A look at a true underdog in Jason Vander Laan
Tight end James Vander Laan will do his very best to make the final 53-man roster of the New York Jets this summer. He’s a true underdog that could undoubtedly be the tight end the franchise needs for the future.
As many already know, I’m a sucker for an underdog. I enjoy going deep into the roster of the New York Jets and finding that player who has skills but is fighting an uphill battle to make it in the NFL. I’ve featured many of them over the years, and these have become some of my favorite articles to write. Today’s player profile is Jason Vander Laan.
Laan is a former quarterback out of Ferris State that the Jets took after the 2016 NFL Draft as an undrafted free agent. Prior to the draft and to his signing with the team, Laan began a very ambitious conversion of his skills. He put aside his college career as a quarterback and began to train to become an NFL tight end.
Now that may seem like an impossible task, but Laan might have a shot at pulling it off with the Jets. Laan has the size of a tight end, measuring out at 6’4″ and weighing 244 pounds. The Jets are in need at the tight end position and Laan is a talented athlete.
At Ferris State, Laan was predominately a rushing quarterback. In fact, he set the NCAA Division II record for the most yards in a season on the ground by a quarterback. He accomplished the feat in 2013, posting 1,603 yards. If that isn’t enough, he also holds the record for all Divisions in the NCAA for most rushing yards in a career by a quarterback with 5,953 yards.
Among his other accomplishments in his college career, Laan won the cherished Harlon Hill Trophy two years running as the top Division II player. Laan is an athlete undoubtedly. In his senior year, he posted 2,625 passing yards to go along with his 1,319 rushing yards. That accomplishment made him the first quarterback in NCAA history to pass and rush for over 1,000 yards in all four years of their college careers. Laan also led his team to two undefeated seasons at Ferris State.
Those are some pretty impressive numbers no matter how you look at them. Laan has proven himself to be an exceptional athlete beyond much doubt. At his pro day, Laan posted a low 4.70 second forty yard dash, a 2.73-second 20-yard dash, and a 1.63-second 10-yard dash. His vertical jump was good for 30 1/2 inches and he posted a nice 9′ 11″ broad jump.
How does all this convert to becoming a tight end you might be wondering? Last season, when the team signed him, I wondered much the same. His forty time is respectable, average or slightly below average among tight ends in the NFL. His rushing skills are evident, but is that enough to make him a viable option for the Jets?
Instead of trying to work it all out in my mind, I decided to contact Laan and get the answer from the “horse’s mouth” so to speak. Laan was kind enough to answer my query on Twitter. I asked him simply “How did your skill sets help you in the conversion to the tight end position?” His reply:
“Being primarily a rushing quarterback made the transition to tight end go very smoothly in regards to running routes, getting in and out of breaks and pass catching. Having the ball in my hand and getting yards after the catch are second nature to me after my college career. What I am anticipating is that when I take my skills that I learned as a runner in college and apply them to the tight end position, I will be able to separate myself from the other tight ends in this league”.
Laan spent the entire 2016 season on the Jets practice squad, honing his skills and working with pro coaching for the first time. This summer will offer him another shot at making the Jets regular season 53 man roster. He speaks confidently of his chances, and if his past career is any indication, don’t count this young man out.
Currently, the Jets have four tight ends on the roster including Laan. Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Braedon Bowman, and Eric Tomlinson are the other three. Bowman and Tomlinson were rookies last season, and Jenkins is a third-year player taken off of waivers from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. It should be noted that Jenkins has been suspended for the first two games of the 2017 season for violating NFL policies on substance abuse.
Laan’s experience as a quarterback, his skills as a runner and his athletic abilities could lend themselves to new offensive coordinator John Morton’s system. Morton has been often referred to as an innovator. With Laan’s experience, it may not be out of the question to see him attempt a pass, line up in the backfield, or even see him lined up as a wide receiver. If he can find a way to contribute on special teams, it will increase his odds to make the final roster.
As with any prospect, there are no guarantees Laan makes the roster. He has an outside chance, but you have to admire the effort he’s made to make it in the NFL. Playing your natural position is a big enough challenge when trying to make an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent. Converting to another position is another completely different challenge.
He’s one to keep an eye on through organized team activities and summer camp. I for one will be rooting for him. I believe he has a unique skill set that may add some interesting twists to the Jet offense if he can succeed. He’ll be given his shot, let’s hope he makes the most of it.