Pinpointing the primary areas of focus for the New York Jets’ 2021 rookie class
The New York Jets‘ 2021 draft class showed oodles of potential in its rookie season. General manager Joe Douglas’ 10-player class combined to generate a total of 30 AV (Approximate Value), which ranked third-best out of all NFL rookie classes in 2021.
Of course, one season does not make (or break) a draft class. These groups are not to be fully judged until they log four or five years in the league. We can’t declare a class as good or bad after one year.
If the 2021 Jets draft class is to build upon its rookie-year promise and establish itself as one of the best classes from that draft, it will need its players to develop greatly in 2022.
Here is the primary weakness that each defensive player from the Jets’ 2021 draft class must focus on improving in 2022 if they want to progress toward their full potential. Yesterday, we dug into the offensive draft picks.
LB Jamien Sherwood: Playmaking against the run
The Jets’ linebackers struggled mightily in the run game last season: specifically, their rookie linebackers (during their fleeting moments on the field).
It’s hard to take much away from Jamien Sherwood‘s rookie year after he only played 139 snaps across five games. However, one thing he certainly struggled with was producing big plays in the run game. Sherwood recorded three run stops over 70 snaps against the run, a run-stop rate of 4.3% that ranked 100th out of 110 qualified linebackers (9th percentile).
To his credit, Sherwood put up good numbers over his small sample of reps in coverage, allowing just two catches for three yards over 63 coverage snaps. It must be noted, though, that he did also have a crucial pass interference penalty on a third-and-goal play in New England, leading to a touchdown on the next snap with 31 seconds left in the half.
Sherwood still has everything to prove as he heads into Year 2.
LB Hamsah Nasirildeen: Run defense fundamentals
Evaluating Hamsah Nasirildeen is even more difficult than evaluating Sherwood.
Nasirildeen only played 60 defensive snaps in his rookie season. Of those, 49 came within the first two weeks of the year. Nasirildeen struggled so greatly that the Jets relegated him to exclusively a special teams role throughout the rest of the season (save for some emergency defensive snaps from Weeks 17-18).
The run game is where Nasirildeen played himself off the field. He had major problems with basic fundamentals of gap-filling as a run defender, frequently getting washed out of plays and allowing productive rushes.
Pro Football Focus scored Nasirildeen with a run-defense grade of 25.2 in 2021, which was the second-worst mark out of 141 qualified linebackers.
Sherwood and Nasirildeen were both safeties in college before transitioning to linebacker in the NFL, so it’s no surprise that run defense is the biggest issue for both of them right now. Sherwood weighs in at 216 pounds and Nasirildeen weighs in at 215 pounds. They’re very undersized for the linebacker position.
We’ll see if they can find a way to work around their lack of size or if it ultimately proves to be their downfall at the linebacker position.
CB Michael Carter II: Splash playmaking
Michael Carter II did some solid things in his rookie year, showing the potential to become a stable and reliable starter in the slot. Playing 777 defensive snaps across 15 games, Carter II committed only two penalties, allowed a measly total of one touchdown pass, and gave up an impressively low average of 9.9 yards per reception.
To take the next step, I would like to see Carter II show an improved knack for making big plays.
Carter II finished his rookie year with no interceptions or forced fumbles. Only six cornerbacks in the NFL played more defensive snaps without recording an interception or a forced fumble.
It seems like Carter II has already shown he has a high floor. Let’s see how high he can raise his ceiling.
CB Jason Pinnock: Overall coverage
Jason Pinnock was drafted as a cornerback and stayed at that position for most of his rookie season, but he finished the year playing at safety.
Regardless of where he plays, Pinnock’s coverage must improve.
During his time at cornerback, Pinnock allowed 4-of-4 passing in his direction for 48 yards and one touchdown. He also committed a holding penalty. All of this happened over just 26 snaps in coverage.
Pinnock began playing safety in Week 16 and actually put up some great numbers over the last three weeks of the season. From Weeks 16-18, Pinnock allowed just 2-of-3 passing for 15 yards over 122 snaps in coverage. He also had a pass breakup and a couple of forced fumbles.
Here’s the catch: When you turn on the film, it’s clear that Pinnock’s excellent late-season numbers are a bit misleading.
Specifically, Pinnock made two big plays in coverage against the Jaguars in Week 16 that had a lot of fans buzzing. On TV, these plays looked awesome, but when you watch them from the All-22 angle, it is revealed that Pinnock was actually beaten quite badly and he only made the plays because of late/bad throws by the quarterback.
Jets X-Factor’s Joe Blewett breaks down those two plays here (warning: some NSFW language).
My point is that I think Pinnock still looked very raw in coverage even after he moved to safety, regardless of what his numbers or PFF grades might say. Improvement in coverage will be needed no matter where he lines up.
With the Jets appearing loaded at cornerback and paper-thin at safety, it looks like Pinnock will remain at safety and compete for playing time. He’ll have a chance to earn plenty of reps. Can he prove that his production was legitimate or will the flaws he showed on tape turn out to be the truth of what’s to come?
CB Brandin Echols: Run game tackling
The Jets’ cornerbacks played a substantial role in the team’s lackluster run defense. They did not provide a strong last-line-of-defense on the outside.
Brandin Echols was one of the primary culprits.
Echols really struggled to finish plays against the run. He missed seven tackles in the run game, per PFF, which tied him for the most in the NFL among cornerbacks.
All the while, Echols only made eight tackles against the run. This gives him a missed tackle rate of 46.7% in the run game, which is downright abysmal. It tied him with James Bradberry for the worst rate among qualified cornerbacks.
Echols has plenty of work to do in coverage, too, as he allowed the 24th-most yards among cornerbacks (600) despite playing the 59th-most snaps in coverage (461), but he at least showed some intriguing upside in that phase with his athleticism and nose for the football (two interceptions). His run defense needs substantial improvement.
DT Jonathan Marshall: Run defense
I hate to keep harping on run defense; it truly was a common weakness shared by most of the Jets’ rookie defenders.
Jonathan Marshall is another rookie who barely played, logging just 77 snaps on the year. But he’s also another rookie who was putrid against the run in that limited time.
Marshall had one run stop over 41 snaps against the run and was also moved around fairly easily by opposing linemen. He finished with a PFF run-defense grade of 38.3 (10th percentile among qualified IDL) and a run-stop rate of 2.4% (4th percentile). Marshall even had an illegal use of hands penalty in the run game against the Eagles in Week 13.
Clearly, the Jets need to focus on coaching up the run-stopping talents of their second-year defensive crew.