FLORHAM PARK, NJ — Simply put, an NFL secondary has two jobs: to prevent big plays and to create them. The New York Jets did neither last season. They gave new meaning to “E-ZPass,” prompting an offseason overhaul at the back of their defense. They have new starters and new loot.
“I think it’s special,” said cornerback DJ Reed, who signed with the Jets after playing for the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers. “We’ve got the guys to do more than just get the job done. I think we can dominate. As far as cornerbacks go, I feel like that’s the best group I’ve been in.”
After finishing 30th in passing yards allowed and 30th in interceptions, the Jets added two established starters in Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead, who said the group reminded him of his previous high school — with the Tampa Buccaneers Bay, where he also helped win a Super Bowl in 2020.
“We have everything we need – ability, tenacity, intelligence – to play this game,” he said. “So there’s no doubt that we should be the best group.”
Great discussion, even for June.
While Whitehead and Reed bring experience, the player who can make the biggest difference is rookie cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, drafted fourth overall. The Jets, who haven’t had a lockdown corner since Darrelle Revis’ heyday (circa 2010), could use Gardner in a Revis-like role because of his sticky man-to-man coverage skills.
ESPN analyst Matt Bowen, a former NFL safety who studied Gardner on tape, says he thinks the former Cincinnati star is ideal in the Jets’ area-based scheme as a running back corner compared to 3-on-1 formations. In other words, Gardner could be on an island, facing the opponent’s best receiver.
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“This Boundary X receiver is an offensive weapon in today’s NFL, a player like [wide receiver] Mike Evans or a tight end like Travis Kelce,” Bowen said. “They want to isolate that player on the edge to create the game they want. In this zone defense, when you have a player like Sauce – who has the ability to press, has a long frame, is ultra competitive and plays with a swagger – that’s where you lock in at the back.
“…When you recruit someone like Sauce and put him in [coach] Robert Saleh’s scheme, there are ways to gain a tactical defensive advantage due to his skills as a game corner.”
Gardner is bound to have some growing pains — technically, he’s not even a beginner yet — but he should grow to a point where some hedging schemes can be designed around him, as Bowen described. The Jets are known as a zone team, but they played the fourth-highest rate of 1 coverage — men’s coverage with only one high safety — according to ESPN Stats & Information research. That too should be ideal for Gardner.
It didn’t matter what coverage they had taken out last season; it was all a struggle. With sophomore Bryce Hall and rookie Brandin Echols on the corner, and with two revolving doors at safety, the Jets gave up 73 passes from at least 20 yards, second-worst in the league. Keep in mind that the foundation of the Saleh/Jeff Ulbrich defense is to limit explosive plays.
Even when the cover was good, they couldn’t play with the ball. They failed to intercept a single pass on 75 tight throws (less than 1 yard separation) without pressure on the quarterback, according to NFL Next Gen Stats. No team has defended more without an interception. By comparison, the Dallas Cowboys faced 69 passes under the same circumstances, and they completed eight. Go figure.
In total, the Jets secondary made just five interceptions. This is not a winning formula, regardless of the scheme.
In free agency, they’ve invested in Reed (three years, $33 million) and Whitehead (two years, $14.5 million) even though they’re not known as ball hawks. Neither has more than two interceptions in a season, and Whitehead was knocked out by the Bucs on some third downs, which “frustrated” him. Maybe the scheme change will give more takeaways.
According to Bowen, Whitehead’s toughness can help the Jets create an identity. They haven’t had a player like that since safety Jamal Adams, who they traded to the Seahawks in the summer of 2020.
“That’s why you go out and pay somebody [like] Jordan Whitehead,” Bowen said. “You need a tone in the secondary. I don’t care if it’s high school football on Friday night, you gotta have that guy on the field ’cause that [can] change the course of the game.”
Reed can also be that guy. He’s a smaller player (5ft 9in) who plays with such ferocity that “you can almost hear him growling on tape,” Saleh said.
Reed and Hall work with the starters in practice, but Gardner’s promotion is inevitable. Other projected starters are Lamarcus Joyner (free safety) and Michael Carter II (nickel).
The Jets will need a strong secondary to survive a gauntlet of elite quarterbacks on their schedule – Lamar Jackson, Deshaun Watson, Joe Burrow, Josh Allen (twice), Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson.
General manager Joe Douglas called cornerback one of the most improved areas in the team, saying there was “a lot of depth and a lot of quality players. Almost every one of our corners played significant reps , minus the rookie.”
This rookie with the catchy nickname is the key to everything.