With their final pick of the 2018 draft, the Jets selected Virginia State running back Trenton Cannon. By that stage, you're no longer drafting for need, instead hoping to catch lightning in a bottle with a player that has development potential. The Jets will be hoping that Cannon, who is undersized and played his college football at the Division II level, will be that kind of player.
Although he is listed as a running back, Cannon's shortest path to becoming a contributor on the 2018 Jets is special teams, as he led the nation in kick-off return average in 2017. However, he might also bring some things to the table that will persuade offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates to come up with ways to get him involved on offense.
Let's consider the return game first, because it's evident Jets special teams coach Brant Boyer was heavily involved in the selection. He attended Cannon's pro day and worked him out personally as well as also being involved in the conversation when the Jets called Cannon during the sixth round to tell him they were selecting him.
As noted, Cannon led the nation in kick return average at the Division II level last year and was almost as good in 2016. He had three touchdowns over the course of the two seasons, displaying speed, open-field running instincts and elusiveness. He does not, however, have any experience as a punt returner, which is another role the Jets need to fill. Ideally the Jets would prefer their return specialist to handle both roles, rather than having to use up two roster spots. Reports from rookie camp suggested Cannon looked comfortable fielding punts in drills.
The Jets haven't returned a punt or a kick-off for a touchdown since Mike Westhoff's departure in 2012, although Boyer has noted on several occasions that they've often been close to breaking one in the past couple of seasons. One thing that's apparent from watching Cannon's film, both as a runner and a returner, is that he's not easy to catch once he gets into the open-field, so he could be a viable option to break a big play. Can the Jets also exploit that on offense though?
Cannon's ability to be a big play threat on offense is summed up by his career average of 12.5 yards per catch. While scouting reports describe Cannon as not a natural pass catcher, his film reveals that he's a versatile pass-catching option who can run routes, get downfield and produce out of the slot and out wide.
That's quite uncommon for running back prospects these days, as most of the more productive pass catchers generate most of their yardage simply by catching screens and dump-offs. Saquon Barkley, who went second overall to the Giants, was one exception, while the Jets' sixth-round pick from last year, Elijah McGuire, also displays wider-ranging capabilities.
The Jets will often motion their lead back into the slot and go five-wide, especially on third downs with less than five yards to go. Bilal Powell converted a few clutch third downs by running slant-type routes in such situations last year. Both Cannon and McGuire could handle these assignments, while also being a threat to get downfield on a wheel-route out of the backfield.
It's anticipated that if Cannon has a role on offense it will be as a change-of-pace back. His lack of size could be an issue if he was required to carry a heavy workload and in pass protection, although he's still slightly bigger than Tarik Cohen who made an instant impact in his rookie season with the Bears.
Cannon ran a 4.40 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day and that translates to his film. This could make him a good option on outside runs and draw plays, but he was productive between the tackles in college too and could be a good one-cut runner in Rick Dennison's new system.
Cannon's head coach at VSU has some interesting connections to the Jets. Reggie Barlow, himself a former NFL running back and pro bowl return specialist, mentored Cannon over the past three years and obviously feels good about Cannon's chances to emulate his own achievements. Barlow was a teammate of Boyer's with the Jaguars for five seasons and was also on the Bucs for two years while Bates was coaching there. Clearly they've been keeping tabs on Barlow's pet project.
As with any small-school prospect, Cannon is a long-shot to make it at the pro level, but it seems like the Jets have been interested in him for some time and targeted him specifically with a role in mind. It therefore seems likely they will try and find opportunities to get him involved, so he'll get his shot.