What did the New York Jets do well in 2019 that they need to continue to find success in 2020?
Second-half cornerback excellence
Gregg Williams had the cornerback unit playing at a legitimately elite level over the Jets’ 6-2 finish to the 2019 season.
By combining five different key cornerback metrics, I found the Jets cornerback group to rank as the league’s fifth-most effective from Weeks 10-17.
Austin (73rd percentile) and Maulet (58th percentile) each ranked in the top half of Pro Football Focus’ overall defensive grade among cornerbacks from Weeks 10-17. They each ranked in the better half of passer rating allowed as well – Maulet yielded a mark of 80.9 over that span (26th out of 83 qualifiers) while Austin gave up a 92.4 rating (41st).
Brian Poole anchored the unit throughout the entire season with his consistent slot coverage. Poole allowed the second-fewest yards per cover snap (0.53) among all cornerbacks, trailing only Richard Sherman (0.44).
Elite non-FG/XP special teams
Brant Boyer‘s special teams unit ranked fourth in the NFL with a DVOA of +3.4% in 2019, accomplishing that in spite of awful placekicking. Kaare Vedvik and Sam Ficken combined to land the Jets at 31st in both field goal percentage (67.9%) and extra point percentage (85.2%).
If you exclude the placekicking unit, the Jets had the league’s best DVOA between the punt coverage, kickoff coverage, punt return, and kickoff return units (+5.5%).
In terms of DVOA, Boyer led the Jets to No. 1 in kickoff coverage, No. 4 in both punting and punt returning, and No. 12 in kickoff returning.
The Jets were able to reach No. 4 in punt coverage through stupendous coverage alone, as Lachlan Edwards was hardly more than a serviceable punter. Among 31 qualified punters in 2019, Edwards posted the second-worst fair catch rate from inside his own 40-yard line (8.2%) and the third-worst overall average hang time (4.19 seconds).
Throw Braden Mann‘s cannon of a leg into the mix, and perhaps this unit can ascend even further in 2020.
Historic run defense
The Jets allowed only 3.34 yards per rush attempt in 2019, second-best behind the Buccaneers (3.26), and third-best in franchise history behind the 1968 (3.25) and 1970 (3.14) teams.
The 2019 league average in yards per rush attempt was 4.32 – a mark that the Jets defense beat by a margin of -0.98. That margin versus league average stands as the best in franchise history.
What made the Jets’ success against the run so staggering is that they did it while dealing with major issues at linebacker. Run-stopping maestros C.J. Mosley and Avery Williamson missed 30 out of 32 possible games, and their replacements were missed tackle machines. The Jets linebackers posted a missed tackle rate of 13.8% against the run, which ranked 28th in the league.
In 2018, Mosley (for Baltimore) and Williamson (for the Jets) combined to make 133 tackles against the run while missing only seven. That’s a miss rate of 5.0%, which would have ranked second-best in 2019 if accumulated by an entire linebacker unit.
This run defense was historically good even with that duo’s elite abilities replaced by bottom-of-the-barrel production. If Mosley and Williamson can remain healthy, it is absolutely terrifying to think about how dominant the Jets could be against the run in 2020.
Efficiency when targeting tight ends
The Jets did not use their tight ends much in 2019, as the group ranked 29th in the league with only 446 receiving yards.
However, when they did throw to the tight ends, the results tended to be good. The Jets tight end group ranked seventh-best with a first down rate of 43.9% (25 firsts on 57 targets), seventh-best with a drop rate of 4.3% (2 drops against 44 catches), and 13th-best with an average of 7.8 yards per target.
All of that success was thanks to Ryan Griffin, who saw 41 of the unit’s 57 targets (71.9%). Griffin averaged 7.8 yards per target (320 on 41), picked up a first down on 46.3% of his targets (19 on 41), and dropped only 5.6% of catchable balls (2 drops against 34 catches).
Griffin was on an impressive hot streak until his season-ending ankle injury in Week 14, dramatically increasing his production and efficiency without his playing time changing much at all.
The return of a healthy Chris Herndon could allow the tight end unit to boost its volume to an upper-echelon level while also maintaining strong efficiency. In 2018, Herndon posted efficiency numbers that were similar to Griffin’s in 2019, producing 9.0 yards per target, a 44.6% first down rate, and a 4.9% drop rate.
Herndon was even better from Weeks 6-17 of 2018, accumulating 9.3 yards per target, a 46.9% first down rate, and a 2.9% drop rate with only one drop against 39 receptions. He did that on a sizable volume, ranking 13th among tight ends in receptions (34), eighth in receiving yards (455), and fourth in receiving touchdowns (4) over that span.
With question marks galore at wide receiver, look for Herndon and Griffin to form a dynamic receiving duo that gracefully blends volume with efficiency.
Sam Darnold’s progress in areas of weakness
After a nightmarish first half of the season, Sam Darnold rebounded with a mostly solid second half that set him up for a leap in 2020. From Weeks 10-17, Darnold ranked eighth in passing touchdowns (13), 10th in passer rating (93.3), 11th in net yards per attempt (6.57), and 12th in adjusted completion percentage (75.1%).
The primary reason that Darnold’s surge can be seen as real progress is the fact that he did it in spite of the cast around him continuing to make his job difficult. Darnold took the highest pressure rate among qualified quarterbacks from Weeks 10-17 (41.9%). Of the 10 most pressured quarterbacks over that span, Darnold’s average of 6.57 net yards per attempt (passing yards adjusted for sack yards) was easily the highest. His average of 11.9 yards per completion also topped the bunch.
It’s not as if Darnold’s numbers improved because the Jets started supporting him better. Darnold simply began doing a much better job of lifting up the team in dire circumstances, something he had struggled with over his first 18 starts.
In my grading system, I scored Darnold with a negative overall grade in eight of his first 10 career games in which he took a high pressure rate (40.0% or higher). Darnold closed 2019 with a positive grade in four of the final five games in which he was pressured that frequently.
That is extremely promising progress. Darnold has started to show signs of the carry-the-team ability that all franchise quarterbacks need to have.
Deep accuracy is another problem that Darnold has struggled with in his young career. Keeping up with the theme, he also took big steps forward in that area during his hot finish to 2019.
After posting the lowest passer rating among qualifiers on deep throws (20+ yards downfield) from Weeks 1-9 with a lowly mark of 37.7, Darnold ranked 10th out of 36 qualifiers from Weeks 10-17 with a deep passer rating of 104.9. That was also the best mark among the top-10 most pressured quarterbacks over that span.
Darnold did not just randomly start putting up better numbers because things began breaking his way. He was making substantial progress in key areas of weakness.