How Ahmad Gardner and other rookies can impact the New York Jets from day one – New York Jets Blog
FLORHAM PARK, NJ — Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner showed up for college football on a Friday night in October 2019, when he scored on a 16-yard interception return that changed everything for him and the Cincinnati program. .
Facing 18th-ranked Central Florida, Gardner — a freshman backup — played “out” of left cornerback coverage, prompting quarterback Dillon Gabriel to throw a snag. Gardner broke quickly, raised his arms 33 1/2 inches to catch his first interception and headed into the end zone for a touchdown. The Bearcats pulled off the upset, starting a 29-game ranked streak.
More than two years later, the New York Jets studied that game and others like it, marveling at Gardner’s trickery, sass and physical skill. They made him the most drafted cornerback in team history (fourth overall). For coach Robert Saleh, the images on his screen conjured up memories of a corner he coached with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers – former All Pro Richard Sherman.
“You can see he’s an outside-the-box thinker, he’s got great court vision, he’s a terrific communicator (and he) can diagnose a game before it breaks,” Saleh said of by Gardner. “I’m not comparing, but just being with Sherm, I mean, the guy knew the game as soon as they broke up huddle. … He’s playing a different game. So Sauce has a terrific mental makeup that allows him to see the game differently than most players can.”
Gardner leads a seven-man draft class that is hailed as one of the best in the NFL. Time will tell, but with Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson (10th draft), defensive end Jermaine Johnson II (26th) and running back Breece Hall (36th), the Jets have four players who should be major contributors immediately.
Let’s take a closer look at their projected roles (stats via ESPN Stats & Information).
Barring injury, he’ll start on the outside with DJ Reed, their $11 million a year acquisition in free agency.
When a cornerback is drafted that high, he has to be on the field. Gardner, Jeff Okudah (Detroit Lions, 2020) and Denzel Ward (Cleveland Browns, 2018) are the only top-four finishers in the past 24 years. That means Bryce Hall and Brandin Echols, who combined for just two interceptions last season, are considering replacement roles.
The big issue with Gardner is the transition from man-to-man-to-zone. In Cincinnati, he played 344 snaps in press coverage (man-to-man) in 2021, most of them in the FBS. Although the Jets are not a true zone team, they play it a lot, especially on first and second downs (63%, 14th). Their use of the zone drops considerably on the third down (28%, 30th).
As Saleh likes to say, football becomes a one-on-one game on third down, and he asks his corners to win their individual matches. Tackles will also be important, especially with AFC North on the programme. They are run-oriented teams that like to attack the perimeter.
“I like to play in the zone,” Gardner said during rookie camp last weekend. “I feel it’s easier. I like it a lot. When it comes to zone, I like to know what everyone is doing around me. That way I know where to be and when to be there I think I’m a big zone player too.”
If his anticipation and vision of the field are as good as Saleh believes, Gardner should have no problems adapting.
It would be an upset if Wilson didn’t join Elijah Moore and Corey Davis in the top three. As he showed last year with Moore, who landed a starting job in training camp, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur isn’t shy about putting rookies in big roles.
Where will Wilson line up for the majority of his shots? At Ohio State, he played indoors and outdoors. In 2021, he ran 87% of his runs outdoors. In 2020, he was in the slot for 73% of his runs. At Wilson and Moore, they have two versatile chess pieces.
Slot catcher Jamison Crowder hasn’t been re-signed, so there’s a void at the position. LaFleur can go for the committee approach, rotating Wilson, Moore and Braxton Berrios, though Wilson is better suited on the outside due to his ability to stretch a defense. He also has a knack for winning contested holds on the perimeter.
Wilson is a sub-6-foot shadow, but receivers “come in all shapes and sizes,” Saleh said. “You have big guys who play small, small guys who can play big. What I think separates him is that he has tremendous body control and range in terms of his length and all that. He cheek larger than measured size.”
The Jets haven’t had much luck when it comes to recruiting receivers over the decades, but they think Wilson — the highest-rated player on their board — can turn the tide. Rookies can be stars; just look at Ja’Marr Chase of the Cincinnati Bengals in 2021.
“I’m very confident,” Wilson said. “I think I can have that impact.”
Everyone looks at sack production when evaluating rushers, but what sets Johnson apart — and what could result in a Day 1 starting job — is his ability to play the run. Florida State defensive coordinator Adam Fuller told ESPN that Johnson’s best attribute is his physicality in the running game.
“There’s no pretty boy work in the trenches,” said Johnson, who relishes that part of his game.
He proved to be a versatile player in base defense for the Seminoles, as he had 5.5 of 12 sacks on first down – the second-highest total in the FBS.
The Jets can throw it to the defensive end in the base, slipping John Franklin-Myers at tackle. Saleh has previously said he would like Franklin-Myers to work more inside. He only rushed 49 times from inside, recording two sacks – a much better ratio than outside (342 rushes, four sacks).
If Johnson isn’t ready to start, he can play a leading role in the sub-packages. Everyone knows they do a lot of rotation. No defensive lineman played more than 65% of snaps last season.
Hall and Michael Carter will split the races, but Hall believes he can move on at some point due to his speed. He has “home” speed, which means he can take it anytime. He ran the 40-yard sprint in 4.39 seconds and he dodged tackles on 19% of his carries last season, second most among FBS running backs.
Carter had a strong rookie year as the team’s top rusher (639 yards), but he produced just three carries of 20 or more yards. Quite simply, the Jets need more lightning in their backfield. They expect Hall to bring it, which is why he was the 18th ranked player on their board. He was running an out-of-zone program in Iowa State, so there should be a smooth transition. He hopes to have an immediate impact.
“Of course, I think that’s the type of player I am,” said Hall, who rushed for 1,472 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. “I’m an impact player.”