The New York Jets know what they're doing
GM Joe Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh needed to nail this 2022 NFL Draft. This weekend could not be going any better.
With all due respect to Wayne Newton shouting “Mississippi!” there are few things better on draft weekend than the fist bumps. When that camera peers inside a draft room, we get to see GMs and coaches acting very human. It can be fun. It can be awkward. Howie Roseman and Tom Donahoe supplied a must-see exchange last year. Unfortunately, neither network televising this weekend’s festivities are giving viewers many peeks behind the curtain.
On Night 1, however, there was one awesome moment.
From Pick No. 15 to Pick No. 26 — before every single selection — New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas tried to trade up for Florida State edge rusher Jermaine Johnson. Finally, he found a trade partner and the Jets captured his elation. “We’re on the f-----g clock,” Douglas says after setting the phone down. When head coach Robert Saleh wraps him in a hug, he gets louder. “We’re on the f-----g clock!”
It wasn’t forced, either. This felt very real because both had every reason to be ecstatic.
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No team faced more pressure than the Jets this weekend. With the Buffalo Bills still quarterbacked by a MVP candidate, the Miami Dolphins adding a dream team ensemble of talent (headed by Tyreek Hill) and the New England Patriots still coached by the greatest coach ever, the Jets needed to take full advantage of their hefty draft ammo. Two days in, this is the franchise’s best haul since 2000 when they nabbed four difference-makers in the first round, DE Shaun Ellis, DE John Abraham, QB Chad Pennington and TE Anthony Becht. It’s no exaggeration to suggest that the Jets landed the best cornerback (Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner), the best wide receiver (Garrett Wilson), the best running back (Breece Hall) and, in Johnson, one of the best pure pass rushers.
For a team that already made its big bet at quarterback, and is fresh off its 11th straight playoff-less season, a meat-and-potatoes draft came at a perfect time. This all comes with a massive caveat, of course. Nothing matters if Zach Wilson doesn’t pan out. But the draft broke beautifully for a team in need. Douglas inherited a colossal mess of a franchise in 2019, quietly stocked the roster with actual talent and — if the Jets do turn this thing around for good — we’ll probably look back at the 2022 draft as what lit the match.
There’s few cliches in sports worse than a team telling us they took the best player on their board but, pick to pick, value met need for Douglas. An offensive tackle wasn’t going to change much in the AFC East for the Jets, but a true No. 1 corner? This was absolutely needed with Stefon Diggs, Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle play-to-play threats to detonate. Gardner is described as a faster and more athletic Richard Sherman at 6 foot 2 ½ with 4.46 speed and 33 ½-inch arms. His versatility to play press and off coverage is rare and Saleh nailed it during his press conference on Thursday night in explaining the value of Gardner. This league is all about getting a stop on third and 4 when everyone knows you’re locked up in man-to-man coverage. Sometimes, this sport isn’t that complicated: Can your premier corner blanket their premier wide receiver? With the game on the line?
Take JC Jackson, the All Pro who signed with the Los Angeles Chargers in the spring. He takes the ball away at an absurd clip. The last two seasons, Jackson has 17 interceptions with 37 passes defensed, but when it came to what stands in the Patriots’ way right in the division, he repeatedly was burnt by Diggs.
There will be growing pains. But the fact that Gardner at least has a shot to compete in such a matchup — because of his size-speed combo — makes him worthy of the No. 4 overall pick.
Since Darrelle Revis’ peak 10 years ago, the Jets haven’t boasted a true No. 1 cornerback. Last year’s unit ranked last in yards allowed.
“Sauce can do everything,” Saleh said. “He can play zone. He can play man. He can win in crunch time. He can run with the fastest guys. He can defend the biggest guys. He’s elite.”
Saleh didn’t hide from a question about the division, too. As a defensive coach who’s thinking about how to stop all of these weapons in the AFC East daily, he knows his scheme will only go so far. In DBs like Michael Carter II, DJ Reed, Jordan Whitehead, LaMarcus Joyner and Ashtyn Davis, the Jets are compiling a group of tough, pound-for-pound players.
Of course, the Jets needed to help their quarterback.
Hill spurned them for Miami and the Jets were unable to swing a deal for unhappy 49ers wide receiver/running back/beer vendor/groundskeeper Deebo Samuel, but this is suddenly a promising crew: Garrett Wilson, Elijah Moore, Braxton Berrios and the vet Corey Davis should be more than enough for their 22-year-old quarterback.
Scouts pegged Wilson the best wideout of 2022. Said one: “He’s exactly what a lot of teams are looking for. He doesn’t have ideal size, but outside of size I don’t think you could find anything wrong with him.” He’s smallish but proved he can gain separation and make the contested catch deep — the Jets sorely needed a game-breaker like this:
“He has the whole repertoire in terms of the route tree,” Saleh said. “You see him and he looks a little slight but he’s actually very strong. Plays the game very strong. He’s got great range. He’s got really good speed. He’s another guy who can win 1-on-1 which obviously, when you look at Buffalo, New England and Miami, they’re man-to-man coverage teams. Being able to add him to Corey, Braxton and Elijah Moore and the rest of our receiving corps and the tight ends… it’s a group that’s really ascending and a really young group that’s going to have a chance to grow together.”
Zach Wilson had a strange, futile rookie season with 2,334 yards, nine touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a lowly 55.6 completion percentage through three wins and 10 losses. But the mess around him did not help. The Jets’ receiving corps was hit hard by injury and he didn’t have anyone striking any amount of fear deep. That changes with Garrett Wilson. Of his 12 touchdowns last season, six were on vertical routes. He averaged 15.1 yards per reception and there’s a reason he’s so good in traffic trying to catch the ball at his highest point. It’s natural. He was a star point guard in high school basketball and the AAU circuit who could play at the rim. He actually received D-I offers and has said basketball was his first love.
His father, Kenny Wilson, even played briefly for Denver Nuggets after scoring 1,573 career points at Davidson.
Here’s Garrett Wilson’s high school basketball film for those interested.
Samuel is a 1-of-1 talent and nobody was used like him in 2021 — perhaps ever. His third-down run at Lambeau Field in the 49ers’ divisional playoff win was as clutch as it gets in January. While reporting on “Blood and Guts” (preorder today if you’d like!), I can’t tell you how many times some of the best tight ends and tight end coaches ever brought up Samuel’s name unsolicited as a positionless weapon changing the sport. You want him on your roster. Then again, Samuel would’ve also cost the Jets at least $20 million per year and we’ve seen contracts like this totally blow up in the Jets’ faces year-in and year-out for whatever reason.
Whoever’s been in charge of the football operation too often chases the shiny bright objects. Overall, Douglas’ discipline is a breath of fresh air as he methodically rebuilds the team.
Of course, if we’re nitpicking, the Jets probably would’ve loved for Aidan Hutchinson to sneak down to four. Their pass rush was abysmal in 2021.
Getting Carl Lawson back should help. After signing a three-year, $45 million deal last season, the former Bengal ruptured his Achilles’ tendon in August. Johnson certainly comes with red flags, but credit to Douglas for his resiliency calling teams for half the first round to finally move from No. 35 to No. 26. When our Bob McGinn asked 17 scouts who the best pure pass rusher was in the draft, three said Johnson. There was some scathing criticism but no questioning his pass-rush ability after 12 sacks at Florida State. Said one scout: “He can power off the edge. He’s got get-off and flattens down on the quarterback.” And another: “He’s got exceptional hands and hand usage at the point of attack. That’s what grabbed me the most about him. The sacks came off hustle.”
If the Jets foster the right environment for Johnson, this could turn out to be the great steal of the draft.
I think we can take the franchise at its word when they tell us they drafted three players in their top 8.
They all play premium positions, too.
“Big. Long. Explosive,” Saleh said of Johnson. “He has great athleticism, violence to his game. Very smart. He is probably the most pro ready out of all the pass rushers this year in terms of having a repertoire to his game. Really a perfect fit for what we do defensively with our Wide 9 system, putting him on an edge and getting him firing off the ball and attacking. He’ll really be a great complement to the group that we already have.”
On Day 2, the Jets found a running back. Iowa State’s Breece Hall is as good as it gets this spring and should add a needed wrinkle to the passing game, too. The Jets tried moving back into the first round to grab Hall and still landed him on Day 2. Everything adds up from the speed (4.39) to the athleticism (40 inches) to the production. The Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2020 and 2021 rushed for 3,044 yards and 41 touchdowns. Again, the Jets found a playmaker who’ll stretch the field. Even as a defensive-minded coach, Saleh likely knows shootouts are going to be inevitable in today’s NFL. You cannot stubbornly expect to win 17-14 games in 2022. Not with Josh Allen locked in long term with the Bills.
Buffalo had a chance to take Hall itself in the first round, but opted for the dual-threat James Cook instead in the second. It’ll be quite interesting to track both of their young careers considering both will factor into their offenses immediately in a big way.
“Part of the plan,” said Saleh, “was to add some guys who when they touch it, guys can take it 80.”
How refreshing it must be for Jets fans to have such general competence at the top of the organization. It’s almost difficult to comprehend.
From the get-go, Douglas was a smart hire as someone who cut his teeth as a scout on Ozzie Newsome’s staff in Baltimore from 2000 to 2014. Newsome and the Ravens’ system is revered around the NFL as the gold standard. Many other front offices go sideways because you don’t really know who’s in charge and/or the person making that final call allows emotion enter the equation. As simple as it sounds, a steady presence at the top — think Ted Thompson in Green Bay — is all it takes to build a winner that lasts.
Of course, these Jets are counting on this being their quarterback. A team can add all the talent it wants around a QB. Unless that’s your guy, it won’t matter. Douglas did everything in his power to set Zach Wilson up for success.
As outstanding as that the Jets’ draft was 22 years ago, that was also the draft that doomed the franchise for a generation. Ellis was solid. Abraham was one of the best pass rushers of the 2000s. Pennington was damn good, too.
But then at No. 199, a different quarterback was drafted by the Patriots: Tom Brady.
Once the high from this weekend wears off, Douglas and Saleh will be taking a deep exhale and the real work begins.