2 positions where NY Jets will rely on young prospects to break out8 min read
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By: Michael Nania
New York Jets are counting on the development of their young players to fill some of their remaining roster holes
Unfortunately, the real-life NFL is not “Madden”. Teams cannot grocery-shop to fill every hole on their depth chart with the veteran free agent who has the best overall rating of all the available players.
It’s unrealistic to expect teams to fill out their entire depth chart with veteran solutions, even if it’s a win-now team like the New York Jets. Teams must rely on a balanced blend of veteran additions and the development of homegrown young talent that is already on the roster. Improving from within is just as vital as improving from the outside.
The Jets know who their starters will be at most positions, but there are a few spots on the roster that have question marks as we head into the 2023 season. These are the positions where New York will be relying on one of their young players to step up.
Here are five positions where the Jets are betting on the development of their youth.
C.J. Mosley and Quincy Williams will return as the Jets’ two starting linebackers who play just about every snap. However, the third linebacker spot remains vacant. Kwon Alexander held the position last year but is still a free agent.
The Jets could still bring Alexander back at some point this offseason; after all, they didn’t sign him until August 2 last season. If they don’t, the Jets will count on one of their many draft picks to step up and fill Alexander’s shoes.
In 2021, the Jets drafted two college safeties with plans to immediately convert them to linebackers in the NFL: Jamien Sherwood (fifth round) and Hamsah Nasirildeen (sixth round). Neither has received much playing time on defense over their two years in the league, but Sherwood has seemingly impressed the coaching staff more, as he’s been above Nasirildeen on the depth chart. Sherwood has played 164 career defensive snaps while Nasirildeen has played 67 (including just 7 in 2022).
New York added another late-round linebacker in this year’s draft, selecting Zaire Barnes in the sixth round.
Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich have extensive experience as linebackers coaches, and both were successful in that role as they oversaw the development of many notable linebackers. Saleh’s success stories include Fred Warner, Dre Greenlaw, and Telvin Smith, while Ulbrich’s include Eric Kendricks, Deion Jones, and Foyesade Oluokun.
Saleh and Ulbrich have already translated their success with linebackers to the Jets, evidenced by the resurgence of Quincy Williams after the Jets claimed him off waivers from Jacksonville. If Alexander does not return, Saleh and Ulbrich (and LB coach Mike Rutenberg) must work their magic once more by getting just one of their three young draft picks ready to step up into Alexander’s LB3 role.
The Jets’ LB3 typically plays slightly less than half of the defensive snaps. In 15 games where both Mosley and Williams were active, Alexander played 43% of the Jets’ defensive snaps, ranging from a maximum of 67% to a minimum of 27%.
This is an important sub-package role in the Jets’ defense. They need to fill it with someone they can trust. Jets fans know how impactful Alexander was in 2022, so if New York downgrades to a replacement-level player (or worse) in Alexander’s role, the difference will be noticeable.
With Chuck Clark and Jordan Whitehead, the Jets have two useful box safeties, but there isn’t a single free safety on the roster who can be trusted.
There were a plethora of mid-tier veteran free safeties on the free agent market this offseason, and most of them went off the board for modest price tags. The Jets passed on all of them. At this point, there are hardly any viable options still out there. Then, in the draft, the Jets did not select any safeties (although CB Jarrick Bernard-Converse could switch to safety).
New York’s blatant ignorance of the safety position signals to me that the coaches like who they have on the roster, even if it’s hard for those on the outside to understand why.
The only player on the Jets’ roster who started a game at free safety last year is Tony Adams – and just by reading the tea leaves, I think the Jets are confident in Adams as their top option at free safety.
Adams signed with the Jets in 2022 as an undrafted free agent out of Illinois. He played cornerback for the Fighting Illini and then converted to safety once he came to New York.
The Jets had a very crowded secondary room. The path to a roster spot for an undrafted free agent DB was not an easy one – let alone for a guy who was also switching positions.
But after a stellar training camp and excellent preseason, Adams cracked the opening-week roster. For him to get that done, he must have impressed the coaching staff to an extreme degree.
Over the Jets’ first 15 games, Adams was active in 11 games and sporadically appeared in relief roles on defense, mostly playing slot cornerback. In Week 17, starting FS Lamarcus Joyner went down with an early injury and Adams relieved him for the majority of the game, playing 60 snaps in Joyner’s role. Adams would then start at FS in the season finale.
Adams looked impressive in his limited time at FS. Playing 104 snaps at the position, Adams provided sound coverage (targeted 0 times over 50 coverage snaps) and fantastic tackling against the run (10 total tackles vs. the run, 3rd-most among S from Weeks 17-18). It was too small of a sample size for the Jets to fully trust him, so I don’t think they’ll hand him the starting job this year, but he looked good enough to put himself in the driver’s seat for the role.
All things considered, it’s fair to believe the Jets are uber-confident in what they’ve seen from Adams in their building on a day-in, day-out basis. Fans might be nervous about the idea of starting a second-year UDFA with one start of tape to his name – and that nervousness is absolutely justified – but the coaching staff sees so much more than the on-field tape. Adams wouldn’t be in the position he is now if the coaches didn’t love what they see from him on the practice field and in the meeting rooms.
Combine that with his intriguing performance at free safety toward the end of the season, and I think the Jets are willing to roll the dice on Adams. We’ll have to wait and see if that actually does transpire, and if it does, whether the gamble pays off.
Developing low-investment young talent is a necessary endeavor for all teams, and it’s vital to winning Super Bowls
Every team has to choose a few positions where they rely on the development of unproven youngsters – even championship-caliber ones. Look at how many young players the Chiefs started last year, including many late-round draft picks.
The Chiefs had four rookies who started all three of their playoff games, including two seventh-round picks. They got a total of 122 regular season starts from players who were in their first or second season, and only 28 of those starts were from players the Chiefs chose in the first round. Overall, the Chiefs were the league’s second-youngest team in 2022 based on snap-weighted age, according to Football Outsiders.
It’s not ideal to do this at too many positions, but when you’ve already established your nucleus and are therefore allocating a substantial amount of cap space and premium draft capital at the game’s premier positions, it’s necessary to rely on low-investment, unproven young talent at some of the other positions.
The Chiefs’ superstars are the main reason they are consistently successful, yes, but Kansas City’s exceptional development of young talent is what puts them over the top. Because of how well they develop young players – regardless of where those players are drafted – the Chiefs are able to fill out a complete roster around their stars. This is what allows Kansas City to win championships rather than merely riding their top-end talent to a bunch of regular season wins before crumbling in the playoffs.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots were also exceptional at doing this around Tom Brady for many years. Brady gave the Patriots a chance to win it all each year, but without the countless number of homegrown stars that came out of nowhere, New England probably would not have consistently capped off its playoff appearances with Super Bowl rings. Over Brady’s 20-year stint in New England, the Patriots had 10 Pro Bowl players who were either undrafted or drafted on Day 3, combining for 21 total Pro Bowl appearances.
Building a strong core is only the first step to becoming a championship-caliber team – and it seems like the Jets have checked that box.
New York established the bulk of a title-worthy core in 2022 through the breakouts of premium draft picks like Sauce Gardner, Garrett Wilson, Quinnen Williams, Alijah Vera-Tucker, and Breece Hall. Then, Joe Douglas put the cherry on top in 2023 by adding the all-important quarterback. As intended, the Jets’ premium investments have translated into a premium core that is capable of anchoring a great team.
The final step to becoming a championship-caliber team is squeezing high value out of the low-investment players that are not part of your core. Get that done, and you will complement your core stars with a complete roster that is capable of charging deep into the playoffs.
It appears the Jets have chosen the free safety and linebacker positions as the primary spots where they are willing to gamble on unproven youth. And there is good reasoning for choosing those two positions. At linebacker, they believe in their coaching ability, and at free safety, they seem to believe in Adams.
The Jets have more than enough talent to be a playoff team this year. To win a championship, they need to successfully develop their young talent at positions where they did not invest premium assets. If they can pull that off – specifically at linebacker and free safety – the Jets could have one of the most complete teams in football, putting them in a prime position to win it all.
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