New York Jets – Jets Draft Memories Part Three: 1996

Part three of Scott Mason’s New York Jets draft day memories – 1996…

The 2017 NFL draft is now just hours away and that means it is time for part three of New York Jets draft day memories.  I apologize for the lack of draft day memories last week, but sometimes life takes over and throws you a curve ball.  I promise, though, this series will continue and I’m sure this week’s draft will one day have its own entry.  To review, we left off with 1995, so we pick things up with 1996, a draft that provided a franchise first and sought to rectify the disaster that was the 1995 season.  Again, I encourage you to share all of your Jets draft day memories in the comments and in Joe’s twitter timeline.

1996 – In 1995, Rich Kotite took over as head coach and as we saw in our last installment, his first big draft pick turned out to be a move that has haunted fans of the team for years since it meant passing on a hall of fame defensive lineman in favor of a serviceable tight end at #9 overall.  They also failed to adequately address the wide receiver position in the draft, instead choosing to deal a mid-round pick to Tampa for Charles Wilson, a veteran who was coming off a season where he caught just 31 passes, but managed to score six touchdowns and a strong 21 yards per catch.  Wilson gave the Jets modest production – 41 catches for 484 yards and 4 TDs – but the team’s top receiver that year turned out to be an undrafted rookie from nearby Hofstra University in Long Island named Wayne Chrebet.

Following a season in 1996 which saw the team go a league-worst 3-13 and earn the #1 overall pick in the draft, the Jets did what all bad teams with inept management and an owner with deep pockets do: they went on an insane spending spree.

The team shelled out a fortune to new offensive tackles David Williams – a salary cap casualty of the Houston Oilers – and John “Jumbo” Elliot, a quality left tackle who had won a Superbowl with the crosstown Giants in 1991, but was going to be 31 when the season started.  Wilson was gone and replaced at wide receiver by high priced veterans Jeff Graham and Webster Slaughter, while Boomer Esiason – the team’s quarterback who had been declining but was a local hero of sorts due to the fact that he grew up on Long Island – was told thanks for the memories and sent packing.

That was because the Jets had thrown a pile of money at Neil O’Donnell to lure him over from Pittsburgh.  O’Donnell was a reliable QB who was never going to put a team on his back, but he was careful with the ball and didn’t make mistakes.  Think of him as the Alex Smith of his day.  While nobody was ever going to confuse O’Donnell with Johnny Unitas, he had just started a Superbowl for the Steelers that January and it was thought that signing him would give the Jets instant credibility.

All in all, the Jets spent a mind-boggling $70 million on their new acquisitions (I know this sounds like no big deal now, but trust me, it was in 1996).

When all was said and done, then owner Leon Hess’s wallet was a lot lighter but the team still had plenty of valuable capital to use, as they had the first pick in six of the seven rounds of the draft (they had no fourth round pick since they had traded it to Tampa for Wilson the previous season).

The Jets had the top overall pick in the NFL draft for the first time in team history and the big question was what they were going to do with it.  There was plenty of debate over who to select, but most draft pundits and fans seemed to agree that the choice boiled down to five players: UCLA offensive tackle Jonathan Ogden, USC wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, Illinois linebacker Kevin Hardy, Illinois defensive end Simeon Rice, and Nebraska running back Lawrence Phillips.

Rice was a dynamic pass rusher, but he had been less than stellar against the run and there were questions about his work ethic.  Rice’s teammate, Kevin Hardy, seemed to be a safer bet.  While Hardy wasn’t quite the dominant pass rusher Rice was, it was thought that he was a more complete player and that his football IQ and athleticism would allow him to develop into a premier sack artist.  Ogden was viewed as arguably the “safest” player in the draft, but there were issues with the perceived lack of aggressiveness in his play.  Phillips was pegged by many as the best overall talent in the draft, but he had a list of off the field transgressions that was a mile long, most notably a well-publicized brutal assault of one of a player on Nebraska’s women’s basketball team.

But it was Johnson who really captured the hearts of Jets fans leading up to the draft.

A former Junior College transfer, Keyshawn Johnson absolutely dominated during his two seasons at USC, catching an amazing 168 passes for nearly 2,800 yards and 16 TDs.  While he wasn’t the fastest player on the field by a longshot, Johnson’s size and magnificent hands made him practically unguardable at the college level, a point he drove home with gusto during the 1996 Rose Bowl in which he absolutely destroyed Northwestern with 12 catches for 216 yards and a touchdown en route to game MVP honors.

Johnson was a dominant receiver on the field, which was certainly something the Jets needed even with the signings of Graham and Slaughter, who were more complimentary pieces than stars.  And Johnson was a star both on the field and off of it.  The USC star loved to talk…..and talk……and talk some more.  He was brash; he was bold; he had a massive ego and a huge personality.  Essentially, Keyshawn Johnson was perfect for the big stage and bright lights of New York City.

The man who dazzled the country at the Rose Bowl was the perfect fit for the Jets and he knew it.  The fans began to pine for him and he publicly lobbied for the Jets to take him.  There were rumors the Jets may trade down or pick somebody else, but the closer the draft got, the more everybody realized that Keyshawn Johnson to the Jets was simply a fait accompli.

So much so, in fact, that the team began negotiating with the dominant pass catcher in the days leading up to the draft.  There were some snags here and there and reports that he was being difficult, but in the end, the Jets got their man and signed the Johnson the night before the draft.

Looking back, I have to say, I was absolutely thrilled when this happened.  I had watched Johnson for two years at USC and believed he would be an out-and-out superstar in the NFL.  The Jets desperately needed a big time playmaker on offense and a personality, two things Johnson would bring with him in spades.  I wanted the Jets to draft him from the moment I knew they had the #1 overall pick and was just waiting to see them screw it up, and thankfully, they didn’t.

The only real downside to this was it took away all the suspense at Radio City.  I went to the draft as I had the year before – and as I would for many years to come – and I still cheered loudly when the pick as announced, but it wasn’t as much fun without the drama.

That said, there was still plenty of fun to be had draft weekend, since as I said, the Jets had the first pick in every round except the 4th.

When the first pick in the 2nd round came up, the Jets had a slew of interesting options in front of them.  Leeland McElory, an explosive running back from Texas A & M was on the board, as were bulldozing Purdue fullback Mike Alstott and University of Texas defensive end Tony Brackens, who was a talented quarterback crusher.  I liked McElroy a lot, but Brackens seemed to make the most sense given that he could be a real force on the other side of a still emerging Hugh Douglas.

Of course, as was becoming far too common with him at this point, Kotite made the wrong choice, selecting Nevada wide receiver Alex Van Dyke.  This pick made absolutely no sense given that Chrebet had put together a good rookie season, the team had just shelled out big money to Graham and Slaughter, and they had just used the top choice in the draft to take a receiver.  Plus, to make matters worse, Van Dyke was a possession receiver, and the Jets had that in abundance.  They needed SPEED, and the Nevada star was anything but speedy.

Unfortunately, Van Dyke got lost in the shuffle his rookie year and never recovered, managing only 25 receptions in three seasons with the Jets before spending two seasons on the Philadelphia Eagles’ bench.  McElroy did little of note, but Alstott went on to play in six pro bowls and win a Superbowl with the Tampa Bay Bucs.  Brackens had a successful eight year career in Jacksonville, which included a trip to the pro bowl in 1999 and 55 career sacks.

To his credit, Kotite did a much better job in rounds 3 and 5, selecting Texas A & M cornerback Ray Mickens and Texas Tech cornerback Marcus Coleman respectively.  Mickens played very well as a nickel corner for eight seasons, racking up 11 interceptions, six sacks, three forced fumbles and 289 tackles before finishing his career with brief stints in Cleveland and New England.  It took a while, but Coleman eventually worked his way into the starting lineup in 1999 and gave the Jets three pretty good seasons as a starter before both he and Aaron Glenn were lost to the Houston Texans in the 2002 expansion draft.

As for Johnson, he had a good rookie season and then caused a huge uproar with his book “Just Give Me the Damn Ball,” which was long on both self-praise and criticism of others.  When Bill Parcells came in before the 1997 season, he helped Johnson mature a bit and by the time 1998 came around, he had become one of the best receivers in the league, catching 83 passes for over 1100 yards and 10 TDs, helping the Jets reach the AFC championship game and making his first pro bowl appearance.  Johnson would have another pro bowl year in 1999 before contract issues caused Parcells to deal him to Tampa for two first round picks in the 2000 draft.  That trade broke my heart at the time, but we’ll come back to that when we get to 2000 draft day memories.

Kevin Hardy played nine years in the NFL, but never quite lived up to expectations, compiling a modest 36 career sacks with three different teams.  Rice terrorized quarterbacks for years, putting together a staggering 122 career sacks, 3 pro bowl appearances, and winning a Superbowl with Tampa Bay in 2003.  He played two seasons at the end of his career with Denver and Indianapolis, but the 11 combined years he spent in Arizona and Tampa (five in the former and six in the latter) were remarkable and will likely land him in the hall of fame one day.  Speaking of the hall of fame, Ogden is already there, which is not surprising since he was one of the best left tackles in the history of the sport, making a mind-numbing 11 pro bowl appearances and winning a Superbowl with Baltimore in 2001.

Of course, the strangest – and saddest – prospect who was considered for the top pick in the 1996 NFL draft is Phillips, whose character issues led to him dropping to St. Louis at #6. Phillips was a disappointment in St Louis and was cut after two seasons following reported multiple incidents where he showed up intoxicated for games.  He had brief stints with Miami and in NFL Europe before unsuccessfully attempting a comeback with San Francisco in 1999.  Phillips played a few seasons in the Canadian Football League and after that, his life spiraled completely out of control.  He ended up arrested and thrown in jail in 2005 for multiple felonies and while serving his time, he was accused of murdering his cellmate in 2015.  In 2016, while he awaited trial for the murder, Lawrence Phillips was found in his cell, dead at his own hands.

He was 40 years old.

That’s installment #3……I hope you enjoyed it and once again, I encourage you to share some of your favorite Jets memories in the comments section and one Joe’s twitter timeline.  There will more to come down the line, beginning with 1997 and the story of what the Jets did when a new sheriff came to town and had to decide what to do with the #1 overall pick, which the Jets terrible play had earned them for the second year in a row. 

Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com