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 Western Carolina defensive tackle Helva Matungulu. Now, I move on to look at former Ferris State quarterback Jason Vander Laan, who is joining the Jets as a tight end. I've been conducting research and watching game footage to try and assess what he brings to the table.
Vander Laan, 23, is listed at 6-foot-4, 244 pound,s and is a two-time winner of the Harlon Hill trophy, the Division II equivalent of the Heisman. He starred at quarterback for Ferris State the past four seasons as it went 37-9 team went 37-9, including 22-2 over the last two years. Vander Laan holds the all-time record for rushing yards by a college quarterback, but also passed for over 8,000 yards and 85 touchdowns in his four seasons.
However, he's joining the Jets as a tight end, having worked on developing his skills at the position over the offseason.
Note: Some stats from this article exclusively provided by Pro Football Focus.
Who is Jason Vander Laan?
In high school, Vander Laan was a three-year starter at quarterback, although he only completed 41 percent of his passes. However, he showcased his versatility by also playing defensive back and punting. He was also a good basketball player.
Vander Laan wasn't heavily recruited by colleges and opted to accept a scholarship from Division II Ferris State over the chance to walk-on at Illinois State, who wanted him to play linebacker.
Vander Laan developed over the course of the next four seasons in coach Tony Annese's read-option system and the team grew with him. After going 15-7 over their first two seasons with Vander Laan, Ferris State had two consecutive unbeaten regular seasons, falling short in the postseason each time. That included a 38-34 upset loss to Grand Valley State in the NCAA Divison II semifinals as the No. 2 seed last year.
The four-season partnership between Vander Laan and Annese brought Ferris State into contention for a national title, while enhancing Annese's reputation as a potential candidate for an FBS job in the near future. As for Vander Laan, he broke a 24-year old record for the most rushing yards by a quarterback by over 700 yards, finishing up just short of 6,000 yards and adding 81 touchdowns.
Vander Laan wasn't just a running quarterback though, as he completed 63 percent of his passes for over 8,000 yards with 85 touchdowns with just 29 interceptions.
During the offseason, Vander Laan worked out as a quarterback and also at tight end and worked out for pro scouts at Northwestern and Central Michigan's pro days.
As you'll see if you review any highlights from Vander Laan's performances over the past few years, when he isn't running the ball, Vander Laan has a pretty strong arm and can throw a tight spiral. Every now and then, you'll see a pro-level throw from him.
The two major things working against Vander Laan's chances of getting looked at as a legitimate NFL quarterback prospect are the system he played within and his age. While he passed more the past two years, he still carried the ball a lot, mostly on read option-type plays. When he was required to pass, Vander Laan threw a lot of wide receiver screens, designed to stretch the field horizontally and open up the run, which then in turn led to opportunities to throw downfield as defenses loaded the box.
While players in those systems can become NFL prospects, that's usually because their skill set is viewed as displaying elements that suggest they can handle the transition to a more complex NFL-style system. In Vander Laan's case, he was perfect for that system because of his running ability. With Vander Laan already 23, the chances of an NFL team investing the time into developing his skills and teaching him pro-style concepts were always remote.
However, Vander Laan was prepared to embrace a new challenge and take on whatever role a team wanted him for.
That being the case, it seems pretty pointless to dwell too much on things like how well he reads the field or his decision making ability. Let's instead move onto some more in-depth analysis of how he could fit at tight end, based on my research and film study.
Vander Laan put up some outstanding numbers at his two pro day workouts, including a 4.75 40-yard dash. Perhaps most impressive of all was his three-cone drill (6.73) which would have been in the top 10 at the combine for any position, not just tight ends.
In addition, his broad jump (119 inches), short shuttle (4.16) and bench press (27 reps of 225 pounds) were all in the elite range for right ends. The only number that was below average for Vander Laan was his vertical jump.
Athletically, he profiles similar to former Jets tight end Kellen Winslow when he first entered the league, according to MockDraftable.com.
It's interesting to compare his workout numbers to those of Tim Tebow. Vander Laan has been compared to Tebow on numerous occasions, with the main difference between then being that Vander Laan embraced the challenge of learning a new position while Tebow ran himself out of the league with his stubborn refusal to see himself as anything other than a quarterback.
The numbers are close in almost every category, with Vander Laan slightly better in about half of them. Once again his vertical lets him down, but otherwise he profiles very similarly despite being slightly bigger than Tebow was at the combine. Tebow's closest comparable if he is compared to other tight ends is also Kellen Winslow.
You can see from his game footage that Vander Laan has a burst of speed, runs with power and displays good open field agility and balance.
It's difficult, but not impossible, to glean information about Vander Laan's pass catching ability, despite the fact he played as a quarterback in college.
He did catch one pass in college, on a gadget play, and here it is!
Vander Laan obviously didn't do any route running in college, but his knowledge from playing quarterback should at least give him a good idea of what's required. For what it's worth, a scout at his pro day said he looked more natural running routes than you might expect, albeit a little stiff at times.
[link - http://www.chicagotribune.com/sports/football/ct-northwestern-dan-vitale-shines-pro-day-20160308-story.html ] Presumably, that's a product of the hard work at the position he'd been carrying out since the season ended and, based on his pro day numbers, could be something he could continue to work on improving.
Other than constantly operating out of the shotgun and the easy catch in the gif above, there's not much we know about Vander Laan's hands based on his college career. However, he does have a background in basketball, which has served many a project tight end well, many who lacked Vander Laan's football experience. Vander Laan's ball-carrying duties will at least have provided him with an ability to hang onto the ball.
With that in mind, something encouraging is that Vander Laan reduced the number of fumbles he had in each of his four seasons to just four in 2015, impressive given that he carried the ball or dropped back to throw about 600 times.
The same scout mentioned above said that Vander Laan had a "few drops" at his pro day workout, but also remarked that this was to be expected because he wouldn't yet be accustomed to tracking the ball.
Yards after the catch
Here's where Vander Laan has a chance to excel. With the ball in his hands, we know Vander Laan can create yardage and has a nose for the end zone. He runs over defenders in the open field, but also has surprising elusiveness. Most importantly of all, he will be comfortable with the ball in his hands, which again elevates him above the kind of project tight end you might find from another sport.
Until we know how effective Vander Laan can be at running routes, getting separation and completing catches, it's difficult to know how effective he might be in the red zone. He could be a good weapon if he is able to bring the same kind of physicality he brings as a runner to the process of getting open.
Vander Laan himself admits he has zero experience in this area. He'll bring strength, effort and physicality to the role, but can't even test himself properly until the pads go on in camp. Realistically, this means he's probably at least a year away from having any chance to contribute in a conventional tight end role, but that doesn't mean he can't be used in other ways.
Even Tebow, during the best-forgotten attempts to bleed some usefulness out of him as an H-Back with the 2012 Jets, lined up on the edge and successfully helped out in pass protection three times by cut-blocking an edge rusher.
Vander Laan should have good instincts as a runner, but perhaps will need to develop his instincts when running routes or as a blocker. On the catch he made in the play shown above, he did well not to catch the ball with his knee down, which - under college football rules - would have made the play a five-yard loss rather than a 16-yard gain.
He's definitely considered to be intelligent, having been nominated for several scholar-athlete awards at Ferris State.
Like most quarterbacks, Vander Laan didn't contribute much on special teams in college, although there are a few ways he could potentially help the Jets.
Two words that still elicit a shudder from most Jets fans: Punt Protector. Still, this could be a role which Vander Laan could handle, with the added danger to punt rush units brought about by his running (and throwing) abilities. Maybe this would force teams to spy him which might give a certain punter a bit more time to unleash a certain type of punt.
Investing draft assets into acquiring a player on a first-round rookie deal whose primary role is punt protector is one thing, but if you have a minimum salaried undrafted free agent carrying out that role (among others) while he develops into a more regular contributor, that's something I can get behind.
That might not be the only way Vander Laan could contribute to that unit. In high school, Vander Laan was the team's punter and he also punted a total of eight times in college, including six times in 2013. His numbers weren't very good, but it's always useful to have someone who can fill in in an emergency capacity. With that in mind, he's also been working on his long snapping. In a similar vein, his running and passing ability could be an asset if he were to get work as a holder.
With his athleticism, Vander Laan might be able to contribute in coverage as well. They said the same thing about Tebow though and he never got close to making a tackle on 59 special teams plays as a Jet. Vander Laan did record 10 tackles in college, presumably on plays where there was a turnover.
The coaches at Ferris State, notably Annese, were effusive in their praise of Vander Laan's attitude and intangibles. He was a leader with a team-oriented focus and always respectful. He also seems to have had a tireless work ethic and was driven to constantly improve. Those kinds of intangibles mean that we can't rule out his ability to develop faster that might be expected.
It also seems that he's regarded by those who know him well as a special teammate and person. In recent years, he's taken a few trips out of state on charitable work, helping tornado and hurricane victims.
Vander Laan did not miss a game throughout his college caree, despite the fact he handled the ball a lot and took a lot of punishment, including being sacked 11 times last year. He missed just 33 snaps in 2015.
After the draft, coach Todd Bowles was asked about Vander Laan and said that the Jets signed him because of his toughness and athleticism, and that he would be someone they'd look to develop. They were not the only NFL team interested in signing him.
While Vander Laan could be considered an extreme longshot to beat out the experienced tight ends ahead of him on the roster, he belongs athletically and has a chance to impress coaches with his work ethic and versatility. It's certainly interesting to compare him with other project tight ends, including some success stories. Some of those weren't even completely sure how to put their pads on, which makes Vander Laan's lack of experience in terms of blocking and running routes less alarming.
Ultimately, Vander Laan has the potential to be a multi-faceted weapon in the long run and could be a good bet to make the practice squad this year if he shows promise and continues to showcase his athletic ability in camp and preseason.
Up next: We'll take a look at Kyle Friend from Temple. Does the only undrafted offensive lineman brought in by the Jets have a chance to make the team? Let us know in the comments who you'd like us to look at after that.