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Keyshawn Johnson on Jets' draft strategy: 'They need to start up front'

ESPN NFL analyst and former No. 1 draft

ESPN NFL analyst and former No. 1 draft pick of the Jets, Keyshawn Johnson. Credit: ESPN Images/Phil Ellsworth

Keyshawn Johnson thinks the Jets should just give Sam Darnold some protection.

The former Jets receiver and current ESPN NFL analyst knows the receivers in this draft class very well. He believes the Jets could find a starter in the second round and should take a tackle with the No. 11 pick in the NFL Draft on Thursday.

“I think you got about 15 receivers in this draft. None of them are true No. 1s in my opinion, including the top three guys,” Johnson said during a phone interview. “You got some starters you can get in the first three or four rounds. But to build in the trenches is probably the better situation for the Jets. I think that they need to start up front. They need a tackle.”

General manager Joe Douglas ultimately will make that decision, but Johnson joins a growing list of NFL analysts who believe that for the Jets, the way to go is to secure a tackle in the first round. The top four are Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr., Louisville's Mekhi Becton and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas.

Johnson’s opinion is somewhat surprising, given his position and the Jets' need at wide receiver. The Jets drafted Johnson in 1996 with the first overall pick. They’ve taken a wide receiver in the first round only once since then, snaring Santana Moss with the No. 16 pick five years later.

In his four seasons with the Jets, Johnson made Pro Bowls in 1998 and 1999 after amassing 1,131 and 1,170 receiving yards, respectively. Since then, Brandon Marshall is the only Jets receiver to make a Pro Bowl. He did it after a record-setting 2015 season in which he set franchise marks for catches (109) and receiving yards (1,502).

Johnson, whose memoir "Just Give Me the Damn Ball" caused a stir when he wore the green and white, said, “The Jets have been receiver-less for a while as far as I’m concerned.”

That’s why some argue the Jets need to jump all over Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy or the Crimson Tide's Henry Ruggs III, who has been compared with Chiefs game-breaker Tyreek Hill, and give Darnold a much-needed weapon.

Johnson’s counter: “But if you can’t block or protect him, it ain’t going to matter, right?”

“The top three or four receivers are pretty much all the same,” he said. “They’re all interchangeable. If you take a guy in the first round if you’re the Jets, you’re happy with any of them. You’re happy with any of those type of guys. None of them are guys that you would say, ‘OK we got him and he’s going to blow us completely out of the water.' They got to be able to protect Sam Darnold.”

Much will depend on what happens before the Jets pick. The Giants, who own the No. 4 pick, have been linked to Wills and Wirfs, but they also could take Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons. If Giants general manager Dave Gettleman goes defense there, it improves the chances of one of the better tackles dropping to the Jets.

Johnson believes an ideal situation for the Jets would be to get one of the top tackles in the first round and end up with Notre Dame’s Chase Claypool or USC’s Michael Pittman Jr. in the second round. Johnson is high on Clemson’s Tee Higgins as a receiver and special teams player, but he thinks the Jets might have to move up from No. 48 to get him.

“I think there’s good value there,” Johnson said about taking receivers in the second round. “The bigger bodies seem like they’re going in the second round, from what everybody is touting. The bigger guys, 6-3, 6-4 type. Maybe they can develop into what you’re looking for. I don’t see difference-makers [in the first round] to the degree where you’re like, ‘Damn, we didn’t get him. We’re not going to be good.’ ”

Johnson pointed to his nephew, Saints receiver Michael Thomas, who was taken 47th in 2016. Thomas has averaged 117.5 catches and 1,378 yards per season.

“You don’t have to go in the first round to be a stud,” Johnson said. “My nephew was NFL Offensive Player of the Year and he went in the second round. It doesn’t mean you have to take a guy in the first round. You just got to know what you’re looking at.”

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