This year, I've again been breaking down each of the Jets' rookies in detail and we're now into the undrafted free agent signings. Saturday, I looked at Temple wide receiver Robby Anderson and now I move on to look at defensive back Doug Middleton from Appalachian State. I've been conducting research and watching game footage to try and assess what he brings to the table.
Middleton, 22, is listed as 6 foot, 210 pounds, and was regarded by many experts as a potential late-round pick in April's draft. He started every game over the past two seasons and was a key contributor to a good Appalachian State defense. Middleton is a good athlete, with 4.45 speed in the 40-yard dash.
Note: Some stats from this article are exclusively provided by Pro Football Focus.
Who is Doug Middleton?
Middleton joined Appalachian State as a rotational free safety and showed promise in his true freshman season of 2011 by earning two starts. He had 23 tackles in limited playing time and two huge interceptions - one which he returned for a 97-yard touchdown and another to seal a big win.
In 2012 Middleton moved to cornerback and won a starting role, but suffered a season-ending ankle injury on opening day. In 2013, as a redshirt sophomore, he moved back to safety and started the last five games, when he racked up 25 of his 46 tackles. He also forced two fumbles and intercepted a pass.
Over the next two seasons, he started every game, playing free safety in 2014 and strong safety in 2015. He had better numbers in 2014, with career highs in tackles (74), tackles for loss (five), passes defensed (10) and interceptions (four). He didn't quite match that production in 2015 with 53 tackles, three passes defensed and no interceptions, but he played well in a key role on a team that improved from 7-5 to 11-2 and ranked in the top 30 in the nation for several defensive categories.
Let's move onto some more in-depth analysis of what Middleton brings to the table, based on my research and film study. In the gifs featured below Middleton is No. 21.
Middleton had excellent pro day workout numbers for a safety and has adequate size but not much length. His speed, strength and explosiveness numbers are definitely better than his agility numbers, though. While he mostly played at safety in college, Middleton's measurables have led some to suggest he might be able to play cornerback.
That's where things get interesting, because the Jets already drafted a big cornerback whose measurables have led some to suggest he might be able to play safety. A comparison with the numbers of fourth round pick Juston Burris shows that the pair project pretty similarly athletically but with Middleton definitely having superior numbers overall.
Height: Both 6-0
Weight: Burris 212, Middleton 209
40-yard dash: Middleton 4.50, Burris 4.53
10-yard split: Middleton 1.56, Burris 1.58
Bench press reps: Burris 19, Middleton 18
Vertical: Middleton 38.5, Burris 36.5
Broad jump: Middleton 131, Burris 122
Short shuttle: Middleton 4.38, Burris 4.40
Three-cone drill: Middleton 6.93, Burris 7.10
As noted above, Middleton has played free safety, strong safety and corner. He'll often match up with receivers in the slot or come into the box. Even when he was playing strong safety, Appalachian State usually had both safeties lining up deep.
With Middleton's experience at cornerback he should have more advanced coverage abilities than many safeties. He looks pretty fluid in his backpedal, but is often employed in center field.
Middleton didn't get targeted in direct coverage as much in 2015 as he did in 2014 and much of the targets he did have were downfield in coverage support or over the middle in zone coverage. The only touchdown against him was on a 31-yard pass over the middle where the receiver split the two safeties and they both missed the tackle at the 5-yard line.
There was an interesting test for Middleton and the rest of the secondary in 2014's season opener against Michigan as future NFL player Devin Funchess ended up scoring three touchdowns in an eventual 52-14 blowout in a game that had been competitive early.
On one of the touchdowns, Middleton was unable to get over in safety support downfield because he got caught up in traffic. On another he was almost able to force Funchess out of the back of the end zone after he went up for a short catch over the cornerback at the back of the end zone, but the play held up after a review.
Middleton displays good range and closing speed to enable him to limit yardage after the catch on short passes. Here's an impressive example of him doing that: click here.
Middleton is definitely a physical hitter, but I didn't see him operate in press coverage much. With his size and strength that could be something he could learn to do well, though.
Middleton had just three penalties in the last two years, including one on special teams. His only penalty on defense in 2015 was a controversial targeting call that got him injected in an easy win over Louisiana Monroe.
With some good statistical production in terms of passes defensed and seven career interceptions, Middleton obviously has some good playmaking ability. His hands are impressive as he looks natural catching the ball.
Middleton tracks he ball in the air well and has good range, but some draft analysts have suggested he sometimes waits until the ball is thrown rather than anticipating. However, if you look at footage of most of his seven interceptions, you'll see that he jumped routes or anticipated a bad throw on almost all of them. At least he doesn't anticipate too soon and then get fooled by a pump-fake from what I saw.
On this play he latches on to the receiver downfield well and is in excellent position to go up and break up the pass: click here.
Middleton is active in run support and makes good contributions even when he isn't lined up in the box as the ball is snapped. He comes up fast from deep and flashes the ability to break down in space.
Here is one of the plays where he does line up in the box as an extra linebacker and makes a stop on the edge. With these abilities, perhaps one option could be bulking up to play a safety/hybrid role like first-round pick Darron Lee is expected to fill.
He'll come up to make stops in the hole too though, which he does really well here: click here.
An occasional issue in run defense (and also, at times, in coverage) was that Middleton would come up too fast and overrun the play, although it seemed like maybe that was something he cleaned up a little in his senior season. Here's an example of him doing that, although the way he finishes the play is also notable.
NFL.com draft analyst Lance Ziering suggested that Middleton's film shows he lacks recovery quickness, by which I assume he means over short distances. The above gif certainly showcases excellent long range coverage speed as he does an outstanding job of running down the back in the open field.
One concern with Middleton is that he plays so aggressively at times, this can lead to him missing a lot of tackles, especially when he comes up too fast. He missed 11 in 2014 and 15 in 2015.
Another concern is that Middleton will often go for a big hit rather than making a form tackle. Obviously this can lead to some impact plays, but it's also something that can backfire. On this play he tried to cut down the runner low and knocks him off balance but he doesn't go down until the next guy hits him.
Some might say that this was actually not a missed tackle by Middleton because he slowed the runner for the next guy to complete the play, but the runner did gain an extra five or six yards by stumbling over his hit rather than being stopped in his tracks. Against more talented NFL plays, there's a higher chance of the runner managing to evade a hit like that and make a big play.
Middleton is capable of some solid tackling though, doing an excellent job on this play to break down in space and force the run back inside so he can make a solid solo drag-down tackle in the hole.
Here's another good tackle, as he is able to take Funchess out in the open field, crucially adjusting his pursuit angle so that he could avoid getting beaten down the sideline.
Middleton didn't get many chances to blitz with Appalachian State, but with his athleticism could be beneficial if asked to do so. Over the last two years, he blitzed fewer than once per game on average and had two half-sacks, one hit and one pressure. One of the sacks saw him blitz from deep, as he and the nose tackle were both unblocked and got to the quarterback together.
Middleton was responsible for making all the calls in the defensive secondary and had a lot of highlights where he made a decisive read and broke to the ball immediately for a stop. However, draft expert Dane Brugler suggested that he felt Middleton sometimes was late to react on some plays. Again, this might be because he was playing conservatively on those particular plays and it's difficult to say whether he was coached to do that (be that all the time or just on those specific plays) or whether he was choosing to be cautious rather than actually being slow to make the reads.
Here is one example of a play where he made a decisive read and a good stop on the edge: click here.
I watched a lot of Appalachian State games over the past few seasons, including almost all of them in 2014. It was apparent from the start that Middleton was the heart and soul of the defense, even though defensive lineman Ronald Blair (a fifth-round pick) proved to be the most draftable commodity on their defense.
Coaches have praised Middleton's leadership and character, so he obviously has a good work ethic and intangibles.
Middleton made some good contributions on special teams in his first two seasons, making eight tackles in kickoff coverage to rank among the team leaders. He also returned a few kicks. He played less on special teams once he became a starter, but did still contribute sometimes. He had one special teams tackle in the collegiate all-star game.
Other than the ankle injury which sidelined him for virtually all of the 2012 season, Middleton doesn't seem to have had any injury issues in college and played in every game since returning from that.
One of the reasons I decided to look at Middleton next was the revelation that, in addition to a $5,000 signing bonus, he also received a $10,000 salary guarantee in his contract, an amount higher that any of the other undrafted rookies the Jets brought in. That suggests that either the Jets had to outbid other teams for his services or that they must have been especially high on him to make a higher-than-usual contract offer. Given that he was reportedly able to agree terms almost immediately after the draft ended, I'm assuming it was the latter.
As I've noted, above, Middleton's measurables are a slightly better version of those belonging to the fourth round pick Burris. Could the Jets have a specific role intended for Burris with Middleton in the mix as competition for that role? If that's the case is there even room on the roster for both of them?
In addition to the superior measurables, Middleton's intangibles are outstanding and he has had more experience at corner than Burris has at safety. He also has more of a special teams résumé than Burris. Maybe that versatility and ability to provide immediate production on special teams gives him a better chance to stick on the end of the roster, but the Jets do have a pretty deep group of young safeties to choose from, so competition will be fierce.
If Middleton can make the team - or stick around on the practice squad and return next season - he has the potential to develop into a good player that can contribute in a variety of ways and, based on his film, has the athleticism and talent to compete for a spot in camp.
Up next: We'll take a look at Michigan State defensive lineman Lawrence Thomas. How does he fit in on the defensive line? Let us know in the comments who you'd like us to look at after that.