Friday, September 30, 2022

Jeff Lageman—Worth Remembering

 By John Turney 
"With the fourteenth pick of the 1989 draft the New York Jets take . . . Jeff Lageman, University of Virginia."

"Who?" "Booooooooooooooooooooooooo."

That was Jeff Lageman's introduction to the NFL. He was a disappointing surprise to Jets fans attending the draft. He was also a surprise to the media, "He's a third-rounder at best," wrote Will McDonough of the Boston Globe. He was even surprised himself, "I didn't expect to be taken until Round Two. It was an incredible shock when the Jets called."

He simply was not on many people's radar for the first round. He'd been a fine collegiate player—He was All-ACC as a senior and led the Cavaliers in tackles his junior and senior season, but he was not the typical All-American-type prospect many think of when they conjure a first-rounder in their mind. 

But the Jets saw the 6-5, 250-pounder as something others didn't:  A rush backer. Lageman had been an inside linebacker at Virginia but with his height, he didn't project well at that position. But he could run and had a lot of length, good traits for a 3-4 outside linebacker Jets brass reasoned. It was a gamble.

The gamble did pay off but it took until Lagaman's third year to do so.

He was okay as a rush backer but nothing spectacular. In his rookie year, he showed some promise but nothing to indicate he'd live up to his draft status. 

Then Lageman got a break. 

Head coach Joe Walton was gone, and in came Bruce Coslett. Out went the 3-4 scheme and in came Pete Carroll with his 4-3 Eagle defense.

Carroll had been a secondary coach with the Minnesota Vikings and they had some excellent defenses in his tenure there under defensive coordinator Floyd Peters, who was a "4-3 only" guy. He believed in defensive linemen getting up the field and creating havoc and playing the run on the fly and Carroll's aim was to build a front four modeled after the one in Minnesota.

Jeff Lageman was going to be the "Chris Doleman", the blind side rusher and fellow 1989 draftee Dennis Byrd was to be the "Keith Millard", the "Eagle tackle" (three-technique). Playing on the center was Scott Mersereau whose role was that of Henry Thomas. Eventually, Marvin Washington was going to man the left end but was the designated pass rusher that first year. 

Initially, only Byrd lived up to his designed role but Lageman and the others learned and showed some progress. The team's total of sacks rose from 28 to 38 and the Jets thought the plate was set for many years with a young, active front four. 

"In this scheme, I am kind of happy," Lageman told the media. "I didn't want to be in a position where I would drop all the time. I like coming in on the quarterback from the blind side." 

Carroll was liking a lot of what Lageman did but did tell the papers that he was "not a highlight pass rusher. From that position . . . we are counting on that position to be a factor and we need to improve on that."

Lageman got the message. In the off-season, he worked on getting bigger (he went from 253 to 266 with his body fat reduced by twenty-five percent) and stronger (bench press jumped as did his squat numbers), and faster. With the added weight and strength his forty times dropped as did his ten-yard and twenty-yard splits.

The next season he came into his own, leading the team with ten sacks and recording three forced fumbles and five pass deflections. In addition to improving his athletic ability, he worked on his techniques, learning to use his hands better, using "some quickness and a little finesse" rather than getting whatever pressure he got, "From my bull rush" and "from my strength."

But 1991, only two years into the plan, was the last year the four were together. The wheels came off the following season. First, Lageman blew out his ACL and then, at midseason, Dennis Byrd was tragically paralyzed, ending his career. The soon-to-be-great foursome didn't get to gel and mature and become the force envisioned by the Jets.

The next couple of seasons the Jets struggled and Lageman was oft-injured (in addition to the knee he played with a separated shoulder and a herniated disc in his neck) but was very good (led team in sacks both seasons 8.5 in 1993 and 6.5 sacks and 29 hits/hurries in 1994) but averaging eight sacks a season he was not great, not exactly what the club envisioned. 

He played more like a second-rounder than a 14th-overall pick. Oh, he'd give full effort, one hundred percent hustle was his strong suit but in a city that had seen Mark Gastineau rack up 19, 20 and 22 sacks in a season, Lageman just didn't measure up.

Still, the Jets wanted to re-sign him when he became an unrestricted free agent in the 1995 off-season. They offered a three-year deal worth about $5.35 million but Lageman chose the expansion Jaguars whose offer that was only slightly higher in total but was significantly higher in the upfront money. 
An injured foot ended his season early in his first year with Jacksonville (3 sacks and 30 pressures) and the next year it was an injured knee that felled him and he missed four games at midseason. However, he recovered in time for the surprising but glorious late-season run that vaulted the Jaguars into the AFC Championship game. 

After the bye, the club went 6-1 and then beat Buffalo and Denver in the playoffs before succumbing to the Patriots, one game short of the Super Bowl. 

Along the way, the Jaguars did some interesting things on the defensive line. On passing downs, they often went with four defensive ends with former starter Joel Smenge coming in as a defensive tackle and starting right end Clyde Simmons (Lageman moved to the left end to accommodate Simmons who they has added that season) moving from end to tackle with super rookie Tony Brackens manning the right edge. 

It was the forerunner to Tom Coughlin's "NASCAR" front he deployed with the 2007 Giants when Justin Tuck and starting strong-side linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka would play inside joining ends Osi Umenyiora and Hall of Famer Michael Strahan. That lasted about ten games into the year—until  Kiwanuka got hurt but it was effective. 

It is hard to know for certain if the Jaguars were the first to use four defensive ends in nickel situations but it likely was. Regardless, it was unique for that era. 

In 1997 the Jaguars improved their record from 9-7 to 11-5 but got booted from the playoffs early, losing to the Broncos. Lageman didn't have great numbers but had several notable games and contributed to a defensive that upped its sack total from 37 to 48. 

Lageman's three-year deal has expired but was not a free agent long signing a one-year $2.3 deal to stay in Jacksonville. But he didn't stay long—he only played one snap, injuring a biceps on the play and that put him on injured reserve for the year after which he was a free agent.

By April, the papers were reporting that Lageman was likely to retire and in June he made it official.

Even though Lageman may not have lived up to his draft status, or maybe he did, he's right on that cusp, he did have a good career, one worth noting. 

He was a leader, a tough guy who played through injuries and showed a good motor and certainly worth remembering. 

Career stats—

1 comment:

  1. Always thought the best use of Lageman would have been in a Karl Mecklenburg role.