Look, I know I'm late with this post. The draft was two weeks ago, I know. I wasn't in a coma because of sheer ecstasy at the results of the draft, though I bet I could have convinced you of it if I tried. The truth is that I've been suffering from both ills and laziness in the time since the Jets handed in their last pick. I'm still not feeling great about this, but I do want to get these thoughts out before they slip from my mind for good, and none of us want to experience life without me telling you exactly how to think, right?
Though two of the Jets' first three picks this year were spent on defense, there was a definite theme that I noticed with the selections they made this year: adding firepower. The Jets have been a team without much of an offensive identity over the last couple of years, their offense never having really rebounded from the Ryan Fitzpatrick collapse in 2016. Maybe I just have a different recollection than other fans who have been able to watch every play, but how many plays on offense stand out to you as great since then? The 92-yard TD to Robby Anderson in 2019? The Darnold fake-slide TD in 2020? Zach Wilson's point or scramble TDs last year? I remember no great plays between 2016 and 2018 except for a Robby Anderson TD against the Bills when Darnold evaded five sacks in the red zone.
Anyway, the point is that I think the Jets have made a determined effort to get the offense to a place where great plays become the norm rather than the exception. The Rams practically had highlight plays every quarter on offense (except in November) in their Super Bowl-winning season in 2021; the Jets were lucky to get one highlight play on offense per month (Wilson's first NFL TD in September, the pointing TD in October, Flacco-to-Moore for 62-yards in November, Wilson's scramble TD in December and Keelan Cole's 40-yard house call in January). I don't need one every quarter like the Rams, though it would certainly be nice. Given all the investments they've made on offense, it's not unreasonable to ask for roughly one per week.
You know what? I lied. The point isn't actually that the Jets made a determined effort to get the offense to a place where great plays become the norm rather than the exception, as I misleadingly declared at the start of the last paragraph. The point is that the Jets made a determined effort to field a team around Zach Wilson that will leave no room for doubt like what happened in Darnold's run with the team. The reason why we saw such debate among the fanbase about what to do with the 2nd overall pick in 2021 was that there was a legitimate argument that you could have made (and still can make) that the career of Sam Darnold was hamstrung by a poor supporting cast with the team that drafted him (and the team that traded for him). At some point, a QB must be able to elevate what is around him in order to actually be considered a franchise QB, but very few quarterbacks who ever reached that status could have made do with the OL that he had in New York.
The Jets should have a completed OL, both in the starting lineup (replete with three former first round picks) and on the bench (we'll have this discussion again if they cut Greg Van Roten, but he really does make good depth at guard). Their runningback room feels like it could be one of the best committees in the NFL thanks to the addition of Breece Hall. They could do with one more addition to the WR room to help with depth (currently consists of Braxton Berrios, Jeff Smith and Denzel Mims), but their starting set will see Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and Garrett Wilson take the field. Their TE room will also be ready to handle a lot of responsibility after it was essentially a vacancy last season, with three guys capable of starting at the position.
The Jets made it such that the offense should have the weaponry and the protection it needs to let Zach Wilson succeed. It's all on him now, because they have given him everything he should need in his second year. If he fails, the Jets will have the infrastructure to give someone else the job at QB (whether that be Flacco or White in 2022 or someone else in 2023). They built an offense ready for the long run; if Wilson wants to be around for it, he needs to elevate his game like we saw him start to do at the end of his rookie season. If he can do that in an offense that manages to put out a highlight every week... then I think we could be in for a great season.
That's what this offseason feels like it set up. The AFC looks like it's going to be full of gladiators in 2022, yes, but the Jets should be able to compete with them, maybe even defeat a few. Playing a last-place schedule should help them get a few wins (the Jaguars, Browns and Seahawks look fairly vulnerable at the moment). Nobody in the division got significantly better (even the addition of Tyreek Hill and Terron Armstead to the Dolphins doesn't exactly move the needle for me from 9 wins to much more, and the Patriots somehow feel like they got worse despite only losing JC Jackson and Dont'a Hightower as players of real consequence this offseason).
So, with that in mind, let me take a few minutes to review what the Jets added in this draft. Please ignore the relationship between what I did with the first wave of free agency in "opening the floodgates" with the title of this post; the free agency moves and draft selections aren't cancelling each other out, but supporting each other to form a real football team. This really has a chance to be a historically good class for the Jets, as do most draft classes that feature multiple first round picks (see: 2021).
Feel free to leave your feedback or suggestions below this post.
Round 1, 4th Overall: Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, CB, Cincinnati
Included in outlook on cornerbacks: Yes.
My Grade: A
My rationale: Back in my outlook on CBs, I said that I wasn't considering Gardner or any other CB in the running for the 4th overall pick, and I'll be honest; my initial reaction to this pick being announced was sadness. I believed at the time that the Jets were going to fail to address one of their first tier needs in receiver or edge rusher, and that the Jets should not have been trying to go with a luxury pick in a cornerback when they really didn't need a new starter.
Now, given the context of what else the Jets managed to do, Sauce feels not only palatable, but delicious. This is a pick that can reshape the playing field by cutting it in half for opposing QBs. A team that had lacked the ability to create takeaways can now expect to have plenty should those same QBs forget (under pressure from a later pick) to stay away from the hot Sauce (okay, that's enough puns).
His role: Gardner will be a starting outside corner from the jump, almost certainly across from DJ Reed. He'll have some possibilities as a slot corner depending on matchups, but you'll see him patrolling the perimeter far more often than not. It will take some time for him to adjust to the brand new scheme and the general upgrade of receivers he'll be facing, but for a player like Gardner who took to playing his position quickly, the change in schemes should (hopefully) come easier to him than it would another. He won't have the elite speed to keep up with the burners in the NFL without support from behind, but he can keep a shadow over just about any route.
His impact: As much as I like Bryce Hall (and I do really like Bryce Hall, so I hope they don't trade him for anything less than a 3rd), he's going to have to go to the bench. He has no experience as a safety and I wouldn't expect them to convert him to a slot corner in his third season. Brandin Echols probably has more of a chance of a conversion to the slot, but with Michael Carter II and Javelin Guidry having more experience there, the odds of him being a starter over either one remains slim. This means that both outside starting corners are going to be new to the team barring an injury to either one and the starters from last year (Hall being a guy who played the most snaps of anyone on the team in 2021) are headed for bench roles, if not other teams.
Round 1, 10th overall: Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State
My Grade: B+
My rationale: I've made no secret about my lack of faith in Wilson's ability to turn into a WR1, but I can't fault the Jets for wanting to find a guy who can be an immediate contributor for the team as a rookie, something that he will have the best chance to do among the six who went in the first round (Drake London might do better by default with minimal weapons in Atlanta besides him). A lot of other people who think more highly of Wilson than I do believe that he might end up being the best receiver in this class; it would be fantastic if that turned out to be the case, considering that WR was most definitely a pressing need for the Jets (and most likely remains a post-draft need for depth).
Even if one of the other receivers eclipses him in subsequent seasons, Wilson should pose a suitable starting receiver. He definitely fits in with what this offense demands of its receivers (route-running mastery, ability to make plays in space and versatility). Among a starting trio with some injury concerns (Davis and Moore both missed a third of the 2021 season), Wilson checks in mostly clean (missed two games due to injury in three years at Ohio State). I hope for good health for all three, obviously, but having the stable, consistent presence could be more beneficial to a quarterback's development than fluctuating, sometimes-effective receivers.
His role: The Mike LaFleur offense wants receivers who can play both on the perimeter and interior, so don't read too much into it if I peg Wilson as the team's new starting slot receiver. The real measure of his versatility will be how often he sees the field in the Jets 12 personnel groupings, where Corey Davis and Elijah Moore (or even Braxton Berrios) could see more time on the field. In the base offense, the three of them will work in tandem to find their way to getting open, which Wilson was definitely able to do in college. If he can do that as a rookie, he can be a high-level WR2 early on as a rookie.
His impact: Again, it's not clear at this time who would be getting on the field in the Jets' two-tight-end sets, but I imagine that it would be a somewhat even set there. When in base, Wilson will float around the field at X, Y and Z. Berrios will come in to spell receivers (usually in the slot) on occasion, but the use of multiple tight ends will hopefully keep these guys fresh and healthy. I'm not super-thrilled about the depth behind Berrios (Jeff Smith about your standard WR6, but Denzel Mims is not reliable or versatile enough to even serve as a WR5), but that's a small gripe compared to what I was saying about the need for a new starting receiver.
Round 1, 20th overall: Kenny Pickett, QB, Pitt
Included in outlook on quarterbacks: Kenny Pickett is everywhere.
My grade: A+. No, actually. A++. Hang on, one more try. A++++++++++++++++++...
My rationale: KENNY PICKETT STAYS IN PITTSBURGH! HOW DARE YOU QUESTION MY RATIONALE?!?!?
His impact: DID YOU SEE THE SIZE OF HIS HAMMER?!?!?!
Round 1, 26th overall: Jermaine Johnson II, DE, Florida State
Included in outlook on defensive ends: Yes.
My grade: A+
My rationale: Like I said before, DID YOU SEE THE SIZE- wait, no not that. I was a little dismayed when the Jets selected Gardner because it meant that they would likely not be addressing defensive end in the first round. The Jets, however, were able to swing a trade with the Titans that- per the OTC Trade Value Chart- essentially cost just the 5th round pick they sent to Tennessee (they also moved back quite a bit in the third round, as you're probably aware). After that trade, they managed to select a guy that- by their own admission- they viewed as a top-8 talent in this draft and a guy they were seriously considering with their 10th overall selection. That sounds pretty good to me.
The Jets will seek to have him be a long-term edge rusher for this franchise, probably opposite to Carl Lawson more often than not in his rookie season before he is tasked with being the heavy edge presence himself. He's at an age where you can say that he may already be in his prime, so you'd hope that his production matches his first-round status fairly quickly. He might have been the fifth edge selected in this class, but he's already arguably the most polished after a lengthy college career spanning three different defenses. If he can acclimate quickly to the coldest environment he's played in (he's from Minnesota, so he once lived in the cold), it's entirely possible that he looks the best as a rookie.
His role: This is a little tricky to qualify; despite the Jets needing a new starting edge rusher this offseason as a top need, Johnson might not be a starter in the sense that he begins the game on the field. Depending on the opponent, the Jets could deploy John Franklin-Myers on the exterior on early downs before sliding him inside on later downs. Sheldon Rankins still being on the team is a little annoying for lineup construction purposes; I don't think he was nearly good enough with the team in 2021 to justify him being a starting player at DT, but that's the alignment we could be looking at if he defeats Solomon Thomas in training camp for the five-technique role on early downs. Due to Robert Saleh's heavy emphasis on DL rotation, Johnson should still see the field a lot, even if he's not a starter. He's not a DPR really, but his snap allocation might give that impression in his rookie season.
His impact: A theoretical front four of Carl Lawson, Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers and Jermaine Johnson II should make QBs sweat, provided Lawson is able to look at least close to as good as he did in the summer of 2021. A backup unit consisting of Sheldon Rankins, Solomon Thomas, Micheal Clemons, Jacob Martin and Bryce Huff (I'm assuming those are the five backups that make the roster, but it could have Nathan Shepherd, Vinny Curry and Tim Ward among others) should be enough to keep guys fresh, even if I don't like how much they rotate guys in and out. Johnson should be getting enough snaps to make plays off the edge. The Jets only had 33 sacks in 2021, and nearly a quarter of them (7) came in one game against the Titans. Doubling their sack total year-over-year is unreasonable, but increasing by half (49.5 sacks) should be the goal they set given the talent they have rushing the passer.
Round 2, 36th overall: Breece Hall, RB, Iowa State
Included in outlook on runningbacks: No.
My grade: B
My rationale: Look, I understand that the Jets took a runningback seen by many analysts as the best in this class, being the first team to draft one by trading up two spots with the Giants to get him. My question is simple: why did we need the best runningback in this class? I know that Michael Carter wasn't always effective and had his share of injuries as a rookie, but I thought he looked good enough to handle the majority (or at least the plurality) of snaps by RBs. The Jets disagreed, trying to trade back into the first round to make a fourth selection for Hall before ultimately being able to trade up in the second round. I think this makes the offense better, but I question whether or not it is enough of an improvement to justify not using this pick on a position of need and the loss of an early 5th round pick (where they could have drafted a back to pair behind Carter).
Analyzing it from a football perspective, the Jets brought in a new back to take over the majority of snaps, and they picked one who seems like he could be a feature back at the pro level if given the opportunity (most touches by any back across 2020 and 2021 seasons per PFF). He definitely fills the role of a one-cut, between-the-tackles back at a minimum, while being able to work around the tackles and in the passing game. I don't know if his pass-blocking will be able to hold up against NFL-caliber defenders, so the Jets could employ Carter or Tevin Coleman to handle pass-blocking responsibilities instead if they don't like how he holds up in the preseason.
His role: Le'Veon Bell was a failure in New York, but he could serve a role similar to what the previous regime had in mind for Bell without having to be a workhorse (i.e., being able to make a single cut, break tackles to get free and get the explosive runs). No, he will almost certainly not be able to replicate Bell's work as a receiver in Pittsburgh, but a few screen passes in the backfield should be enough to get what you need from him in that department. I'm also curious to see if he can serve as an effective pass-blocker; Michael Carter was said to be a good pass-blocker coming out of UNC, but he wasn't quite as advertised in that department, being rather inconsistent as a rookie.
His impact: As I said before, Carter will now work behind Hall in the RB room (while Hall will work behind Carter II in the CB room), meaning that the third roster spot will be contested between Coleman and Ty Johnson (I think Coleman probably has the lead in that competition). The RB4 role will be held by either the loser of that competition, Nick Bawden to be held as a FB, or another as-of-yet unnamed back who might currently be on the Jets roster or be on another team's roster or not signed at all.
Round 3, 101st overall: Jeremy Ruckert, TE, Ohio State
Included in outlook on tight ends: Yes.
My grade: B
My rationale: Though it may not sound like a good allocation of resources to draft a third TE in the third round, I actually do like this pick for what it could turn into in subsequent years. The Jets, in the course of just this offseason, have totally remade the TE room, to the point where it may go from the offense's biggest weakness to its biggest strength. Plus, while the Jets have two veteran tight ends capable of starting for the team right now, it'd be difficult to call either one a star; Ruckert has the potential to develop into one for the team he grew up rooting for and was excited to join.
What holds this grade back is the lack of clarity surrounding his value in his rookie season. Even as late as they were picking, I think the Jets should have still been looking for guys who could start right away (even if Ruckert might fit that bill), preferably at a position of need on defense. With several linebackers, safeties, defensive tackles and even RT Daniel Faalele still on the board, one of those guys would have had a much clearer path toward contributing as rookies. Ruckert might be limited in 2022 if the two tight ends on the roster in front of him remain healthy the entire year; though he should be a key contributor in 2023, he might not add much until then.
His role: I don't think it's unreasonable to think that Ruckert might immediately be the best blocking tight end on the Jets roster. That could enable the Jets to deploy him as a blocker more often than Tyler Conklin at the very least (who has never been known for his blocking) and perhaps more than Uzomah to help keep the veteran healthy. His route tree is fairly limited, as the Buckeyes never needed him to develop his routes far beyond shallow crosses and posts. As a result, his production in the passing game will probably see him lag the other two. In subsequent years, though, he should be a consistent player in both facets.
His impact: Again, his rookie impact will be limited. In 2023, though, when his role is set to expand, the Jets will have to decide what to do with the two veterans they signed this year. Perhaps this was the plan all along, the Jets intending to cut/trade one of Uzomah and Conklin after trying to maximize their values in their own system. Given their respective contract situations, I don't think a release of Uzomah would be particularly likely (a pre-6/1 cut would actually cost more in 2023 cap than keeping him on the roster). Conklin's release would save a little less than $1.2 million if done before 6/1, though it would still mean close to $7.3 million in dead cap. Conklin getting traded after one season feels like the most likely of the four possible scenarios right now, with Conklin being younger than Uzomah and feasibly having more good football ahead of him, while a team trading for him would assume what would essentially be a 2-year, $12.2 million contract with no guaranteed money in 2024. If he continues his upward ascent as a receiving threat in 2022 (or even develops as a blocker with the Jets), I could definitely see some teams trading for him on that contract, allowing the Jets to clear just north of $5 million in cap room if done before 6/1.
Round 4, 111th overall: Max Mitchell, OT, Louisiana
Included in outlook on offensive tackles: Yes.
My grade: A-
My rationale: Louisiana's own Max Mitchell was a fantastic offensive lineman for the Ragin' Cajuns and is now taking his talents to the NFL. The Jets' tackle depth was critically poor before this selection after the team didn't do much to address it during free agency. It still isn't great (I'd prefer to have someone else on the roster over Chuma Edoga as OT5), but it's far more manageable now than it was prior to the draft.
I'm totally in favor of spending a 4th round pick on a high-end backup at a position where depth is needed, especially if that backup has the opportunity to develop into a starter down the line. Mitchell, as I mentioned in the outlook for his position, will need to develop playing against NFL players after not having faced too many prospects in the Sun Belt. That could take some time, perhaps more than just his rookie season in the fantastical scenario where both George Fant and Mekhi Becton manage to play 100% of the Jets' offensive snaps in 2022. Special teams work can help with his acclimation to the professional level, but in all likelihood, he's going to need a lot of offensive snaps before he can gain consistency. That means it could take two seasons before he has a real chance of becoming a full-time starter for this team, if ever. If he can manage it, though, his potential is that of a franchise tackle (Mitchell was PFF's OT2 in 2021, best in FBS).
His role: Officially, he may be the backup swing tackle as a rookie, but I doubt he'd be tasked with playing LT. In the event of an injury to the starting LT (and for the sake of this exercise, I'm going to assume it is Fant), I'd imagine that the Jets would rather have the starting RT (Becton) move back to the other side rather than stick a rookie from the Sun Belt out at LT (and in the event that both of them get hurt... you'd probably have to turn to Conor McDermott as the veteran who has done it before, even if he hasn't done it well). He may also be used as a guard in the event of injuries to multiple interior linemen, but his primary responsibility would be to backup the two tackle positions. Following his rookie season, if the Jets part ways with one or both of their 2022 starters at tackle, Mitchell could compete for a starting job in 2023 or remain as a high-upside backup for that season as well if the Jets invest in a replacement (a 4th round pick isn't enough of its own investment to preclude additional spending).
His impact: Best case scenario, the Jets have found themselves a tackle to become a long-term starter following the 2022 season. More likely, they found a long term swing tackle that they could hopefully trust more than Chuma Edoga, who has filled that role for parts of the last three seasons when healthy. Edoga himself is now on the roster bubble, and with his higher cap hit than Greg Senat and Grant Hermanns, he could find himself waived if he can't win the OT5 job (cutting Edoga would save $965 thousand against the cap; both are cheaper to retain on the active roster and Hermanns could be kept under contract through the 2024 season with no guaranteed money). Mitchell could be a long-term backup guard instead, though for a team like the Jets that has good depth at guard in 2022, I'd rather have him develop as a backup tackle in case he's needed as a rookie. Plus, the Jets have their long-term starters at guard already, while their plans at tackle are less certain.
Round 4, 117th overall: Micheal Clemons, DE, Texas A&M.
Included in outlook on defensive ends: No.
My grade: B-
My rationale: The Jets concluded their involvement in this year's draft by double-dipping at the edge crop. I find it a bold decision to have gone the entire way through the draft without having taken a single pure DT, LB or S, one that I truly hope doesn't come back to bite them during the upcoming season. Looking at this selection, the Jets' choice of which edge to take makes it even bolder, given that it's a prospect who will be 25 when his rookie season begins with a well-defined injury history and plenty of off-the-field troubles. The marijuana offenses not a big deal, but the repeated traffic and parking violations and his unlawful gun possession charge (dismissed in court) are subjects of concern.
If the Jets can resolve their concerns there (and I assume that they have, considering that they drafted him), there may be a purpose to his draft selection. Though the end of his rookie contract will see him reach an age where most successful players on the DL are on their way out of the league, you can argue that he may be in his prime right now and be able to contribute immediately as a rotational piece if he can claim a first-backup's job. I'm inclined to believe the Jets' claim that he may have the talent of a first or second day selection when I look at his stats (13 sacks and 15.5 TFL in his last 15 games); if he can replicate the production he had late in his collegiate career, he can be an extremely valuable piece off the bench that could help ease my gripes with the Jets' rotational philosophy. This is dependent on him remaining healthy and in good standing with the law, of course, so I also hope that the Jets' general love of high-character players is enough to vouch for his character.
His role: Like the Jets' other 4th round pick, Clemons likely isn't going to turn into a full-time starter in his first two seasons, but he could be a long-term high-end backup if nothing else. I don't think he has the versatility of John Franklin-Myers (not tested much on the interior at Texas A&M, and he would probably need to add mass to play inside), so rotating in at the edge is probably the most you can expect from him early on in his career. If he impresses enough in his rookie season, he could even become the first option to come in as a backup on certain snaps. Otherwise, he's greater depth already than most of the guys the Jets had last season.
His impact: If the two top pure edge rushers are Carl Lawson and Jermaine Johnson, and one of the two top backups is Jacob Martin, the other backup job comes down to a competition between Clemons, Bryce Huff and Vinny Curry. Considering Huff's tenure, he probably is the favorite to assume that job early on and leave the others fighting for DE5, but it's not a given. Curry missed all of 2021 and will be 34 when the season begins; if Clemons is unable to beat him for a roster spot as a rookie... that's really not good. Ideally, Clemons would defeat both men for the top backup's job opposite other top backup Martin, and then perhaps become the top backup over Martin in 2023. He might not have a long window in which to develop considering his age, but after getting introduced to him a little more closely than in his pre-draft process, there's a lot of Jets fans rooting for him to reach his potential.
Overall grade: A
My rationale: I gave the Jets a B+ for their pre-draft process in signing free agents to multi-year contracts, and a lot of the reason why I didn't go higher was that I didn't like how they structured their contracts. That isn't a concern with the draft selections unless they fail to sign their picks at all (something I'd think they'd be keen to avoid after what happened with Zach Wilson last year). This all came down to taking players that could fit their overall plan for the offseason, which was trying to put their quarterback in the best possible position to succeed.
But for the Baltimore Ravens getting insanely lucky with all of their picks landing in their laps (and the first round trade looking like a stroke of brilliance pending whatever else they do to address their new yet familiar need at WR), the Jets would have had the best draft in the NFL. You could still argue that- given the context of the Jets trying to do one thing (support the second-year QB) and the Ravens another (build a contending roster this year)- the Jets may have in fact had a better draft. It's certainly not unreasonable to say that the Jets did a better job, moving around the board and getting their players rather than letting their pieces fall where they may.
With multiple first round picks, it was always going to be hard (but not impossible) for the Jets to get a high grade out of me, but never at my most optimistic did I think that the Jets would be able to manage what they did. They ended up spending 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th round picks on offense in this year's draft, investing on offense while also managing to bolster their defense.
They should now have the firepower to support a real quarterback's growth. Though we really won't know how this draft class will pan out for years, right now, it looks like it should be the impetus for this team's ascent from the depths of despair. Three first round picks should absolutely do that (though it's not a given: Miami's three first round selections in 2020 looks to have produced two bench players and one quarterback who has left a lot to be desired through two seasons), so it's time to start expecting that change to be evident on the field. What change that may be is a turnaround where this team's offense becomes something to fear.
Thanks for reading. Let's go Jets.