The New York Jets hit reset in 2021 after a 2-14 campaign in 2020 under second-year Head Coach Adam Gase, the team's fifth straight losing season. Former San Francisco Defensive Coordinator Robert Saleh, one of the most highly-regarded candidates in last year's hiring cycle, took over as head coach and the team used the second-overall pick in the draft to reboot the game's most important position, nabbing BYU quarterback Zach Wilson.
The selection of Wilson came just three years after the Jets used the third-overall pick on USC quarterback Sam Darnold, but the new regime moved on after three seasons of underwhelming play from Darnold, as he was traded to the Carolina Panthers. Unfortunately, the NFL is often unkind to rookie quarterbacks of any repute and the Jets, at 4-11, may be picking in the top five again in the 2022 draft.
Wilson missed four midseason games with a knee injury but has been back in the lineup since Week 12. Overall, he has started 11 games, three of which the Jets won, and has a 67.9 passer rating and a 7-11 TD-INT ratio. His completion percentage (56.7%) ranks last among qualifying quarterbacks in 2021 and his average yards per pass attempt (6.10) ranks 30th. Wilson has had some strong outings along the way, such as a 297-yard, two-touchdown performance in a Week Four upset of the Tennessee Titans, and he has also recently been running more often, with four carries in each of the Jets' last three games for 136 yards and two touchdowns, including an eye-opening 52-yard touchdown scamper in last week's win over Jacksonville.
The development of Wilson is the most important story for the Jets in 2021, but the more pressing recent issue is a wave of COVID cases that has knocked out starters all over the depth chart. The Jets made 33 roster transactions leading up to last weekend's game against Jacksonville and played that contest with 20 players on the COVID list, including seven starters. The Jets were already starting backups at both guard spots to start the contest, and then center Connor McGovern suffered a knee injury that has landed him on injured reserve this week. Still, the Jets somehow ran for 273 yards and 7.1 yards per carry in their win over the Jaguars. In addition to Wilson's long touchdown, New York got 118 yards on just 16 carries from rookie back Michael Carter.
Most of the players on the Jets' COVID listed landed there at various points last week, so there is a decent chance that some of them will be returning to action this week after missing just one game. The transactions involving that list in New York will be one of the major storylines leading up to Sunday's matchup in the Meadowlands.
In addition to their upset of the Titans in Week Four, the Jets also took down a playoff-bound Cincinnati team in Week Eight, 34-31, and scored 30 and 24 points, respectively, against good defenses in losses to the Colts and Dolphins. However, the Jets rank 21st in overall offense, 26th in rushing yards and 18th in passing yards. Carter has proved to be a find in the second round, with 882 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns, but the Jets are without their anticipated top wideout – Corey Davis, out for the season with a groin injury – and have played the last three games without emerging rookie star wide receiver Elijah Moore. Moore (quad injury) is on both injured reserve and the COVID list but is eligible to return from both this week if he proves healthy in both regards.
The Jets defense has been able to overcome a rash of early-season injuries and currently ranks last in the NFL in both yards (391.3) and points (29.9) allowed per game. Key free agent acquisition Carl Lawson didn't even make it to the regular season before tearing an Achilles tendon, hurting the Jets' pass rush, and starting safeties Marcus Maye and Lamarcus Joyner are both out for the year as well. New York has had a particularly difficult time stopping the run, allowing 141.3 yards per game, third most in the NFL.
Overall, it adds up to a per-game point differential of -11.5 and a per-game yardage differential of -72.5 for the Jets so far this season. The Jets will be expecting significant improvement in Year Two for both Saleh and Wilson, and it might help to build up some late-season momentum, beginning with last week's win over Jacksonville. Even with the NFC South title now in hard, the Buccaneers will not be able to take their Week 17 opponent lightly, regardless of its record. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will face when they head to the Meadowlands on Sunday:
This will be a little tricky this week thanks to all the Jets who are coming and going on the COVID list, but here are four more Jets who could help New York get a second straight win on Sunday:
1. DL Quinnen Williams
One year after using the third-overall draft pick on Darnold, the Jets used the same selection to grab Williams, the powerful Alabama lineman. The Darnold pick didn't work out for the franchise but Williams has very much been worth that high pick. The 6-3, 303-pound interior lineman had played in and started every game in 2021 before landing on the COVID list last week and the Jets will be hoping their star defender will be back in time for Sunday's game because he is a force up front against both the run and the pass. Williams leads the Jets with 6.0 sacks and 12 quarterback hits and has also racked up 50 tackles, seven tackles for loss and two passes defensed. NFL Next Gen Stats has also credited him with 22 quarterback pressures and 11 hurries after he finished with 33 and 21 in those categories during a standout 2020 campaign. His average get-off at the snap this year has been 1.03 seconds and it was 1.01 seconds last year. Williams is also the Jets' best run defender given his size and strength, and his 15 run stuffs were among the league lead last year. He has 10 more stuffs in 2021.
2. WR Elijah Moore
As with Williams, we are including Moore because, if he can indeed return from the COVID and IR lists this week he will immediately become one of the most dangerous players on the Jets' offense. The former Mississippi star was the third player selected in the second round of this year's draft, and the sixth receiver off the board in a loaded class at that position. While he has missed four games due to injury, he leads the Jets with 538 receiving yards on 43 catches, averaging 12.5 yards per grab. He is also the team's leading touchdown producer, wight five scoring catches and an additional 19-yard TD run. At 5-10 and 178 pounds, Moore isn't one of the league's bigger receivers but he plays bigger and is not afraid of contest. He's also both fast and quick. He gets up to top speed in a hurry on vertical routes but is also a weapon out of the slot due to his shifty moves and short-area quickness. Some pre-draft comparisons tabbed Moore as an Antonio Brown type, one who could make big plays downfield but also turn short passes into long gains.
3. LB C.J. Mosley
The Jets are finally getting a worthwhile return on their huge investment in the former Ravens Pro Bowler in 2019. Mosley was an all-star in four of his five seasons in Baltimore as, in just five seasons he racked up 579 tackles, 8.5 sacks, nine interceptions, 39 passes defensed, eight forced fumbles, 45 tackles for loss and 34 quarterback hits. The Jets tried to bring that enormous production to the middle of their defense with a five-year $85 million deal during the 2019 offseason but he lasted just two games in his first Jets season due to a groin injury. The following season, Mosley elected to opt out of the campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The former Alabama standout has come back strong in 2021, once again operating as a tackling machine who contributes heavily against both the run and the pass. He leads the Jets and ranks fifth in the NFL with 142 tackles, 86 of which have come against ballcarriers. Mosley also has 2.0 sacks, two passes defensed and two forced fumbles in 2021.
4. WR/KR Braxton Berrios
The Jets may be have the NFL's best return game in 2021, and Berrios is the reason why. Originally a sixth-round pick out of Miami by the Patriots in 2018, Berrios spent his rookie season in New England on injured reserve and then was claimed off waivers by the Jets in September of 2019. Berrios has been a useful contributor on offense, with 81 catches for 875 yards and four touchdowns in 47 games over the past three seasons, and this year he's also emerged as the NFL's top return man. His average of 30.7 yards per kickoff return, which includes a 102-yard score is tops in the league; no other qualifier is even averaging 25 yards per runback. He does not quite have enough punt returns to qualify for the league lead in that category, with 15, but his 13.4-yard average would rank second only to the Ravens' Devin Duvernay at 14.4. On offense, the 5-9, 190-pound Berrios works mostly out of the slot, with 64% of his snaps starting out in that spot, and he ranks third on the team with 38 catches for 366 yards and one touchdown. He has also scored another TD among his five carries for 28 yards.
The Jets have found a lot of different ways to get the ball into the end zone, with 12 different players accounting for their 32 total touchdowns. New York's rushing attack is averaging 4.5 yards per carry, good for 14th in the NFL. The Jets' defense ranks 12th in goal-to-go touchdown percentage allowed and, as noted above, the team's return game has been very good. Here are some more specific ways in which the Jets have performed well in 2021:
· New York's ranks 27th overall in third-down defense but somehow has been the league's best team at stopping short third downs. Opponents have tried to convert 62 third downs needing three or fewer yards this year and have been successful on only 30 of them. That 48.4% conversion rate is the lowest allowed by any defense this year and the Jets are the only team holding foes below 50% on short third downs.
· The Jets' offense ranks 24th in third-down conversion rate but has consistently been able to move the sticks when they only need a yard to gain. The Jets have faced 15 third-and-one tries this season and have converted 12 of them, ranking seventh in the league in that category at 80.0%. On third-and-one runs, New York has gone nine of 10, ranking second in the league with a 90.0% success rate.
· The Jets' defense has given up the third-most rushing yards this season but ranks 23rd in yards allowed per carry. Opponents are simply running the ball a lot against the Jets, particularly on first down. The 269 first-down rushes by New York foes this season is the most against any team and accounts for 59.0% of all first-down plays they've faced, the second-highest percentage in the NFL. Despite all that, the Jets have actually been pretty stingy against the run on first down, allowing their opponent to "succeed" – get four or more yards – on only 41.3% of such plays. That's the fifth-best mark in the NFL.
· Thanks largely to the aforementioned work of Braxton Berrios, the Jets have given themselves good field position to start drives that follow kickoffs. New York's average start of the 26.5-yard line is fourth best in the NFL, and they are the only team in the league that has started three drives after kickoffs on their opponents' side of the field.
As noted earlier, the Jets' defense has allowed the most yards and points in the league so far this season. New York has also given up the second-most first downs and is third worst in terms of yards per play, passing yards per play and defensive interception percentage. On offense, the Jets have the NFL's worst interception percentage, rank 27th in red zone touchdown percentage and are 26th in both rushing yards per game and yards gained per pass play. In addition:
· The Jets' high yardage total allowed has often come in big chunks. New York's defense has allowed 76 plays of 20 or more yards, the most in the NFL and roughly five per game. They've given up both the second-most 20+-yard runs (14) and the second-most 20+-yard completions (62). Eleven of those long plays have gone for touchdowns, tied for the fourth-most allowed in the league.
· New York quarterbacks have struggled against the blitz this season. When facing extra pass rushers, Zach Wilson and company have thrown 134 passes and been sacked 14 times. Seventy-two of those 134 passes have been completed for 793 yards, four touchdowns and five interceptions. That produces a passer rating against the blitz of 65.9 that ranks second-to-last in the NFL.
· As good as New York has been against short third downs on defense (see above), they have been at the opposite end of the spectrum against the longer ones. Jets opponents have faced 76 third downs that needed seven or more yards to be converted and were able to move the chains on 26 of them. That conversion rate of 34.2% on long third downs is the highest against any NFL defense this year. New York foes have even converted five of 12 runs on third-and-seven or longer, for a 41.7% success rate that is also the worst for any defense this year.
· The Jets' offense ranks 27th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on 53.2% of such possessions. Part of the problem in that areas of the field has been converting on third downs. New York's third-down success rate in the red zone is just 28.6%, which is the third lowest in the NFL. The league average is 42.3%
NEW FACES IN 2021
With a new coaching staff working to put its imprint on a roster that went 2-14 the year before, the Jets were very active in free agency. Unfortunately, injuries have claimed a number of those new additions, including DL Carl Lawson, DE Vinny Curry, WR Corey Davis and, as noted below, safety Lamarcus Joyner. Still, the Jets found such current starters as WR Keelan Cole, TE Tyler Kroft, T Morgan Moses and the two defensive starters noted below. Obviously, quarterback Zach Wilson, the second-overall pick in the 2021 draft, is a newcomer, as well, and that class also produced such key contributors as CB Brandin Echols, WR Elijah Moore, G Elijah Vera-Tucker and the two similarly-named rookies listed below.
1. LB Jarrad Davis. Davis was initially another one of the Jets' key free agent additions who was knocked out by injury. Like Lawson, Davis was injured before the regular season even started, but his ankle sprain was not season-ending like Lawson's torn Achilles tendon was. Davis missed the first six games of the season but has since returned from injured reserve and has started five of the nine games in which he's appeared. His playing time, however, has fluctuated quite a bit from week to week, from a high of 45 snaps to a low of four and overall he has contributed 25 tackles.
2. Michael Carter and…Michael Carter. The Jets drafted North Carolina running back Michael Carter with the middle of their three second-round selections and apparently enjoyed the experience so much that they selected Duke cornerback Michael Carter three rounds later. The offensive Carter has emerged as the starter in the Jets backfield and leads the team with 566 rushing yards. His defensive namesake is the Jets' primary nickel back and has 60 tackles and four passes defensed.
3. DL Sheldon Rankins. The Jets signed this former Saint as an unrestricted free agent in March and he has avoided the injury bug that took out many of his fellow new defenders in town. Rankins has played in 14 of the team's 15 games and has started the last two, contributing 30 tackles, 3.0 sacks and seven quarterback hits.
1. T Mekhi Becton. The Jets' first-round pick in 2020, Becton showed promise as a rookie and was in the starting lineup at left tackle to start 2021. However, he suffered a knee injury, which included a dislocated kneecap, in the season opener that initially appeared to be season-ending. Becton elected to have surgery in the hopes of returning towards the end of this season but Saleh said on Monday that it is unlikely the second-year lineman will make it back for the final two games. George Fant, who started the opener at right tackle, moved to the left side and Morgan Moses, picked up in July after he was released by Washington, took over at right tackle.
2. WR Corey Davis. One of the Jets key free agency signings in the offseason, Davis ended up playing in just nine games due to a groin injury. He initially returned from that injury but then aggravated in Week 13 and subsequently underwent season-ending surgery. Davis finished his first Jets season with 34 catches for 492 yards and four touchdowns.
3. Safeties Lamarcus Joyner and Marcus Maye. The Jets signed Joyner in the offseason to pair him with standout veteran Maye at the back end of the secondary. Joyner and Maye were expected to provide veteran leadership for what was an otherwise very young secondary, but that plan didn't last long. Thy were both opening-day starters, but Joyner suffered a torn triceps in that first game and was lost for the season. Maye made it to Game Nine before his season also came to an end due to an Achilles tendon injury. The current starters at safety for the Jets are Ashtyn Davis, a 2020 third-round pick, and Elijah Riley, a 2020 undrafted free agent whom the team plucked off Philadelphia's practice squad in November.