Aaron Rodgers, Zach Wilson, New York Jets
Aaron Rodgers, Zach Wilson, New York Jets, Getty Images

How did the New York Jets look against the Carolina Panthers?

I had the opportunity to watch the New York Jets‘ first joint practice with the Carolina Panthers in Spartanburg, SC earlier today. It was my first opportunity to watch the Jets practice in person this year.

Here are some of my main takeaways.

The Aaron Rodgers effect is real

My eyes have become accustomed to watching bad quarterback play over the past decade. For this reason, my first experience watching Aaron Rodgers throw the football in a Jets helmet was flat-out jarring. I saw things that I am not used to seeing.

Time and time again, Rodgers would attempt a pass that my eyes are trained to believe is certain to fall incomplete or get intercepted, but Rodgers would somehow squeeze it in there. When watching him up close, it is extremely palpable how much better his velocity and anticipation are in comparison to the average NFL quarterback (yes, he’s still got all of his arm talent at age 39). And in comparison to the average Jets quarterback, the difference is even greater.

The ball zips by a bit faster than you’re used to. Tight windows don’t seem tight anymore – there isn’t a throw on the field Rodgers can’t make.

There were many plays where I’d focus on the back-end coverage, conclude there was nowhere to go with the ball, and look back to Rodgers fully expecting him to throw the ball away or scramble. But to the surprise of a football observer who is trained upon highly-limited QB play, Rodgers would often shock me by taking shots in these situations. I’d watch the ball fly toward a receiver who appeared to be covered impossibly well, and more often than not, the ball miraculously found its way into the arms of a man wearing green.

A red-zone touchdown along the sideline to Allen Lazard was placed just beyond the outstretched arms of a defender glued to Lazard’s back hip, hitting Lazard for a toe-tapper along the sideline.

An intermediate route to C.J. Uzomah was lofted with enough touch to fly over a defender draped on Uzomah, and it dropped into the tight end’s bread basket for a diving catch along the sideline.

An in-breaker by Mecole Hardman saw him running behind two linebackers sitting in the middle with their eyes on the QB; Rodgers threaded the needle and hit Hardman on the No. 6, though it was dropped by the former Chief.

Rodgers battled some poor pass protection throughout the day (Max Mitchell and Billy Turner appeared to have rough days). He used his legs to extend plays and delivered a litany of quality throws on the move. Rodgers also did a good job of finding his checkdowns when the pressure was bearing down, and in many of those instances, the receiver had a lot of room and probably would have gotten a strong gain out of the checkdown.

When Rodgers was not getting “sacked” and actually had a chance to get the ball out, I thought the first-team passing attack had a nice day, save for an ugly two-minute drill to close the practice. Rodgers was particularly laser-sharp in the red-zone period.

In addition to his arm talent, Rodgers makes a noticeable impact with his command of the offense.

Rodgers’ pre-snap activity greatly exceeds that of any quarterback we have watched in Florham Park over the past decade. His head is always on a swivel as he actively scans for potential blitz threats or exploitable matchups to target. A vocal communicator with his teammates at the line of scrimmage, Rodgers will frequently audible the play or adjust the protection. And, as most NFL fans know, he is also masterful at weaponizing his cadence to fool the defense – Rodgers drew multiple offsides penalties in team drills against Carolina’s starters.

I surmise my experience today is similar to the one Jets fans will have when they see Rodgers suit up at MetLife Stadium for the first time. They are going to witness things that they simply have not seen before with their own eyes. It will take a moment to process it all, but once it finally hits them that, yes, this is real – it’s going to be a euphoric feeling.

Tight ends and running backs were Rodgers’ favorites today

With Garrett Wilson sidelined, Rodgers turned his attention to the tight end and running back positions today.

C.J. Uzomah had multiple intermediate receptions in team drills. Jeremy Ruckert had a short reception with enough YAC available for a likely first down. The running backs caught a ton of short passes, with Zonovan Knight and Michael Carter leading the way. Fullback Nick Bawden also caught a deep pass for what seemed to be about 30 yards on a scramble drill, and he was targeted on multiple other dump-offs as well.

The wide receivers were quiet but Allen Lazard had some flashes. In addition to the red zone touchdown I mentioned earlier, Lazard caught a pass about 40+ yards through the air against a busted coverage and may have scored; he had just the safety to beat.

Jason Brownlee wasn’t incredibly active but he stood out on one play where he caught a quick sit-down route and made a nice pivot after the catch to evade his man, likely netting him 15+ yards of extra YAC in a real game.

Run blocking needs work

Run plays are the hardest part of these practices to evaluate. First of all, it’s difficult to view what’s going on in the trenches, and without the benefit of replay, you can never definitively discern who deserves praise or fault for a given play. Plus, there is no tackling, so you can’t truly gauge a running back’s elusiveness or tackle-breaking skill. Most run plays come to a halt fairly quickly.

With that being said, the initial trench warfare between the offensive and defensive lines is still full-throttle, so you can try to evaluate which team is winning the line of scrimmage on these plays.

When it came to the Jets’ run game against the Panthers’ run defense, Carolina clearly took the edge. Most of the Jets’ run plays resulted in the running back meeting a defender at or behind the line of scrimmage; at best, they were given a couple of yards. I cannot pinpoint who was struggling specifically, but it seemed like the interior was having a particularly rough day.

Mekhi Becton stood out with a huge pancake on one run play; he let out a roar afterward and the entire offensive sideline cheered him on. There were multiple plays where Becton created noticeably significant movement when kicking out the front side edge rusher.

Overall, he was the only player whose run blocking really popped out in a positive way. It wasn’t all perfect, though, as he did have one play where he appeared to allow his man through for quick stuff in the backfield – perhaps someone else allowed the defender through, but Becton also got called for a hold on the play as he made a last-ditch effort to stop the defender.

Pass blocking was also disappointing

The pass protection was shoddy throughout the afternoon. Rodgers took multiple “sacks”, as did Zach Wilson and Tim Boyle. Bad pass blocking blew up a two-minute drill near the end of practice. Throughout the day, Panthers edge rusher Brian Burns was a problem.

Pressure came in from every which way: both the interior and the edge. I couldn’t definitively see who was struggling on the interior, but at tackle, Max Mitchell and Billy Turner were common culprits. I do think Becton had a mostly solid day, flashing some strong reps, though he was beaten a couple times.

Becton struggled in the one-on-ones against Carolina’s defenders – I specifically remember Burns scorching Becton with a spin move – but he was better in the team drills.

Zonovan Knight stands out amongst the RBs

As for the running backs, Zonovan Knight is the only player who stood out to me in any way. There were a few plays where he showed the ability to create something out of nothing, and his overall physicality stood out.

There was one run where Knight immediately met traffic on the front side of a handoff and bent the run all the way to the back side edge, where he found room for what probably would have been a gain of 10+ yards. On a funny (but scary) side note: Seeing Knight coming toward him, Rodgers got out to lead block on the play. Fortunately, no Panthers defender touched him.

In addition, Knight consistently lowered his shoulder and plowed defenders down the field when finishing off his runs. It’s tough to truly evaluate this aspect of the RB position in a practice with no tackling, but still, the force of Knight’s runs stood out in comparison to the other RBs. He moves people.

Knight also caught all of the short passes thrown to him (among those that I watched), with a few of them being imperfect throws that required some contortion.

Mixed bag for Zach Wilson

It was an up-and-down day for Zach Wilson. I thought the play of his offensive line and wide receiver units was poor – Wilson had a lot of dropbacks ruined by either pressure or a lack of separation from his weapons. He made good decisions for the most part – taking his checkdowns, throwing the ball away, and not taking foolish risks – although he did end the final two-minute drill with an interception (my view of that one was obstructed so I cannot say for sure what happened).

Accuracy-wise, Wilson didn’t have any awful misses that I can remember, but his general accuracy continues to be something he can work on. Some of Wilson’s completions weren’t perfect and forced extra effort upon the receiver.

A short crossing route to Xavier Gipson comes to mind, where the pass was thrown slightly behind Gipson and Gipson had to reach back for a nice catch.

There was also a pressured/scrambling short pass where, while Wilson hit Nick Bawden on the hands, Bawden had to reach upward (possibly leap in the air a bit) to get his hands on it, and Bawden dropped the pass.

The bottom line is that I didn’t see any of those missed layups that have plagued him, but Wilson’s accuracy was certainly not pristine.

Tony Adams stars on defense

I was stationed near the field where the Jets offense was practicing with the Panthers defense, so I did not get to watch all of the Jets defense’s reps against the Panthers offense on the other field. Both sides were running simultaneously.

However, what I did watch was enough to gauge that Tony Adams is quickly blossoming into a potential breakout star for this defense.

Adams was everywhere in team drills against Carolina’s starters. He forced a fumble early. Later on, with the Panthers running a two-minute drill and the clock running out, Bryce Young attempted a deep shot into the end zone, and Adams ranged over to break it up with a huge shot on the intended target.

From what I could see, Adams also held his own with his deep coverage responsibilities, not making any noticeable blunders that led to open deep-shot opportunities for Carolina. I also remember him making at least one hard hit underneath while closing in on a completed short pass.

Brandin Echols takes advantage of Sauce Gardner’s absence

Sauce Gardner (quad) was held out of practice as a precaution. Brandin Echols took over for Gardner with the first-team defense and maximized the opportunity. On a short pass to the outside, Echols had tight coverage to force the receiver into juggling the ball. After numerous bobbles, Echols snatched the pass out of the air and took it to the house.

The Jets shared footage of the play.

Shocking discovery: It’s hot in Spartanburg

Most of the things you see in training camp can be taken with a grain of salt. But one thing is completely indisputable: it was hot in the Spartanburg sun today. Groundbreaking stuff, I know.

I needed to call upon Robert Saleh’s “60 percent” mantra just to make it through the practice while standing completely still on the sidelines (to be fair, I did engage in one incredibly physically demanding activity: tweeting.). Imagine playing football in that weather for two hours in full pads and a helmet?

Hey, I guess there’s a reason I’m sitting here writing this article instead of being one of the people the article is about. I have a ton of respect for what the players put themselves through in the summer.

Old-school New York hip hop feel on the speakers

The Panthers’ DJ must have emphasized curating his playlist to accommodate the visitors because when the Jets were warming up, there was a heavy New York flavor emanating from the speakers.

Nas’ “Halftime” and Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M” are just a couple of the early tracks I remember hearing on the playlist after the Jets came out to begin warmups – the latter had some of the Jets’ wide receivers singing along. Funny enough, Method Man is a Jets fan and was featured in the debut episode of “Hard Knocks” last night, as he recently attended a Jets practice and broke down the team huddle afterward.

HBO is prevalent

You could feel the presence of HBO’s Hard Knocks crew. Cameras and boom mics were everywhere. I now understand why teams view Hard Knocks as a distraction. It can be frustrating to try and have a normal conversation only for a boom mic to drop in out of nowhere and loom five inches above your head. I saw many instances of this as players and coaches from the two teams were catching up.

Personally, I greatly enjoyed the debut Hard Knocks episode and cannot wait to see more, but after witnessing the magnitude of the crew’s presence in person, I understand why it probably feels at least moderately distracting to the team. Not in a way that affects on-field performance, though – it just seems like a minor annoyance.

Jets fans represented

There were a ton of Jets fans in Spartanburg. I heard “J-E-T-S” chants breaking out throughout the day – Panthers fans would sometimes try to drown them out with boos, to no avail.

No injuries

Ultimately, this is the only thing that truly matters. The Jets escaped their first day in Spartanburg unscathed. No matter what else happens, every NFL team will sign up for that every single time.

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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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1 month ago

Thanks for the review boys. Was gonna make the trip from Raleigh but work got in the way. The Oline is like a burr in the saddle for Saleh but of course he won’t ever say that. Becton of course is the wild card and I think they may be keeping him at left tackle to get his confidence in his knee and then I think they move him to right tackle, probably against his favor. Mitchell may not be ready yet to start. JD definitely has his eye on cut down day.

1 month ago

Do you think they make an OL move such as trying to make a trade, or even shifting some guys to different spots if the OL doesn’t look better here in the next couple of days?

1 month ago
Reply to  Michael Nania

Let’s say Becton continues to improve, and gains more confidence in the knee, to me he’s the better LT. They have consistently said their “best 5 will play.” It’s early and I’m not there but their “best 5” could be…Becton, Laken, Tippmann, Colon, AVT…?

I know Tippmann, is still a work in progress, but I’ve seen what McGovern can do, so has the rest of the league which is why he’s back here for pennies. I think having McGovern, Schweitzer, Brown, Mitchell, Warren and heck even Turner as backups, it their “best group.”

I guess time will tell.

1 month ago

Excellent write up. I attended the practice as well (agree – it was hot). The fans who attended pretty much had all the defensive snaps while Rodgers and the offense worked on the far field. From what I saw: 1) Quinnen Williams was in the backfield on almost every play. No one on the Panthers OL could really block him. 2) There were a decent number of “sacks” coming off the edge. Think McDonald and Huff were solid on passing plays. 3) The same dink and dunk offense that Carolina used to beat the Jets in the 2021 opener (where Becton initially hurt his knee) was on full display. I don’t recall too many plays where the CBs got beat in the flat (Thielen had one for about 20 yds), but a ton of open curls and crosses in the 5-10 yd range. It continually seems like if the DL doesn’t record the sack, our LBs simply cannot stop these shorter timing routes. 4) Bryce Young is short. But he did an excellent job of moving in the pocket, finding throwing lanes and putting the ball on target and on time. I think he’s going to be pretty good.