How much progress have Jets’ top rookies made?
6: 00 AM ET
Rich CiminiESPN Staff Writer
- Longtime Jets beat writer for New York Daily News
- Syracuse University graduate
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The play happened in the New York Jets‘ next-to-last practice. In a 7-on-7 period, rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson ran an intermediate crossing route and made a twisting catch on a pass from quarterback Zach Wilson that was behind him. Although it wasn’t a typical route for Wilson, he was slightly out of position and showed such concentration and body control that the play was big.
A play that could serve as a harbinger for the ballyhooed Class of ’22: Their top four draftees, learning on the fly, might veer off script at times, but they can compensate with pure talent.
“Playmakers, baby,” general manager Joe Douglas said on draft night.
Douglas’ comment, captured in the Jets’ new, in-house documentary, “Flight 2022: New Heights,” came after the selection of running back Breece Hall in the second round. The Jets believe they got playmakers in Hall and Wilson, along with two dynamic defenders in cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and defensive end Jermaine Johnson II. As rookies, all four will play important roles. They will be joining last year’s draft class to create a foundation.
After four weeks of practice, each rookie made their first on-field impressions to coaches and teammates.
Gardner (Round 1, fourth overall)
With D.J. Reed and Brandin Echols sidelined with injuries, Gardner got a lot of reps with the starting defense. It is possible to get a permanent promotion.
The coaches praise Gardner for his intangibles. They love his football ability and willingness to learn. He will immediately go to his position coach if he makes a mistake. He wore puffy gloves (imagine oversized oven mitts) in one open practice to improve his hand placement and prevent him from grabbing. He began that practice in college where he had nine penalties in his last two seasons.
“They call more stuff in the league,” Gardner stated. “I thought it would go the other way, but it isn’t. “
Safety Jordan Whitehead said Gardner reminds him of former NFL star Richard Sherman because of their similar build. Gardner is 6-foot-3, with 33 1/2-inch arms. He reached up to grab the ball from the air after he intercepted a Zach Wilson pass.
Despite his inexperience, Gardner still has enough talent to cover top receivers in man to man coverage. He will be confused by certain routes and formations like any rookie. However, he showed an amazing ability to adjust midplay to situations in which the offense tried to throw him off.
“He will have his moments and his lumps, as they all do. But, there won’t be many of them,” said Jeff Ulbrich, defensive coordinator. “Probably less than most. “
Garrett Wilson (Round 1, 10th overall)
The Jets made an offer for San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel and looked into A.J. Brown, who was dealt from the Tennessee Titans to the Philadelphia Eagles, before taking Wilson — the top receiver on their draft board. Wilson could be better than either of them in the long term if he realizes his full potential.
The Jets love Wilson’s versatility. He can play inside or outside, which is a big plus in a scheme that requires receivers to be proficient at multiple positions. Wilson is quick and smooth with sticky hands.
The coaches love Wilson’s focus in meetings. Although the pre-draft vetting process can be complex, you don’t really know a player until they are in your building. Wilson has exceeded their expectations. He plans to stay in Florham Park for the six-week break to continue working with the conditioning staff.
The big question is: How will he react when the game gets physical. Offseason practices were not bump-and-run, which provided easy releases for the receivers. It’s different when you have a cornerback looking to make wideouts on your route. At 6-foot, 183 pounds, Wilson isn’t the biggest receiver. He’ll have to continue to learn about how physically demanding this level is, especially when we put on pads and go against our secondary. Barring injury, Wilson will play a major role in the receiving corps.
Johnson (Round 1, 26th overall)
Because the offseason was basically a passing camp — no run game, no live pass-rushing drills — it was difficult to get a good read on Johnson. This is what we know:
He worked mostly with the second and third defensive lines, often as the wide-9 end. That is the key pass-rushing position in the Jets’ four-man front, and they believe he’s ideal for that spot because of his size (6-foot-5, 254 pounds), explosiveness and motor.
Nearly two months after the draft, the Jets still can’t believe Johnson fell to 26th. Douglas says that Johnson told him, before the draft, to “Trade up and get me.” They did.
“He has explosion, speed, bend, and all the other stuff rushers need from a physical perspective,” Ulbrich stated. “Now it’s all about learning his game, learning the intricacies and straining on a daily basis, and learning the grit that’s required to be successful on the line. “
Hall (Round 2, 36th overall)
Even though he lasted until the second round, Hall is viewed by the organization on the same level as their top three picks. He plays a position that has been undervalued in recent years. He’s a big-time talent. A three-down back who can make an instant impact as a runner or receiver, he’s considered a big-time talent.
Hall did not get the chance to practice his rush skills, but he was a great pass-catcher. He was comfortable running fast, sharp-breaking routes in the middle and swinging out from the backfield. He was such a prolific runner at Iowa State that his receiving skill was overshadowed (36 receptions last season).
The Jets love Hall’s home-run potential. This is a dimension that is severely lacking in their running game. Hall is 220 pounds, so there’s a power element to his game as well. He and Michael Carter figure to be the one-two punch for an offensive that relies heavily on the ground game.
“He’s a fluid mover,” LaFleur said. “He sneaks up upon defenders more that I think you could say from watching him on tape. It’s just a different style of movement that the guys aren’t used to when you’re there in real life, I suppose you could say. “
The author of 5 books, 3 of which are New York Times bestsellers. I’ve been published in more than 100 newspapers and magazines and am a frequent commentator on NPR.