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

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

New York Jets 2021 offseason recap: Quarterbacks

new york jets, zach wilson

ESM looks back on a fateful offseason for the New York Jets, starting with the big changes at quarterback.

Following the conclusion of minicamp activities, the NFL offseason is officially over. The next time the New York Jets convene in Florham Park, they’ll be getting ready for preseason and regular season action for the 2021 campaign. 

With the offseason in the rearview mirror, ESM looks back on the green offseason that was, position-by-position. We start off at the quarterback spot…

Jan 3, 2021; Foxborough, Massachusetts, USA; New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (14) throws on the run against the New England Patriots during the first half at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

How It Started

The Jets’ offseason centered around a puzzling conundrum: the NFL future of Sam Darnold. Conventional stats (as well as the fact they held the second overall pick in the draft) more or less implored the Jets to move on: Darnold ranked 40th in competition rate (59.8) and 41st in passer rating (78.5) amongst 42 quarterbacks (min. 500 attempts). Yet, there was a tantalizing case to prolong his New York career, a major temptation to answer a question Jets fans have asked and continued to ask…what would Darnold look like in a system that wasn’t overseen by Adam Gase?

For all the offensive malarkey the Jets had gone through in the Gase era, Darnold has still provided momentary flashes of brilliance that eeked through the endless layers of green gridiron gloom. Some felt that Darnold had the necessary skills to survive in the NFL, he just needed the proper support staff. There was only so much Darnold could’ve done while working in a Gase system and his top options being first-round washouts (Breshad Perriman) and current lacrosse stars pulled out of New England’s antique pile (Chris Hogan). In March, the Jets added Corey Davis and Keelan Cole, a pair of consistently reliable talents looking to make a bigger impact. Had Darnold been kept aroud for the eventual drafting of Elijah Moore, it would’ve been the most talented receiver class Darnold ever had to work with.

Darnold’s support problems were not limited to his receiving arsenal. The crucial developmental stages of his NFL career were staged in the midst of constant rumors surrounding Le’Veon Bell, who was a discount version in everything but his price tag ($52.5 million). That big contract and several other factors (i.e. general negligence) delayed any plans to bolster the offensive line. Darnold, after all, went through three different primary centers over his first three NFL seasons. To their credit, the Jets seemed to finally be seeing the light in the late stages of Darnold’s tenure, passing on elite receiving talent to draft Louisville blocker Mekhi Becton and later trade up with Minnesota for Alijah Vera-Tucker.

As for the backup quarterback spot, the Jets had the right idea when it came to Joe Flacco. The cheap deal signed late in the offseason (one-year, $1.5 million) and Flacco’s own words made it clear that he wasn’t meant to be any long-term backup solution. It was a contract that gave Darnold a year under Flacco’s watch while the one-time Super Bowl MVP (who truly sought a new area to take over the QB1 role) had a chance to prove to new suitors that he could still be a serviceable NFL option after enduring a neck injury during his previous stop in Denver.

new york jets, zach wilson

How It’s Going

Ultimately, the Jets sent Darnold south, trading him to the Carolina Panthers in exchange for three draft picks, one of which was a second-round choice to be used next season. Even before Darnold was shipped off to Charlotte, the Jets spent the offseason in the thick of the quarterback discussion. Not only were they present at all major rookie quarterback showcases, but they were said to be in the thick of the Deshaun Watson sweepstakes before assault allegations ended that conversation.

Those factors all but assured that the Jets were going to use their premier pick on a non-Trevor Lawrence quarterback, eventually revealed to be Zach Wilson when the league converged on Cleveland in April. With the selection of Wilson out of BYU, general manager Joe Douglas has officially etched his signature onto his New York mosaic. He now has his own head coach (Robert Saleh) and quarterback running the show after working with the used parts of the Mike Maccagnan era’s final days.

As expected, Flacco moved during the offseason, joining a curious passing situation in Philadelphia that has been implied to give him a chance to compete for the starter’s spot. Despite several serviceable backup candidates emerging (i.e. Brian Hoyer, Nick Mullens), the Jets curiously opted to stick with their current backup situation of James Morgan and Mike White.

Dec 24, 2019; Honolulu, Hawaii, USA; Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) celebrates with teammates after running in a touchdown against the Hawaii Warriors in the second half of the Hawaii Bowl at Aloha Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Marco Garcia-USA TODAY Sports

Are They Better Off?

One could have, and probably still can, make the case for Darnold staying in New York. The temptation to see him with a new support staff could’ve allowed the Jets to either use the second overall pick on one of their many other areas of need or even trade it to further reinforce those positions.

Ultimately, though, trading the Darnold was the best move for all parties. There’s no use in comparing Darnold and Wilson right now, especially when the latter has yet to throw an NFL pass (Lord knows the post-Week 1 discourse following the Jets and Panthers’ meeting in Charlotte will be arduous enough). But wondering whether Darnold’s issue was simply a coaching thing was a question the Jets couldn’t afford to answer anymore, especially when holding a draft choice that allowed them the pick of the non-Lawrence litter in Cleveland.

For Darnold, this move works on a personal level as well. He can now try to reclaim the narrative on his NFL career in relative obscurity in Carolina, a stark contrast to the constant tabloid attention in New York and the meme makers that pounce on the slightest green controversy on the internet (let’s face it, if the “I’m seeing ghosts” thing happened anywhere else, it’d be forgotten in a week). Time will tell if Wilson is the long-sought answer under center after decades of false prophets, but the Jets at least deserve some props for knowing when to cut ties and go back to the drawing board.

The Jets’ backup situation remains rather curious, however. As it stands, the Jets’ trio of quarterbacks has zero NFL regular season passes between them. New York is obviously pinning its future hopes and dreams on Wilson’s development. Holding minicamp with Wilson as the primary man more or less guarantees that the Jets aren’t practicing the “Kansas City model” a la Alex Smith/Patrick Mahomes.

But that shouldn’t mean that Wilson immediately must become the most experienced quarterback in the room. Even if one claims that adding a veteran to mentor the rookie (Chicago’s Nick Foles, perhaps?) is a passing cliche at this point, the Jets should at least bring on some insurance in case of an emergency. The team was 0-10 in the three-year Darnold era when backup quarterbacks had to step in. There’s no evidence that White or Morgan (who didn’t even dress for a game in his rookie year) are capable of breaking that trend if the unthinkable happened to Wilson. The playoffs remain a tall ask, but that doesn’t mean the Jets should punt on 2021 contests.

The Jets were right to kick off a new era of football, efficiently hitting the fast-forward button in their franchise timeline. But that doesn’t mean he should have to do this alone, especially in his own position room.

Final Offseason Grade: C+

Did the Jets make the right move in drafting Wilson? Or should they have stuck with Sam? Continue the conversation on Twitter @GeoffJMags 

New York Jets: Zach Wilson reflects on his first professional spring

new york jets, zach wilson

The prologue to Zach Wilson’s New York Jets career ended this week, as the rookie reflected on his first minicamp experience.

The most anticipated and talked-about throws of post-social distancing life in the metropolitan were silenced on Wednesday. In Queens, Jacob deGrom’s outing for the New York Mets ended after three innings due to right shoulder soreness against the Chicago Cubs. An hour away in Florham Park, Zach Wilson tossed his last professionally sanctioned passes of the spring.

Fortunately for those who support the rhyming, star-crossed franchises, the respective pauses are only temporary. deGrom said he’s “pretty optimistic” that he’ll make his next start, while Wilson’s shutdown is only induced by the end of minicamp.

Thus ends Wilson’s first form of a different kind of spring training under a New York banner, as the New York Jets’ minicamp proceedings came to a close this week. Reviews for his performance over minicamp and organized team activities have been generally positive, as NJ.com’s Darryl Slater reported that returned Jets owner Woody Johnson claimed that Wilson “looks as advertised”. Further coaching reports from Brian Costello of the New York Post claim that Wilson has “has done a good job of minimizing mistakes” (passing game specialist Greg Knapp) and that the “last two weeks have been awesome for him” (offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur).

The end of the proceedings gave Wilson time to likewise reflect on his first experiences in green. While social media offers only extremists…every minicamp touchdown or interception is respectively seen as nirvana or armageddon…Wilson’s offered a grounded self-assessment.

“It’s hard to say exactly how you did. Personally, in my eyes, I feel I can improve every single day, I feel like I’m learning something every single day,” Wilson said in notes provided by the Jets. “Even on the good days, it’s still frustrating, and it’s just because it’s like a foreign language, every single day it’s the same plays but you’re getting different reps, different looks at it, different defensive coverages, whatever it is. One of our running backs (later revealed to be Michael Carter) said to me after practice today, ‘it’s hard to know sometimes if it was a good or a bad day.’ It’s really just because there are so many learning experiences, things that are good to learn from.”

In terms of what he feels has improved most over his debut weeks in a green helmet, Wilson said he’s been particularly pleased with the way his “timing” has progressed.

“The NFL game, understanding what holes you can throw things into, how quickly guys can break on things. Just the timing with your footwork,” Wilson said when asked where he thinks he has improved since the Jets made him the second overall pick in Cleveland. “I think that comes with understanding the offense. I look back in college, you’re running the same offense for three years, so you know it like the back of your hand. Out here, you’re always just a step slow at first. It’s just how fast can I get through my progressions to where I don’t even have to think about it, if something’s covered I instantly know how to move on.”

The Jets diligently prepared for the arrival of Wilson, who succeeds the Charlotte-bound Sam Darnold. Extra action has been taken to ensure that Wilson has a loaded arsenal upon his arrival, adding offensive weaponry of both the protective (Alijah Vera-Tucker, potentially Morgan Moses) and box score (Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Keelan Cole, Michael Carter, Tevin Coleman) variety.

Wilson has already a rapport with some of his new receivers, as he had special words for Moore, his fellow offensive rookie.

“When the guy’s not thinking, he is a great player. He’s got so much potential,” Wilson said of Moore, the Jets’ second-round pick out of Mississippi last April. “You throw a ball at his knees or above his head and he catches it so well and is able to transition up the field. It’s so natural for him, his ability to catch the ball and get up the field. (He’s a) very smooth player and he wants to be great. I spend a lot of time with him, he’s someone I want to be around because he wants to be great.”

Wilson has also appeared to have developed an early relationship with 2020 holdover Braxton Berrios, referring to the former New England Patriots as a “slippery player” and praising his route-running abilities. Berrios is second amongst returning Jets receivers in receptions, yardage, and touchdowns last season.

Wilson’s next throws in a Jet uniform will come in front of a crowd, as Tom Pelissero of NFL Network has reported that fans will be welcome back to view training camp practices later this summer. The pressure will be on to atone for decades of false passing prophets, to finally fill in the franchise quarterback void an aging Joe Namath opened after the 1976 season.

To that end, the preparation and journey toward his NFL debut don’t end simply because the practice fields at One Jets Drive will be closed. While there may be a trip off the green path or two…after all, the New York Islanders return to Nassau Coliseum tonight…Wilson left Florham Park with a promise that the de facto month-plus off that he’s going to abscond himself in film, and he’s not talking summer blockbusters.

Wilson’s reputation as a film hound was already somewhat known to the Jets’ coaching staff. LaFleur told NJ.com’s Joey Chandler that the quarterback’s obsession with tape reminded him of his brother Matt’s fixation at the helm of the Green Bay Packers, calling Wilson’s desire to do visual homework “unique”. But perhaps the most fascinating thing about is Wilson’s approach is that he views film sessions as his “time away from football”. Rather, he views it as a matter of preparation, a skill that can be built during relative downtime.

“I feel like that’s when you can rest your legs a little bit and hang out,” Wilson said. “I’m not saying I work extremely hard, there’s always someone working harder than you. I don’t love feeling unprepared, I don’t love feeling like I’m not ready for something. I love the always having something new feeling every day in practice.”

“You don’t know what defense they’re going to throw at you and there’s always something new to prepare for and get better at. I’m just going to make sure I’m doing everything I can to be ready once training camp comes around.”

What are your expectations for Wilson this season? Continue to the conversation with the writer on Twitter @GeoffJMags