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Exclusive: Jets Great Wesley Walker Talks Draft, Career, 2023 Team

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Nowadays, the NFL Draft is truly a spectacle. Lights, music, custom suits, and thousands of fans packed into massive venues like sardines.

Back in 1977, that wasn’t the case, and New York Jets great Wesley Walker surely remembers.

He remembers just sitting around waiting for a phone call to tell him where he’s going to be playing from there on out. He was supposed to be a first-round choice, but he kept waiting and waiting. Why?

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Walker’s senior year playing for California, he played in the game he shouldn’t have been playing in, dealing with an injury. He decided to go in anyway because his backup wasn’t filling in his shoes fully. So, he went in and went up for a bad ball, an uncatchable one. A USC cornerback named Dennis Thurman hit him, injuring his knee, forcing him to get surgery and ending his season. He tore the lateral ligament of his knee and had to get it reattached.

The entire first round passed. Then, he finally got a call.

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“New Orleans called me at the start of the second round saying they’re going to draft me,” Walker recalled. “I was excited because they drafted a guy by the name of Chuck Muncie the year before who was my teammate at Cal. He was like my mentor, I really loved him.”

The Saints had the sixth pick that round, 34th overall. He got another call. It was from Connie Carberg, the first female scout in the NFL — and the Jets — who were picking one spot before the Saints. He was now a New York Jet. He was happy to be in a major market, but he didn’t know much about the team. He didn’t even know anything about Joe Namath, who ended his Jets tenure the year prior.

After being drafted, he came in for a physical. The team was worried about his recently repaired knee, but that wasn’t the issue. He couldn’t read the eye chart. He was born legally blind in his left eye, but since he was such a prolific college athlete, that’s the first they knew.

The team wasn’t thrilled at the time, but his play made them quickly forget.

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Playing Career

As a rookie just getting started, Walker had his share of drops. Dan Henning, the wide receivers coach for the Jets from 1976 to 1978, stayed confident in Walker, telling him he was “going to catch more balls than he’s going to have drops.” But he also worked at his craft.

“I knew what I could do,” he said. “I knew I could just run by people, but also, I learned to run routes. I knew and understood what I had to do with all the little things — not only using my hands to catch the ball, how to run routes, how to read defenses. Knowing what you have to do comes with a lot of study and preparation.”

He had a lot of early success, racking up 35 catches for 740 yards and three touchdowns, a whopping 21.1 yards per catch. That led to him being named to the Pro Bowl and the All-Rookie team in 1977. The following year, he topped it with 48 catches for 1,169 and eight scores, averaging 24.4 yards per catch. His 1978 campaign earned him First-Team All-Pro honors.

Walker credits a lot of his early success to his quarterbacks. Early on, he played with Richard Todd, who was drafted sixth overall the year before Walker. He believes Todd, who didn’t have the greatest numbers by any means, was very underrated, partly because he had to follow in Joe Namath‘s footsteps.

Once 1984 came around, eight years into Walker’s 13-year career, Ken O’Brien joined the squad.

O’Brien was a part of that famous 1983 draft, along with fellow quarterbacks John Elway, Jim Kelly, and Dan Marino. O’Brien and Marino have since been linked, not only because of their battles on the field, but because the Jets drafted O’Brien three picks before Miami took Marino. Even though Marino made a Super Bowl, Walker will always take his quarterback.

“When you talk about the Jets, you have to mention Kenny O’Brien,” he said. “I never played with Joe Namath and bless his heart, I love that guy, but I will take Kenny O’Brien over Dan Marino, John Elway, or anybody in else the league, any day of the week. He was the consummate pro.”

Unfortunately, in this league, when you don’t win enough, you don’t get to the playoffs, or you’re not going to Super Bowl, you don’t get the accolades you really deserve. Like O’Brien, that was Walker.

He was constantly told he was too small. He could run fast, but could he catch the ball? That’s why he prided himself on working on the little things, and he had success. However, he still had some trouble getting frequent looks, especially when fellow wideout Al Toon came in as a rookie in 1985.

While Walker was the speedy deep threat, Toon was the shorter route-running, possession receiver. They pumped him with the football. During Walker’s last five years, from 1985 to 1989, he totaled 34, 49, nine, 26, and eight receptions, dealing with injuries along the way. During those same years, Toon hauled in 46, 85, 68, 93 (NFL-best), and 63 passes.

For Walker, it was just about getting the opportunities. He was labeled strictly as the deep threat, so he didn’t get nearly as many looks. He tells people all the time that if he had had a few more opportunities, he would have probably doubled his numbers.

His numbers (without the doubling, of course) are still nothing to sneeze at. He’s second all-time for receiving yards with the Jets; his 8,306 yards trail only Don Maynard. Oh, he’s in the team’s ring of honor, too.

Walker now sees something in the team’s current No. 1 receiver that may get him there eventually, as well.

Current Team

It’d be really underselling it to say the 2023 Jets have high expectations. They have ALL of the expectations. With the addition of Aaron Rodgers, Dalvin Cook, Allen Lazard, and others — and the return of Breece Hall — the team has quickly gone from last-place finishers to Super Bowl hopefuls.

Garrett Wilson, their top pass-catcher and last year’s Offensive Rookie of the Year, is playing a big part, too. He and Rodgers have shown off their chemistry all throughout training camp, the preseason, and even Hard Knocks. Walker’s been taking notice.

“I have a lot of respect for Rodgers seeming to be able to get to know his players,” Walker said. “Garrett Wilson, and I’m hoping he stays healthy, is going to put up some great numbers. He now has that quarterback that can help get his numbers up, which is a plus. He did all that last with Zach Wilson and he was on and off.”

Last year, with inconsistent quarterback play, to say the least, the pass-catching Wilson was phenomenal. The 10th overall selection in the draft immediately showed why he was worth the premier pick. He played in all 17 games, bringing in 83 catches for 1,103 yards and four scores. Those marks earned him first-year honors and a whole lot of hype for this season.

No team can strictly throw the ball every down, though. Fellow rookie Breece Hall was well on his way to beating out Wilson for Offensive Rookie of the Year before tearing his ACL in Week 7. The young runner amassed 463 yards, four touchdowns, and a whole lot of highlight reel moments. He also added 19 catches for 218 yards and a score.

He’s expected to play Monday night against the Buffalo Bills but may be on a limited workload. That’s why New York went out and signed a four-time Pro Bowler, Dalvin Cook. The backfield duo is now one of the top in the league and should open up more possibilities for the offense.

“Last year, they lost Breece Hall, and he was phenomenal,” Walker said. “And now with the addition of Dalvin Cook, they should be able to be wide open. But the biggest thing I see is that they have to stay healthy. On paper, everything really looks good but it’s a long season, there are injuries.”

The Jets have lofty expectations, no doubt. All the hype surrounding the team is unlike any they’ve ever had. If things fall right, the team might get somewhere Walker still wishes he could’ve experienced: the Super Bowl.

“You’ve got these other teams like Buffalo and Miami,” he said, “But on paper, the way I see it, I can see them going to the Super Bowl.”


Main Image Credit:

Embed from Getty Images

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