How much help do the New York Jets need at cornerback?
By all means, the 2021 season has been a positive one for the future of the New York Jets‘ cornerback position. The cornerback group entered the season with a good chance to be one of the worst in the NFL based on its severe inexperience. Instead, it has been a decent unit, and arguably the most consistent one on the Jets’ defense.
For a unit that features a starting trio of corners who combined for seven career starts entering 2021 (all from Bryce Hall, as Brandin Echols and Michael Carter II were rookie starters), their “decent” level of play this season is a very promising foundation for the future. If they’re already decent now, there is a possibility they could become a good bunch with some time to grow.
However, from browsing through discussions on social media, I get the sense that many Jets fans are content with this cornerback unit going forward and do not feel compelled to explore any large investments in the position.
Is that the right mentality for the Jets? Should they really feel confident enough in their current stable to bury the cornerback position on their shopping list? Or, is cornerback a bigger need than many realize?
Let’s dig into what the Jets have at the cornerback position to try and figure out how much they should prioritize improving the unit in the 2022 offseason.
Bryce Hall is a starter for the New York Jets
The clearest fact in this equation is that the Jets know they have a surefire long-term starter in Bryce Hall. Exactly how good Hall becomes is a debate for another day, but he proved this year that he is unquestionably a starting-caliber player.
Hall’s total of 17 forced incompletions ranks second among all cornerbacks, per Pro Football Focus. His 71.8 PFF coverage grade ranks 25th out of 94 qualified cornerbacks (74th percentile) and his average of 0.93 yards allowed per cover snap ranks 33rd (66th percentile).
So, that’s set in stone. Hall will be starting on the outside for the Jets next year.
Is Michael Carter II a starter in 2022?
What about fellow starters Brandin Echols (right cornerback) and Michael Carter II (slot cornerback)? Have their rookie seasons been good enough to lock them in as starters next year?
Carter II’s career got off to a hot start. Over his first four games, he allowed only 19.3 yards per game and 4.1 yards per target on throws into his coverage.
However, Carter II has been exposed much more frequently ever since then. Over his last 10 games, Carter II is allowing 46.4 yards per game and 8.9 yards per target. He’s been one of the most picked-on corners in football over that span. Since Week 5, Carter II is giving up a reception once every 6.9 coverage snaps, the second-worst average out of 74 qualified corners.
Carter II’s season-long numbers now look like those you would expect from a fifth-round rookie. His PFF coverage grade of 55.7 ranks 78th out of 94 qualified corners (17th percentile). Looking solely at his slot coverage, Carter II has allowed 1.41 yards per cover snap when lining up in the slot, which ranks 28th out of 32 qualified slot corners.
All told, just judging Carter II by the eye test and the fact that he has restrained from making egregious blunders in most games (hello Buster Skrine), he has had a nice season for a fifth-round rookie cornerback who was asked to start from day one. He absolutely looks like a potentially solid slot corner in this league.
But the numbers listed above certainly are not those of a player who should be guaranteed a starting spot next year. If the Jets really like a slot corner in free agency or draft, they shouldn’t hesitate to add him into the mix as competition.
With that being said, there is certainly no need to force a big investment in the slot next year. It’s not a premium position (considering they are not every-down players), and Carter II – though his overall consistency leaves a lot to be desired – does do a good job of avoiding those killer mistakes, so he’s not a guy who needs to be replaced.
Carter II only had two penalties this year, and his missed tackle rate of 9.7% ranks at the 75th percentile among qualified cornerbacks. He also gave up only one touchdown pass.
You can do worse than Carter II in the slot, and considering he’s a 22-year-old rookie, he should only get better.
The verdict: Carter II deserves to be the clear front-runner in camp for the Jets’ starting slot corner role next season, but the team should still feel free to add competition – though a lucrative investment is not necessary.
Is Brandin Echols good enough to warrant passing on big-time cornerbacks?
How about Brandin Echols? Exactly how confident should the Jets feel about his long-term outlook?
Starting at right cornerback for the Jets, Echols has been a greater liability than many seem to realize.
Echols has given up 541 yards on throws into his coverage (32nd-most among CB) despite only playing 408 snaps in coverage (64th-most). In turn, his average of 1.33 yards allowed per cover snap ranks 86th out of 94 qualified corners (9th percentile).
At PFF, Echols owns a coverage grade of 50.5, which ranks 87th out of 94 qualifiers.
It is also worth noting how poor Echols has been against the run. Echols’ PFF run-defense grade of 29.9 ranks second-worst among qualified corners. He is tied for the lead among all cornerbacks with seven missed tackles against the run.
Once again, like Carter II, Echols has done fine for a rookie who was drafted on day three. He hasn’t been Trumaine Johnson or Kyle Wilson kind of bad. That’s a good start for a rookie sixth-round pick.
But when you stack Echols up against all other starting cornerbacks in the league, he’s one of the worst starters out there. That’s just the fact of the matter right now.
Echols has showcased a lot of potential this year. He hits hard and has flashed improved ball skills in recent weeks with two picks and two pass breakups over the last three games. Certainly, he has shown he belongs in the NFL and can at least be a useful fourth or fifth corner. With time, maybe he could become a starter-quality player.
He has not proven he can be a starter-quality player, though.
Summing up where the Jets stand at cornerback
Bryce Hall is a good starter for the long term.
Michael Carter II has a lot of room to grow but he’s an acceptable starter in the slot for now. While Carter II is not good enough to deflect any competitors from coming in, he is respectable enough to prevent the need for a massive move.
Brandin Echols, though?
This is where I think the conversation about the Jets’ cornerback future gets muddied. Many think that Echols has been “fine” this year, but his production suggests he’s actually one of the worst starting corners in the league.
In that case, there is no reason that the Jets should shy away from exploring a big investment at cornerback. Unless you know a player is a good starter, you cannot refrain from looking for upgrades over him.
There will be a lot of intriguing options for the Jets to pull in a big fish at cornerback. The free-agent market features top players like J.C. Jackson, Stephon Gilmore, Carlton Davis, Darious Williams, Donte Jackson, Casey Hayward, and Steven Nelson among other decent-to-good starters. In the draft, the Jets will have chances to select highly-regarded prospects like Derek Stingley Jr. and Sauce Gardner near the top of the first round.
Echols cannot prevent the Jets from exploring those big-ticket investments.
Now, there is a completely different aspect of this argument that has nothing to do with the Jets’ talent, and that’s the perceived value of the cornerback position in the Jets’ rebuild.
Many see cornerback as a beneficiary position that can only be as good as the pass-rush in front of it – especially in this defense. When Jets head coach Robert Saleh was leading the defense out in San Francisco, the 49ers could hardly cover a tree until the pass-rush was upgraded, at which point the secondary started to look good.
With that mentality in mind, many people wonder whether it is smart to invest heavily in a cornerback (or any defensive back) before the front end of the defense is fortified, particularly in a 4-3 scheme like this one that relies upon its four-man rush.
Regarding the free-agent path, there are a lot of warning signs when it comes to chasing cornerbacks on the open market. Cornerback has tended to be a volatile position where players see their production vary wildly from year to year. It’s also a position where players have aged poorly. For those two reasons, players often underperform when signed to large contracts.
As for the draft, every prospect has their question marks, so if the Jets do not like a particular player enough to select him at any given pick, they are warranted to not select him.
Any of those arguments – the cornerback position’s value, the risks of cornerbacks in free agency, the quality of this year’s draft prospects – can be used as valid cases against the idea of the Jets making a substantial investment at cornerback.
What cannot be used as a counterargument is the Jets’ level of talent at cornerback.
At the moment, what the Jets know they have is one good starter and two rookies who could maybe become good starters, but at the moment have not proven to be more than high-end backups/low-end starters.
If the Jets identify a free-agent cornerback they’d like to pursue aggressively or have the chance to draft a first-round cornerback prospect that they really like, they cannot let their in-house pieces stop them from making the investment.
While the Jets’ young corners are promising, the unit as a whole has been nowhere near good enough to cross cornerback off the list of positions where a splashy move could be made.
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