In the football universe now overseen by Jets head coach Robert Saleh, playing time is earned, never a slam dunk. Not even for the team's top draft pick, cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner.
"He still has to go earn it," Saleh said of Gardner, the No. 4 overall selection in April's NFL Draft. "Bryce [Hall] has started. He's taking the one reps, and it's not for show. You've got to go earn your right to go play football. Just because you were drafted in a certain spot doesn't mean anything."
The defensive backfield was strengthened in the offseason, first with the signings in free agency of safety Jordan Whitehead and cornerback D.J. Reed. Then came the addition of Gardner, who joins a cornerback's room of "young veterans" that includes Hall (who played in all 17 games and had more than 1,000 snaps last season), Brandin Echols, Michael Carter II, Javelin Guidry and others. (Note that second-year man Jason Pinnock, drafted as a CB, is making the full-time switch to safety.)
"They've been professionals," Saleh said of the holdovers. "Bryce is awesome. I do want to be clear, and I know, fourth overall and I'm not trying to stir up headlines, it probably will, he still has to go earn it. Bryce has started, he's taking the one reps and it's not for show. Bryce is attacking every moment and he's doing everything he can to keep himself exactly where he's been. Brandin, obviously he's been dealing with his shoulder, he looks fantastic, he's bigger than he was last season. Excited to get him back for training camp, so he can come in and compete. But at the same time, both of them have been awesome."
There is room for improvement after the defense allowed the most yards and points in the league last season. The pass defense was vulnerable to the point of allowing 27 passing TDs with only 7 interceptions. Adding Reed, who played two seasons for Saleh in San Francisco, was an important addition.
"Corner play is universal in terms of what they're being asked to do," Saleh said. "You see the same things. D.J. is one of the hardest playing, we got this thing in the building, 'King of Strain.' Are you straining every day, are you straining in the way you work on the football field? The guy, you can almost hear him grunting on tape and the volume is on mute with how hard he plays and how hard he's getting in-and-out of his breaks and how important every single rep is to him. You see him in meetings, just the laser focus, there's no dozing off, there's no slouching. He is completely locked in. You see all of that, and at the same time, he's not a robot, he is an unbelievable person and willing to talk to guys and bring guys along. So, he has been awesome. Really excited that we have him."
See the Jets on the field during the fifth OTA practice of 2022.
While the view from early June is that no one's starting job is guaranteed, the conventional wisdom is that Gardner will be there on the MetLife Stadium turf when the Jets open against Baltimore on Sept. 11. Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich says Gardner has made a strong first impression.
"Ultra-competitive, tons of swag, tons of confidence," Ulbrich said of Gardner. "Plays with different urgency. He's a high cut guy, longer guy, which you typically don't get the change of direction in the foot speed, which it looks as though, and it's early, it looks as though that he has that. I'm excited about what he could be.
"In this league, especially in the current landscape of pass happy every week, it's huge to have a revamped secondary and these guys, it's so early to name starters and to say who the four or the five are going to be. It's created great competition and with competition, these guys will all grow and get better and with a good secondary, you could be a pretty good defense in this league."
OC Mike LaFleur Lives and Learns
Last season was Mike LaFleur's first as the boss of an NFL offense. He started the 2021 season not up in the press box calling the plays, but on the sideline where he could interact more closely with then-rookie QB Zach Wilson. That scheme didn't last long. He acknowledged that the early returns were not good enough, but improved as the season played out.
"It was difficult watching our players struggle," LaFleur said. "In terms of us not being successful as an offense, I'm always going to put it on myself as the coordinator. I'm the one calling the plays and putting together a plan with our staff. When it's not working in this league, that's not fun. A part of the fun is getting in on Monday's, correcting it, getting in on Wednesday's, giving them a new plan and then, getting them to buy into the plan. When you're not having success, doubt is going to creep in and we have to keep it real with the guys and find ways to make sure doubt didn't creep in. I think we did that and we grew together as a group. We developed trust for each other from player to coach and coach to player.
"I think I said this last December/January, you're just kind of in the moment. What I learned is more about our players and what our scheme for the New York Jets is going to be compared to wherever else I've been."
Michael Carter, BBQ Maven
Second-year running back Michael Carter has quietly emerged as one of the team's young philosopher kings. He was in California during the offseason, meeting up with guard Alijah Vera-Tucker when the talk turned to matters of a culinary nature.
"We walked around San Francisco and I got to try an In-N- Out Burger," Carter said of the iconic Left Coast institution. "It was all right. I'm 100% a burger guy. I'm going to Five Guys after this."
Carter, who grew up in Florida, said that his dad, who is from South Carolina, gave him an early introduction to the glories of barbeque. Carter played in college at North Carolina and said that, in his opinion, that state has the best BBQ. Period.
"The best BBQ sauce, vinegar-based," he said. "I got into that from my dad. I'm blessed to have had that experience."
Asked about his favorites while chatting with senior team reporter Eric Allen for "The Official Jets Podcast," Carter said: "I don't really like pork. I think it's kind of nasty. I don't eat a lot of red meat, but I do enjoy brisket. I love brisket."