FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Rex Ryan kept his promise to Quinton Coples.
The New York Jets coach told the North Carolina defensive end last week that the team would draft him if he were still available at No. 16 overall. Coples can repay him and the Jets by being the dominant pass rusher they think he'll be.
"He told me that if I were still there, he was definitely going to take me," Coples said during a conference call Thursday night. "I'm just thankful he was a man of his word."
Ryan made that promise during Coples' visit to the Jets' facility, although general manager Mike Tannenbaum joked that the team "told that to 16 players." But even with several top pass rushers still available, Coples was the highest-rated player left on the Jets' board when it was time for them to make their selection.
"I think with this addition," Ryan said, "we'll push the quarterback back a little."
Coples tied for third in Tar Heels history with 24 sacks, including 17 1/2 in his last two years, despite having four position coaches and two head coaches during his college career. The Jets finished fifth in defense last season, but New York's 35 sacks ranked tied for 17th in the league, and Aaron Maybin led the team with just six. The 6-foot-5, 284-pound Coples should help fill that need immediately playing alongside veterans Sione Pouha, Mike DeVito and Muhammad Wilkerson, the team's first-round pick last year.
Ryan attended Coples' pro day at North Carolina and personally went through defensive line drills with him, serving as a blocker. He then tested Coples with some linebacker drills, and that's when Ryan really got impressed.
"It's funny and I forget who was with me, but I said, 'I think I just made this young man a lot of money,'" a smiling Ryan said. "When we were going through the drills, he could catch the football, he could run. I mean, there's no saying he couldn't play outside linebacker because he was really athletic in those drills. I couldn't get him tired."
Ryan said Coples reminds him of former Jets Shaun Ellis and Trevor Pryce, terrific pass rushers who could play all along the defensive line.
"He's very athletic for an inside pass rusher," Ryan said.
Wilkerson and Coples were teammates at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia for a season, and Wilkerson gave him a glowing endorsement to the Jets.
"He said that he's a good teammate," Tannenbaum said Wilkerson told him. "And he said, 'He's a better player than me.'"
Still, many fans booed the pick at the draft site at Radio City Music Hall after chanting for the team to take South Carolina's Melvin Ingram. Others thought Syracuse's Chandler Jones would be a better fit than Coples.
Questions about Coples' work ethic and so-so senior season had some Jets fans comparing the pick to the one New York made in the first round four years ago when they selected Vernon Gholston sixth overall. Gholston was expected to be a dominant pass rusher for the Jets, but wasn't able to make the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker for the Jets. There were also questions about his love for football, and he finished his career in New York after three seasons without recording a sack.
"Those are two totally different situations," Ryan said. "This young man, he's going to put his hand in the dirt and rush the passer."
Coples had 10 sacks while playing defensive tackle as a junior in North Carolina's 4-3 scheme, but struggled early last season as he moved to defensive end before finishing with 7 1/2 sacks. He'll play in a 3-4 system with the Jets, and Ryan said he'll play left defensive end and move inside on passing downs. No problem, as far as Coples is concerned.
"I've been working hard to do the best I can to be the best athlete in the NFL," he said. "I think I'm going to be great for the Jets."
Coples went through some adversity while at North Carolina as the program was involved in an agent payment scandal in 2010, which led to coach Butch Davis being fired. He was also investigated by the NCAA for attending a draft party for some teammates last year. He was cleared of any wrongdoing, and the Jets said everything checked out favorably for Coples.
"He stayed above the fray," said Joey Clinkscales, the Jets' vice president of college scouting. "This kid stayed clean."
It's the fifth time in the last six drafts that the Jets have gone with defense with their first-round pick: Darrelle Revis (2007), Gholston (2008), Kyle Wilson (2010) and Wilkerson. The only time they took an offensive player first in that span was when they traded way up and took Sanchez with the fifth overall selection.
Tannenbaum said he did "field some calls" from other teams about making a trade before the Jets picked.
"But we just really felt good about the value of getting Quinton," Tannenbaum said. "Everyone that touched, saw and evaluated Quinton as a person came back with: 'This guy likes football.'"