Who were the New York Jets’ 10 best players in the 2021 preseason?
Robert Saleh has yet to lose a game as an NFL head coach.
Posting a 2-0-1 record in their first preseason with Saleh at the helm, the New York Jets enjoyed an undefeated preseason slate that featured numerous positive developments across the roster.
New York’s list of preseason standouts includes a number of key cogs that will be important factors in the franchise’s long-term success. Keep in mind that our list of top performers is largely based on consistency – players who performed well with regularity over two or three games are favored over players who had one great outing.
10. Braden Mann
Braden Mann launched 12 punts over three games and showed substantial improvement over his rookie season. Here is a comparison of his 2020 regular season numbers against his 2021 preseason numbers:
- Yards per punt: 43.9 to 47.4
- Net yards per punt: 37.2 to 41.3
- Percentage of punts pinning the opponent inside their 20-yard line: 23% to 58%
In 2020, Mann ranked 30th, 33rd, and 31st out of 34 qualifiers in those three categories, respectively. His 2021 preseason numbers would have placed him 7th, 15th, and 3rd last season.
Mann had a couple of duds, but he made up for it with a handful of rocket launchers that had plenty of distance and enough hang time to prevent a big return.
The former Ray Guy Award winner seems to have improved his blend of distance and hang time. He is mastering how to boot the ball far down the field without out-kicking his coverage. Additionally, his touch when aiming to pin opponents deep has been better.
Mann looks ready for a second-year breakout.
9. Tanzel Smart
Fighting for a spot at defensive tackle – one of the deepest positions on the depth chart – Tanzel Smart‘s chances of making the team seemed nearly nonexistent prior to the preseason.
After an excellent preseason run, though, keeping Smart off the 53-man roster will be tough for Joe Douglas.
Smart’s incredible snap timing and get-off made him a disruptive force throughout all three games. He finished the preseason with eight tackles and four pressures, both tops among the team’s interior defensive linemen.
While Smart’s heavy playing time (team-leading 119 defensive snaps) helped him stand out, he was still substantially more productive on a per-play basis than the rest of the defensive tackles on the team. He recorded a tackle or a pressure on 10.1% of his defensive snaps. The rest of the defensive tackles combined for a rate of 5.7%.
Plus, Smart blew up a few plays in which he did not get statistical credit for his effort.
8. Vyncint Smith
Vyncint Smith was one of the most consistent skill position players on the team. He caught six of his eight targets for 79 yards, turning every catch into a first down. His total of six first-down receptions led the team, and he collected at least one in each game.
Smith was a menace in the short-to-intermediate range, grabbing all six of his receptions under 20 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
7. Connor McGovern
Connor McGovern beat up on the second-string competition he faced against the Giants and Packers. He won his one-on-one pass protection battles handily, was apt and aware as a helper to his guards, and showed swiftness in the open field as he moved linebackers at the second level.
McGovern earned a 70.8 overall grade at Pro Football Focus that placed him 11th out of 54 qualified centers after Friday’s game (81st percentile).
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6. Matt Ammendola
Matt Ammendola seized his opportunity to put a stranglehold on the Jets’ kicking job as he executed a flawless preseason. He made all five of his extra points and all four of his field goals, coming from 30, 31, 46, and 54 yards.
It is also worth mentioning that Ammendola did a good job on kickoffs. He averaged a hang time of 4.0 seconds over 12 kickoffs, which is slightly above the 2020 league average of 3.98. Ammendola also had good placement on his kickoffs, dropping the ball barely past the goal line to entice returners to take the ball out despite a low chance of reaching the 25-yard line.
Opposing returners averaged just 18.2 yards per return on Ammendola’s kickoffs.
5. Javelin Guidry
The most competitive battle on the Jets’ roster this preseason was easily the slot cornerback spot. Javelin Guidry and Michael Carter II were each fantastic, creating a difficult decision for the coaching staff.
Guidry dropped into coverage on 29 snaps and did not allow a first down. He was targeted five times and gave up three catches for 20 yards, all of them stopped short of the marker.
Of the 20 yards allowed by Guidry, 23 were gained after the catch. He was never beaten down the field, allowing negative-3 yards through the air.
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4. Michael Carter II
Michael Carter II’s coverage was so tight that teams hardly ever bothered to even throw at him.
The Duke rookie dropped into coverage on 43 snaps, second-most among all Jets defenders behind Jamien Sherwood (46 snaps) and first among cornerbacks.
Over those 43 snaps, Carter II was targeted only three times. He gave up two catches for 11 yards, with just one of them going for a first down.
Carter II and Guidry combined to give up 31 yards over eight targets. That’s less than four yards per target. Not to mention, they gave up one first down over a combined 72 snaps in coverage.
Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich can’t go wrong here. Their starting nickel cornerback will be someone who passed every test in the preseason.
3. Corey Davis
Corey Davis was featured at a video-game-like frequency, seeing 10 targets over just 14 passing plays. That’s a rate of 71.4%, more than double Davante Adams’ league-leading rate of 31.5% in 2020.
Davis delivered in his No. 1 role. He caught six of 10 targets for 88 yards and four first downs.
I would place Davis one spot higher on this list if not for a few shaky reps. There were two incomplete targets in the Giants game where he got stuck coming out of his break against physical coverage, leading to the timing between him and Zach Wilson being thrown off. Against the Packers, there was a contested comeback route where he could have attacked the ball more aggressively.
Those plays put Davis in the third spot here, as the player I have at number two was more consistent.
Don’t let those mistakes take anything away from how marvelous Davis was in his limited preseason action. The Jets fed him the ball at a frequency that isn’t of this world and he relished the responsibility, getting open and making plays at a feverish rate.
2. Mekhi Becton
Becton earned a 76.5 overall PFF grade that ranked fifth among left tackles after Friday night. Most notably, he ranked first at the position with an 81.5 pass-blocking grade.
In pass protection, Becton showed smooth feet, impressive patience, and accurate hands as he provided Wilson with a clean blindside on an every-play basis.
Rushers tried to bait Becton into throwing his hands or opening hips, but he never bit. He sat back and let the rushers declare their move before relying on his length to stifle them.
Becton’s accuracy on his punches was great, as he consistently chopped away rushers’ hands and reworked his own hands into the rushers’ chests.
In the run game, Becton created plenty of movement as he kicked out edge defenders on the front side of run plays.
The Jets are hoping to see more of the same from Becton against elite rushers in the regular season. His preseason run was an example of what he could look like at his peak.
1. Zach Wilson
Zach Wilson’s placement in this spot is not a result of bias to the rookie franchise quarterback. He was legitimately the team’s best player over his two games on the field.
Wilson completed 15 of his 20 pass attempts for 191 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions while taking zero sacks and never fumbling.
The rookie produced an average of 9.6 yards per dropback. That mark remains the best among all qualified quarterbacks in the preseason as of the conclusion of Saturday’s games.
Mike LaFleur‘s offense chugged along at the level of a league-best unit when Wilson was at the helm. Over six drives with Wilson, the Jets never went three-and-out. Their average drive under Wilson yielded 7.3 plays, 44.0 yards, and 3.3 points.
All three of those marks would have led the NFL in the 2020 regular season.
Josh Adams missed the Packers game and only got two carries in the opener against the Giants, but his finale performance against the Eagles was the best individual rushing performance by a Jets running back in the preseason.
Adams rushed for 62 yards on 12 carries, averaging 5.2 yards per tote without getting a run longer than nine yards. He was a chunk gain machine, bowling over defenders for one healthy gain after the next. Adams was credited with five broken tackles (for reference, Derrick Henry led the NFL with 4.6 per game last season).
Kenny Yeboah struggled over the first two games. Over 17 passing plays, he was targeted three times and recorded two catches for six yards and zero first downs. One of those two catches resulted in a lost fumble.
Yeboah made a tremendous last-ditch effort against Philadelphia. He grabbed four of his five targets for 100 yards and two touchdowns, including a 49-yard Hail Mary to put the Jets in position to tie the game.
Josh Johnson looked like a seasoned veteran in his lone performance with the Jets. He completed seven of his eight pass attempts for 73 yards. A whopping six of those attempts resulted in conversions – six first downs and one touchdown.
The Jets averaged 10.3 plays, 49.3 yards, and 3.3 points across three drives lead by Johnson. They held the ball for an average of six minutes and 23 seconds.