Joe Douglas should think of adding Sauce to the Jets secondary
Let’s take a moment to go through the New York Jets‘ 2021 journey. Ownership, alongside Joe Douglas, hired first-time head coach Robert Saleh in January of 2021 following a dreadful two-win 2020 season. Coach Saleh inherited a roster that Douglas and his staff have been working endlessly to turn over.
As the 2021 offseason came to a close, the organization and the fans were undoubtedly excited, with good reason, to see what this new coaching staff would bring to the table. It was clear that a young coaching staff would be working with one of the youngest rosters in the NFL—headlined by rookie quarterback Zach Wilson.
The “All Gas, No Brake” era was off the runway.
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As if the youth and inexperience weren’t challenging enough, injuries piled up in training camp and continued throughout the season. Of course, injuries are a given, considering the nature of the sport, but this felt like cruel and unusual punishment. (I’ll refrain from discussing any further to prevent the remembrance of unfortunate memories: see Carl Lawson.)
The Jets’ youth and inexperience reared its ugly head plenty and key players were missed. The positive is that growth came with time and rookies took meaningful snaps. According to Pro Football Focus, the Jets ranked second in the NFL in most snaps by rookies with 4,916. In the end, the W-L column will show just four victories.
With the 2021 Jets season in the rearview mirror and the Senior Bowl in the books, we are left to debate how Douglas will allocate the arsenal of offseason assets to vastly improve this roster.
The Jets must address their porous pass defense
It’s common practice—when conducting offseason predictions—to first have a conversation surrounding a team’s positional needs.
Early on in this NFL draft process, it’s been highly debated where the cornerback position ranks on the Jets’ list of needs. There are certainly quite a few roster holes and it’s no secret the defensive unit struggled mightily. And yes, I hear you—the reasons for that feel endless and it is not because of just one position group.
So, before I make the case for using a premium asset on a cornerback, and evaluate an elite talent at the position, I understand and agree with the need to address the pass rush. Consistent pressure on the quarterback provides a massive benefit to the secondary and in turn, helps to improve the pass defense.
But I do believe a world exists where the Jets use a premium draft pick on a top-tier cornerback and can allocate resources to the pass rush to greatly improve the unit as a whole.
The totality of the general and non-analytical statistics show the Jets were among the NFL’s worst in pass defense. According to NFL.com, the Jets defense faced 587 pass attempts (18th most) at a clip of 8 yards per attempt (tied for the highest). Those attempts resulted in 401 completions (7th most), 4,409 yards (3rd most) and a 68.3 completion percentage (4th highest).
Additionally, the 234 first downs allowed via the pass and 73 pass plays of 20+ yards both ranked second to last. The counterargument, of course, is that these general statistics do not provide the full context of each rep nor do they land solely on the cornerback room.
Where I want to shift statistically is the lack of interceptions. And again, interceptions can occur in a variety of ways by any defensive position.
It seems widely agreed upon that causing turnovers is crucial. It’s an aspect of the defensive game that can change the game. There is something to be said about secondary’s that can find the football.
While I understand it’s far from the only factor, I don’t find it to be a complete accident that 15 out of the Top 20 teams in interceptions finished the 2021 season with a winning record (only two of the 14 playoff teams ranked outside the Top 20).
The Jets hauled in a total of seven interceptions, which tied the Jaguars for the second-fewest. That number becomes more glaring when considering two interceptions were by defensive linemen and three of the five defensive back picks came in the two games against Tua Tagovailoa.
This is not meant to downplay the work that players like Bryce Hall, Brandin Echols and Michael Carter II have put in. It is a young group.
As a sixth-round rookie, Echols was the only Jets cornerback to have an interception. Fifth-round rookie Carter II showed he can play in the slot. Since being a fifth-round draft pick coming off a gruesome college injury, Bryce Hall has continuously shown improvement.
I envision him holding down an outside cornerback spot in 2022. It should be mentioned that Bryce was tied for sixth in passes defended with a total of 16. However, of the 19 defensive players in 2021 with 13 or more passes defended, Bryce was the only one not to record an interception.
If the right opportunity presents itself, the Jets should not refrain from improving this group.
Once a positional need has been identified, the next step tends to move toward determining how the shot callers have chosen to fill that need in the past. How highly do they value the position?
David Wyatt-Hupton recently wrote an excellent article titled, “Why the New York Jets will not draft Derek Stingley Jr.” As we know, there are a lot of mock drafts out there sending DSJ to NY.
Aside from discussing the prospect, David included the draft history of the previous teams Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh were a part of, as it relates to the cornerback position. David found that while Saleh was in San Fransisco, the highest-drafted cornerback was in Round 3, and while Douglas was in Philadelphia, the Eagles never drafted a first-round cornerback.
It’s a valid point and there is no evidence of them highly valuing the position in the NFL draft. The topic interested me, so I revisited those drafts. Of course, I can’t guarantee this, but I’ve formulated some context …
Joe Douglas joined the Eagles after the 2016 NFL draft. In the 2016 NFL draft, the Eagles drafted Carson Wentz with the second overall pick. In order to get that pick, the Eagles traded a 2016 third and fourth, a 2017 first and a 2018 second. With no first-round pick in 2017, the Eagles drafted cornerback Sidney Jones early in the second round—despite Jones tearing his Achilles a month prior.
The Eagles had the last pick of the first-round pick in 2018 but decided to trade the pick to the Baltimore Ravens. In that draft, the Eagles chose cornerback Avonte Maddox with the 125th overall pick. While the 125th pick may not be considered premium, it was only the second selection of the Eagles’ draft. In 2019, it seems as though no team valued the cornerback position because only one was chosen in the first round altogether.
For Saleh in San Francisco, he saw the 49ers draft DL Solomon Thomas (2017 third overall), OT Mike McGlinchey (2018 ninth overall after trading for Jimmy G) and DE Nick Bosa (2019 second overall). However, a close comparison can be made on this front when in 2020, the 49ers opted to draft Javon Kinlaw in the first round over cornerback A.J. Terrell, who went off the board just two picks later.
So, while the Eagles and the 49ers did not use premium draft capital on a cornerback while Douglas and Saleh were a part of their organizations, context seems to offer some explanation. Whether that is available draft capital, draft positioning or the prospects on the board.
Beyond the draft, I’ll come back to this quote from coach Saleh in training camp when discussing the cornerback position:
“Can you win on third down? It’s that simple,” per Jets X-Factor’s Robby Sabo. “The dog mentality, the ability to win in man coverage, the fearlessness to get up there in press and win their one-on-ones, that’s what matters.”
That quote serves two purposes.
First, the Jets seemed to play a lot of man coverage on third down and on third down; the Jets ranked 27th in the NFL in opponent conversions. Second, that quote could not be a better introduction to the breakdown of CB No. 1 in the 2022 NFL draft: Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner.