Bless Austin has his share of tools and can be a nice depth piece, but as a starter, he’d be a huge liability for the New York Jets defense.
Looking at the depth chart as currently constructed, it would be hard to argue that cornerback is not the weakest position on the New York Jets roster. The group was eerily thin heading into the offseason and remains that way after the Jets did not sign any cornerbacks in free agency (save for special teams ace Justin Hardee, who rarely plays defense) and did not draft any cornerbacks until the fifth round.
Second-year man Bryce Hall provides legitimate potential after a rookie season in which he put a lot of great film on his reel and posted the third-best PFF zone coverage grade among rookie cornerbacks (75.4), but beyond Hall, the Jets are loaded to the brim with rookies and young players who have struggled throughout their short careers.
If the Jets played a game today, it looks like their starting outside cornerbacks would be Hall and Bless Austin.
While Hall showed enough in 2020 for Jets fans to feel confident that he is ready to handle a starting role in his second season, Austin trended in the opposite direction. After a promising 2019 rookie season, Austin had an abysmal campaign in 2020. If he were to go into Bank of America Stadium as one of the Jets’ starting cornerbacks in Week 1, he would arguably be the weakest starter on the roster – including the offense.
This is not to suggest that Austin is not an NFL-caliber player or cannot develop into a starter-quality player down the line. Austin can be a solid backup, and at 25 years old (on July 19) with only 16 NFL starts under his belt, there is room for him to grow. He has some strong traits to work with, including his length, strength, and hit power.
With all of that being said, Austin’s 2020 season was nowhere near good enough to warrant a starting spot in 2021. The Jets will be in trouble if he wins the starting job and fails to improve off of his 2020 performance.
Austin posted an overall PFF grade of 51.1, which ranked 105th out of 136 qualified cornerbacks (23rd percentile). In coverage, he posted a 47.4 grade, which ranked 112th (18th percentile).
Not only was Austin bad last year, but he does not seem to be a great scheme fit, either. Austin struggled in zone coverage, which is bad news as the Jets are likely to run a zone-heavy scheme under Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich. Austin’s zone coverage grade of 47.0 ranked at the 9th percentile among qualified cornerbacks.
Austin’s 2020 season was a disappointing follow-up to an intriguing rookie season in which he posted a 71.4 overall PFF grade (78th percentile among CB) over a smaller sample of 388 defensive snaps. He struggled with a much larger sample of 681 snaps in 2020.
If you want to see the positives of Austin’s game, check out his 2019 season review. Today, we are going to take a look at some of the lowlights of his 2020 season to showcase why the ceiling of the Jets defense could be greatly limited if he ends up as one of the opening-week starting corners.
One of Austin’s biggest issues is his tackling. In 2020, he tied for 17th among cornerbacks with 11 missed tackles despite ranking 56th in snaps played. His PFF tackling grade of 47.5 ranked at the position’s 24th percentile.
Austin has poor tackling technique. He consistently dives head-first into his tackle attempts, resulting in an abundance of whiffs.
Penalties are another issue for Austin. He tied for sixth among cornerbacks with eight penalties. Austin committed a penalty every 85.1 defensive snaps, the third-highest frequency among 87 cornerbacks to play at least 500 snaps.
Austin misses on his jam and resorts to grabbing onto Marvin Hall, earning a pass interference call on third-and-10.
Covering the curl/flat zone, Austin has Cam Akers’ short curl route covered, but Austin is caught off-guard by Akers improvising and turning upfield, and he grabs onto Akers’ undershirt to prevent himself from being toasted.
Austin is susceptible to some brutal decision-making mistakes when playing zone.
Austin does a nice job of carrying Tyler Kroft’s wheel route up the field, but for whatever reason, when Josh Allen pulls the trigger, Austin breaks downhill to play the receiver in the flat, turning Kroft loose. Kroft picked up 38 yards and could have scored if he did not stumble.
Austin is lined up on the outside with no safety help behind him, but bites on the out route into the flat by the slot receiver, leaving Gabriel Davis to run free on the go route for a touchdown.
Austin is by no means a useless player (again, check out his 2019 season review for positives) and he absolutely still has a chance to improve, but his 2020 performance suggests he would be a massive liability as a starter in the Jets’ defense. His struggles with missed tackles, penalties, and busted coverages all directly contrast with what you need out of an outside corner in a zone-heavy defense.
Tackling is crucial in this type of scheme, as zone corners are frequently asked to play off the ball, keep their eyes toward the line of scrimmage, and break downhill on underneath passes. Austin wows fans with the occasional big hit, but he misses tackles in the flat way too often, and the negative value of those missed tackles is far greater than the positive value of a highlight-reel tackle.
One of the advantages of playing zone-heavy is that you decrease the odds of your corners committing penalties, as they do not have to spend much time attached directly to an opposing receiver. For that reason, it’s less excusable for a zone corner to struggle with penalties. Man-heavy corners typically dominate the penalty leaderboards. Last season, 16 of the 19 cornerbacks to commit 7+ penalties ranked in the top-50% in man coverage frequency.
Austin was one of the three cornerbacks to commit 7+ penalties while ranking in the bottom-50% of man coverage frequency, essentially telling us that he was penalized far too often for a player who wasn’t asked to play man-to-man all that much.
Finally, coverage busts just cannot happen for a zone corner. Zone defense is all about knowing your role and executing it. There’s nothing flashy about good zone defense – you just have to not mess up. Austin botches his role too much.
If the Jets want to be certain that they will not have to work around a gaping hole at the cornerback spot, they might want to call up a veteran like Richard Sherman or Steven Nelson, just to ensure that they do not have to rely on either Austin or another unproven young player to start opposite Bryce Hall.