There are several New York Jets players who could take a step forward in 2023 compared to 2022
Last offseason, several Jet X writers predicted that Williams would be the Jets’ breakout player. Williams exceeded even those expectations as a first-team All-Pro. Breece Hall, Sauce Gardner, and Garrett Wilson were also better than even more optimistic Jets fans could have predicted.
In 2023, there are fewer candidates for a breakout considering how well 2022’s rookie cohort performed. Still, there are a number of players on the roster who could see bumps in their performance, and not all of them are inexperienced.
Earlier this week, we dove into the Jets players who could take a step back. Now, let’s look at the positive side of the scenario: which 2023 Jets are most likely to play better than they did previously?
Although we at Jet X nailed the Williams breakout pick, we were largely wrong about Tyler Conklin. I had predicted that Conklin would lead the Jets in receptions; instead, although some of his counting stats ranked fairly high among tight ends, he was not nearly as impactful as I had expected. However, that seemed largely due to quarterback play and how the Jets utilized him in their offense.
Conklin’s 58 receptions tied for eighth among tight ends and his 552 receiving yards ranked 12th. However, his 1.13 yards per route run ranked 25th out of 32 qualified tight ends (min. 40 targets), and his 6.5% drop rate tied for 18th. He did catch 9 of 13 (69.2%) contested targets, the best rate for tight ends, but Jets quarterbacks also threw four interceptions his way, one of which bounced right off his hands. He also had two early fumbles.
With Aaron Rodgers, though, I believe Conklin will have a bounce-back year. His catch numbers might not suddenly explode in an offense with so many mouths to feed, but I believe his efficiency will. Rodgers has thrown an average of 6.1 touchdowns per season to tight ends; Conklin only received four targets in the red zone all year in 2022, and sure enough, three of them went for touchdowns.
Furthermore, the Jets underutilized Conklin’s biggest strength of going one-on-one against linebackers in key moments. They used him mostly as a checkdown option, running him to the flat on 19.7% of his routes, which was the sixth-highest rate among 41 tight ends with at least 200 routes run. His 19.5% hitch rate, while ranked in the middle of the pack, did not maximize his talents. I think Rodgers will insist that the team use tight ends more favorably; he saves running backs and receivers, players with better YAC ability, for throws to the flat.
Overall, it’s reasonable to believe that Rodgers will better take advantage of Conklin’s talent and that Conklin’s mistakes will regress to his career norms.
Many Jets fans have held a considerable degree of animus toward Corey Davis since his poor inaugural season with the team. He certainly has not lived up to the three-year, $37.5 million contract that he signed in the 2021 offseason. However, the single biggest reason for that may well be who was throwing him the football.
Consider that Davis put up the two best years of his career with Marcus Mariota and Ryan Tannehill throwing him the football. Tannehill had a strong season in 2020 when he threw for 33 touchdowns compared to seven interceptions, and it coincided with Davis’ best year as a pro. Mariota, on the other hand, never took off as a quarterback, and despite a high completion percentage in 2018 (68.9%, the fifth-best in the league), he was not exactly a star (11:8 TD:INT ratio).
In other words, Davis’s greatest seasons as a receiver came with average or somewhat above-average quarterback play, but not spectacular play. Then he came to the Jets and played with some of the worst quarterbacks in the league over two seasons. In 2021, his drops were certainly an issue; however, Zach Wilson ranked dead-last among QBs in on-target rate at 69.9%. This means that even if Davis was charged with drops, there were likely several balls that were thrown in places that were not easy to catch, increasing his drop total. There is a heavy correlation between poor accuracy and high drop rates for quarterbacks.
In 2022, the same thing happened. Davis had a key third-down drop against the Ravens in Week 1 and was met with displeasure from the MetLife faithful. However, the ball was thrown behind him. It’s not an excuse, but the more balls that are thrown that way, the more likely that some will be dropped. This can explain partially why Conklin seemingly lost his hands in 2022, as well.
Furthermore, Davis was a clutch player in 2022 despite a very low volume of targets. 87.5% of his receptions went for first downs, which was the best mark among all starting receivers. His 9.2 yards per target ranked 17th. On the flip side, he saw targets on just 14.6% of his routes run, which ranked 64th out of 72 qualified receivers (min. 58 targets); the average was 20.1%. That means Davis never even had the opportunity for volume to even out his drop rate.
With Rodgers throwing him the ball, I am confident that Davis can bounce back in 2023. He is unlikely to stay healthy for a full 17-game slate since that’s just not what he has done throughout his career. However, if Davis can get close to his per-game averages from Tennessee—3.7 receptions and 50.9 yards (63 receptions for 865 yards over 17 games)—the Jets would gladly take that. Even if he sees a lower target volume, I expect to see his efficiency increase with better-quality targets.
The Jets’ 2022 first-round edge rusher figures to see more snaps in 2022, although that’s not guaranteed. The team still has the same logjam on the edge, with John Franklin-Myers starting on the left side and Bryce Huff taking many of the third-down snaps. Still, it’s hard to believe that Jermaine Johnson will once again feature primarily on running downs and see only 34% of the snaps in the games he played.
Johnson’s strength as a run defender was known entering the NFL, and after a rocky start, he lived up to his potential in that area. He tied for fifth out of 91 edge rushers (min. 150 run defense snaps) with a 9.8% stop rate, showcasing his length, speed, strength, and instincts. Michael Nania charted him as one of the Jets’ best run defenders after the first three weeks of play.
However, Johnson’s pass-rushing left much to be desired. His 9.3% pressure rate ranked in the 42nd percentile out of 125 qualified edge rushers. He was somewhat better in true pass sets, placing at the 55th percentile with a 14.0% pressure rate in those situations. His overall pass rush win rate of 13.8% was in the 58th percentile.
As Michael Nania detailed, Johnson showed flashes of his talent at times in 2022. However, his poor timing off the line, lack of an inside move, lack of counter to the tackle’s punch, tendency to be affected by chips, and upright stance while rushing all showed up far too often on film. Also, as a second-year player entering his age-24 season, Johnson may have less room for improvement than other edge rushers in his draft class. All this being said, why is there a reason to believe that he could make a Year 2 leap?
This is simply a bet on Johnson’s draft pedigree. Most of the edge rushers in the class, from Kayvon Thibodeaux to George Karlaftis, did not become superstars out of the gate, even with larger roles than Johnson had. Sure, Thibodeaux and Karlaftis are younger, but Johnson is just as athletic and has a strong work ethic.
Furthermore, because Johnson played such a small proportion of the snaps, he never really got into a rhythm in a game. While this might still be the case in 2023, it’s hard to believe that the Jets would have drafted a 23-year-old first-rounder to continue to play him one-third of the time in his sophomore season. An increase in snap counts, especially in true pass sets (which accounted for just one-third of Johnson’s pass rush snaps), could help Johnson one-on-one against tackles.
It is interesting to note that many college rushers come into the NFL with a limited stable of moves. This was one of the biggest criticisms on the first-round edge rushers in this year’s draft, especially Will Anderson Jr., Tyree Wilson, and Lukas Van Ness. The inside rush seems to be particularly uncommon for power rushers. Ironically, Will McDonald might be the most developed pass rusher in this class in terms of his moves, as he does have an inside rush. But Johnson, like the others, will need to learn more moves at the NFL level.
Still, Johnson’s speed, including his 97th-percentile 10-yard split (1.55), can help him become a dangerous rusher if he does develop any sort of inside move and learn to play at a lower pad level. There’s no way to guarantee that this will happen, but it’s a fair possibility.
As Michael explained, Laken Tomlinson‘s disappointing 2022 season was befuddling. There didn’t seem to be any particular reason for his constant blunders and poor play; he just simply did not make the plays that he had previously made with San Francisco.
Of note, though, was that the Jets employed other veteran linemen who also struggled with miscommunication. Duane Brown and Connor McGovern, situated on either side of Tomlinson, had their fair share of blown assignments, as well. There seemed to be a systemic issue along the Jets’ offensive line, and it likely resulted in the firing of John Benton. Ironically, Tomlinson had been previously coached by Benton with the 49ers, although not during his Pro Bowl 2021 season.
I explored a number of other reasons underlying Tomlinson’s poor play, including the revolving door on the line, the poor play next to him, and a possible lack of motivation following a big contract. It’s possible that all three of those will improve in 2023, though. Duane Brown should be healthy, and Joe Tippmann profiles as an upgrade over McGovern on the other side. Furthermore, Tomlinson may well be in a contract year with the Jets once more, as he can be released with a post-June 1 designation for significant cap savings next offseason.
The presence of Keith Carter should help, too. He is known as a disciplinarian who will be tough on his veterans. Tomlinson seemed to need a stern talking-to at times last season; Carter is just the one to give it to him.
Having a competent quarterback to set the protections should also make a big difference. Rodgers can make his offensive linemen look better in that way, too.
Overall, it’s hard to believe that Tomlinson will be just as bad in 2023 as he was in 2022. He may not be a Pro Bowl-caliber guard, but the Jets just need competent play from him. I believe he will provide that this season.
Tony Adams barely played in 2022 but showed promise in a small sample size. Although the Jets seem to be playing Jordan Whitehead and Chuck Clark at safety to start the season, both profile as box-first safeties. Adams is the only safety on the Jets’ roster who has the potential to be a true free safety who roams the deep part of the field.
With Kwon Alexander not re-signed as of now, it seems possible that the Jets will run a lot of big nickel with Whitehead or Clark coming down into the box. In that scenario, Adams would be the free safety. Even if not, the other two have such poor deep coverage numbers in their careers that it would be a big mistake to trust either one there.
That opens up the door for Adams. I believe that the Jets genuinely trust him to be their starting free safety. The advisability of that is a different discussion, but this could well be Adams’ opportunity to justify the Jets’ faith in him. They already kept him on the roster last offseason over Jason Pinnock, who played meaningful safety snaps with the Giants last season. Adams has the versatility to play both safety positions as well as nickel corner, but his true value for the Jets is in the deep middle.
Considering what Adams put on tape last season, there is a reason to be excited about what he can do. Lamarcus Joyner set a very low bar in that area. If Adams can play competently, it will already be a significant upgrade for the Jets’ defense. If he hones the tantalizing skills that he flashed in 2022, the defense could reach even greater heights.
This may seem like a strange pick with Breece Hall returning from injury and Izzy Abanikanda joining the Jets’ backfield. However, I believe that Zonovan Knight could establish himself as the Jets’ RB2 over both Abanikanda and Michael Carter.
For one thing, Carter is coming off a highly disappointing season and was demoted behind Knight down the stretch. Among 53 backs with at least 85 rush attempts, Carter tied for last in yards per carry (3.5), ranked 42nd with 2.70 yards after contact per attempt, and was third-worst in explosive run rate (6.1%). He had the lowest first-down rate at 12.3%, 4% worse than Jerick McKinnon, who was second-to-last.
That’s not to say that Knight’s season was much better statistically. He tied Carter with 3.5 yards per carry, barely exceeded Carter’s yards after contact per attempt (2.74, 37th), and tied for 41st in explosive run rate (8.2%). He also tied for fourth-worst in first-down rate at 16.5%.
The biggest area where Knight outdid Carter (besides the eye test) was in missed tackles forced and overall elusiveness rating. Although Carter ranked 20th with 0.168 missed tackles forced per touch, Knight was first among all backs with 0.296. This was due to the strength of his first four games, in which he forced a combined 23 missed tackles on 59 rush attempts (0.390 per carry). Knight was credited with a 97.9 elusive rating by Pro Football Focus, the second-best among backs, while Carter was 31st with a 54 rating.
Knight definitely fell off in this area after a hot start. Still, he was an upgrade over Carter, who was routinely swallowed up by defenders and seemed unable to make them miss. Furthermore, Knight saw the lion’s share of the attempts in the latter part of the season, when the Jets’ offensive line had fallen apart. Though his vision wasn’t always perfect, he barely had any space to work with.
Additionally, Michael demonstrated that many of Carter’s forced missed tackles were not impactful. That may have been the case in later games with Knight, too, but early on he was a force to be reckoned with. The crumbling of the offensive line at the end of the year meant that Knight was facing three tacklers before he could even try to make a cut or read a hole.
Interestingly, NFL Next Gen Stats apparently preferred Carter to Knight when it came to Rush Yards Over Expectation (RYOE) per attempt, though neither did well in that statistic. Carter tied for 36th out of 52 backs at -0.47, while Knight tied for 44th at -0.65. Again, this may be an indictment on the Jets’ later-season offensive line play, although it also showcases some concerns Knight had with vision. Overall, I take RYOE with a grain of salt because it doesn’t always match the film, but it’s somewhat noteworthy for comparison’s sake.
The main reason I think Knight will become the RB2, though, is his better recognition as a pass blocker. Knight was fairly successful in a small sample size, but Carter has been a poor pass-blocker for two seasons now. Even if Knight falters somewhat in this area, it’s hard to be worse than Carter. In fact, Carter’s 30.2 Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade ranked 61st out of 65 backs with at least 25 pass protection snaps.
Another advantage Knight brings is potential in open space as a receiver. Although he didn’t run many actual routes, Knight showed a knack for finding and maximizing space in his first few games. He caught 13 of 14 targets for 100 yards at 7.7 yards per reception (66th percentile among 65 backs) and posted a sixth-best YAC per reception (10.2). His 1.37 yards per route run ranked 18th compared to Carter’s 32nd-ranked 1.08.
In this area, perhaps having Mike White throwing him the ball as opposed to Carter’s receptions from Zach Wilson and Joe Flacco made a difference. However, having Knight run over defenders in space seems like something Aaron Rodgers might want to take advantage of, particularly as fond as he is of throwing to his backs.
As far as Abanikanda is concerned, the Jets could give him some looks for his ability to break the big one. However, as Michael broke down, Abanikanda has significant work to do as a receiver and pass protector. I believe that the Jets will prefer Knight in the early going.
If Knight does become the RB2 out of camp, he could see a nice chunk of snaps early in the season as Hall works his way back into the lineup. Joe Douglas indicated that the Jets are going to save Hall from himself and ease him in, although he said the team is hopeful that Hall will be back by Week 1. In an offense that will likely still be run-first, Knight can earn the trust of both Nathaniel Hackett and Rodgers by showcasing some of the talent that he flashed in his first few games in the league.
Of course, small sample sizes beget outliers, but Robert Saleh said from the outset that the Jets like Knight’s one-cut style. The man called Bam already had a strong camp last year, and I am intrigued to see what he can do with a good quarterback and (hopefully) a better run-blocking offensive line.
Related Article: 4 NY Jets players who may take a step back in 2023
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