FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — When Jachai Polite announced he was leaving the University of Florida for the NFL, he did so with a letter to “Gator Nation” on Twitter. In addition to the obligatory thank-yous to school, team and family, he vowed, “I can’t wait to prove to NFL teams that I can be and will be the best defensive lineman in the NFL.”
The tweet was time-stamped Dec. 31, 2018, 2:42 p.m. If that was Polite’s New Year’s resolution, he failed.
In a span of four months, Polite went from a potential first-round NFL draft pick to the third round, 68th overall, where the New York Jets — desperate for an edge rusher — decided his September-to-December performance was strong enough to reconcile what occurred from January to April. By his own admission, he flunked the pre-draft process, costing himself millions. Specifically, the fall cost him at least $10 million in guaranteed money, based on the pre-scouting combine belief by many talent evaluators that he would have been picked in the bottom third of the first round.
“It just opened my eyes to the real world,” Polite said. “[It was] just a humbling experience.”
Every year there are a few prospects like Polite, highly productive college players whose NFL stock takes a Dow Jones-like plunge. The Jets drafted a player like that in 2013, quarterback Geno Smith, a projected top-five pick who tumbled into the second round because of questions about his attitude. It happens. The almighty draft machine has the power to do irreparable harm to a player’s reputation if he shows up out of shape or turns diva in a meeting with team officials. It’s up to prospective employers to separate fact from fiction, and determine how much fact they’re willing to put up with.
In Polite, the Jets have one of the most productive pass-rushers in college football, a quick-twitch athlete who recorded 11 sacks last season in the ultracompetitive SEC. His backstory is heartwarming: His now-famous Twitter handle, @retiremoms, is a tribute to his mother, Katrina Simmons, who works two jobs to support her family — housekeeping supervisor at a hotel in Daytona Beach, Florida, and in-home hair stylist. She’s been crying “tears of joy” since her son was drafted, according to Polite, whose goal is to make enough money to give her an early retirement.
But there’s another side to this story.
Polite bombed the combine, showing up at 258 pounds (more than 20 above his playing weight), running a slow 40-yard dash (4.84 seconds), skipping the rest of the drills because of a hamstring injury and telling the media that certain teams “bashed” him in private interviews. (Memo to future draft prospects: Many teams will dissect your game to see how you react to criticism.) Polite was smiling when he made his comments, according to eyewitnesses, but he was portrayed as a whiner. At his pro day, the bad mojo continued, as he injured his other hamstring and failed to break 5.0 seconds in the 40-yard dash (5.04 by the Jets’ time).
When NFL types started digging into his background, they discovered concerning signs. Two scouts, representing two different teams, said they came away with questions about his work ethic, commitment and attention to detail. One scout described him as “bad news … arrogant … not a team player.” The other called him “a talented pass-rusher. He lived off that, but he fell for a reason — off-the-field stuff. He should’ve gone higher.” No arrests, they say, just a troubling pattern of behavior.
“Just immature stuff,” Polite admitted, not going into detail.
Polite is an enigma, which makes him such a fascinating draft pick. Maybe his dramatic fall will be a blessing for the Jets, making this a third-round heist that solves a perennial problem on defense. Players can change. In 2000, they took a third-round gamble on wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who was kicked off the Florida State team. He became a terrific pro. Or maybe it will go the other way. Maybe Polite’s awful pre-draft stretch was a harbinger, not an aberration.
Will the Jets be stealers or suckers? They readily acknowledge the risk, but they’re hoping Polite matures in the structured environment they can provide.
“I don’t think a lot of us had it figured out at 21,” coach Adam Gase said. “I’m pretty sure you guys have a long list of mess-ups in your life. I spent a lot of time with him when he came on his visit. We had a good discussion. I know our coaching staff spent a lot of time with him. The personnel guys spent a lot of time with him. I like the way our players are ready to help him out, and help all our young guys out, making sure they’re all doing the right things, keeping guys on track.”
Polite will see familiar faces in the locker room, namely former Florida teammate Marcus Maye. He also shares a link with Leonard Williams, who graduated from the same high school: Mainland High in Daytona. The Jets have older leaders on defense, players such as Steve McLendon, Avery Williamson and C.J. Mosley, who can indoctrinate Polite into the NFL culture.
“Being here with the Jets, they took a chance on me,” Polite said. “Even throughout the draft process, I just know here I have great people around me. I’m surrounded by great people, so I have no choice but to change and be great.”
For him to reach that level, he probably will do it as a pass-rusher. That’s his calling card. As a 235-pound defensive end for the Gators, Polite recorded 17.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and a nation-leading six forced fumbles in only 529 defensive snaps in 2018. He displayed fast feet, loose hips and a nonstop motor. On a screen pass against Tennessee, he made a tackle almost 40 yards downfield — and the video of the play went viral.
Florida coach Dan Mullen has said Polite reminds him of former Indianapolis Colts great Dwight Freeney, who was a Syracuse freshman when Mullen was a graduate assistant at the school. Like Freeney, who finished his NFL career with 125.5 sacks, Polite has incorporated a spin move into his repertoire.
“I like the spin move a lot,” said Polite, who expects to play outside linebacker at 245 pounds. “It’s not like his [Freeney’s] yet, but it’s going to get there. It’s going to get there.”
Polite didn’t do much spinning in his first two seasons at Florida. He arrived on campus as a 270-pound interior lineman before dropping weight and converting to an edge player. Weight fluctuation has slowed his development. Before the combine, he decided to add weight with the hope of improving his stock — or so he says. It backfired. Those close to him say he gained too much too fast, resulting in a slight hamstring tear before the combine. He overcompensated during rehab, injuring the good hamstring.
That, of course, doesn’t explain his poor combine interviews or the character concerns from college. Teams treat pass-rushers like precious metal, and yet no one was willing to draft him in the first two rounds. The slide cost him life-changing money. Polite received a $1.1 million signing bonus; if he had gone, say, 25th overall, the guarantee would have been close to $12 million.
Maybe the Jets got a bargain. They’re not gloating, but they’re intrigued.
“There are a lot of guys that say they’re really good pass-rushers, but until you see it in the NFL, going against an elite player and winning one-on-ones consistently, you really can’t say that guy is an elite pass-rusher,” Gase said. “To see the skill set this guy has, and to see how he can grow and develop, to me, he’ll be a fun guy to watch over time.”