Stephen Hill left to fight for roster spot tonight

On Monday Rex Ryan said Stephen Hill will play in the final preseason game against the Eagles on Thursday night. On Tuesday ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that the Jets tried to trade Hill earlier in the offseason. Obviously the Jets didn’t find any takers in their quest to trade Hill, but what we don’t know is was there just no interest at all or no interest at whatever price the Jets were asking?

Add all that together and what it means is Hill is planted firmly on the bubble and his roster spot is very much in question.

Let’s just get this out of the way now. I spent most of the offseason emphatically telling fans that, “Hill is not getting cut.” I said this for a variety of reasons. Hill is only going into his third year (the year many receivers historically make a big jump in their career), he was a second-round draft pick coming out of the triple-option offense at Georgia Tech. In college Hill mostly blocked for the running game, when he did run a route it was almost always a straight go-route.

Stephen Hill's roster spot is clearly in jeopardy as he is slated to play in the final preseason game tonight. Making tonight a possible make or break game for Hill's career as a Jet. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

We always talk about receivers needing to learn the entire route tree when they enter the NFL, but what we don’t talk about enough is the issue of timing. In college it’s mostly just get open and hope the quarterback finds you, in the NFL everything is about timing, precise timing. Receivers are expected to be in specific spots on the field at specific times in their routes and the quarterback has to trust the receiver to be exactly where he is supposed to be at all times. This is a harder task than many fans realize and is something that often proves too difficult for receivers to learn at this stage of their careers.

Add in the fact that Hill suffered injuries in each of his first two seasons and it’s not hard to imagine why he would struggle. To cut a second-round draft pick before his third season sounds ludicrous on it’s face. He’s not making a ton of money, plus the Jets have plenty of cap space so cap relief doesn’t factor in here, and while John Idzik didn’t make the pick cutting a second-round pick this early in their career is not something teams generally like to do.

Having said all that, I’ll lean on one of my favorite personal theories. Making a mistake on a player or coach is one thing, it happens, everyone makes mistakes. The problem is never with actually making the mistake the problem comes from not recognizing the mistake early enough. Sticking with the mistake is always a bigger problem than making said mistake in the first place and that’s where we are with Hill at this point in time.

Hill has the size and the speed and clearly this wasn’t the most optimal team for him to get drafted by (side note: can we please stop complaining that Alshon Jeffery was drafted two spots after Hill? Yes, Jeffery is a better receiver, but if the Jets drafted Jeffery he wouldn’t have produced like he has in Chicago. In fact Jet fans would likely be calling Jeffery a bust as well. Jeffery has benefited by playing opposite one of the best receivers in the game, Brandon Marshall, and in a high-octane deep passing offense. If Jeffery spent his first two seasons here we almost certainly would’ve seen his growth stunted as well), but he still struggles with the basics of being a receiver. Basic route running issues, drops, not high-pointing passes and catching the ball with his body instead of his hands.

Maybe these issues would’ve been fixed if he didn’t suffer any injuries or if he played in a different offense, but if he hasn’t showed consistent progress in any of these areas you have to wonder if he ever will.

Hill had an excellent start to camp, but that quickly faded. So damn quickly it faded. He continued to show signs of life sporadically, but mostly he showed his frustrations. The drops continued, and he loves to stare at his hands after drops like somehow his own extremities betrayed him, as did his route-running struggles as he has been out of position or turned around the wrong way far too often. I’m not willing to say Hill has no chance of ever being a decent receiver, he is still very young after all, but I’m not sure the Jets can afford to wait and see if that ever happens here.

“I think he’s had some strong moments but then there’s others that we wish he’d maybe hung onto a ball or so. But I think he’s had a pretty good training camp.” Ryan said, “I wouldn’t say it’s been outstanding, but I think it’s a pretty good one.”

But the question is, is pretty good good enough?

The Jets will likely keep six receivers (and three tight ends, Jeff Cumberland, Jace Amaro and Zach Sudfeld), Eric Decker, Jeremy Kerley, David Nelson, Jalen Saunders and (most likely) Greg Salas leaving Clyde Gates, Saalim Hakim and Hill all fighting for that last spot. If we were only taking about them as receivers Hill would have to get the edge just off potential alone, but this is the NFL and if a player is on the bubble they better be able to contribute on special teams and Hill does not.

When Ryan was asked if Hill’s at a disadvantage because he doesn’t play special teams Ryan not only said yes but he also took the opportunity to talk about the advantage Saalim Hakim has by contributing on special teams.

“Well, it’s a disadvantage for anybody because special teams is something we said is going to be a point of emphasis.” Ryan said, “You look at a Saalim Hakim, the way he’s played on special teams. That’s going to give him a leg up, without question. That’s a big factor in decision making.”

Should the Jets hold out hope that something finally clicks this year for Hill? Or should they keep a player like Hakim who definitely has value on special teams, both as a returner and a gunner?

Keeping Hill could essentially be a waste of a roster spot, Hakim on the other hand would have a clear and defined role and could actually contribute positively to the team even if it’s only on special teams. Gates would provide a solid middle ground between the two, he’s a better receiving option than Hakim and can play special teams although not as well as Hakim, but if Hill can’t contribute as a receiver he literally adds nothing to this team.

If it turns out the Jets did in fact make a mistake drafting Hill, and it’s getting harder with each passing day to say they didn’t, so be it. We all make mistakes, and we all know ex-GM Mike Tannenbaum made plenty, the real mistake would be sticking with the mistake for too long. Just a few months ago I didn’t think there was any reason to cut Hill before the season, after his inconsistent camp and disappearances during games I’m starting to think there’s little to no reason to keep him.

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