Breece Hall, Garrett Wilson give Jets hope in future

ByRich Cimini ESPN logo
Sunday, December 31, 2023

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A look at what's happening around the New York Jets:

1. Eyeing redemption: Look hard enough, and you can unearth some positives in the darkest of seasons. Despite four straight seasons with double-digit losses, the Jets (6-10) can take solace in knowing that two of their foundational players -- running back Breece Hall and wide receiver Garrett Wilson -- are buying stock in the team's future.

"I'll just tell everybody to get their laughs out now because it's not going to be like that in the near future," Hall said after Thursday night's 37-20 loss to the Cleveland Browns. "We're going to be a lot better. I'm excited to see what we do."

Wilson, after watching the Browns celebrate their playoff clincher, said: "I'm confident that my turn is coming, that our turn is coming."

With that, some silver linings:

  • They will go into the offseason with a proven QB1: This might not sound like a big deal, but it is for the Jets. Aaron Rodgers, presuming he's healthy for 2024, solidifies the most important position. A year ago at this time, the Jets -- done with Zach Wilson as their starter -- were in their own darkness retreat with regard to the position.
  • Hall has played every game -- and he's ascending: You never know how skill-position players will rebound from ACL surgery. Hall started fast, hit a midseason lull and has rebounded with a strong final month. He has rushed for 179 yards in the past two games and, because of his receiving prowess, he's averaging 87 yards from scrimmage per game for the season, seventh among running backs.That he hasn't missed a game, coming off a major injury, says a lot. Now he can focus his offseason on normal conditioning, not rehab, which should make him even better in 2024. "I worked my ass off this offseason to come back," Hall said. "I expect to be one of the best in the league and I couldn't really show that the entire season."
  • Wilson proved his rookie year was real: He became the first Jets player since Keyshawn Johnson (1998-1999) to record back-to-back 1,000-yard receiving seasons -- pretty impressive, considering the quarterback changes and the overall state of the offense. With Wilson and Hall, the Jets have two key pieces for Rodgers.
  • Jermaine Johnson joined the party: No longer overshadowed by Hall, Wilson and cornerback Sauce Gardner -- his 2022 draft classmates -- Johnson is arguably the most improved player on the team. The defensive end (6.5 sacks, one pick-six) is "grossly underrated," according to coach Robert Saleh, who believes Johnson is playing at a Pro Bowl level. He and Quinnen Williams can anchor the defensive line for a few years.
  • The defense is formidable: Yes, Thursday night was a mess. Yes, the defense is down slightly from last season, statistically, but this remains one of the better units in the league (seventh in yards per game). One area of improvement: Takeaways are way up from 2022 (16 to 25). With nine of 11 starters under contract for 2024, there's every reason to believe they can keep it going.

2. Oh, those flags: One of Saleh's offseason focuses must be the penalty problem. The Jets lead the league with 148, including a league-high 77 on offense. This isn't a one-year thing. In Saleh's three seasons, the Jets have the third-most penalties (379). You can just see the frustration on Garrett Wilson's face. "It's not clean enough," he said.

3. Did you know? The Jets are 0-4 on short weeks, having been outscored 117-55. They'd better figure out a way to conquer the problem because, with Rodgers returning next season, they probably will get a handful of prime-time games. Saleh lamented the issue, saying he experimented with three different practice schedules with the hope of finding the right formula. It's another thing to mull in the offseason.

4. Picky: It's one of the great anomalies of the season: Sauce Gardner is having another very good year in coverage, but he has yet to intercept a pass despite having played 948 defensive snaps. That the Jets are a zone-based defense, which allows defenders to keep their eyes on the quarterback, makes it even more puzzling.

Part of it is because Gardner (56 targets) doesn't get picked on a lot. Of the 25 cornerbacks with a minimum of 400 coverage snaps, he is tied with the Chicago Bears' Jaylon Johnsonfor the fewest targets, according to "nearest defender" metrics from Next Gen Stats. On the flip side, there's the Houston Texans'Derek Stingley Jr. He has been targeted 36 times, but he has five interceptions.

Saleh said Gardner "will be the first to say that, when they throw the ball his way ... he's got to go take it." Saleh compared Gardner to one of his former players, Richard Sherman. That's quite a compliment, but it's worth noting Sherman -- in a similar system -- had 12 interceptions in his first two seasons. Gardner has two.

Before the Saturday night game, Gardner was among seven cornerbacks with 800-plus snaps on defense and no interceptions, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the past three seasons, one corner hit the 1,000-snap mark without a single pick -- the Jets' Bryce Hall (1,126) in 2021.

5. Draft winds: The Jets, currently holding the eighth draft position, have only a 1.5% chance of landing in the top five, per ESPN analytics. Many experts believe the top two tackles,Joe Alt (Notre Dame) and Olumuyiwa Fashanu(Penn State), will be scooped up in the top five. Offensive tackle is the Jets' biggest need, especially with most of the group (including Mekhi Becton) heading to free agency.

6. Cooked: Remember in August, when Dalvin Cook predicted that he and Hall would be the top running back tandem in the league? Talk about unfulfilled expectations. Cook (career-low 214 rushing yards) has disappeared, with five snaps played in the past two games, including a "DNP" on Thursday night. That was a career first. From all indications, he has remained a good teammate, but he's incredibly frustrated.

"I haven't played professional football, but being around it, you know when a player is hurting and I know he's hurting," Saleh said. "But his story is not over."

7. Can't a-void this one: With Rodgers' arrival last offseason, the Jets took an all-in approach to everything, including contract renegotiations. And soon it will be time to pay the bills.

In restructuring contracts to create immediate salary cap room, the Jets added "dummy" years -- a mechanism that allows teams to prorate upfront money over the term of the contract. They did it with two players with expiring contracts, defensive end Carl Lawson and safety Jordan Whitehead.

The downside is, instead of coming off the books in 2024, Lawson ($6.3 million) and Whitehead ($3.3 million) will count against the cap because they had void years tacked onto their deals. The Jets did the same thing with tight end C.J. Uzomah, who is signed through 2024. A likely cap casualty, his dead charge in '24 has grown to $5.9 million because of the added void years. Left tackle Duane Brown will be a free agent, but he will count $4.7 million because his contract from 2022 was loaded with dummy years.

In absentia, these four players will count $20.2 million on the '24 cap, assuming Uzomah gets released.

8. Last chance? The Jets, losers of 15 straight to the New England Patriots, hope to end the drought in what could be Bill Belichick's final game as coach. It's the longest active head-to-head streak in the NFL.

9. Arms everywhere: For a team that has struggled so much with quarterback play over the years, the Jets sure do have a lot of castoffs who have resurfaced on contenders and playoff-bound teams.

Starters: Joe Flacco (Cleveland Browns) and Geno Smith (Seattle Seahawks). Backups: Sam Darnold (San Francisco 49ers),Josh Johnson (Baltimore Ravens) and Mike White (Miami Dolphins). Let's not forget about backups Teddy Bridgewater (Detroit Lions) and John Wolford (Tampa Bay Buccaneers); they never played in the regular season for the Jets, but they were on the preseason roster.

10. The last word: Naturally, they wanted to beat Flacco, but the Jets seemed genuinely happy he has discovered late-career success in Cleveland. It illustrates how much they respected him as a teammate.

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