Ranking 10 of the most crucial positional battles on the New York Jets roster from least to most important.
10. Tight end/Fullback
- What’s up for grabs: TE2, TE3, FB
- Competitors: Chris Herndon, Tyler Kroft, Ryan Griffin, Daniel Brown, Trevon Wesco
Despite a miserable 2020 season that featured twice as many drops and fumbles (5 drops, 2 fumbles) as touchdowns (3), Chris Herndon is the heavy favorite to enter the season as the New York Jets‘ top option at tight end. His raw physical talent cannot be matched by any of the other four tight ends on the roster.
Plenty of snaps will be up for grabs behind Herndon. If Mike LaFleur’s San Francisco 49ers days are any indication, the Jets will run a decent amount of 12 and 22 personnel packages, which feature two tight ends.
The Jets will also likely increase their usage of the fullback position, which is good news for Trevon Wesco, who has handled the position for New York over the past two seasons. He is the best fit for the position of the bunch and has been handling fullback reps through OTAs and minicamp, so his spot on the roster as a fullback seems secure.
That leaves Tyler Kroft, Ryan Griffin, and Daniel Brown competing for, most likely, two roster spots.
Kroft’s odds of making the roster are very strong. He signed a one-year, $2 million deal this offseason with $1.5 million guaranteed. Cutting him would net the Jets only $294K in cap savings.
Meanwhile, Griffin and Brown are expendable. Griffin is in the second year of the three-year contract extension he signed with the Jets after the 2019 season. If cut, the Jets would have to eat $1.45 million in dead money ($950K in 2021 and $500K in 2022), but they would net $2.3 million in immediate cap savings. Brown is on a non-guaranteed one-year pact and can be cut to save $900K in space with no dead money hit.
Kroft is a far more revered blocker than Griffin and Brown and also had more receiving yards last year than Griffin and Brown combined. Brown has never been a pass-catching threat, whereas Griffin has had his moments (320 yards and 5 TDs for the Jets in 2019), but Griffin did not look like the same player in 2020 after undergoing ankle surgery following the 2019 season. He averaged 5.7 receiving yards per game over 15 appearances.
It would be a shock to see Kroft fail to make the team. This is most likely a battle between Griffin and Brown for one roster spot. Considering that both players can play on most special teams units, they’re neck-and-neck.
9. Wide receiver
- What’s up for grabs: Everything
- Competitors: Corey Davis, Denzel Mims, Elijah Moore, Jamison Crowder, Keelan Cole, Braxton Berrios, Manasseh Bailey, DJ Montgomery, Vyncint Smith
I have this position low on the list of importance simply because the Jets are so loaded with quality depth that it doesn’t matter all that much how the order of the depth chart ends up looking.
The Jets are six deep with solid options who are near-locks to make the team: Corey Davis, Denzel Mims, Elijah Moore, Jamison Crowder, Keelan Cole, and Braxton Berrios. All that needs to be sorted out is how the targets are distributed amongst them, and no matter how that distribution ends up looking, the Jets are in good shape here.
Davis is all but guaranteed a starting spot thanks to his contract, but it looks like everything is up in the air behind him. Heck, even his role as the de facto “No. 1” receiver cannot be guaranteed with the way that Moore has been playing. Moore has been tearing it up in practice and should lock down a starting spot if he continues his performance through training camp.
Next, there seems to be heated competition between Berrios, Cole, Crowder, and Mims.
Mims was working with the backups on the first day of minicamp, but there’s no reason to worry about his fate just yet, as explained by Robby Sabo. Mims needs to work his way back into the rotation after missing some time with an illness. Plus, this is an old-school coaching staff that is taking a look at as many players as possible and requiring players to prove they deserve playing time – nothing is handed on a silver platter.
Ultimately, it’s way too early to read into the apparent depth charts on display in practice.
Cole and Berrios have been outstanding as well, while Crowder is just getting his feet wet after sitting out OTAs due to contract discussions.
This will be a heated battle to the very end – a signal of just how strong the depth is at this position.
If the Jets are looking to keep a seventh receiver, look out for DJ Montgomery and Manasseh Bailey, who have made some plays in practice. Vyncint Smith has spent some time with the first-team offense and is one of the most intriguing kick-return options on the team (29.9 yards per kickoff return for the Jets in 2019, 2nd-best in the NFL).
- What’s up for grabs: Starting LDE, rotational snaps at LDE and RDE
- Competitors: Vinny Curry, Kyle Phillips, Ronald Blair, Bryce Huff, Jabari Zuniga
Carl Lawson will be your starting right defensive end while playing around 70% of the snaps on average. The rest of the rotation can be sorted out in any number of ways.
Vinny Curry has been getting first-team reps as the left defensive end. Curry has proven capable of playing on both sides of the line throughout his career, but he did favor the left side in 2020, lining up over there on 59.4% of his defensive snaps.
The Jets also have a trio of young players who will battle for playing time in Kyle Phillips, Bryce Huff, and Jabari Zuniga. Phillips and Huff have both showcased the potential to be solid rotational pieces – Phillips as a run defender and Huff as a pass rusher – but Zuniga showed nothing of note in his rookie season and needs to take a huge leap.
Huff leaned toward the right side in 2020 (75% of defensive snaps), while Phillips and Zuniga leaned toward the left side (80% and 90% of snaps on the left side, respectively).
Late free-agent addition Ronald Blair provides some power as an edge-setting, run-stopping specialist. Blair has played on both sides of the line at a fairly even split throughout his career.
7. Running back
- What’s up for grabs: Everything
- Competitors: Michael Carter, Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, La’Mical Perine, Josh Adams
Each of the Jets’ five primary competitors at running back offers something intriguing, but it seems unlikely that five running backs will make the team.
Michael Carter is obviously a lock considering that he was just drafted in the fourth round. He’s been getting some first-team run, as have Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, and La’Mical Perine. Josh Adams has been buried a bit despite an impressive small-sample showing with the Jets last year, flashing excellent elusiveness as he averaged 5.4 yards per carry over 29 totes with the team.
Coleman brings the ability to produce as a pass-catcher out of the slot that the other RBs do not, while Johnson projects as a good fit in a wide-zone scheme thanks to his vision, quick one-cut burst, and top-end speed. Perine could develop into a solid all-around rotational back a la Bilal Powell, but he needs to improve his elusiveness and vision to avoid becoming a surprise cut in only his second season.
It’s hard to call anything set in stone at this position. The Jets are likely to employ a “running back by committee” approach. So, there are plenty of consistent reps and touches to be earned for likely up to three different players, possibly even four. Early-down back, third-down back, power-rushing back – everything needs to be sorted out.
The Jets ranked 31st in field goal percentage (71.4%) and dead-last in extra point percentage (84.3%) from 2019-20, but they strangely elected not to make a serious move at kicker. They decided to give another shot to Sam Ficken (the man most responsible for those numbers), and the only competition they could find for him was undrafted SMU kicker Chris Naggar, who wasn’t a very highly-regarded prospect.
Naggar didn’t kick any field goals or extra points at Texas over the first four years of his collegiate career. He transferred to SMU for his redshirt senior season and was decent at best. Naggar made a respectable 81.0% of his field goals (17/21), but he was given a relatively easy diet of chances as he was only asked to kick two field goals from 50+ yards, and he missed both. He also missed three extra points from the NCAA’s 20-yard distance.
5. Slot cornerback
- What’s up for grabs: Nickel package reps at slot CB
- Competitors: Javelin Guidry, Michael Carter II, Brandin Echols
The Jets have a lot of young, unproven players competing at this position, but even so, things seem promising.
Javelin Guidry played very well over three games of extended action in his rookie season. He is being pushed by fifth-round rookie Michael Carter II, whose college film suggests he could be an excellent fit in the Jets’ defense. Carter II has been turning heads in practice thus far.
Sixth-round pick Brandin Echols has also gotten some first-team looks in the slot. Echols’ frame screams “slot corner” (5’10, 180), but he actually played outside cornerback on 77% of his defensive snaps for Kentucky in 2020.
- What’s up for grabs: Starting WILL, rotational SAM snaps
- Competitors: Jarrad Davis, Blake Cashman, Jamien Sherwood, Hamsah Nasirildeen
We are beginning to get into the position battles that will be extremely important in determining the Jets’ success in 2021.
The Jets have themselves a top-tier MIKE linebacker in C.J. Mosley who will take the field on every snap. However, the two spots next to him in the Jets’ 4-3 defense are major question marks considering that they will be filled by unproven players.
New York needs to figure out two roles:
- The starting WILL linebacker – a smooth, rangy athlete who will primarily line up on the weak side and can sufficiently handle a variety of difficult man and zone coverage roles. Likely will play at least 80% of the snaps
- The SAM linebacker – a strong, physical player who will primarily line up on the strong side, can set the edge, and can man up against tight ends. Likely will play around 30-40% of the snaps
Jarrad Davis is an interesting case. He had the most efficient season of his career in 2020, benefiting from a playing time reduction as the Lions demoted him from the starting role that he played over his first three years to a rotational MIKE/SAM role that had him playing only around 34% of the snaps on average. His overall PFF grade (62.2) ranked at the 70th percentile among qualified linebackers, his first season ranking in the top-50% (or even the top-80%, for that matter).
Considering his improved play in that smaller role and his ideal fit as a rotational SAM linebacker, it makes sense to think he will play that same role for the Jets, but his one-year, fully-guaranteed $5.5 million deal suggests they might see him as a bit more than that.
For the WILL spot, the Jets have a pair of safety-turned-linebacker rookies competing for the job: Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen. Both have traits that project them favorably to playing WILL linebacker in the NFL (they’re very comparable to Foyesade Oluokun, who played WILL under Jeff Ulbrich in 2020), but either way, starting a Day 3 rookie in a WILL role is a very risky proposition.
Third-year man Blake Cashman is also in the mix. Cashman got extended action in seven games for the Jets in 2019, playing both MIKE and WILL as an inside linebacker in Gregg Williams’ 3-4 defense. He also played on the edge as an outside linebacker at times. Cashman struggled mightily against the run but showed some versatile potential in coverage, suggesting he could be a fit at WILL in a 4-3 scheme going forward.
The spectrum of possibilities at this position is enormous. New York has a couple of high-upside prospects who could develop into strong players down the road, but are they capable of being adequate starters as rookies? Davis has a first-round pedigree and played improved football in a rotational role last year, but can he thrive at the same level if asked to play an every-down role? Finally, can Cashman offer anything?
For every bit of exciting upside, there is at this position, there is an equal amount of alarming downside.
3. Right guard
Four of the Jets’ five offensive line spots are set (barring any other additions): Mekhi Becton at LT, Alijah Vera-Tucker at LG, Connor McGovern at C, and George Fant at RT. Right guard is the last hole to be filled.
The incumbent Greg Van Roten is the early favorite. Van Roten had a brutal start to the 2020 season before settling in and performing at an approximately league-average level over the latter half of the season.
Dan Feeney and Cameron Clark both have chances to push Van Roten.
Feeney has never played right guard in the NFL, but he has started 39 games at left guard, although he was mostly awful throughout those appearances. His one-year, $3.5 million deal price tag with $3 million guaranteed is notable. The Jets may see him as potential starting material.
Clark has the most untapped potential of this bunch. He has yet to hit the field for an NFL preseason or regular-season snap and is continuing his transition to the guard position after dominating at tackle in college. If he could take a second-year leap and begin creeping towards his ceiling, he is capable of providing a lot more than Van Roten and Feeney have proven capable of.
2. Backup quarterback
A team’s backup quarterback is the most important backup on the roster – which goes without saying considering that the starting quarterback is the most important starter on the roster. The quality of a team’s backup quarterback can make or break their season.
The Jets have yet to bring in a veteran backup quarterback to mentor Zach Wilson and assume the backup role, leaving fellow youngsters Mike White and James Morgan competing for the backup job.
By most accounts, White and Morgan have both struggled in practice thus far, although White seems to have an edge. One of these players needs to begin showing a reliable command of the offense if they want to avoid being usurped by a veteran later in the summer.
Former 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens had his contract expire following the 2020 season and was long considered a great backup option for the Jets thanks to his experience with LaFleur, but Mullens recently signed with the Eagles, taking him off the board.
Some rumors have floated around linking the Jets to current Bears quarterback Nick Foles, who is currently set to compete with Andy Dalton and first-round pick Justin Fields. Perhaps the Jets wait to see how that situation plays out, jumping on Foles late in the offseason if he is cut or swinging a trade. Foles shared time with Joe Douglas in Philadelphia, including the team’s 2017-18 Super Bowl run.
1. Outside cornerback
- What’s up for grabs: Everything
- Competitors: Bryce Hall, Bless Austin, Jason Pinnock, Lamar Jackson, Isaiah Dunn
This is easily the most important battle on the roster. The Jets have a multitude of completely unproven young players duking it out for two starting spots at a position where bad players can cause more damage to their team than almost any other position besides quarterback.
Bryce Hall seems to be penciled into a starting spot after an impressive second half of the 2020 season, as he has been largely working with the first-team defense. Hall and Elijah Moore have frequently matched up, with Hall consistently providing tight coverage but finding himself beaten by perfect throws from Zach Wilson and acrobatic grabs by Moore.
The battle for the spot opposite Hall is heated. Bless Austin is the most experienced outside cornerback on the roster with a measly 16 starts, but his massive struggles in the 2020 season have him in the thick of the battle with everyone else.
Rookie fifth-round pick Jason Pinnock has been generating positive buzz, swiping some first-team reps from Austin. Undrafted rookie Isaiah Dunn, the highest-paid undrafted rookie cornerback in history, has also been making plays.
Lamar Jackson is also in the mix after a tumultuous rookie season, but the undrafted free agent was handed difficult responsibilities that no undrafted rookie should be asked to handle. He has good size, length, and physicality that makes him a moldable piece of clay to work with.
Having competitive battles for starting or backup roles at 10 different positions is a great thing for any football team. Competition brings out the best in everyone. A lack of competition breeds complacency.
Which positional battles on the New York Jets roster are you most closely focused on?