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Michael Carter II's plan to 'flip' the AFC East
The New York Jets have been the perennial doormat. If things are going to change — once and for all — it'll be because of guys like this slot corner.
The New York Jets’ defense hit a historic rock bottom last season. It’s been 46 years since the unit was this wretched.
Not since 1975 had the Jets finished dead-stinking last in points and yards allowed. And there were only 26 teams in the league back then in the Gerald Ford Administration, too. Last season’s 32nd finish in both categories was a particularly bad look for a head coach, Robert Saleh, who was allegedly bringing a take-names, kick-ass defense to town.
After allowing 504 points in 2021 — for 29.6 per game — what exactly was Saleh’s message to the entire team once the Jets reconvened for the 2022 season?
Part of the solution, slot corner Michael Carter II, recalls all the energy you could expect. Of course the head coach we all see in the rolled-up sleeves, Bic’d dome, pumping his fists in a virtual game of Whac-A-Mole on the sideline brought the juice.
“A new year. A new opportunity for everybody,” Carter says. “You want to make a name for yourself, you’ve got an opportunity to do it. You want to win a spot, you’ve got an opportunity to do it. You want to be a Pro Bowler, an All-Pro, you’ve got an opportunity to do it because last year was last year and this year everybody starts at zero. So, it starts now. The first thing about getting better is showing up. And then you show up, you put the work in, and you got one percent better.
“I feel super motivated. I feel like it’s a great time to be a Jet for sure.”
Not many players have been able to verbalize those words with a straight face in more than a decade.
It cannot be easy for any boss of any team fresh off a 13-loss season to manufacture hope. Nor is anyone in their right mind expecting the Jets to springboard to the Super Bowl stage this year. Not until their baby-faced quarterback, Zach Wilson, starts to show something in a conference loaded at the position. But maybe the sun is finally rising over the moribund franchise. This offseason feels like a real turning point. After years of free agent whiffs and draft busts, a gust of competence appeared to sweep through the team’s New Jersey compound. All in the same draft, there’s a good chance GM Joe Douglas landed a No. 1 corner (Sauce Gardner), No. 1 wideout (Garrett Wilson), No. 1 back (Breece Hall) and No. 1 edge rusher (Jermaine Johnson).
There’s been no panic since Douglas inherited a disaster in June 2019. The longtime Ravens scout hasn’t frantically chased a quick fix.
Probably because he knows the road to relevancy is paved with players like Carter, players who do not warrant any daytime TV blathering. Honestly, he isn’t even the most popular player with his own name on his own team. The Michael Carter on offense, the running back, is who fans are much more familiar with.
But a team carefully rebuilding from the inside-out, trying to win long term, must build with pieces like the 5-foot-10, 184-pound Carter.
He’s part of the larger plan to, as he puts it, “flip” the division.
“With the youth we have — with the whole team — guys have a year more of experience,” Carter says. “All the rookies aren’t rookies anymore. Just having that experience of what it’s like and what it takes to win games. Always, the inches matter. Those details. Being off, that’s how games are won and lost. Definitely optimistic about how we built the culture up. And then just the experience of coming back and guys being hungry and wanting to be that group that flips everything around and being the stepping stones to making this thing great. Everybody on the team is hungry to do that. Everybody has the same mindset of attacking every single day leading up to the season and then dominating in that aspect.”
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The Jets can at least draw optimism from three games. They beat the AFC’s No. 1 seed (Tennessee), the AFC Champions (Cincinnati) and, on Jan. 2, pushed the defending champs (Tampa Bay) to the brink. One week later, in the finale, they weren’t half-bad against Josh Allen and the Bills.
Toward the end of the season, Carter felt the Jets “being in the moment” and “forming an identity.” Internal progress was not always visible to outsiders but Carter is certain Saleh took necessary steps in Year 1. The goal is to change how the Jets are viewed leaguewide and how, Carter adds, the Jets “affect the game on defense.” It’s a lifestyle to him, a continuous loop of film and workouts and inching closer to grasping all nuances of Saleh’s scheme.
Carter sees a belief in what the head coach is selling and players feel like they can go to Saleh with any conceivable question.
“He knows what he wants,” Carter says, “and how he wants things to be run, so he’s deliberate and passionate about how he runs the team. There’s just something about him. We just feel good playing for Saleh. We want to play hard for Saleh. The organization as a whole — to flip everything around — he’s a great coach and a great person as well.”
Carter, the team’s 154th overall pick in 2021, was a fleeting bright spot. Despite missing two games, he finished fourth on the team in tackles (72), had one sack (on Tom Brady), five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries and, most telling, he simply did not give up big plays. Carter committed only two penalties, while also keeping the action in front of him. The analytics site Jet X noted that he allowed an average of 9.9 yards per reception, which put him in the 84th percentile of cornerbacks. He was targeted 79 times— mostly on dumpoffs and screens—and allowed just 60 catches for 595 yards with no scores.
Now, Carter will likely be a corner chasing around Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Stefon Diggs and Jakobi Meyer from the slot in the AFC East.
Back to his days at Duke, he’s always been a DB who moves around. He’s not too shaken by the talent in his division.
“You were chosen to play at this level,” he says. “As far as talent, everybody’s relatively on the same playing field. Week-in or week-out, anybody can win or lose. So you always have to have that mindset that can we can win and accomplish whatever we set our minds to.”
This is how he has approached the sport since eighth grade — back to when his father challenged him.
That’s when Mike Sr. put a poster on both junior’s bedroom door and the basement door that read: “Refuse to accept mediocrity.” Right when his son was starting to take sports more seriously, these four words resonated. The point to him? To never be complacent. To remember there’s always something he could improve. Every time, Mike II entered his room he’d see those words and he’d usually keep that door open, too. Those words would keep on staring right back at him when he was inside his room.
Many Saturday mornings, he didn’t feel like training and Mike Sr. would remind Mike Jr. that another kid on the other side of the country chose to climb out of bed to train in that exact moment.
Then, Dad would point to the poster.
“You say you want to live like this,” he’d tell his son. “I ain’t going to make you go. But I’m going to make you think about it.”
Looking back, this was a fragile juncture in his sports career. From age 9 to seventh grade, Carter played football but the dream was always to play baseball. He’d be in the MLB. Mike Sr. even played collegiate baseball at the University of New Orleans.
After a full year off of football, Mike Jr. returned. He read those words on the door and re-committed.
“When I got back to football, it was natural,” Carter says. “Everything was clicking. I was still that dude in my head. I was like, ‘I want to see how far I can take this thing.’ Because I had never trained or did anything extra with football. I did all that stuff with baseball and would go hit and train and do other stuff. I said, ‘Let me put this energy into football and see how far I can take it.’ And then, that work started to pay off.”
He kept playing baseball all the way up to his first summer at Duke, in 2017, but the NFL became his new dream.
The breakthrough at Duke came his sophomore year. He started as a corner, injuries hit the secondary, Carter moved to the “strike safety” spot (Duke’s term for nickel), All-America corner Mark Gilbert tore his Achilles against Northwestern and — in the 21-7 win — Carter moved back to corner. He was electric at both spots with his first pick, three PBUs and eight tackles injecting a confidence that stuck. That point forward, the defense’s safeties coach and co-coordinator Matt Guerrieri told him, “This is your room.” He wanted Carter elevating everyone else to his level. It was his time to lead. He’s always been ultra-ultra-reserved by nature. But the older Carter gets, the more he finds himself speaking up. By the time he was a college senior, he was named a captain and that “C” on his chest helped him bust out of his shell for good.
Guerrieri recruited Carter back in the Atlanta area and describes him as both supremely intelligent and fiercely loyal, pointing out that he’ll wind up married to his high school sweetheart. Physically, his combination of dynamic feet (to change direction) and elite top-end speed (to stick with the deep ball) fit well at nickel. And through those 46 games at Duke, he found a true “killer instinct,” too. Toughness usually isn’t a high priority for a DB, Guerrieri explains, which makes it such a welcomed bonus when a human pinball like Carter is willing to tackle.
“There’s no BS with him,” Guerrieri says. “He’s a real dude and that’s why people respect him. He’s a lead-by-example kind of guy. There’s not a flaw in Mike.”
Too often, we’re led to believe turnarounds are rooted in flashy PR moves. This was commonplace in the AFC East as the New England Patriots sat on the throne for two decades. T.O. gets the key to the city. Ndamukong Suh signs a historic contract. Darrelle Revis returns to town for a second stint, past his prime, to the tune of $39 million in guarantees heading into age 30. Rex Ryan treats pressers like a WWE heel for both the Bills and Jets. Maybe the trick is finding a whole bunch of day-to-day workers like Carter to flip the division on its head. Guerrierri saw his corner hold others to his standard daily and it made a difference.
The coach who’s now a senior advisor and analyst at Ohio State calls Carter a “steady personality you can build a defense around.” He’s certainly no rah-rah personality, and never will be. But he did became a leader through a dismal rookie season.
Saleh can say whatever he wants. These Jets have one winning record in their last 11 seasons. To turn this thing around, Carter knows it’s on the players to follow his blueprint.
The specific position requires toughness — “nuts” as Gregg Williams informed me in a recent chat — because there’s no avoiding physicality as a nickel close to the line of scrimmage. You’ve got to be sleek enough to chase Hill sideline-to-sideline while also, uh, ballsy enough to throw your body into the tree trunk-sized legs of Derrick Henry.
Carter can picture it now, the Titans’ 247-pound locomotive rolling downhill.
“And,” he cuts in, “you’ve got to make that decision: ‘This is what I signed up for, so I’m going to make this tackle.’ No fear.”
As a nickel, there are times he’s responsible for the B gap in run support. And against Henry, holding a finger to his temple, he remembers thinking how he had to “shift” his mindset to, This is what’s going to happen. I’m built for it. There’s no hesitation loitering in his subconscious because he believes he’s more apt to suffer an injury if he’s not playing violently. He’ll say a prayer to himself before the game, then it’s go time.
“When the whistle blows, I’m balls to the wall.”
One reason there’s no hesitation is his grandmother, who died from ALS. Her fight changed his whole perspective on life because every single time he and his twin sister saw her? Just like Levi Wallace’s ALS-ridden father, Carter’s grandmother was smiling. She didn’t want to display an inkling of suffering. To a grandson, that was the ultimate sign of courage.
She refused to let the disease wipe away her happiness and held on as long as she possibly could.
“My mindset going forward,” Carter says, “I try to be an optimistic person because that’s how she was. As far as quitting… seeing her go through her struggles and how hard she fought to battle that for us, I think that made me.”
Carter was young. Maybe eight years old. As his grandmother’s motor functions and nerves began to die off — and she headed into hospice — he didn’t know much about ALS.
Now, he tries to keep her memory alive by attacking every morning. It’s simple: Life could always be “1,000 times worse.”
Adds Carter: “I always think I can overcome whatever obstacles are thrown at me.”
He’s now surrounded by new co-workers in the secondary. Douglas wasn’t shy in addressing the team’s sore sport.
In free agency, he inked cornerback D.J. Reed to a three-year, $33.3 million deal. A man no stranger to obstacles himself, be it living with cockroaches or a torn labrum. The Jets also signed safety Jordan Whitehead to a two-year, $14.5 million deal. Then, of course, there’s “Sauce,” the fourth overall pick expected to vanquish opposing receivers. The two corners who started a year ago (Bryce Hall and Brandin Echols) may hardly see the field as fourth and fifth on the pecking order.
Reed could not contain his excitement for this new crew at his press conference during OTAs, declaring the Jets’ secondary as “special.” He also said that this group “can dominate” and that it’s the best secondary he’s been a part of.
All fine and dandy until Tyreek Hill runs a deep crosser.
For a few hours it appeared Hill might be a Jet, too. The receiver’s agent even said New York worked out a trade for Hill before Miami entered the chat… and Hill decided he wanted to be a Dolphin. When Carter heard Hill might become a teammate, he was excited. (“What he can add to a team is crazy with his speed, his contested-catch ability.”) Then, Hill signed with the Dolphins and Carter realized he’d instead need to cover him for a living.
Carter didn’t hear Hill’s dig in his introductory presser, when he was asked how close he was to picking the Jets.
“Who?” Hill said. “The Jets? Nah man. I knew I was always going to pick Miami no matter what.”
Here, via Zoom, he doesn’t appear too bothered by it, either. As if he and everyone with “JETS” inscribed across their helmets know it’s on them to change the perception, to make stars think about this organization differently. Until they start winning some damn games, they can’t blame any opponent for uttering a sarcastic “Who?” That being said, Carter makes it clear he cannot wait for all divisional matchups. He’ll cover Diggs when the Bills’ top target slides inside and, yes, he’ll need to stick with the peace-signing Hill who’s more of a “cheetah.”
“That’s how you make a name for yourself,” Carter says. “It’s a great challenge. But it’s able to be done. I’m going to put the work in to make sure I’m at my best when the time comes. … You’re in the NFL. You get to cover the top guys in the league. You get to play this game that you’ve been playing all your life.”
It took a solid two decades for the team currently atop this division — the Bills — to change what people think about them. Now, the Jets are on a similar climb.
As valuable as these 5 a.m. grinders are, landing a star quarterback is still the No. 1 objective.
The pressure was indeed on Josh Allen, and he delivered.
For all of the good vibes in Jets Country, little matters unless the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 draft takes a gigantic step forward. Wilson’s career can realistically go either direction at 100 mph this season. It was hard to get a read on his 13-game debut season. The numbers were mostly awful — 55.6 completion percentage, 69.7 rating, only nine touchdowns, 44 sacks — but there was the occasional throw that suggested Wilson can pull off the sort of stunts other QBs do not even attempt.
The personnel around him was pretty lousy, too, an issue Douglas eliminated this offseason. Hill or no Hill.
Told that Wilson remains a total mystery to all of us, Carter calls his QB one of the hardest workers on the team.
“He’s diligent. He knows what he expects out of himself,” Carter says. “Obviously he knows what other people expect out of him because you have high expectations being Zach Wilson. But I think he has higher expectations for himself. That’s what has propelled him to get better every week, and what is going to keep propelling him to be a Super Bowl quarterback and all of the things he can be for the team. Zach is awesome. A great quarterback. I can’t wait to compete against him (in practice), and him make us better and we make him better, and we go out and win games together.”
The sporadic wow throw in 2021 — like this TD vs. the Titans — isn’t so sporadic in practice. Carter loves that Wilson experiments against his own defense.
He’s not afraid.
Adds Carter: “He’s going to be great.”
The fact that a player can be this optimistic is what makes the NFL superior to any other pro sports league. It’s not outlandish for anyone to daydream about shocking the world. It won’t be easy for the Jets, and nobody should hold their breath for too drastic of a 2022 surge. But is .500 realistic? Certainly. Whereas Super Bowl-or-Bust expectations reign supreme in Western New York and the pressure for a Brady-less Bill Belichick to win rises and the Dolphins did infuse their roster with big-name veterans, the Jets would simply enjoy some meaningful games into the winter months.
In Week 18 last season, the injury-ravaged Jets had nothing to play for against the Bills. True, that game in Orchard Park, NY was flexed to 4:25 p.m. because the Bills were playing for the division title. And looking back, it irks Carter because that meant the wind chill was even worse. He hated how the Jets’ defense was stuck standing on the field in the frigid cold during those extended TV timeouts. The Bills’ players remained huddled up in jackets, which meant being envious of them for more reasons than one.
The chance to have something at stake — anything — in Week 18, 17, hell, 16 sure would be nice.
Carter knows he can help the New York Jets get to this point, too.