polite on the team.
Polite reportedly was fined more than $100,000 for multiple violations of team rules, including being late for meetings. So in essence, Polite tithed that portion back to the Jets after they gave him a signing bonus of $1.1 million. At least they got something back on that investment.
And it’s reasonable to assume that even though Gase endorsed the pick at the time — defensive coordinator Gregg Williams did not — the head coach ended up siding with Douglas and Williams on some level eventually. Otherwise, Polite might have gotten a reprieve with the 2020 season in mind.
The warning signs for Jachai Polite were there
As strong as Polite’s tape was at Florida, he was cloaked by character concerns for issues that arose with the Gators. And things got worse for a player who routinely was being mocked in the first round by draft analysts prior to that.
At the NFL scouting combine, Polite had a poor interview session in front of the media — and things nosedived when the doors closed on his team interviews. Multiple teams we spoke with at the time said Polite left bad impressions with them for a variety of reasons: appearing to be checked out, making excuses for poor plays, bad conditioning and failing to adequately explain his off-field missteps.
Added the director we spoke to Tuesday morning: “That stuff mattered. We were spooked by the whole thing. The bad workout. The hamstring injury. Running worse [a 5.03 40-yard dash] at his pro day than the combine [4.84]. Being evasive about some stuff.
“We had no choice but to dock him for all that, and you’re seeing why now. And we liked the player pretty much, but it just forces you to ask: Do we want to deal with him? Is he someone we can go to bat for? The answer was no, at least not in the third or fourth [round].”
The director also pointed to former Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson, another high-end talent from an SEC school who had a rough combine session with similar themes. That caused Wilson to drop to the middle of the fifth round to the Cleveland Browns, No. 155 overall. Wilson, though, shined in the preseason for the Browns and easily made their initial 53-man roster. The future looks bright, as many believe he projects to being a starter down the road.
“The thing with Wilson was that, in talking with him, he just struck me as a different dude,” the director said. “Not a bad guy. Not someone you had to constantly worry about. Just … different. I don’t think that’s a reason not to draft a guy, you know?
“But just using the Browns as an example, [GM John] Dorsey never has backed away from taking some players with those types of question marks. But everyone has a line at some point. They didn’t claim [Polite]. No one did. Says a lot.”
Maybe the Jets taught us something else important
The NFC director said Douglas made the right move on cutting Polite now.
“I actually commend Joe for it,” he said. “Why tie up a roster spot on a player you know isn’t going to work out? Why extend the misery? I guess you could try to stash him on your IR [injured reserve] and hope the light comes on at some point. Clearly they didn’t think that was going to work.
“I guarantee you [Douglas] won’t let that happen with one of his picks next year.”
The obvious takeaway: Personal character and football character (how much a player loves the game, how hard they work, etc.) are massive factors that cannot be dismissed, no matter how enticing the talent. No team likes to miss out on great players, even if it means putting up with a few things.
So when Polite also struggled on the field this summer in practices with the Jets, toiling with the second- and third-team defenses and failing to produce in four preseason games, his fate was sealed.
“That’s when the decision to cut a guy loose is made for you,” the director said, “as much as it stings at the time.”
One bigger conclusion might also be that it’s better to admit to a mistake now — especially when it was someone else’s mistake — than to carry it for longer than needed. Perhaps this is a sign that Douglas and the Jets won’t be carrying dead weight, a la Hackenberg, and pretending it’s a valuable resource that could pay off later.
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