New York Jets
Let's Do It San Francisco Style
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The failure of the Adam Gase era was more than a failure of Xs and Os, though there was plenty of that to go around. You don't go 9-23 by unleashing a high-powered, beautifully schemed offense. The Jets lacked talent, for sure, but they also lacked an identity—neither physical nor finesse, without a key sense of logic or continuity to their play calling on offense. The entire reason Gase got not one but two head coaching opportunities was based on the reputation he earned working with Peyton Manning in Denver. With only six games with a positive offensive DVOA over the last two years, the fewest in the league, Gase utterly failed at the one thing he could hang his hat on.
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But more than that, Gase brought with him the same dysfunction and disorder that soured his time in Miami. He alienated his locker room, feuding with players in the media and alienating stars such as Jamal Adams. He practically ignored his defense, letting Gregg Williams have free reign to call all the Cover-0 blitzes he wanted. He demonstrated terrible personnel management both by placing injured players in the lineup and by continuing to run out ineffective elderly players he was comfortable with. He lied to the media about who was calling the offensive plays, out of fear it would make his assistants look more competent than he was. We called Gase a horrible result of a muddled search when he was hired, someone more concerned with protecting his power than running a team. If anything, we undersold it.
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Teams looking to recover from a terrible coaching regime tend to zig as hard as they can in the opposite direction with their next hire. The Jets went from a soft-spoken defensive coach in Todd Bowles to an offensive disciplinarian in Gase, and now have zagged back to the defensive side of the ball with former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. But it's not just his on-field specialties that have made Saleh such a breath of fresh air.
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It is difficult to find a coach with more universal acclaim from his former players than Saleh. When the Jets made the hiring official, it was greeted with showerings of praise from Richard Sherman, Fred Warner, DeForest Buckner, Russell Wilson, and more. Where Gase has left a trail of disgruntled players and bad vibes in his wake, Saleh has a track record of players singing his praises—Houston, Seattle, Jacksonville, San Francisco, you name it. Saleh's players would run through a wall for him, which would be convenient if playing football involved running through any walls. At the very least, bringing Saleh in should create a less toxic environment around the team. They may well be a two- or three-win team again, but getting free of the toxic atmosphere surrounding Gase should make being a Jets fan significantly more fun going forward.
In fact, the last time you could find a sense of negativity surrounding Saleh was among San Francisco fans in 2018. When Saleh took over the 49ers' defensive coordinator job, he inherited a woeful team lacking talent on all three levels, and he was no miracle cure. The 49ers ranked 26th and 24th in defensive DVOA in Saleh's first two years, and there were some calls from outside the organization that the team should move on and find someone else; it clearly wasn't working. Then, in 2019, Saleh adjusted his scheme, switching the defensive line to using more Wide-9 with a focus on penetration rather than reading and reacting, and switching to a Cover 2-based system in the secondary. It also helped to add Nick Bosa and Dee Ford to a line already bursting with first-round picks, but don't think the 49ers' defensive improvement was solely due to personnel. Dragging the 49ers' defense to a sixth-place ranking in 2020 despite leading the league in defensive adjusted games lost may well have been the coaching feat of the year. The 49ers had a different defensive starting lineup in all 16 games last season; they were forced to put 37 different players on the field, second-most in the league. An average performance out of that lot would have been commendable; gluing together a very good defense out of that mess deserves an award.
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Saleh's no one-year wonder, but Jets fans hoping for a miracle turnaround in just one season are setting their expectations poorly. All else being equal, bad defenses with new schemes tend to improve less than bad defenses in their second or third year of a scheme. And all things are not equal in New York. You could make a strong argument that the Jets ended the 2020 season with the least talented roster in all of football. Saleh and Joe Douglas did a good job this year finding talent in free agency and the draft, and the Jets could be significantly better at pretty much every position this season. But considering the starting bar was so low, there's a lot of climbing to do before the Jets approach respectable, much less good. Considering that moderately useful players like Tarell Basham and Jordan Jenkins were let go, replaced by lesser-proven players who may be better scheme fits, it's also not a clear progression forward. This is a rebuild, no doubt about it, and it will take some time to get everything in place before .500 is a reasonable goal.
But enough talk about generalities. Let's look at the pieces Saleh has, how they'll fit into his scheme, and which parts haven't quite arrived yet.
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While the difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 front is overblown, there's no denying that Robert Saleh's aggressive 4-3 makes for a clunky change from Gregg William's hybrid system. Going from a two-gap to a one-gap scheme will change responsibilities of linemen, alter the reads for the players behind them, and so on and so forth. Some early growing pains are to be expected.
Further complicating matters is the fact that the preexisting strengths of the Jets defense don't line up with what Saleh asks his team to do. The interior line trio of Quinnen Williams, Foley Fatukasi, and John Franklin-Myers did some great work for the Jets last season, but only Williams has an obvious place in the system. Williams fits perfectly as the DeForest Buckner-esque 3-technique. Saleh's Wide-9 front puts the edge rushers outside the tight ends, forcing the offensive line to slide outside to handle them and opening up gaps inside. Williams was already fourth in ESPN's Pass Rush Win Rate among defensive tackles; giving him more isolated "don't think, just go" snaps one-on-one with guards could see his production soar even higher.
The other interior lineman usually plays the 1-technique, and that's a problem for both Fatukasi and Franklin-Myers. Saleh asks for speed and explosion from his interior linemen, while Fatukasi is more of a power and timing guy. Sheldon Rankins, despite being comparatively undersized, is more Saleh's traditional type. Meanwhile, while moving inside helped Franklin-Myers excel last season, he's not a fit for the 1-tech role at all. Franklin-Myers did play outside with Los Angeles, but he was a bland situational pass-rusher. Despite his small frame, he performed much better inside as a 3-tech. Saleh routinely rotated seven linemen in San Francisco, so there will be plenty of snaps for both Fatukasi and Franklin-Myers, but they're not going to benefit from the scheme change nearly as much as Williams will.
On the outside, Carl Lawson comes in from Cincinnati and immediately becomes the best edge rusher the Jets have seen since 2017. His hype as a three-down breakout player last year has been a little oversold, but he had the fourth-highest pressure rate among defensive linemen last season. The slot across from him, however, is more of a mystery. Franklin-Myers will be in the mix for that other edge spot, but Vinny Curry or ex-49er Ronald Blair probably fit better.
Honestly, the best lineup the Jets might have is a NASCAR-style speed package with Williams and Franklin-Myers inside, joining Lawson and Curry on the edge. That's not something Saleh has regularly used in the past, but it fits his philosophy of putting as much speed on the field as possible, and Saleh has shown a willingness to adjust his scheme before. He'll have to be creative and flexible to squeeze the most out of the talent he has available on the line.
And he'll have to squeeze it all out, because the rest of the defense isn't ideal.
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When Saleh switched to the Wide-9 front, he also switched to a Cover-2 behind it. Specifically, he used lots of Tampa-2, taking advantage of the excellent coverage abilities of Fred Warner to drop back and cover the deep middle. That was pretty much all the 49ers ran in 2019, blitzing just 19% of the time and trusting their front four to generate pressure on their own. The massive injuries they suffered in 2020 necessitated that blitz frequency jumping to 32%, which meant fewer linebackers dropping into coverage, but the principles were the same. It's a schematically simple defense which puts emphasis on speed and aggressive tackling.
The Jets don't really have the cornerbacks to run a Tampa-2. Or a Cover-2. Or a Cover-1, Cover-3, or frankly Cover-Anybody. New York had holes to fill everywhere on the roster, and the secondary was mostly slapped with a "wait until next year" Post-it Note. Oh, the safeties are fine—Marcus Maye isn't Jamal Adams, but he was a rare playmaking highlight in the secondary. LaMarcus Joyner was brought in to compete with Ashtyn Davis across from him. But the cornerback situation is a nightmare. Brian Poole was the only Jets corner with at least 25 targets last season to have a success rate of over 50%; he's unsigned at the moment.
There are no veterans penciled into the starting lineup. The Jets look to have the youngest cornerback group in the league, and it's not a lineup filled with young studs, either. No one in contention for a starting job was drafted earlier than the fifth round. There's a chance that the switch to a more press-/zone-based scheme from Gregg Williams' more aggressive approach could help some of these young players, however, and that's what the 2021 Jets will have to rely on. There are some places you can find optimism, if you squint—the length and physicality of Bryce Hall, the 4.2s speed of Javelin Guidry. But your guess as to who will start at cornerback is as good as anyone else's; none of last years' players (especially the overmatched Blessuan Austin) have any guarantees of a roster spot, much less a starting job. The Jets will need two or three players to take significant steps forward just to be competent in coverage. This isn't a situation like the defensive line, where the struggle is matching scheme and talent when they don't quite perfectly align. Consider this an evaluation year to see which, if any, players will avoid getting replaced when the Jets inevitably draft a corner or three next year.
We also have no idea if the Jets are going to have that competent cover linebacker Saleh loves, because we still haven't really gotten to see C.J. Mosley in a Jets uniform. When we last saw Mosley qualify for our leaderboards, he had an acceptable 51% success rate in coverage, and he had been sharper in previous years. But that last qualified season was 2018. He played only two games in 2019 before getting injured and opted out of 2020 entirely. Scheme fit isn't the issue; he'll fit fine as the Mike. The question is just how good he'll be after such a long layoff, and whether he can play all three downs as a pass defender or will just serve as a two-down run plugger. Either is valuable compared to what the Jets rostered last season, but the questions remain very much up in the air.
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The back of the Jets' defense will depend on Saleh coaching preexisting players up, because New York spent the lion's share of the offseason adding talent to their offense. Outside of Lawson, all their major free-agent acquisitions came on the offensive side of the ball, as did their first four draft picks. That means the imported San Francisco offensive coaching staff, in both coordinator Mike LaFleur and run game coordinator John Benton, get the benefit of the Jets' talent infusion right off the bat.
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That starts with second overall pick Zach Wilson, who will assuredly be the opening day starter if for no other reason than the rest of the quarterback room is bare. If you feel like the Jets have been looking for a quarterback forever, you're not entirely wrong; the last New York passer to put up multiple seasons of positive DVOA was Chad Pennington in the mid-2000s. But now there's a shiny new passer in town, who will definitely turn things around, unlike Sam Darnold. Or Christian Hackenberg. Or Geno Smith. Or Mark Sanchez.
OK, so Jets fans have reasons to be skeptical of a shiny new passer coming in to save the day. And it's fair if that skepticism is backed by the fact that we only saw one really great season from Wilson in college, in the midst of a slapped-together schedule in thanks to the pandemic; his 2019 season was derailed by injuries and he was still fairly raw as a true freshman in 2018. In addition, Jets fans may still hold a residual grudge against Adam Gase for winning just enough games to cost them the first overall pick and Trevor Lawrence, with Wilson feeling like something of a consolation prize.
However, Lawrence and Wilson come out with nearly identical QBASE projections, and Wilson dwarfs the five other quarterbacks the Jets have picked in the top 100 since 2004. Lawrence's track record made him the safer pick, but Wilson's success last year wasn't just about facing inferior competition. Wilson had the best deep ball of the draft class, he's exceptionally accurate to all areas of the field, and his creativity on the move has drawn comparisons to Patrick Mahomes. Obviously, that's a massively unfair standard to hold Wilson to, and he's not a perfect prospect—his processing prowess in his progressions perhaps pale parallel to other premium players—but Jets fans should be excited with their new passer.
Shanahan-style coaches—including LaFleur's older brother in Green Bay—typically look for their quarterbacks to utilize play-action and be effective when on the move with bootlegs and rollouts and things of that nature. Wilson checks those boxes, throwing 19 touchdowns and no interceptions on play-action last season; he was good for one or two 20-plus-yard bombs per game off of play-action. When off-platform, his arm strength and improvisational skills allow him to make explosive splash plays without putting the ball in harm's way. He should be an ideal fit for what LaFleur plans to do.
All that being said, we would expect Wilson to struggle some, especially early in the year. He was rarely pressured at BYU, with quite a few games ending up with him basically playing seven-on-seven drills and picking apart defenses. He also has a bit of the Favreian gunslingerness to his game and sometimes overtrusts his arm strength in a way that might get him into trouble against NFL defenses. Watching him adjust to the speed of the pro game and handling how quick the pocket can collapse when you're not playing Western Kentucky will be key to his short-term development.
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At the skill positions, the Jets' offense will be based around speed mismatches and spacing. In the passing game, the 49ers love giving the ball quickly to athletic players in space. Deebo Samuel led all qualified players in YAC+ last season, with George Kittle and Jeff Wilson each finishing in the top three at their positions as well. Part of this was aided by San Francisco's heavy use of 21 personnel, trying to get opposing defenses to put that third linebacker on the field and then challenging those slower players to keep up with their receivers. The Jets won't run much 21 personnel; they do not have a fullback. Instead, they'll probably look more like Mike's brother's offense in Green Bay, substituting more two-tight end sets to try get the same effect. Chris Herndon's role should increase; he'll be asked to be a more physical player than he has in recent years, and we might see Trevon Wesco as a Kyle Juszcyzk substitute.
However the Jets manage to get their big guys onto the field, they'll be providing space for what's probably the most upgraded receiving corps in the league. They're still lacking a true No. 1, but both Corey Davis and Keelan Cole have been versatile players throughout their careers, and second-round pick Elijah Moore's exceptional athleticism (a 4.35s 40-yard dash and 6.67s 3-cone drill tell the story) has already been turning heads during OTAs and minicamp. Add in the useful Jamison Crowder returning to the fold and you have a massive improvement over the Breshad Perrimans and Braxton Berrioses of the world. And that's not including fourth-round pick Michael Carter, who had one of the top receiving indexes in our BackCAST projections, or Tevin Coleman, who has three top-10 receiving DVOA seasons in Shanahan-style offenses. Sam Darnold never got the benefit of a receiving corps of this quality.
And then there's the offensive line. While trading up for an interior player such as first-round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker is a bad use of resources, he's a great fit for the outside zone-heavy scheme that LaFleur and Benton will be bringing with them. Vera-Tucker did a lot of outside zone-blocking at USC to great effect. San Francisco's system generally asks for lighter, athletic linemen, because they're asked to move laterally more than most other systems, even other outside zone situations. Vera-Tucker fits that model, with strong results in all the various shuttle and jump drills during his pro day. He'll be fine pulling and trapping and finding moving targets in space. Put next to last year's first round pick Mekhi Becton, who also has plenty of outside zone experience from college, and the Jets look to have a very solid left side of their line. They also have to start three other linemen, but one step at a time.
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The Jets are obviously a massive work in progress. Our projections have them once again as the worst team in the league. Everything we've talked about here is a matter of potential or projections or possibilities, and sometimes those simply do not come true. The secondary is likely to be atrocious, and too much for the defensive line to overcome even if they're used to their maximum potential. There's no evidence yet that Saleh will be an effective head coach; not all coordinators step in and succeed off the bat. Rookies flop, offensive lines crumble, regimes fall. The best-case scenario—Wilson immediately stepping in as a quality quarterback, and Saleh's scheme resulting in a Wade Phillips-esque first-year turnaround—still might not be enough to have the Jets sniffing double-digit wins. We're being charitable with some of our descriptions above because we're talking about how pieces might work or could work. Some of them won't and will need to be replaced next year.
But even if the Jets are once again battling for the top pick in the draft, they can at least feel more positive about the direction the team is going in. After a year of patiently (or impatiently) waiting for Adam Gase to get fired, New York fans can at least feel like their team has a plan towards eventually being competitive again. It won't be in 2021, but a season without such a crushing sense of despair might just do for now.
🏈 The Jets ranked 31st in how often they threw to the middle of the field, just 19% of targets.
🏈 The Jets had the league’s worst numbers when running on second-and-long by both DVOA (-72.2%) and yards per carry (3.2).
🏈 The Jets ranked 31st with just 77 broken tackles.
🏈 Gang Green never used six offensive linemen.
🏈 Last year, the Jets had three linemen on 46% of their defensive plays, using four linemen just 10% of the time. Robert Saleh’s 49ers defense had four linemen out there 86% of the time.
🏈 This was the second straight year the Jets were dead last in percentage of sacks coming from edge rushers.
🏈 Showing how much they missed Jamal Adams, the Jets had the league’s worst DVOA (49.3%) when blitzing a defensive back.
🏈 The Jets led the NFL with 65 defensive penalties.
🏈 The Jets were the only offensive line to finish in the bottom five in pressure rate in the passing game and yards before contact in the rushing game. They were also third worst in both Pass Block Win Rate and Run Block Win Rate, per ESPN. When your high point is ranking slightly below average in adjusted line yards, you know you have problems.
🏈 Playing Mekhi Becton injured against the Broncos should have seen Adam Gase fired right then and there. When healthy, Becton was as good as advertised and looks to be a staple at left tackle.
🏈 Alijah Vera-Tucker impressed when kicking out to tackle in 2020 at USC, allowing just two pressures in five games before struggling in the Pac-12 title game. He’s an interior prospect at the NFL level, but being able to play tackle in a pinch isn’t a bad skill to have.
🏈 Connor McGovern’s 2019 season earned him his free-agent contract with New York, but so far, that seems like an outlier—he had a blown block every 111.8 snaps in the passing game in 2019, and one every 67.6 in his other three seasons. Getting 2019 McGovern would be a huge boost to the offensive line.
🏈 Greg Van Roten was significantly better in the passing game than the rushing game. He had seven blown blocks in the rushing game, but just six on pass plays despite 75% more pass-blocking snaps.
🏈 Just before we went to print, the Jets signed Morgan Moses to likely replace George Fant at right tackle. While his lack of athleticism means he’s not a perfect scheme fit, he’s a massive upgrade as a run blocker.
🏈 Quinnen Williams is recovering from offseason foot surgery, which cost him OTAs and minicamp. Williams has yet to play a full season, which is about the only negative thing you can say about his game.
🏈 Carl Lawson blossomed into one of the league’s elite pass-rushers in 2020. While his breakout year as a three-down player is slightly oversold, he’ll play the Nick Bosa role as the focal point of Saleh’s pass rush. The last Jets defender to match Lawson’s 14.3% pressure rate was Demario Davis in 2017, and that came rushing the passer half as often.
🏈 On a better team, Vinny Curry would probably be a rotational edge rusher instead of the second guy on the outside, but he still managed a 12.7% pressure rate last year, placing him in the top 25 among edge rushers with at least 150 rushes.
🏈 Sheldon Rankins hasn’t played a full season since 2018, thanks to tearing his left Achilles and nearly doing the same to his right; he admitted he wasn’t at 100% in 2020. While he hasn’t come close to matching his eight sacks from 2018, his pressure rate last season rebounded to a respectable 8.0%, placing him in the top 20 for defensive tackles. If he can get back to 100%, he’s a nice addition in the interior.
🏈 It’s safe to say middle linebacker C.J. Mosley’s contract has been a disappointment so far—he played two games in 2019 and opted out of 2020, so we haven’t had a chance to really see him in green yet. The Jets reportedly looked to shop his contract this offseason, but he’s back.
🏈 Going on injured reserve three times in two seasons is impressive, Blake Cashman. Cashman projects as one of the Jets’ starting linebackers in nickel, but with all of three defensive snaps last year, we’re doing a lot of projection off of a poor rookie season in 2019.
🏈 Jarrad Davis has not lived up to his billing as a first-round pick in 2017. The Jets believe that he wasn’t used properly in Detroit, and considering Detroit’s defense was run by Matt Patricia, they may have a point. Davis is an outside pass-rushing linebacker who was used as a coverage/run-stopper with the Lions; expect him to be pointed more towards the quarterback in 2021.
🏈 Fifth-round rookie Jamien Sherwood played his entire career at Auburn at safety, but the Jets are moving him to linebacker—he spent more time in the box last year, anyway. His 4.76s 40 killed his draft stock, but that won’t be as much of a problem as a moneybacker, and his tackling is beyond reproach.
🏈 After flashing in limited action as a rookie, Bless Austin stumbled in 2020—his success rate dropped from 54% to 48%, and his completion percentage allowed jumped by 10 points. He fits the Saleh mold of tall and long cornerbacks, so he’ll get one more shot to show the form that excited Jets fans for two months in 2019.
🏈 This year’s Austin is Bryce Hall, who flashed in limited action as a rookie. He was burned early, but by the end of the year, he was settling into his role. His success rate doesn’t reflect that; 40% is very bad and caused by him playing too far off on receivers, letting them pick up easy catches for first downs.
🏈 As of press time, the Jets still haven’t come to a long-term deal with Marcus Maye. Maye’s one of the best coverage safeties in the game and has more than earned a long-term extension, especially in New York’s talent-starved secondary.
🏈 Ashtyn Davis won’t be confused for Jamal Adams anytime soon, but eight pressures on 40 rushes isn’t too shabby for a defensive back. Davis’ athleticism flashed in short bursts, mostly in tackling rather than coverage; his speed doesn’t have a great correlation with any of Saleh’s previous defensive players, so he’s an interesting potential chess piece.
🏈 Fifth-round pick Jason Pinnock (Pitt) is a great athlete, ranking in the upper tier in his 3-cone, short shuttle, and jumping drills. That doesn’t always show up on the field, as his technique when transitioning isn’t smooth—if he can work on that, he still has room to grow.
🏈 Of the five Day 3 defensive backs the Jets drafted, “the other” Michael Carter (Duke) may have the biggest role as a rookie. His 4.36s 40 speed means you’re not going to run by him, either as a slot corner or a deep safety. The problem is, he’s stiff as a board; sharp routes leave him in the dust. He has a shot at the starting slot role, though he’ll probably be more useful as a gunner as a rookie.
🏈 All five aspects of New York’s special teams got worse in 2020, but the drop from Lac Edwards to Braden Mann was the worst. The Jets went from the fourth-best punting team in 2019 to the third-worst in 2020—and since the Jets were punting a lot, it was very noticeable.
🏈 Kicker Sam Ficken’s job is in jeopardy. He’s just 35-for-48 in his career and has missed six extra points for New York. UDFA rookie Chris Naggar (SMU) will have every chance to win the role.
🏈 The Jets switched from Ficken to Mann on kickoffs in Week 7. Ficken earned -1.0 net points worth of field position, while Matt was about average at 0.1 points.
🏈 The midseason acquisition of Corey Ballentine helped New York’s kickoff return game. Ballentine had 2.5 estimated points of field position on kick returns; Ty Johnson had -0.4 and Braxton Berrios (who also returned punts) had -1.7. Both return jobs are up in the air for 2021. Rookies Elijah Moore and Michael Carter (RB) are options, but they may be too valuable on offense to risk putting them back there. A combination of Berrios, Johnson, and Ballentine is likely to take on these roles again.