As Jets cornerback D.J. Reed galavanted down the sideline for what would have been a 100-yard pick-six on Saturday off a pass from Zach Wilson, rookie corner Sauce Gardner ran alongside him the whole way. Gardner, the Jets’ first-round pick, was so excited that he did a backflip at the end of Reed’s run.
“I haven’t done a backflip since I was like 12 years old,” Gardner said, smiling.
Through the first week of coach Robert Saleh’s second training camp, the vibes are good. When practice started on Saturday — the first in front of fans — rookie offensive tackle Max Mitchell ran to the stands to pump everyone up. Everyone cheered when Gardner walked by at the start of practice. Later, linebacker C.J. Mosley got on fans for not getting loud enough after a big defensive play.
Laughs, cheers and celebration.
But what happens Monday matters more than any practice before it. That’s when the Jets will put on the pads and start hitting each other for the first time in training camp, after a day off Sunday.
“When the pads come on, it’s a different ballgame,” Gardner said.
Even though there hasn’t been hitting yet, plenty has happened through four practices at the Jets facility.
Here are seven reasons for optimism and three for concern heading into Monday’s practice and the rest of camp.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) July 30, 2022
Seven reasons for optimism
1. Zach Wilson’s performance
The second-year quarterback hasn’t been perfect by any means, but it’s been mostly positive through four practices. Saturday was probably his worst practice as he completed only six of 14 passes, with a pick-six thrown to Reed in red zone drills, but otherwise, Wilson has flashed some of his significant potential. Especially in red zone team drills where he’s threaded the needle on a few impressive touchdown passes, including two in a row after the pick-six. The best came on Friday when he connected with a diving Corey Davis in coverage. He hit Jeff Smith in the back of the end zone on Saturday, too.
“I don’t know how he was last year, but I know this year he’s showing that he’s very confident,” Gardner said. “He’s showing that he’s arrived.”
When Wilson has struggled, it’s typically when he’s been under heavy pressure and has to rush to make a decision. That has been a bit too frequent of an occurrence so far, though left tackle George Fant being out hasn’t helped. Wilson and the Jets staff are clearly working on his ability to improvise, evade a pass rush and make something happen when a play breaks down, and there has been good and bad in that area. It’s a work in progress.
Friday, Wilson was on, except for three errant throws, two of which were picked off. The Jets have enough talent surrounding Wilson at running back, tight end and wide receiver that the team can live with some mistakes if they’re balanced out with big plays.
Wilson’s connection with wide receivers Elijah Moore and Corey Davis seems to be growing as both have made plays through four days. Running backs Michael Carter and Breece Hall already look like usable weapons for him out of the backfield, too.
If the offensive line can hold up, Wilson is at least in position to succeed based on his supporting cast.
Through three practices, he (unofficially) has completed 27 of 44 passes in 11-on-11 team drills.
2. Overall team health
The Jets aren’t completely healthy, but they got through the first few days of camp relatively unscathed. Left tackle George Fant is still working his way back from a knee injury but should be good to return by next week when pads go on. Same for wide receiver Braxton Berrios, who has sat out team drills with an unknown injury.
Saleh indicated rookie tight end Jeremy Ruckert could be back soon — he’s on the PUP list — though they have enough depth at the position now after signing veterans C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin that they don’t need to rush him back.
It’s unclear what the timeline is for running back Tevin Coleman, placed on the non-football injury list before camp.
Defensive lineman Quinnen Williams walked off with trainers toward the end of Saturday’s practice after getting hit in the throat, but Saleh said he’ll be fine.
Otherwise, there haven’t been any new injuries to report through the first week.
3. Breece Hall: Real deal?
There’s a reason fans are already chanting “BREECE!” when Hall touches the ball as if he’s Bruce Springsteen: He’s been one of the stars of camp. The real test of his readiness will come when pads come on, which Saleh has pointed out multiple times.
Hall runs with an intriguing combo of decisiveness, power and agility for his size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds). He’s shown some flashes as a pass catcher out of the backfield, too.
“He’s got great patience as a runner,” Saleh said. “He’s explosive once he hits that second level.”
Carter has been hitting open holes with burst and has had a handful of runs and catches go for significant gains, though tackling isn’t allowed yet. Ty Johnson has made some plays, too.
The Hall-Carter duo at running back appears to be the most talented the Jets have had in a long time.
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) July 30, 2022
4. The wide receiver room
Elijah Moore, Corey Davis and rookie Garrett Wilson have all had their moments through four practices.
Wilson was the star on Saturday. He reeled in the catch of camp when he dove to catch an off-target pass from Zach Wilson. He also had an impressive catch and run on a pass from Joe Flacco and nearly had two other impressive catches, including trying to jump and reach over cornerback Brandin Echols to grab a too-short pass from Zach Wilson. It was unsuccessful, though close.
After that miss, Wilson walked over the sideline, the rookie receiver clearly frustrated.
“I hold myself to a really high standard,” Wilson said. “I like to think of myself as (capable of) making those plays. So no one is more upset with me than me after putting a ball like that on the ground. I feel like I am close, but I should be there now, I should be making those plays now. And until I am, I’m not going to be happy with myself.”
Saleh called Wilson “very, very athletic” with “unbelievable body control,” “great hands” and called him “wiggly” in and out of his breaks.
Moore also looks ready to take the next step after an impressive rookie season. He’s had the most success on deep passes, both from Zach Wilson and Flacco. Moore is likely in line to be Wilson’s No. 1 target, at least to start the season.
Davis has been targeted the most of any receiver if you combine his reps with Wilson and Flacco. He had one brutal drop (or maybe it was a fumble?) on Friday but otherwise has been making difficult, acrobatic catches and winning most 50/50 balls. He had an impressive toe-tapping touchdown catch in the corner of the end zone from Flacco on Saturday.
As for the backups, Jeff Smith had a touchdown during red zone drills on Saturday, and Rashard Davis, signed right before camp, has made three deep catches from Flacco in the last two days. Denzel Mims has mostly been a nonfactor.
5. Cornerback competition
If the secondary was the Jets’ biggest question mark heading into last season, it looks like a strength now. That starts at cornerback, where Reed looked like a No. 1 cornerback while Gardner and Bryce Hall duke it out on the other side.
Gardner and Hall have been switching off running with the starters each practice, and Saturday was Gardner’s day — and it was a good day for him. His best moment came when he kept Moore from beating him one-on-one down the field on a throw from Wilson. He was in lockstep with Moore the whole way and didn’t give him an inch, forcing the incompletion.
“My main goal: I just want to be the best,” Gardner said.
Rookie defensive end Jermaine Johnson called Gardner “special” and said he has “juice” and “does things the right way.”
Hall had an interception on Friday, but Gardner still seems like a safe bet to start Week 1.
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) July 30, 2022
6. Mekhi Becton’s progress
There was a lot made about offensive tackle Mekhi Becton’s fatigue at Thursday’s practice, but he’s clearly still working his way back into football shape after a year away — even if he physically looks better than he did in the spring. Saleh said he’s getting stronger with every rep at right tackle — which Saleh already announced he’ll be playing despite being drafted as a left tackle — and he had a couple of solid days back-to-back on Friday and Saturday.
He’s been beaten for sacks a few times, including by Martin on Saturday, but Saleh insists that defensive linemen are always going to have the upper hand until pads go on. Monday will be a big test for him.
The Jets’ offensive line has been solid in run blocking thus far, and Becton is part of that. too.
He’s not yet playing every single series in team drills — maybe he won’t throughout camp — and is still working his way back into football shape, but that’s fine for Week 1. Check back next week.
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) July 29, 2022
7. Backup QB situation
Last year, a lot was made of the Jets’ decision to go into training camp with no experienced quarterbacks. It came back to bite them. They aren’t making that mistake in 2022 — and Flacco thus far has shown that he still has something left in the tank at 37. He has completed more deep passes than any other quarterback and was dealing on Saturday.
He connected with Davis twice and had Moore down the field beating Bryce Hall for what would’ve been a long touchdown, but Hall illegally grabbed Moore to keep that from happening.
“He’s had so much success in this league, he knows how to prepare, he knows what defenses look like,” Saleh said. “He’s just got a way about him. I’ll stand by it, it’s not his job to mentor or coach anybody. His job is to come out and play.”
Three reasons for concern
1. Offensive line depth
This was a concern before camp and there has been nothing to dispel it. The Jets are relying on two tackles in Fant and Becton who are both coming off knee injuries. Becton played in only one game last season. Odds are, one or both of them won’t play all 17 games.
Chuma Edoga has filled in nicely for Fant at left tackle, but it was a disaster when Conor McDermott got reps there on Saturday. Fourth-round rookie Max Mitchell can play both tackle spots, but it might be too early to rely on him as a top backup. The interior is in better shape with experienced vets Dan Feeney and Nate Herbig as backups, but it wouldn’t be surprising if GM Joe Douglas at least finds a veteran tackle on the waiver wire after cutdown day to add some depth.
2. The kickers
There isn’t really a concern based on what’s transpired in camp — Greg Zuerlein and Eddy Pineiro have kicked field goals in front of the media during only one practice — but until the Jets find a reliable kicker, this will always be a concern. Both Zuerlein and Pineiro missed almost identical kicks (far left) from 50-plus on Friday.
If neither shows enough over the next few weeks, there’s often a talented kicker who finds his way into free agency, like when the Giants snagged Graham Gano in 2020 after he was cut by the Panthers. Since then, he’s been one of the NFL’s best kickers.
3. All the optimism
While the Jets have looked good through the first week of camp, it’s far too early to say that means anything. Even Saleh has tried to avoid making any serious evaluations based on what’s happened in practice thus far.
There will be actual hitting on Monday, and between those sorts of practices, joint practice with the Giants and the three preseason games, we’ll get a much better idea of what this team might be in 2022.
Signs are encouraging, but it’s too early for anyone to seriously get their hopes up.
(Photo of Garrett Wilson: Julia Nikhinson / Associated Press)