The New York Jets’ forgotten first-round pick is catching up to his peers
Joe Douglas’ 2022 New York Jets draft class is the subject of immense praise. Sauce Gardner, Garrett Wilson, and Breece Hall are the headliners of the haul, but people often forget about the Jets’ third first-round pick in the class, Jermaine Johnson – whom they traded up to acquire.
While Gardner, Wilson, and Hall were instant stars for New York, Johnson began his career as a solid role player in 2022. He only played 34% of the defensive snaps across his 14 appearances, but he provided some timely playmaking on the edge, especially as a run defender.
Johnson was certainly a valuable piece of the Jets’ elite defense. Still, he was significantly outshone by his peers, who immediately placed themselves in the conversation among the best players in football at their respective positions.
In 2023, Johnson put together a strong offseason that drew constant admiration from teammates and coaches alike. Proving they believed the offseason hype was more than just talk, the Jets’ coaches entrusted Johnson with a much larger role in 2023. Johnson has seen his snap percentage jump all the way to 65% this season, which leads the Jets’ edge defenders and is second among all defensive linemen on the team behind only Quinnen Williams.
Clearly, the Jets believed Johnson was on the verge of a second-year leap – ready to join his draft classmates at the superstar ranks.
For Johnson to make that second-year leap, he would have to improve greatly as a pass rusher. Nobody doubted his run defense. Johnson already proved he was a high-level playmaker in that phase, ranking at the 95th percentile among qualified edge rushers with a 9.8% run-stop rate in 2022. However, Johnson was only a middle-of-the-pack pass rusher, ranking at the 42nd percentile among 125 qualified edge rushers with a 9.3% pressure rate.
Handling a larger role and higher expectations, Johnson’s second season did not start off well. Through four games, Johnson had regressed as a pass rusher, recording only five pressures on 107 pass-rush snaps. That’s a pressure rate of 4.7%, which ranked 80th out of 84 qualified edge rushers (5th percentile).
Things were trending in a bad direction. But something clicked for Johnson in the Jets’ Week 5 game against Denver. Since then, Johnson has been on an absolute tear. Not only has Johnson begun to show improvement upon his rookie year, but he is showing glimpses of star-level production.
Prior to Week 5, Johnson’s career-high for pressures in a game was three. He’s surpassed that in three consecutive games. Johnson dropped five pressures against Denver, four against Philadelphia, and another five in limited pass-rush snaps against the Giants.
Overall, Johnson has 14 pressures over his past three games. That’s equal to the number of pressures he had in all of 2022.
Since Week 5, Johnson owns an outstanding pressure rate of 17.5%, recording his 14 pressures on 80 pass-rush snaps. That ranks sixth-best among edge rushers (min. 60 pass rush snaps) since Week 5:
- Bryce Huff, NYJ: 33.3%
- Trey Hendrickson, CIN: 21.7%
- Tyquan Lewis, IND: 19.0%
- Bradley Chubb, MIA: 18.3%
- Andrew Van Ginkel, MIA: 18.2%
- Jermaine Johnson, NYJ: 17.5%
Johnson also has three sacks over the past three games, bringing him to four on the year. This includes two sacks against the Giants in a game where Johnson only played 17 pass-rush snaps due to the Giants’ refusal to throw the ball.
Johnson’s first sack was a clean one-on-one victory against a tight end. After the tight end oversets inside, Johnson redirects outside and then pairs a double-swipe with a rip to win around the corner. He uses his length to record a strong finish on Giants quarterback Tommy DeVito.
On his second sack, Johnson was tasked with penetrating the B gap on a stunt to free up room for John Franklin-Myers to loop outside. Johnson sells upfield before crashing inside, catching the right tackle in a poor position and blasting him back. The right guard comes to pick him up, but it’s too late, as Johnson is already too deep into the backfield for the guard to seal him off from the QB. The RT comes off Johnson to pick up Franklin-Myers, which opens the lane for Johnson to reach the QB. Thanks to Bryce Huff’s bull rush on the opposite side, DeVito is forced directly into Johnson’s arms.
Notably, Johnson recorded both of these sacks from a two-point stance (standing up). Back in the preseason, the Jets experimented with having Johnson stand up far more often than he did as a rookie, and it led to some great results. That seems to be translating to the regular season. It seems Johnson is at his most comfortable and most dangerous when rushing from a stand-up position.
Jermaine Johnson might be the most important variable for the New York Jets defense in 2023
Johnson’s improvement is crucial for the Jets defense. Considering the vast difference between his highs and lows this season, there may not be a more significant X-factor on this unit.
Johnson plays a lot of snaps, so if he’s not winning at a high rate, it will significantly hinder the overall impact of the Jets’ pass rush. That was noticeable over the first four weeks. The Jets’ pass rush wasn’t as dominant as it is capable of being and Johnson’s lack of production was arguably the main reason. But since the lightbulb went off for Johnson in Denver, the Jets’ pass rush has been back to its peak level of dominance.
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Jets had the 11th-highest pressure rate through Week 4 at 38.1%. Since Johnson’s breakout in Week 5, the Jets have the NFL’s highest pressure rate at 47.8%.
The Jets’ overall pass rush efficiency correlates closely with Johnson’s ups and downs. When Johnson plays at a high level, the Jets arguably have the best pass rush in the NFL. When he doesn’t, they’re still good, but not elite.
That’s how important Johnson is to this team.
As with anything in sports, the key is consistency. While Johnson is creating pressure at a top-six rate over his past three games, that does not mean he has officially established himself as an improved player just yet. He’s got to continue stacking strong performances. Less than one month ago, Johnson was one of the least efficient pass rushers in all of football through four weeks. We can’t toss that aside just yet.
To definitively prove that level of play is behind him, Johnson must take what he’s done over the past three games and extend it over the rest of the season. That’s not even to say Johnson needs to maintain a top-six pressure rate over his final 13 games of the season, but if Johnson can simply be a 60th-70th-percentile type of pass rusher at the minimum, it would go a long way for the Jets defense.
That is the modest bar, but Johnson’s past three games have shown he can be far more than just an “above average” kind of guy. His body of work over the last three games is legitimate star-level stuff: 14 pressures, 11 tackles, three sacks, three passes defended, a forced fumble, a QB hit causing an interception, and a pass breakup causing an interception. Extrapolate that over 17 games and you are an All-Pro with no debate.
It’s exciting for Jets fans to see Johnson finally showcasing the ceiling that prompted Joe Douglas to trade up for him in the first round. Prior to these past three weeks, we didn’t know if Johnson had any chance of becoming a star in the NFL, as Johnson had never shown a high ceiling over a full game before. He’d shown it on certain plays here or there, but never on a consistent basis over four quarters, let alone over consecutive full games.
Now we know there is definitely a chance Johnson could become that type of player – exactly how high of a chance is debatable, but it does exist. Still, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves yet. For now, the reasonable goal for Johnson is to continue being a good, above-average pass rusher for the rest of the season. That’s the minimum level of play New York needs from him.
But the ceiling he’s shown recently is extremely exciting, and if he can eventually tap into that on a full-time basis, it’s scary to think how good this Jets defense can be. In addition, it would be the finishing touch to make the 2022 Jets draft class arguably the greatest of all time.
Jermaine Johnson is slowly developing into the next young star on a Jets roster that is already stacked with them.
Audio Version available to members only: Learn more here
Want More NY Jets News & Jets X-Factor Content?
Download the free Jet X Mobile App to get customizable notifications directly to your iOS (App Store) or Google/Android (Google Play) device.
Add Jets X-Factor to your Google News feed to stay up to date with the New York Jets.
Join the official Jets Discord community to connect with likeminded fans.