Jets select Pitt RB and Brooklyn native Israel Abanikanda in the fifth round of NFL draft
Running back was not at the top of the Jets needs entering this year’s draft, but it was undoubtedly a concern.
Gang Green not only drafted a running back on Saturday, but it also took a local New York City player.
With the 143rd overall selection in the fifth round, the Jets selected Pittsburgh running back Israel Abanikanda, who grew up in Brooklyn.
Abanikanda learned he was being chosen by the Jets while watching the draft news at Abraham Lincoln High School, his alma mater, with his friends and family.
Abanikanda was the second Pitt player the Jets chose during Day 3 of the draft after selecting tackle Carter Warren in the fourth round.
“When I got the call, it was random,” Abanikanda said. “I was just laying my head on my mom and it just rang, so I looked and saw New Jersey. Then I looked up and saw the Jets are up and I was like, ‘Man, I’m staying home.’ I was so excited, it is unreal.
“It’s a dream come true as I always wanted to stay home and stay close to family, so it’s an unreal experience.”
Abanikanda ended his career at Pitt with 2,177 yards and 28 touchdowns on 390 carries (5.6 avg.) while catching 38 passes for 354 yards (9.3 avg.) and three TDs. Fans might remember Abanikanda from when he made Panthers history last year. In Pitt’s 45-29 victory over Virginia Tech, Abanikanda rushed for 320 yards and six touchdowns on 36 carries (8.9 avg.) and broke former Heisman Trophy winner Tony Dorsett’s school single-game rushing record of 303 yards set against Notre Dame on Nov. 15, 1975.
Not only is Abanikanda known for his skills on the football field, but he was also a two-time gold medalist in the 100-meter dash at the New York Mayor’s Cup Race and a bronze medalist at the state track meet in the 100 meters.
Abanikanda will fit the Jets’ offensive scheme well, as he’s a downhill runner with excellent home run speed. He also has a ton of experience running in zone-blocking schemes at Pitt.
“They’re getting a running back that can break tackles, that can run any type of scheme,” Abanikanda said. “Outside zone, inside zone, I also can line up in the slot, catch the ball, breakaway, home run runner.”
ROUND 6: ZAIRE BARNES, LB, WESTERN MICHIGAN
The Jets selected Western Michigan linebacker Zaire Barnes with the 184th overall pick after trading their Round 5 pick to the Raiders for a pair of late-round picks. Not only are the Jets getting a player in Barnes who has played a lot of snaps at linebacker, but also one who has played all over the field defensively.
With the Broncos, Barnes logged snaps as an edge rusher and even at safety. He also has experience on special teams, which is where he will likely begin his NFL journey with the Jets.
“It allowed me to stay mentally focused on a different type of level,” Barnes said about playing a variety of positions. “One aspect is staying locked in on one position, but switching a mindset and getting re-locked in and having no snaps to get warmed up and going into doing it.
“That’s where I feel like I peak at and I feel like it has helped me on the mental side of things. It just shows teams that coaches put their trust in me to do more than one job.”
At Western Michigan, Barnes registered 205 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and an interception in four seasons.
ROUND 6: JARRICK BERNARD-CONVERSE, CB, LSU
The Jets didn’t need any help at cornerback during this weekend’s draft.
However, that didn’t stop them from selecting in the sixth round at pick No. 204.
The Jets chose LSU cornerback Jarrick Bernard-Converse who, at 6-1, 197 pounds, was basically used as an off-man press player.
After transferring from Oklahoma State to LSU last season, Bernard-Converse recorded 44 tackles with two interceptions and five pass breakups. In addition to his work at the cornerback position, Bernard-Converse played safety for the Tigers.
Bernard-Converse says the Jets have yet to tell him if they want him to be a cornerback or safety at the next level, but he is willing to play whatever role the team has for him.
“It helped me understand defense better and understand how to play the game,” Bernard-Converse said about playing multiple positions in the secondary. “It expanded my mind and challenged me to learn more than one position.
“I feel like playing safety helped me gain more knowledge of the game.”
Bernard-Converse’s quickness was a concern in college, as he gave up several touchdowns in coverage against bigger and faster receivers. However, he put some of those questions to bed as he reportedly ran a 4.40 40-yard dash at his LSU Pro Day. That’s why it was some thought to him possibly moving to safety, which still could happen.
Bernard-Converse has a ton of experience as he played in 64 career games at the college level, That also includes the time he spent on special teams, which should serve him well in the NFL. His presence will give Jets coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich some versatility depth-wise defensively.
ROUND 7: ZACK KUNTZ, TE, OLD DOMINION
For the Jets final selection, they returned to the offensive side of the ball to draft a player from Sun Belt Conference.
Gang Green selected Old Dominion tight end Zack Kuntz with 220th overall.
Kuntz, from Camp Hill, PA, began his collegiate career at Penn State as he played in 21 games from 2018-20. Then in 2021, Kuntz spent his final two seasons at Old Dominion, where he was one of the best tight ends in the nation.
“He tested through the roof,” Jets general manager Joe Douglas said. “Sitting there at the top of the seventh round and just going through some of the guys that have that freak factor, and he was at the top with the size, the length, the speed, the jumps, everything.
“He may have been drafted a little sooner if not for the injury this year.”
In 2021, Kuntz recorded 73 catches for 692 yards and five touchdowns as he was a First-Team All-Conference USA selection before Old Dominion entered the Sun Belt Conference in 2022. After starting the first five games of the season, Kuntz suffered a season-ending knee injury. That limited him to 12 receptions for 144 yards and two touchdowns.
Kuntz says he is healthy following surgery as he participated in drills at the NFL Combine.
“I haven’t had any issues with it whatsoever,” Kuntz said. Recovery has been going awesome, and I’m ready to go.