Three position battles to watch as Jets head into training camp 2021

Since his hiring back in January, head coach Robert Saleh has breathed air into the Jets franchise by implementing his “All Gas No Brake” mantra and spreading the word of competition, opportunity, and development. Saleh knew he was being put in the position to coach a young team when he accepted the job — around 60% of Gang Green’s roster has just two years of NFL experience or less — but he’s continued to embrace it. He wants to see young players grow.

Now, for the first time since 2019, training camp is once again open to the fans. Those in attendance will get the chance to witness a highly-anticipated summer of competition as young players battle it out to earn roster spots and starting jobs.

Which positions will feature the most competition as well as the opportunity to earn a spot at the top of the depth chart? Here are three groups to watch throughout camp:

Cornerback

The Jets have taken the approach of not signing a veteran cornerback and instead will give reps to first and second-year players in hopes of developing them through learning in action. A two-parter; This camp competition will feature both starting boundary and slot roles up for grabs.

On the boundary, second-year Bryce Hall and third-year Blessuan Austin have leverage in experience; It is seemingly their starting jobs to lose. Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich gushed about Bryce Hall this offseason — “He’s a guy that’s got length, he’s got a great brain, and he’s got a thirst for knowledge of the game. Eventually, that’s where he’ll set himself apart.” Fifth-round picks Jason Pinnock and Brandin Echols as well as Lamar Jackson, Zane Lewis, and Cory Ballentine will also be mixed in.

Undrafted free agent Isaiah Dunn — who can play both inside and outside corner spots — impressed during non-padded minicamp earlier this summer, attracting praise of his own from Ulbrich: “He’s a guy that makes strides every day and he’s making a push to not just make this team, but potentially play and contribute.”

In addition to Dunn, fifth-round pick Michael Carter II and second-year undrafted free agent Javelin Guidry will put on a show competing for the starting nickel role in camp. Guidry showed flashes at the end of the 2020 season, forcing four fumbles and earning a 73.1 overall PFF grade, the highest grade a Jets cornerback received last year.

Jets defensive back Michael Carter II (Dan Szpakowski/New York Jets)

Dunn and Guidry have serious competition; the Jets are very high on Carter. According to The Athletic’s Connor Hughes, the team had a high draft grade on him and were excited to land the hybrid nickel/safety mid-rounds.

“The Jets rotated everyone at the nickel spot for their wide-open corner competition, but the job is likely [Michael Carter II’s] to lose,” Hughes wrote. “The Jets absolutely love the corner and had him graded much higher than some other teams in the draft thanks to his versatility, physicality, athleticism and playmaking.” Hughes went on to say that while Guidry might have the upper hand at the beginning of camp due to experience, “It’s going to be tough to hold off a coaching favorite” in Carter.

Elijah Campbell will provide company this summer, but it’s hard to imagine him making any noise among Dunn, Guidry, and Carter.

Running back

The Jets offense will run a running back by committee, but they will need to decide on the lead back in that committee. The competition for the top spot features free-agent acquisition Tevin Coleman, third-year back Ty Johnson, and fourth-round pick Michael Carter.

Tevin Coleman is an experienced veteran who could head a backfield, but the team is clearly very high on Michael Carter. Connor Hughes has noted in the past that even if Carter doesn’t get the nod ahead of week one, it won’t be long before he takes the job.

Jets running back Michael Carter and offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur (Tyler Greenwalt/ USA Today Sports)

He has the ability to win the lead-back role ahead of September; the team loves Carter and couldn’t believe they landed him. Use episode four of the Jets’ “Flight 2021” documentary as proof — New York’s war room went ballistic after they anxiously watched Carter slip through the third round and into their lap at pick 107. Robert Saleh called the pick “a gift” to the team.

Behind them, Austin Walter, Josh Adams, and second-year La’Mical Perine will seemingly compete for the final spot in the committee. Joe Douglas is one to monitor the waiver wire looking to add talent to an expendable position — he claimed Ty Johnson just last season — so these backs are also competing to prove that they deserve a role in the committee.

Receiver

Back in minicamp, reports surfaced that Keelan Cole Sr. had been getting first-team reps over Denzel Mims—who was working his way back from injury and a stomach problem—which concerned some people. But, as The Daily News’ DJ Bien-Aime II wrote, “Mims hasn’t made much noise, but there’s nothing to be concerned about…the Jets have high hopes for Mims.”

From another perspective, Cole was impressive during this time — which is far from a bad thing. One question that stands with Cole along with the other receivers is: Where do they play?

Connor Hughes wrote back in June that the Jets seemed to like Cole as the No. 2 option opposite Corey Davis. Cole, though, is expandable and can play in the slot as well. Second-round pick Elijah Moore, a versatile slot receiver, can also play multiple receiver spots. Robert Saleh called Moore a “dynamic young man,” according to Bien-Aime, someone who “can line up at Z, F, or X.” He’s a player who many view as a potential star and somebody who cannot be taken off the field.

Jets receiver Elijah Moore (Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post)

The flooding amount of talent may mean less playing time for Jamison Crowder, the team’s leading receiver in 2020, as he competes to hang on to the starting slot role. His usage in the offense may be dictated by the talent and production of the receivers around him.

In a scheme that features an immense amount of rotation, the significance of the title “starter” is lessened slightly. Snaps will be distributed among the receiving corps, giving everybody a chance to contribute. Regardless, New York will still need to trot out a team of starters. Corey Davis is essentially the only player promised a starting job. Who will earn a spot at the top of the depth chart and where on the field will they line up?

These unanswered questions will make for an intriguing, entertaining training camp.

As for the rest of the receiver room, Braxton Berrios, who caught 37 balls for 394 yards in the absence of Jamison Crowder last year, will look to make his presence heard in a packed group of potential slot receivers. Berrios excels on special teams returning kicks, but that role can be easily replaced. Jeff Smith, Vyncint Smith, Lawrence Cager, DJ Montgomery, and more will provide competition to fill the rest of the receiving corps.

Honorable mentions

Backup quarterback

I have no problem criticizing Joe Douglas for not addressing the backup quarterback spot earlier in the offseason. It’s an easy flaw to point out and label a mistake. The Jets have been linked to Brian Hoyer, Nick Mullens, Nick Foles, and still, heading into training camp, Zach Wilson doesn’t have a true veteran presence guiding him in the quarterback room — just James Morgan and Mike White.

Robert Saleh has stressed the importance of bringing in a veteran who has experience in the new offensive scheme rather than a quarterback who would need to learn the offense alongside Zach. Mullens and C.J. Beathard would’ve fit that mold. Robert Griffin III does, but he may be joining the world of sports analysis.

Heading into training camp, the Jets should have what Sam Darnold had in Josh McCown back in 2018 — an experienced veteran by the rookie’s hip from day one — but as of now, they don’t. If the team waits, they may be able to land a veteran quarterback if one shakes free during roster cuts. Here’s a list of names I’ve assembled of some who could hit the market:

Nick Foles (CHI), Trevor Siemian (NO), Ryan Griffin (TB), Joshua Dobbs (PIT), Kyle Lauletta (CLE), Brandon Allen (CIN), Jeff Driskel (HOU), Brett Rypien (DEN), Cooper Rush (DAL), Garrett Gilbert (DAL), Kyle Allen (WAS), Devlin Hodges (LAR), Davis Webb (BUF), Josh Rosen (SF), Jake Browning (MIN), *Case Keenum (CLE), *Blaine Gabbert (TB), *Brian Hoyer (NE), *Mason Rudolph (PIT), *Nick Mullens (PHI), *Nate Sudfeld (SF), *Geno Smith (SEA), *Taylor Heinicke (WAS), *Tim Boyle (DET), *Blake Bortles (GB)

*Less likely to be cut due to team circumstances

Robert Griffin III, Josh McCown, Matt Barkley, Cody Kessler, Matt McGloin, and Josh Johnson all remain unsigned.

Kicker

Multiple reports have suggested that Sam Ficken and undrafted free agent Chris Naggar, to put things lightly, did not look like NFL kickers earlier this summer. ESPN’s Rich Cimini quietly suggested during the free agency period that New York was in the market for a kicker, and considering the team hasn’t improved at all at the position, it’s safe to assume they’re still searching.

The Jets may take the same road as the backup quarterback and look for a kicker to shake free during roster cuts. This may be a younger leg that flashed during preseason, but with recent memories of Kaare Vedvik still vivid, Joe Douglas may look to sign an experienced kicker. Here’s a list of names I’ve assembled of some who could hit the market:

Austin Seibert (CIN), Cody Parkey (CLE), Chase McLaughlin (CLE), Greg Joseph (MIN), Aldrick Rosas (JAX), Eddie Pineiro (IND), Brett Maher (ARI), *Randy Bullock (DET), *Ryan Succop (TB), *Daniel Carlson (LV), *Matt Gay (LAR), *Matt Prater (ARI), *Chris Boswell (PIT)

*Less likely to be cut due to team circumstances

Evan McPherson (CIN), Jose Borregales (TB), and Riley Patterson (MIN) — some of the highest-rated kickers out of this past draft class — could potentially shake loose. Matt McCrane, Dan Bailey, Stephen Gostkowski, Zane Gonzalez, and Roberto Aguayo remain on the market as well.

Jets rookies, with the exception of the unsigned Zach Wilson, reported to Florham Park, New Jersey last week. Veterans report today and the team hits the practice field for the first time Wednesday. The first practice open to the public is Saturday, July 31st.

Welcome back to football!

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