New York Jets Top 10 Tuesday: Veteran breakout candidates for 2021

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As the New York Jets bide time before training camp, ESM looks at some veteran faces that could be poised for a breakout.

As we’ve officially reached a rare dead period on the NFL calendar, ESM presents Top 10 Tuesday, a weekly list series that will center on the past, present, and future of the Jets in a sortable format.

We’ll begin this series by looking at ten veteran players that could rise to the occasion come up big for the Jets as they embark on a new gridiron journey…

Oct 1, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets kicker Sam Ficken (9) celebrates his field goal with teammates during the first half against the Denver Broncos at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

10. K Sam Ficken

Since Pro Bowler Jason Myers absconded for Seattle, the Jets have been through six different kickers. That’d be unacceptable in pretty much every football realm, but such instability is unacceptable for a team with a developing offense. Confidence can be built if points can be scored in as many drives that invade opponents’ territory as possible.



Ficken, set to enter his third season in green, seemed like he was on his way toward ending the constant turnover. He converted each of his first nine field goal attempts (five alone during a Thursday night tilt against Denver) but he lost the spark after missing several games with a groin injury. This time around, Ficken will compete with undrafted free agent Chris Naggar to get his job back. He can become a vital silver lining in the Jets’ expected growing pains if he’s able to capitalize on a career-best 86 percent success rate from three.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – OCTOBER 13: Defensive Lineman Kyle Phillips #98 of the New York Jets makes a stop call against the Dallas Cowboys in the second half at MetLife Stadium on October 13, 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Pereira/Getty Images)

9. DL Kyle Phillips

The versatile Phillips, entering the league as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, was one of the more pleasant surprises of the 2019 season. Veteran injuries forced him into starting duties, but he made the most of his opportunity with 39 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Phillips was a consistent backfield invader in his rookie season, as his seven tackles for a loss were tied for fourth-best on the team and his quarterback pressures (6) were good for third amongst his fellow linemen.

Alas, an ankle injury prevented Phillips from building on the momentum from his rookie season. To make matters worse from a personal standpoint, the Jets spent the offseason bolstering their front seven with established veteran names that could leave Phillips in an awkward spot. He’ll certainly return with a vengeance in 2021 and will keep things interesting in the second halves of preseason games.

8. OL Dan Feeney

Perhaps no one in the NFL has increased their profile better than Feeney this offseason. The former Los Angeles Charger has gone viral for his goal celebrations at New York Islander playoff games, becoming the literal face of the Jets’ support for their blue and orange comrades on Long Island.

The surge in popularity has had many asking exactly what the Jets get in Feeney, who was mostly used as a depth option in Los Angeles. His experience at center could prove vital: Sam Darnold went through three different primary centers in three years and the Jets would love to establish some starting lineup stability for incoming franchise man Zach Wilson right from the start.

trevon wesco, new york jets

7. TE/FB Trevon Wesco

With Tyler Kroft arriving as an established goal-line option and strong potential behind undrafted free agent Kenny Yeboah (not to mention the return of starter Chris Herndon), the third-year, fourth-round pick faces an uphill battle to make an impact as a tight end. But he can make an offensive difference through the resurrection of the archaic fullback spot.

As we discussed last week, the days of Richie Anderson and Tony Richardson may be gone, but the Jets appear set to resume the Wesco experiment at fullback after injuries prematurely shut down the project last season. Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur previously reaped the benefits of Kyle Juszczyk’s prescience in San Francisco and believes that Wesco’s bulkier size could allow him to do things that even the All-Pro fullback wasn’t capable of.

“(Wesco) is a bigger body, he’s longer,” LaFleur explained last week, per notes from the Jets. “He’s going to be able to play a little bit more inline, so we can use him in multiple ways, whether it be 21 or your typical 12 personnel formations.”

6. LB Blake Cashman 

One has to wonder if it’s now or never for Cashman, who enters his third NFL season in an unusual spot. The fifth-round pick from 2019 filled in serviceable when C.J. Mosley got hurt two years back, but injuries of his own have limited him to only 11 games in his career so far.

It’s always tough to condemn a player for getting hurt in the NFL. After all, football is a violent game and injuries happen. When they do, players should take all the time they need to heal up properly. But the NFL has proven time and time again that it’s willing to make business decisions that aren’t anything personal. Cashman appears to be a good fit in Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s defensive landscape, so it would be a shame to see his NFL career end before it truly begins.



Dec 20, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; New York Jets running back Ty Johnson (25) scores a touchdown as Los Angeles Rams strong safety Jordan Fuller (32) defends the play during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

5. RB Ty Johnson

It’s a bit of a shame that Johnson’s mini-breakout was masked by the malarkey of Adam Gase’s final days at the helm. For example, Johnson made Jets history in a December tilt against the Raiders by earning the first triple-digit yardage game for the Jets in over two full calendar years. Not only did the Jets waste the historic tally through Gregg Williams’ ill-advised final blitz, but Johnson earned only 13 carries over the next three games (as opposed to 22 in the Las Vegas debacle).

Johnson has a decent chance to shine in the Jets’ new-look, minimalist approach at running back. The present focus has turned to newcomers Michael Carter and Tevin Coleman, but don’t let Johnson’s status as a holdover from the Gase era fool you: he’s capable of making an impact at moment’s notice. His speed and experience in lining up in the slot could also pay big dividends in LaFleur’s system, giving him a bit of an edge over the more north/south-inclined La’Mical Perine.

4. WR Braxton Berrios

With so many new receivers on their way in, it’s somewhat easy to forget about Berrios, one of the leading receivers from last year’s woebegone two-win squad. He faces a bit of a battle to make the roster, but the former Patriot got his season off to a great start in minicamp, emerging as one of the most pleasant surprises. It was enough to earn special props from Wilson.

“Braxton is a smart guy, that’s one of his best attributes,” Wilson said at the end of minicamp, per notes from the Jets. “He’s a slippery player, he gets in there and runs some great routes. He’s quick, but I think the best attribute is just knowing what’s going on. He’s got a great feel for the defense, he’s got great hands. He’s just been in those spots to make plays. We’ve got a lot of good playmakers and Braxton is doing a great job.”

Berrios might also be able to make an impact on special teams. During the 2019 season, he was one of two returners (min. 20 attempts) to average over 10 yards on punts.

Nov 17, 2019; Detroit, MI, USA; Detroit Lions middle linebacker Jarrad Davis (40) runs off the field after recovering a fumble during the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

3. LB Jarrad Davis

Coming off a brutal two-win season, it was going to be hard for the Jets to convince the truly elite free agents to join their cause. Their consolation prizes include Davis, a former first-round pick that previously repped Detroit.

Davis’ career got off to a decent start, as he earned All-Rookie team honors while working in defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s 4-3 system. However, Austin was let go with the rest of Jim Caldwell’s staff at the end of the 2017 season despite guiding the Lions to three winning seasons in their four campaigns. Detroit football hasn’t been the same since and Davis was an unfortunate part of the decline. He failed to adapt to Matt Patricia and Paul Pasqualoni’s set-ups and the Lions declined his fifth-year option prior to the 2020 season. Davis thus joined the Jets on a one-year, $5.5 million deal this offseason.

Davis’ finest performances have come in the 4-3 set that Saleh and Ulbrich are set to implement. He earned his first-round status through working with Geoff Collins at the University of Florida and worked well with Austin early on in Detroit. That knowledge can not only help him break out on a personal level but can also help him take on the role of a teacher of the 4-3 set.

Nov 29, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets wide receiver Denzel Mims (11) runs the ball ahead of Miami Dolphins defensive back Nik Needham (40) during the second half at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

2. WR Denzel Mims

One thing that’s really unfortunate about Mims’ situation is that he will forever be connected to a fellow member of the green draft class of 2020. When the Jets drafted Mekhi Becton with the 11th overall pick…Joe Douglas’ first at the helm of general manager…it came at the price of passing on considerable receiving talents (i.e. Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb, eventual Rookie of the Year Jerry Jeudy). But those concerns were supposedly alleviated when the Jets when Douglas and Co. were able to snag Mims out of Baylor in the early stages of the second round.

Becton’s early promise has somewhat masked the fact that Mims hasn’t been on the field much in the early going. It has mostly been a case of bad luck, as he dealt with injuries at the earliest stages of 2020 prep and was never really able to get into the swing of things. This time around, Mims missed voluntary workouts due to a (non-COVID-19) illness, causing him to lose valuable reps with Wilson. The spotlight has thus turned to another second-round pick, that of Elijah Moore.

But Jets brass and outside observers still appear to believe in Mims, who serves as a valuable big-play target. Former NFL receiver and current NFL Network analyst Nate Burleson listed Mims as one of his five receivers poised for a breakout, while LaFleur compared Mims to Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant.

“It looks like he has a wingspan like Kevin Durant. He’s got tons of range as long as that ball is anywhere around him. If the ball is anywhere in the vicinity, you expect them to get it,” LaFleur said in May, per Max Goodman of SI.com. “He’s eager, he’s a really cool dude to work with. But he’s just gonna have to get out there…it’s just going to be reps and just going and understanding the speed of the game.”

1. LB Carl Lawson

As the Jets seek to re-energize their pass rush…which becomes vital with a presumed pair of matchups against Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa in the foreseeable future…one of their biggest acquisitions was Lawson out of Cincinnati. Yet, hard-to-please fans and analysts expressed disappointment with his relatively low sack numbers. Lawson tallied 11.5 over the last two seasons, a drastic declined from the 8.5 he put up in his rookie year.

However, don’t let the relatively pedestrian numbers fool you: Lawson has been an agent of chaos in opposing backfields. According to ESPN’s Seth Walder, advanced stats indicated that Lawson was one of eleven defenders that “created” at least 10 sacks last season, even if he himself didn’t obtain it. In more conventional stats, Lawson also put up 32 overall quarterback pressures, good for second in the league behind only TJ Watt.

Ulbrich noted Lawson’s dedication to the game in some of his first statements as the Jets’ defensive boss.

“(He’s) obsessed with the game,” Ulbrich said of Lawson, per Ryan Dunleavy of the New York Post. “He wants to become the most technical pass-rusher in the league.”

Lawson admitted in Dunleavy’s report that he does want his sack numbers to return to the levels he knows he’s capable of. He believes the Jets’ bolstered interior defense, led by 2020 breakout man Quinnen Williams, can help him get there.

“I have the mindset that no matter who is around me I should win my 1-on-1,” the signer of a three-year, $45 million told Dunleavy. “That’s a great thing to have, great interior players, but the way I think of it is to produce no matter what the situation because what if everybody got hurt? Could I use that as my excuse for (fewer) sacks? No.”

What other Top 10’s do you want to see? Let Geoff know on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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