Neville Hewitt may have been an undrafted free agent in 2015, but the aggressive and talented linebacker had a breakout 2020 season as an undeniable leader on the Jets' defense.
Hewitt played in all 16 games during the challenging season, amassing a team-leading 124 total tackles (46 more than Marcus Maye, who was second on the team), 82 of them of the solo variety. After the Jets' 14th game of the season, he walked off the field as one of only eight NFL players with 100 tackles and 2 sacks.
"It's just hard work paying off," Hewitt said. "I was able to stay healthy, to play all those games. It's awesome."
Hewitt's presence took on an added significance when linebacker C.J. Mosely opted out of the season amid the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, second-year man Blake Cashman again had to deal with injuries, Avery Williamson was traded to Pittsburgh and the team cut James Burgess.
"There were different guys coming in," Hewitt said. "The coaches stressed preparing the guys that came in to play at a high level."
That was certainly Hewitt's goal. And in that sense ... mission accomplished.
Hewitt, who came into the league with Miami and joined the Jets ahead of the 2018 season, has played all 16 games in four of his six seasons in the NFL, not all of them as a starter. That changed when he started 12 games in 2019 and was in the middle of all the games this past season.
"As a rookie, most times, you second guess a lot of things," Hewitt, who is one of the Jets' 19 unrestricted free agents, said. "You might know exactly what to do, but you still second guess yourself. Now, having the experience of playing my rookie year and against guys like [Tom] Brady, Gronk [Rob Gronkowski], guys like that, seeing how fast the game was my rookie year, going into that second year and learning how to eat and training for the NFL every year you find something to get better at. If you do that in this league every year, you're going to stick around."
Still only 27, Hewitt believes the Jets have a returning core that could enable the team's new head coach, Robert Saleh, to build around. The Jets have approximately $70 million in cap space and a slew of draft picks. There's flexibility for Saleh and GM Joe Douglas to work with, which includes a strong 2020 draft class that included Mekhi Becton, Denzel Mims, La'Mical Perine, Bryce Hall and Ashtyn Davis -- all of whom played quality minutes.
"A lot of the guys here are really good players, especially some of the young guys,." Hewitt said. "The guys at the corners, young corners, defensive lineman, receivers, running back -- it's a young team. With more experience the future is bright, definitely bright. They're getting opportunities now."
No. 46 put together a solid season, and saluted his teammates, urging them to keep plugging away, even after the Jets lost 14 straight games to start the season.
"I look back and think about it, I think about the guys who come out every week and played every game even though we hadn't won a game," Hewitt said. "To see them come every week, to work as hard as they did, one thing I take away is that it was probably one of the hardest seasons I've ever played in. To keep going every week when things were not going our way and still fight, no matter how bad it gets, keep fighting. I'll never give up. It will always stick with me and I'll have respect for the guys who kept trying to come in here and win."