The New York Jets have been quite the story this season. Though they managed to secure three bright rookies in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, not many expected this team to closely contest for a playoff berth this season.
Despite the Jets’ playoff hopes came to an end following their Week 17 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, their 7-10 finish to the regular season was still a big step up from their 4-13 record they had a year ago and a reassuring sign for a team that hasn’t won seven or more games since 2019.
A variety of factors played into the Jets’ success this season, particularly on the defensive front. Though their improvement was a result of a handful of different players, it’s the Jets rookie cornerback and the fourth overall pick in the Draft, Ahmad ‘Sauce’ Gardner, that shone brightest on this unit following a special NFL debut season.
Despite Gardner only having two interceptions to his name, it’s his lockdown coverage that’s led him to jump in first of the Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate race and be selected to his first Pro Bowl. And if you’ve seen him play, you’ll understand why.
But with the season wrapped up in the books and the NFL Pro Bowlers already selected, a question that some might be wondering is whether Gardner is the clear unanimous Defensive Rookie of the Year this season.
Gardner isn’t the only defensive rookie that’s stepped up in a big way. And with the Jets suffering a tough six-game losing streak to end the season, Gardner might not be the clear favorite anymore. But is his number one spot actually in jeopardy? We breakdown the answer below.
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Gardner’s Greatest Competition
1. Tariq Woolen (CB) – Seattle Seahawks
Of the two rookies, Woolen is the greater threat to Gardner’s Defensive Rookie of the Year chances and has been quite the story this season for the Seahawks. Drafted in the 5th round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Woolen put forth one special performance that led him to make the Pro Bowl.
In the 17 games he started this season, Woolen had a total of 63 combined tackles (46 solo) to go with 16 passes defended (tied in 4th in the league) and a league-high six interceptions. In addition, Woolen had one of the lowest reception percentages in the league as well (55.9), illustrating how well-rounded he truly is.
2. Aiden Hutchinson (DE) – Detroit Lions
Despite not going number one overall, Hutchinson still had a tremendous season, delivering on everything the Lions could have asked for. And there’s no denying that he has produced a Defensive Rookie of the Year worthy performance.
Though he only had a total of 52 combined tackles (34 solo), Hutchinson led all rookies in pressures (53), sacks (9.5) and has three interceptions to go with two fumble recoveries as well. The Lions had quite the turnaround to their season, and a significant reason why on defensive front was because of their star rookie edge rusher.
Why Gardner Stands To Win The DROTY
When you think of a top cornerback in the NFL, a lot of people are always so quick to think about one thing: Interceptions. However, this kind of approach when evaluating a cornerback is simply flawed in so many ways because the job of a corner is so much more than just intercepting passes and or forcing turnovers.
In fact, your job, as a cornerback is to produce elite pass coverage on wide receivers to the point that they hardly can muster an impact on the game as a whole. And Sauce Gardner fulfilled that very role at the highest level in the NFL this season time and time again. Amongst all defenders who played no less than 386 pass defense snaps, Gardner is first in reception percentage (45.2) and first in pass defended (20). In all 17 games played, he’s only allowed 33 receptions for 344 yards and one touchdown and has 75 combined tackles as well (51 solo).
The kid is simply the real deal. And these eye-popping numbers above are a major reason why he leads the Defensive Rookie of the Year race in the NFL. And for those looking for his interceptions, Gardner has two on the season, which is pretty solid considering the league leaders have six a piece, including Woolen.
With the season now officially wrapped up, the race still is a very tight one and got even more so considering how each of these candidates produced over the final week of the season. But with that said, seeing how consistently dominant Gardner has been since the moment he’s stepped on the field in Week 1, to go along with how massive of an influence he’s had for this Jets defense, it’s unlikely to see the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award going to anyone else but to Sauce himself.