Matt Rhule saw a raw, long, lanky player filled with speed and talent the first time he watched Denzel Mims. He found out quickly that Mims could become a go-to receiver.
Mims was Baylor’s “primary weapon” his first year playing for Rhule and left the Texas school as one of the best receivers in the nation. In three years under Rhule, Mims caught 182 passes for 2,901 yards and 28 touchdowns, including several game-winning scores.
“He’s a clutch player,” Rhule told Newsday. “He’s someone who goes out there and when it really counts makes big plays.”
The Jets definitely could use that kind of player. They traded down in the second round and drafted Mims with the 59th pick to give Sam Darnold a big, fast weapon on the outside.
The 6-3, 207-pound Mims was the only FBS player with at least eight receiving touchdowns in each of the last three years. He also had the most contested receptions in that time.
“His best football is still ahead of him, and the greatest thing about him is he’s a guy that wants to learn,” said Rhule, now in his first year as the Carolina Panthers' head coach. “He’s not one of those guys who thinks he has it all figured out. He wants to get better. He wants to improve. He’s driven to be good.
“Learning how to play receiver, learning all the intricacies of route-running, getting off bump-and-run, working the top of routes, he’s developed in those areas. When you get to the NFL and you face the best of the best, you make a really big jump. That’s what all of the players I’ve had have done. I think Denzel will make yet another big jump this year.”
After catching only four passes as a freshman, Mims had 61 receptions for 1,087 yards and eight touchdowns in Rhule’s first season at Baylor. His numbers dropped to 55 catches, 794 yards and eight scores as a junior. Jalen Hurd had transferred to Baylor from Tennessee and became a focal point, especially with defenses focused on stopping Mims, but he still had two game-winning touchdown catches. One in the waning seconds against Oklahoma State helped propel Baylor to a bowl game one year after a 1-11 finish.
“When it was crunch time, he was who we went to,” Rhule said. “I think that’s something that’s innate. Lots of guys have stats, but they disappear at the end of games. Denzel did not disappear.”
Rhule confided that Mims played his junior season with “a banged-up hand” that eventually needed surgery. Rhule praised his toughness, saying he continued to play through the pain. The injury may have led to some drops, for which Mims has been criticized. He had surgery last spring and had a bounce-back senior year — 66 catches, 1,020 yards and 12 touchdowns.
“The Jets are getting an unbelievably tough, hard-working guy," Rhule said. "This past spring, he had to have surgery and he still wanted to practice. He went through seven or eight spring practices before he had surgery. Here’s a guy who knows he’s going to get drafted high and he’s out there still practicing, playing on special teams.
“He’s a guy that Jets fans are going to love. He’s blue-collar, tough guy, but yet he still runs 4.38 [40-yard dash]. He’s going to be a deep-ball threat. He’s got great hands, really, really smart, really tough and competitive.”
Baylor receivers coach Frisman Jackson, whom Rhule brought to Carolina in the same role, was extremely impressed with Mims’ growth from his junior to senior year. He also said Mims is “more polished than people give him credit for” and that he’ll be able to help the Jets’ rushing attack.
“Once he gets his hands on you in the run game, he’s going to choke some guys out,” Jackson said. “He’s also good at using his size and his long arms and his frame to be able to shield defenders off to catch balls.”
Receiver was a need for the Jets, who also signed Breshad Perriman after Robby Anderson signed a two-year, $20 million deal with the Panthers. Rhule coached Anderson at Temple and is excited to be reunited with him.
“I think he’s going to give us an explosive element,” Rhule said. “As his college coach, I loved Robby because he was as competitive a guy as I’ve ever been around, always had an edge, always played hard. If he can continue to bring that like I expect he will, he’ll be really good for us.”