AFC East Reporter
The New York Jets are among the NFL’s elite in terms of star power, not just with their youngsters but with their veterans, too. That’s one of the many reasons why the Jets are so compelling. They have a rare blend of young studs and experienced veterans, and it seems to be a Super Bowl-caliber combination.
Perhaps because of New York’s recent success in the draft, GM Joe Douglas sent a haul of draft picks to the Green Bay Packers in exchange for four-time league MVP Aaron Rodgers. Even if Rodgers chooses to play for only one or two seasons and even if Rodgers’ play declines, the Jets’ future prospects should be OK. And that’s because of this impressive group of young standouts.
Let’s dive into the group of young players that everyone is so excited about.
CB Sauce Gardner
DL Quinnen Williams
WR Garrett Wilson
WR Allen Lazard
RB Breece Hall
RB Michael Carter
OG Alijah Vera-Tucker
OT Mekhi Becton
CB Michael Carter
DL Jermaine Johnson
Standout: Um, all the guys above?
The Jets’ 2022 draft class was something special. Case in point: Garrett Wilson was the Offensive Rookie of the Year while Sauce Gardner was the Defensive Rookie of the Year. And Gardner should have received greater consideration for Defensive Player of The Year.
With the arrival of Rodgers, Wilson is likely to see his production skyrocket. He managed 83 catches for 1,103 yards and four touchdowns with Zach Wilson and Mike White (and Joe Flacco and Chris Streveler) as his quarterbacks last year.
Wilson and Gardner could both be in the top five among players at their position. That would be an insane simultaneous ascent — and one the Jets should be proud of.
But Wilson and Gardner are hardly the team’s only young standouts. Defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, the No. 3 overall pick in 2019, is the centerpiece of the Jets’ front-seven. Not only can he defend the run from the interior spot, but he can also pressure the quarterback, with 12 sacks last year.
Breece Hall, a second-rounder last year, looked like a massive game-changer before hurting his knee in Week 7.
Alijah Vera-Tucker, a 2021 first-rounder, looks like he can be a perennial Pro Bowler at the guard spot. He was the team’s best offensive lineman in 2022.
The two Michael Carters are excellent role players.
It’s just an absolutely loaded group.
Potential Breakout: Edge Jermaine Johnson
Speaking of New York’s 2022 draft class, Johnson is the only — dare I say it? — disappointment. The No. 26 overall pick finished the year with just two sacks in 14 games. He saw 312 of the team’s defensive snaps (27%), just one more snap than Micheal Clemons, a 2022 fourth-round pick. It showed that Johnson wasn’t quite what the team hoped he’d be. But it felt like no one knocked the Jets for struggling to develop Johnson because the rest of the class was so freaking good.
Well, I’m not here to harsh the buzz. Neither is coach Robert Saleh.
“He looks fantastic,” Saleh said of Johnson last week. “I’m excited for him to get to the regular season so he can translate all that. He’s done a really nice job, and you just cheer him on and hope he keeps taking those steps.
“He’s old-school. He’s a three-down run defender, edge rusher, and I’d argue his ability in the run game is even better than his ability in the pass game. It’s not to knock. He’s very violent at the point of attack, especially if he’s got a tight end in his hands. … He’s a very violent, nasty human in the run game.”
Even with the team drafting edge Will McDonald in Round 1 this year, I think Johnson can take on a substantial role in 2023. He can take a big step forward in this defense, potentially working his way into a starting role by the end of the season.
Do Jets have all the right pieces to put AFC on notice?
Contracts to consider: N/A
Interestingly enough, the Jets are OK in the contract department. They just locked up Quinnen Williams to a four-year, $96 million extension. That was their top priority this offseason. And really, that was their only priority, in terms of securing their young talent. He is the only player from the 2019 draft class who is still with the team.
Similarly, the 2020 draft class was fairly ugly, with RT Mekhi Becton looking like the only meaningful contributor. But I’m not sure the Jets are in any rush to sign him to a long-term deal. He looks solid at the right tackle position, but it’s a spot that — as recently as May — he clearly stated he didn’t want to play. He wanted to be a left tackle. His health has long been a concern, given that he hasn’t played since Week 1 of the 2021 season. Becton might turn into a really good NFL player. But the Jets aren’t going to bet on it just yet.
- As a rookie last season, Sauce Gardner gave up just 34 receptions for 361 yards and one receiving TD. He had a 90.0 coverage grade from PFF, the highest of any cornerback or safety. His 20 passes defensed led the league. He was the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and a First Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection.
- Last season, Quinnen Williams received an overall defensive grade of 90.1 from PFF, the fourth-highest of any interior defensive lineman. He also recorded a pass rush grade of 84.1, tied for the fifth-highest of any interior defensive lineman.
- Before tearing his ACL last season, Breece Hall played in seven games as a rookie, recording 463 rush yards, 19 receptions for 218 yards, and five scrimmage TDs (4 rush, 1 receiving). He ranked eighth among all rookies in rush yards and tied for fourth in scrimmage touchdowns.
- In 2022, Garrett Wilson set the Jets’ rookie record for most receiving yards in a season. The NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year had 83 receptions for 1,103 yards and four receiving TDs.
Sauce Gardner: “I liked Sauce coming out of college and I think he has been even better than I would have anticipated. He just does not allow a lot of separation or big completions. He does not seem stressed, even though I would not describe him as a true burner in terms of speed, and he is long to force tough completions. You mix that with the confidence he plays with, which he has always had, and I think he is in the conversation as the best young corner in the league.” —AFC scout
“Big production, but overrated. Not a smooth, loose athlete and that will hurt him over time. Like the aggressive play style. Risks have been beneficial to him so far, but gambling too much will catch up with him.” —AFC coordinator
Expect Sauce Gardner to elevate Jets defense in Year 2?
Garrett Wilson: “My main issue with Garrett coming out of college was that he dropped a lot of his passes his last season at Ohio State, and I was a little worried if he could survive playing outside in the NFL. But he has shown much better hands and ability to win on the outside. He has always been a good route runner that can separate, but the improvement in the ability to make contested catches makes me think he can be a true No. 1 WR in this league.” —AFC scout
“Garrett Wilson is dangerous and will have huge production with Rogers. Tough to cover down the field … speed is an issue with catch and runs.” —AFC coordinator
Breece Hall: “Hall is a very good back, probably second-best in the division behind Rhamondre Stevenson. With Rogers and the pass game, he will have good production as a lot of teams will refuse to load the box. Has some pass-game value but is most effective as an early-down runner.” —AFC coordinator
Mekhi Becton: “The Jets were wise to move Becton to right tackle, where he won’t be tasked with protecting Aaron Rodgers’ blind side. He might still prove to be the world’s largest turnstile in pass protection there, but at least his quarterback will see the pressure coming.
“Becton is just so darn big that he struggles to readjust. He’s remarkably quick off the ball — and not just for a really big guy. He’s consistently the quickest of the Jets’ offensive linemen in the running game. And he’s brutally strong, with a punch that would make Mike Tyson proud. But defenders able to absorb that first haymaker can all too often slide under or around his reach. A move inside to guard would probably be his best fit.” —NFL talent evaluator
CB Michael Carter: “Carter’s success in Robert Saleh’s defense is a prime example of a good player excelling in a scheme perfectly suited to his game. Carter is a very alert player, showing almost Jedi-like instincts to locate the ball immediately, even as he’s twisting and turning in coverage. But there’s the rub: The Jets don’t often ask him to carry receivers deep downfield.
“Instead, Carter often passes off deeper responsibilities to other DBs and turns back to the line of scrimmage, where he operates as more of a third safety or even linebacker in this hyper-aggressive scheme. The Jets provide him a virtual runway to track tight ends and running backs in the flat, resulting in big hits, tipped passes and interceptions.” —NFL talent evaluator
Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.
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