Bless Austin will be looking to build off of a promising rookie season and emerge from a crowded cornerback competition.
Three positive stats to maintain
Yards allowed per cover snap
In 2019, Austin was tagged with allowing 237 yards over his 237 snaps in coverage – an average of exactly 1.0 yard allowed per cover snap. That rate ranked 37th-best out of 131 qualified cornerbacks (72nd percentile).
Even with very limited practice time before hitting the field, Austin’s best stretch came over his first four appearances. From Weeks 10-13, Austin allowed only 77 yards over 141 snaps in coverage. His average of 0.55 yards allowed per cover snap ranked seventh-best out of 64 qualified corners over that span (90th percentile).
Missed tackles against the run
Austin contributed seven tackles against the run without being credited for a single miss. On the season, that tied Austin for the 12th-most run tackles without a miss among cornerbacks.
That consistency helped Austin earn a run defense grade of 72.8 from Pro Football Focus, which ranked 26th out of 120 qualified cornerbacks (79th percentile).
One simple way for a cornerback to add positive value is to avoid committing back-breaking penalties. Over time, a corner that can stockpile snaps while collecting fewer penalties than expected will quietly help his team out quite a bit.
Austin did a solid job of this in his first stretch of professional action. He committed only one penalty over his 388 defensive snaps (a pass interference against Miami in Week 14). That’s an average of 2.6 penalties per 1,000 defensive snaps, well below the 2019 positional average of 6.3.
Darrelle Revis exemplifies the potential impact of thriving in this area. He was phenomenal at minimizing penalties during his first stint with the Jets. From 2007-12, Revis committed only 19 penalties over 5,362 regular season and playoff snaps, an average of 3.5 per 1,000 snaps. If Revis committed penalties at the cornerback-average rate of 6.3-per-1,000 over 5,362 snaps, he would have totaled about 34 penalties.
So, Revis’ discipline saved the Jets about 15 penalties over 85 games. Who knows how many close Jets victories would have turned into close losses if Revis was called for 15 more penalties than he actually was?
Not committing a penalty on one given play is far from a spectacular feat – or even avoiding one in a whole game – but over a long period of time, keeping penalties to a minimum can silently save a lot of yards, touchdowns, and even wins. Austin just might have this ability in his toolbox.
Three negative stats to improve
Missed tackles against the pass
Austin wrapped up effectively over his small sample of opportunities against the run, but he was not so fluid in the passing game. He amassed 17 tackles and four missed tackles against the pass, giving him a missed tackle rate of 19.0% in that phase. That ranked ninth-worst out of 120 qualified corners (7th percentile).
Yards after catch allowed
The tackling issues resulted in Austin allowing some excess yardage after the catch. He gave up 100 yards-after-catch over 21 receptions, an average of 4.8 per reception that ranked at the 45th percentile among qualified corners.
Following his breakout four-game stretch, Austin had a pair of rough outings over the next three weeks, the latter of which resulted in a 1.5-game benching to close the season.
Against the Dolphins in Week 14, Austin allowed 5-of-7 passing his direction for 69 yards and four first downs. He also committed a 38-yard pass interference penalty on a play where he was cleanly burnt for what should have been a 47-yard touchdown, but Ryan Fitzpatrick drastically underthrew the ball, leading to the flag.
Austin’s season came to a disappointing end against the Steelers in Week 16. In the first half alone, Austin yielded 5-of-5 passing in his direction for 83 yards, three first downs, and an inexcusable 29-yard touchdown allowed to Diontae Johnson with under 10 seconds until halftime.
Gregg Williams sat Austin on the bench to start the second half, and he never played another snap over the final six quarters of the season.
Six plays that showcase Austin’s ceiling
Austin’s length (32.5-inch arms, 85th percentile) and smooth hips give him the ability to recover when his coverage isn’t perfect. On this snap, Austin gets turned to the outside on an in-breaking route, but he is able to get back into the play and find his man with a quick pivot inside. Austin then uses his length to break up a potential first down reception, timing his arrival well (a key piece of avoiding penalties – not arriving too early).
Despite missing a few too many tackles, some of Austin’s best moments came when he was breaking downhill and making a play in space. His play recognition in shallow zone coverage assignments was strong, especially for a rookie.
Austin had a trio of strong reps against tight ends in which he stayed disciplined to his assignment, diagnosed the action, and then quickly broke underneath with precise accuracy to make a zero-YAC finish on a substantially bigger player.
Austin is not afraid to get physical in the trenches. Here, his helmet shot to the hip of Alex Ingold is the saving blow that gives the Jets a 4th & 1 stop.
Marcus Maye team up for 4th down stop” width=”600″ height=”344″ />
No defense can be elite without a collective commitment to a through-the-whistle mentality. Austin embodies that. On this play, he sprints at full speed for about 25 yards and from the opposite side of the field to chase down Joe Mixon and save a touchdown.
Take a look at Maurice Canady (#37, bottom-most defender) to see the difference between the culture that Joe Douglas is trying to build and the mindset he has no patience for. Roberts, who was on the play side, jogged half-heartedly behind Mixon, nearly being outrun by 295-pound Foley Fatukasi.
Three plays that showcase Austin’s floor
The play that effectively ended Austin’s season was this blunder with under 10 seconds left in the first half.
After already lining up a bit too far to the inside (we don’t know if this was Austin’s call or by design), Austin inexplicably provides no resistance to Diontae Johnson’s go route, opening up to the outside and not making any contact. He’s got to either use physicality and get over top of the route or shift outside/open inside and funnel Johnson back to the middle. Instead, Johnson runs by Austin uncontested for a 29-yard score with four seconds on the clock.
That mistake was reminiscent of the pass interference play against Miami. Again, Austin provides no resistance to the go route and is burnt.
Austin needs to clean up his approach to these situations, or teams are going to eagerly look to expose him for big plays down the field in 2020. He is fully capable of doing so, showing the potential to shut down vertical routes with reps like this next one in Washington.
Austin stays on top of the receiver to direct him against the sideline and then pivots to turn and run with him when he sees that the tight end to his side runs vertically rather than breaking out (which Austin would have had to cover). Dwayne Haskins doesn’t like his chances of hitting the throw against Austin’s coverage, so he scrambles and throws the ball away.
This next play is one of Austin’s four missed tackles against the pass. Austin makes a good break on the dump-off to Adrian Peterson, squeezing Peterson against the sideline, but he bites on a subtle head fake towards the inside, allowing Peterson to squeak by for six yards after the catch. Peterson turns 2nd & 10 into 2nd & 4.
Those few extra yards are a lot more valuable than many realize. Say Austin stopped Peterson at the catch point for no gain to bring up 2nd & 10. The average team picked up a first down on 22.7% of 2nd & 19 plays in 2019. The average conversion rate on 2nd & 4? Nearly double – 44.5%.
Each yard prevented after the catch is crucial. We know Austin has the ability to make some pristine YAC-limiting tackles in the flat. If he can be more consistent with his form/discipline and bring his miss rate down, Austin’s tackling can become a true weapon.
Gregg Williams had his cornerbacks taking on far more zone assignments than man-to-man responsibilities throughout the second half of 2019, adjusting his approach after a brutal start to the year for the position. That change in philosophy, coupled with the upgrade from Trumaine Johnson and Darryl Roberts to Austin and Arthur Maulet, allowed the unit to perform at a top-10 level in the second half.
Austin’s skill-set was an ideal fit in Williams’ reformed scheme. His recognition skills and length are perfect for assignments that call for him to sit back, read the action, make the right decision, and break on the ball.
An additional note: of Austin’s 237 snaps in coverage, only six came in the slot (2.5%), the smallest portion of the seven cornerbacks to play extended time for the Jets in 2019.
Austin was able to stay off of the injury report following his return to the lineup, a humongous victory for him even if it was only an eight-week span.
After missing the final eight games of his 2017 junior season with a torn ACL, Austin re-injured the same knee in Rutgers’ 2018 season-opener, missing the remaining 11 games. He entered the 2019 NFL Draft having only played five games over his final two seasons with the Scarlet Knights.
Following his second ACL injury on Sept. 1, 2018, Austin did not participate in a padded practice again until Oct. 16, 2019, two days after the Jets’ Week 7 loss to New England. The Jets had three weeks from that point to decide whether to active Austin from the non-football injury list (NFI) or put him on season-ending injured reserve.
Three weeks later, the Jets activated Austin from NFI ahead of their Week 10 game against the Giants. The Queens native was set to appear in his first professional game 435 days after tearing his ACL for the second time – with no preseason experience and less than a month of practice time.
The fact that Austin was activated for even just one regular season game was remarkable enough. Playing solidly for a seven-game stretch could not have been imagined by even the most optimistic Jets fan.
Austin’s rehab process was flawless. Now, all the Jets can do is sit back and hope that he has squashed the injury bug for good.
Battle for depth chart positioning
Douglas has built a deep competition at cornerback. In addition to fellow late-season starter Arthur Maulet, Austin will be battling against new additions Pierre Desir, Quincy Wilson, and Bryce Hall for positioning on a depth chart that has absolutely nothing set in stone (besides Brian Poole taking the nickel role).
While the position is stacked with viable starters, it does not have a single player who is a surefire bet to play at an above-average level as a starter on the outside. Desir is the only player in the group who has had a season in which he started more than half of his team’s games – and he is coming off of a brutal year that was plagued by injury.
This is a wide-open race. Every spot on the totem pole is up for grabs, from No. 1 down to the bottom.
Austin clearly has the most upside of any player in the bunch as it pertains to 2020.
Desir will turn 30 prior to the season-opener and has not been much more than an average starter at best.
Maulet will soon be 27 years old. He has only seven starts of experience over three years in the league and a limited skill-set that is best maximized in the role of a team’s third or fourth-best corner.
Wilson may have some untapped potential as a former second-round pick who is still only 23 years old (24 in August), but the trade market only deemed him worthy of a sixth-round pick. He is coming off of a brutal 2019 season in which the Colts stashed him on the bench for most of the year.
Hall’s potential is tantalizing, but it is never fair to expect anything out of a fifth-round pick in Year 1.
Round it all together, and the soon to be 24-year-old Austin has by far the highest ceiling of the bunch. Austin played at an above-average level as a rookie – any first-year player who performs at an above-average level is an outlier with a glistening future outlook, let alone one who was a sixth-rounder coming off of two ACL injuries who did not practice until October. Considering what he accomplished while facing all of those obstacles, Austin’s upside is mesmerizing.
However, while Austin’s ceiling is the highest, he is probably not going to have an easier road to a starting spot than any of the other competitors at the position. Austin did not exactly finish the season on Gregg Williams’ good side. He’ll need to recoup the feisty coordinator’s trust.
Past accomplishments will be all but meaningless. Austin must win his starting role with a strong training camp, and that is the way it ought to be. Douglas deserves credit for building an environment in which players will be forced to push themselves to their absolute limits.
Austin will have a cap hit of $715,743 in 2020, which is currently slated to rank 179th among cornerbacks, according to Over The Cap. He could be the best value on the roster in 2020 if he maintains or improves upon his overall level of performance from 2019.
Looking down the line, Austin has an opportunity to establish himself as one of the Jets’ long-term core pieces if he can build off of his rookie season and put together a consistent year in 2020. He is the team’s only cornerback with regular season experience (as of the 2019 season) who is under contract for the 2021 season, so the door is wide open for him to stake his claim to the position.
Cornerback will still be one of the team’s primary needs in a year’s time because of the lack of bodies under contract, but Austin’s performance in 2020 should dictate whether or not the Jets will need to make a major move at the position.
If Austin proves to be a worthy No. 1 corner, the Jets can focus on filling the other cornerback spots in an affordable manner. If not, then making a splashy move for a top-flight corner could be at the top of Douglas’ to-do list.
Austin smashed all expectations – if there even were any – in his debut season. As is the case with all smash hits, the expectations for the follow-up are unimaginably higher.
Whether or not Austin lives up to the hype will be one of the most crucial X-factors on the entire team.