Elijah Moore, NY Jets, Stats, PFF, 2021 Draft Class
Elijah Moore, New York Jets, Getty Images

Which second-year players will break out for the New York Jets in 2022?

Entering a new NFL season, fans are usually fixated on their favorite team’s newcomers to be the primary sources of progress for the franchise.

However, in many cases, it’s not the newcomers who are mainly responsible for a team’s ascension – it’s the players who were already on the team and found ways to get better.

Developing young talent is a crucial aspect of building a Super Bowl contender. Teams will never be able to reach the promised land solely on the strength of outside additions. Championship teams need to foster year-over-year development from their retained players.

The New York Jets have accumulated a large collection of high-upside young players who have the potential to grow into major difference-makers. In particular, their 10-player class from the 2021 draft was one of the best groups in the NFL and is poised to yield a multitude of second-year breakouts in 2022.

Let’s rank all 10 of the Jets’ 2021 draft picks according to their chances of breaking out in 2022.

10. Brandin Echols, CB

Kentucky cornerback Brandin Echols was one of the Jets’ most surprising rookies from the 2021 class. Selected in the sixth round with the 200th overall pick, Echols won a Week 1 starting job as the Jets’ right-side cornerback and held the role for the entire season, starting all 14 games he appeared in.

Echols showed some potential with two interceptions (one returned for a TD), nine total passes defended, and only one touchdown allowed.

However, Echols’s overall play was as spotty as you’d expect from a sixth-round rookie.

In coverage, Echols was victimized more frequently than his 1-to-2 TD/INT ratio would suggest. He coughed up an average of 1.30 yards per cover snap, which ranked 81st out of 96 qualified cornerbacks. Echols allowed the 24th-most yards of any cornerback (600) even though he only ranked 59th in coverage snaps played (461).

Echols also ranked as the third-worst run-defending cornerback out of 96 qualifiers with a 31.1 run-defense grade at Pro Football Focus.

The Jets made it clear how they felt about their cornerback unit by making two huge additions in the offseason. They signed D.J. Reed to a three-year, $33 million contract and then drafted Sauce Gardner with the fourth overall pick. These additions will likely push Echols and fellow 2021 starter Bryce Hall into reserve roles.

Echols should prove to be a useful backup for New York, but his chances at a second-year breakout are slim due to the new additions that have pushed him far down the depth chart.

9. Michael Carter, RB

This ranking is by no means an indictment of Michael Carter’s game. Carter had a phenomenal rookie season and projects to be a big part of the Jets’ offensive attack going forward.

Carter simply ranks this low because his chances of a true “breakout” were significantly sliced when the Jets decided to trade up and draft Iowa State running back Breece Hall in the second round. Hall will be taking up a significant portion of the available snaps in the backfield, so Carter may not be able to put up significantly better totals than he did in 2021.

Keep in mind how well Carter played in his rookie year. He set a very high floor for himself. Carter picked up 964 yards from scrimmage in only 14 games. That’s an average of 68.9 yards per game – pace for 1,171 yards per 17 games.

Carter could certainly match those numbers this year, but surpassing them will be difficult with Hall around.

I would argue that Carter has already broken out. Now the goal is to simply maintain it. The Jets will be hoping that Hall can join Carter with a similarly impressive rookie-year breakout, giving them two dynamic playmakers in the same backfield.

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8. Hamsah Nasirildeen, LB

Joe Douglas drafted Hamsah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood on the third day of the draft with the future in mind. Both players would be transitioning from college safety to NFL linebacker, so New York knew not to expect much in year one.

Nasirildeen played in 12 games during his rookie season but was quickly removed from the defensive lineup after struggling mightily to begin the year. He played 49 snaps over the first two games and made only three tackles while missing two (40.0% missed tackle rate).

The Jets benched Nasirildeen ahead of Week 3 and he exclusively played on special teams until he got a handful of snaps from Weeks 17 to 18 (11 total).

New York has question marks at the linebacker position outside of C.J. Mosley. Quincy Williams is the presumed front-runner to retain the starting job that he held in 2021, but he certainly wasn’t consistent enough to fend off Nasirildeen or Sherwood from stealing his job if either player shows outstanding improvement throughout the next two months.

The path to a breakout is there for Nasirildeen. We haven’t seen anything yet on the field to believe that a breakout is coming, but, again, the Jets knew this was going to be a long-term project. Let’s see what kind of improvements Nasirildeen has made since his first campaign.

7. Jamien Sherwood, LB

I give Sherwood the nod over Nasirildeen since he had the better rookie season.

The Jets chose Sherwood to be their Week 1 starter next to Mosley (Jarrad Davis would have been the starter, but he was sidelined to begin the year). Sherwood went down with an injury after only three snaps in that game, but the fact of the matter is that the Jets favored him over Nasirildeen based on what they saw in the offseason.

Before a season-ending Achilles injury in Week 7, Sherwood returned to play four more games from Weeks 3 to 7. He started three of those and averaged 34.0 snaps across those four appearances. It was clear the Jets had some faith in him.

Sherwood struggled but he was a bit less erratic than Nasirildeen. Sherwood made 13 tackles while missing two (13.3% missed tackle rate). He still has a long way to go when it comes to overall awareness, angles in the run game, and coverage ability, but in comparison to Nasirildeen, he appeared to be slightly further along in his development.

Both Nasirildeen and Sherwood have the opportunity to break out this year if they can wow the Jets’ coaches. Williams’s job is not 100% safe.

With that being said, Nasirildeen and Sherwood looked far from ready in their rookie years. They’ll each need to look like entirely new players this offseason to make serious cases for a starting role.

6. Jonathan Marshall, DT

The Jets have laid a clear path for Jonathan Marshall to break out this year. By choosing not to add a single run-stuffing defensive tackle to replace Foley Fatukasi, Marshall has the inside track to a key role if he can show improvement.

As the owner of a 9.99 Relative Athletic Score (RAS), Marshall’s ceiling is high. But at the end of the day, he is a sixth-round pick who was chosen 207th overall. He’s got a lot to prove.

Marshall played 77 defensive snaps over four games in his rookie year and did not do much of note over that short spurt of playing time. He had one pressure and two tackles.

New York needs somebody on their defensive line to step up as the primary 1/2i-technique on run downs. Quinnen Williams can do it, but who is taking his place when he rests or rotates to the 3-technique spot? And do the Jets really want Williams to play a ton of reps at the 1/2i spots when he could be doing more pass-rushing damage as a 3-tech?

With substantial year-two progress, Marshall could prove to the Jets’ coaching staff that he can handle the role.

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5. Jason Pinnock, S

Jason Pinnock was drafted as a cornerback but ended up finishing his rookie year at safety due to an onslaught of injuries at the position.

Although there are a lot of areas where Pinnock must get better at the safety position, he did look relatively competent considering the circumstances. In addition, his length and athleticism give him an intriguing ceiling.

The Jets were quiet at the safety position this offseason. They signed Jordan Whitehead to start at strong safety, but that’s about it. Nothing of note was done at the free safety spot.

Pinnock will be at the forefront of the competition for New York’s starting free safety role. His top competitors figure to be Lamarcus Joyner and Ashtyn Davis.

That is a competition that Pinnock can certainly win. If he takes the victory, Pinnock will get the playing time that he needs to put together a second-year breakout.

4. Michael Carter II, CB

Michael Carter II was a starter in the slot for the Jets throughout his entire rookie season and had a solid year. He seems likely to retain this job in 2022 and should have the opportunity to leap forward from a respectable starting slot corner to a top-tier one.

Few cornerbacks in the NFL avoided mistakes quite like Carter II. Over 472 coverage snaps, he allowed one touchdown pass and had two penalties.

The key to a second-year breakout for Carter II is making more splashy plays. He did not have a single interception or forced fumble. Only six cornerbacks in the league played more defensive snaps than Carter II (777) without recording an interception or forced fumble.

It appears that Carter II is a reliable starter who gets the job done. In year two, the Jets will be hoping he can develop into a game-changer.

3. Zach Wilson, QB

Zach Wilson’s breakout chances depend on how you define the term. Is it a breakout if he becomes a league-average quarterback this year? Or does his breakout not occur until he achieves stardom?

It’s all but guaranteed that Wilson will improve this year – simply because he can hardly get any worse than he was last year (in terms of his overall production). The question is how much he improves.

I think Wilson has a fairly good chance to leap into the top 16-20 range among starting quarterbacks. That would be a promising step forward for him. Once again, though, whether or not that should be considered a “breakout” is up for interpretation.

Personally, I think that a quarterback’s breakout happens when he establishes himself as a no-doubt-about-it franchise quarterback for his team’s foreseeable future. Being in the top 16-20 range is not quite enough to do that.

With that being said, if Wilson does leap into the middle tier among NFL quarterbacks, it will position him perfectly to execute a true breakout in 2023. This is his most realistic path to stardom. Jumping into the middle tier in year two and then into the top tier in year three is a lot more plausible than making a one-year transition from the basement to the elite ranks.

Albeit small, there is still a chance that Wilson could truly break out this year. Overnight breakouts have happened before.

Jared Goff went from a 63.6 passer rating as a rookie to two consecutive Pro Bowl appearances. Michael Vick had a 62.7 passer rating as a rookie before going to the Pro Bowl in year two. Peyton Manning went from leading the league in interceptions as a rookie to the Pro Bowl in year two. Brett Favre threw two picks on four passes as a rookie and then made the Pro Bowl in his second season.

I list those examples to show that it is possible for Wilson to become a star this year, but we have to remember that those guys are major exceptions. Most of the quarterbacks who went on to succeed after having a poor rookie season did not break out until their third year at the earliest.

Still, all of the stars are aligned for Wilson to have a successful 2022 season. Everyone has a different definition of what would constitute success for Wilson this year, but the bottom line is that expectations are high and he is poised to meet them; armed with second-overall-pick talent and an impressive supporting cast.

2. Alijah Vera-Tucker, G

A top-15 pick with incredible athleticism, sharp technique, and positional versatility, Alijah Vera-Tucker entered the league with loads of potential.

Vera-Tucker dealt with growing pains throughout his rookie season and was still a good player overall. That is the sign of a player who is poised for some immense growth in the future. If he is good before he even has everything figured out, he is going to be great once he puts it all together.

The passing game is where Vera-Tucker needs the most growth. His recognition against blitzes and stunts must improve, and there were certain games (or even small stretches within games) where the opponent had his number and beat him one-on-one a few times in succession.

But there were also games where Vera-Tucker showed how much potential he has in pass protection. Vera-Tucker had two games in which he allowed zero pressures, and those were against high-quality competition: a Titans team with Jeffery Simmons and a Falcons team with Grady Jarrett. In Week 17, he allowed one pressure against the Bucs’ stacked defensive line.

In the run game, Vera-Tucker was mostly excellent. His consistency can be sharpened but his peaks were mesmerizing. Out in space, Vera-Tucker took precise angles to his defenders and created a ton of movement after establishing contact.

Vera-Tucker is ready to establish himself as a top 15 guard this season.

1. Elijah Moore, WR

Elijah Moore showed superstar-level potential with a dominant six-game stretch to close his rookie year. Over his final six games, Moore totaled 494 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage – averages of 82.3 yards and 0.83 touchdowns per game. That would put him on pace for 1,399 yards and 14 touchdowns per 17 games.

It’s this hot streak that gives Moore such exciting breakout potential. But a lot of players have hot streaks like that. Not many maintain that kind of production for full seasons. The ones who do become stars.

All signs point to Moore being one of the rare specimens who takes his rookie-year flashes and turns them into the norm.

Moore’s stretch of improved production was not just a specifically-chosen set of games that intentionally ignores parts of the year in which he struggled. In actuality, those six games provide the most accurate description of how well he was playing all year.

Moore suffered from brutal luck over his first five games. He frequently beat defenders for potential big gains but was not rewarded due to poor quarterback play, poor offensive line play, or both.

When Zach Wilson went out and Mike White came in (followed by Josh Johnson and Joe Flacco), the Jets offense started rewarding Moore for his route-running wins, and it became clear just how productive Moore can be when the offense is capitalizing on the opportunities he creates.

Wilson kept Moore rolling when he returned. Playing more fundamentally sound football than he was to begin the year, Wilson had much better chemistry with Moore, and the two appeared poised to begin a special connection before Moore’s season ended prematurely.

Moore is certainly capable of maintaining what he did over those six games throughout an entire 17-game season. As long as he can stay healthy and benefit from competent QB/OL play, he will have a stellar 2022 season.

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Michael Nania is one of the best analytical New York Jets minds in the world, combining his statistical expertise with game film to add proper context to the data. Nania scrapes every corner, ensuring you know all there is to know about everyone from the QB to the long snapper. Nania's Numbers, Nania's QB Grades, and Nania's All-22 give fans a deeper and more well-rounded dive into the Jets than anyone else can offer. Email: michael.nania[at]jetsxfactor.com - Twitter: @Michael_Nania
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Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
1 year ago

I’m excited that we have so many guys who can take potential jumps. The overall talent level on this team is light years ahead of last year’s. If Zach is a top 15 QB this offense is going to be scary good. We could lead the league in rushing if our O line stays healthy.

1 year ago

As always good stuff. Definitely agree with this list, good breakdowns all around.

1 year ago

I’m a little surprised that Ashtyn Davis didn’t make this list since he had been held back by injuries his first couple of years and a lot of analysts still tout his potential. That combination seems like a setup for a big jump forward, providing he stays healthy.

Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
1 year ago
Reply to  DFargas

It was only guys drafted in 2021.

1 year ago

Great article, Michael. The reason why this is the best Jets site is because it provides hope. It’s an optimists site.
Zach WILL be a decent qb this year. He is a smart kid that doesn’t drink or party. When you don’t drink, your passion becomes your stress release. This kid loves football. This kid is a winner with a positive attitude. I really like this Jets team. From JD down there are no lemons. This is the year we make noise again. Next year, we will have arrived. It’s going to be fun to watch!

1 year ago

I’m feeling better about Zach, I’ve always had questions but he does have experience having to improve in the off-season. He had to earn that starting spot at BYU. I know it’s not the same in the NFL but I like that he had that challenge at least from a mental stand point. Now that he’s had the opportunity to get his head right, I think his physical skills will follow. I think a he can jump into top 15 this season.

Pinnock has been brought up a few times, and I know it’s a long shot but I do believe he’ll become the other starting safety. He’s got the talent, I think he needs reps.