(Image credit Vincent Carchietta / USA Today)
Written by: Nicholas Mullick
The 2021 NFL season is getting close and pre-season games are slated to get underway in the coming days. With Training Camp for the New York Jets already into full gear, it is best to look at position battles for the team. In the last article I wrote we looked into the offensive position battles in camp. This article will be focused on 3 defensive and 1 special teams position battles to keep an eye on.
1. Defensive End/ Edge Rusher - Ronald Blair vs Vinny Curry vs Bryce Huff vs Hamilcar Rashed Jr vs Jabari Zuniga
Remember years ago when this was one of the best positions on the defense for multiple years. Good times because ever since Todd Bowles left as the head coach of the Jets the defensive ends/EDGE rushers have been a big issue. Joe Douglas started fixing this issue with Carl Lawson as he was signed to a big contract during free agency and will be starting as a Defensive End/ EDGE rusher for the Jets. But in every defense, you're going to need two starting Defensive End/EDGE rushers. Let's look at the current candidates on the Jets Roster.
Ronald Blair Ronald Blair spent four seasons with the San Francisco 49ers and they chose to let him test free agency. He is not the only member of that 49ers team to join the New York Jets which gives him an advantage for this battle. How is this an advantage? Well, it is because former defensive coordinator of the 49ers Robert Saleh is now the head coach of the team and he has experience in his defense. Plus it is clear that relationships pay off as Saleh asked Joe Douglas if they can bring in Ronald Blair during the offseason. Blair is a very good run stopper and when both in pursuit and chasing defenders. Blair is an aggressive and tough tackler. Blair isn’t the best pass rusher and does not have the strongest techniques. Durability for Blair is a concern as he has dealt with constant knee injuries throughout his career. If Ronald Blair can clean up his pass-rushing skills and stay healthy he could win the position battle.
Vinny Curry is the most experienced player out of all the Defensive End/EDGE rushers currently on the Jets roster. Vinny Curry used to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and notably the Philadelphia Eagles where he made huge tackles in Super Bowl 52. Now he signed a one-year prove-it deal with the Jets during the off-season. For a guy, his age Curry can be extremely explosive from the beginning to end of plays. Vinny Curry is a good pass rusher and has strong techniques when getting past the offensive line. He is a good tackler but needs to focus on consistency and improve his tackling when in pursuit of players. Vinny Curry has been mostly healthy but there have been moments where durability is an issue as he missed a few games due to injury. If Vinny Curry can return to the player he was with the Philadelphia Eagles, stay healthy, and play consistently then he could win the spot as the Defensive End/EDGE Rusher.
Bryce Huff was acquired by the Jets in 2020 after he went undrafted in the 2020 NFL Draft. Bryce Huff was one of the many undrafted players that many teams wanted to sign right when the draft ended and luckily the Jets signed Huff to a contract. Bryce Huff has strong awareness of where the running back will be. What is impressive is his explosiveness right when the ball is snapped. He has smooth footwork when moving through the line and has solid leaping ability when tipping the football leading to an incompletion. Bryce Huff is a productive run stopper and has shown flashes as a pass rusher. He needs to focus on being more consistent when getting off from blocks by offensive linemen. Bryce is sloppy with his hand usage and doesn't have strong techniques. If Bryce Huff can improve and show consistency he could win the position battle.
Hamilcar Rashed Jr was acquired by the Jets in 2021 when he went undrafted in the 2021 NFL Draft. This was surprising to many people including me because I thought that he would be drafted in the 5th or 6th round of the draft. Especially since at Oregon State University, he had an impact on this defense. Especially in the pass rush as he provided a lot of pressure to the quarterbacks that he faced. He is also a strong tackler as he provides a lot of explosiveness and power when he hits players. Hamilcar even has strong techniques with his pass rush moves and as a run stopper. What is impressive is his foot quickness as he can easily change directions when adjusting to make tackles. Hamilcar is not consistent with his instincts as sometimes he is late to react to certain plays. Hamilcar is not as flexible as you want a Defensive End/EDGE rusher to be. He does have durability issues as he suffered through injuries in his college career. If Hamilcar can fix up his issues and continue to impress in the upcoming weeks he may be at a good advantage by not only making the roster but winning the starting role.
Jabari Zuniga was selected in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. If you are a third-round pick in the NFL draft, you think the team that took you would give you a lot of snaps when healthy right, well nope. Yes, Zuniga missed a chunk of his rookie season due to injury but when he was completely healthy he was legit missing from games where he was active. When there was a rare sighting of him on the field he was terrible and often dominated by offensive players. He only contributed 5 tackles in the entire 2020 season. I'm not going to completely rule out Zuniga from the positional battle as coaching change can help make Zuniga improve the way he plays. Zuniga is going to need to show improvement in camp and preseason to win the position battle on the team. If he doesn’t I would not be shocked if he did not make the 53 man roster.
2. Linebacker - Blake Cashman vs Jarrad Davis vs Hamsah Nasirildeen vs Jamien Sherwood
The linebacking core has been an issue for multiple years for the Jets. They tried to fix this by signing CJ Mosley to a gigantic contract. But he has not worked out for the team as he tore his ACL in the 2019 season and opted out of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Why is he still on the roster? His contract is one of the worst in the NFL and the Jets can't get out of it. So they are going to have to utilize CJ Mosley this year as the starter. Except for CJ Mosley, the linebacking group is full of question marks as to who will be the starters. Let's take a look at the candidates who could become a starter.
Blake Cashman was selected in the fifth round of the 2019 NFL Draft. He is a player that a lot of people have projected to be cut when assembling the 53 man roster. In the games that Cashman has played in, he has shown the ability to be a decent run stopper. He has even plugged holes that prevented the running back from getting a long run. Cashman is a solid tackler and can be aggressive. Cashman also has durability issues as he has missed multiple games due to injuries. In fact, out of the 32 games, he's played only 11. This is not good as he has not been a dependable option for the team. Cashman is not a strong pass rusher and needs to provide more pressure to the quarterback. Cashman is terrible in coverage and can often be beaten by offensive players. Cashman absolutely is going to need to stay healthy and have a strong preseason and minicamp if he is going to win a starting position as a linebacker for the Jets.
Jarrad Davis was acquired during free agency where he signed a one-year prove-it deal with the New York Jets. Jarrad Davis was originally selected by the Detroit Lions 21st overall in the 2017 NFL Draft. Davis was solid for the first two seasons that he played in the NFL but due to injuries, he regressed a lot. Plus former Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia saw him as more of a rotational player than as a full-time starter. Jarrad Davis shines when he is tackling players. He almost had 2 100 tackle seasons during his time with Detroit and can apply pressure to the quarterback when he blitzes. He is very athletic as well and will do anything to make the tackle. Davis needs to be more consistent as a run stopper as sometimes he overshoots tackling them as a result. Durability is a concern for Davis as he did miss a chunk of games due to injuries. With the Jets, he must show he can improve in coverage. Jarrad Davis was absolutely terrible when he was in coverage and left Tight Ends wide open in the endzone for touchdowns. He also even gets fooled when receivers juke him while in coverage. While he has good awareness as a run stopper he must improve his awareness in coverage. I hate to make this comparison but his coverage reminded me of Darron Lee who also had similar issues during his time with the New York Jets. Both were first-round picks, Both were strong tacklers, and both were terrible in coverage on their respective defenses. If Jarrad Davis can show improvement in coverage in the preseason and showcase his skills as a run stopper then he will have a chance as a starting player on this defense.
Hamsah Nasirildeen was selected by the Jets in the 6th round of the 2021 NFL draft. Nasirildeen is the first experimental selection made by Joe Douglas as he will be switching positions from Safety to Linebacker. For Hamsah it makes a lot of sense why the position switch is occurring. Why? Well watching his film the techniques that he uses as a pass rusher and the way he tackles players are similar to how a linebacker does it. He is smooth as a pass rusher and can hit with a lot of power. What is extremely impressive with Nasirildeen is his athleticism and his hands. Look at the game vs Clemson in 2019 he made amazing athletic tackles and made an amazing interception against the number one pick in the 2021 NFL draft, Trevor Lawrence. He can be a little sloppy with his footwork on occasion. Hamsah does have durability concerns as he suffered a Torn ACL in 2019. If this experiment works which I am very excited to see in the preseason not only will it solidify a roster spot but as a starter on the defense.
Jamien Sherwood was selected by the Jets in the 5th round of the 2021 NFL draft. Sherwood is the second experimental selection that was made by Joe Douglas as he will be switching positions from Safety to Linebacker. I am not as sold as I was with Hamsah Nasirildeen with this position switch but I can see why the Jets made this choice. Sherwood has the run stopper ability that you want a linebacker to have. Plus he has solid coverage in man to man. He is not the most athletic player on the team but he has the ability to adapt to any certain play that occurs on the field. Sherwood is a very strong tackler and tackles with a lot of power. Sherwood can be extremely inconsistent with his awareness and sometimes will miss coverage and overshoot when making tackles. Sherwood can be sloppy with his feet and sometimes can hit the wrong holes. If this experiment works, and Sherwood can adapt and clean up some of his weaknesses then he will not only secure a roster spot but potentially a spot as a starter.
3. No. 3 Cornerback - Michael Carter III vs Isaiah Dunn vs Justin Hardee vs Jason Pinnock
Oh boy, the cornerback position. This position has never been the same since Darrelle Revis (The first tenure not the second) and Antonio Cromartie left the New York Jets. Except for Buster Skrine, the cornerbacks have been terrible for the Jets. Bless Austin and Bryce Hall were the only bright spots for the cornerbacks last season and absolutely will be the No. 1 and 2 corners this season. After them, you have a big question mark for the rest of the corners on the team. In fact, every other cornerback currently on the roster has a chance of getting the No. 3 corner spot. Let's look at the Top 4 favored candidates to win that spot on the team.
Michael Carter was selected by the Jets in the 5th round of the 2021 NFL draft. A lot of fans and analysts laughed, mocked, and joked about this pick due to his name being similar to fourth-round pick rookie running back, Michael Carter. But what some fans don't realize is how impressive he is on the field. Carter has strong athleticism and agility as a corner. Carter is also very aggressive and shows toughness when he is tackling offensive players. He has good hands and utilization of his hips when in coverage. Carter can be inconsistent during man-to-man coverage and needs to work a little more on his leaping ability especially at his size 5’9’’. If Carter can improve and impress the coaches then he will have a chance of winning the No. 3 cornerback spot.
Isaiah Dunn was signed by the New York Jets after he went undrafted in the 2021 NFL Draft. Joe Douglas decided to take a shot by bringing him in and so far he has been a great addition to the team. In fact, he has been a notable name that has impressed coaches during training camp. He has been so impressive that he was seen with the first-team defense in training camp. In film, I would describe Isaiah's play as explosive. He is explosive once the play starts and he is explosive in man-to-man coverage. He has strong hand usage in coverage and has the ability to tip the football. Dunn has solid leaping ability as well and can be extremely physical during coverage. He is sloppy with his footwork and is not smooth with his hips. Dunn can be very sloppy when he is making tackles as he can take wrong routes and miss tackles completely. If Dunn can continue his momentum from training camp and improve his weaknesses he could potentially become the No. 3 cornerback on the team.
Justin Hardee was the only player that Joe Douglas signed during Free Agency to help fix the cornerback situation. Justin Hardee signed a three-year contract with the New York Jets after spending his first four seasons with the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints. Justin Hardee does a solid job in man-to-man coverage and needs to focus on being more consistent on defense. Hardee has good hands when catching the football. Hardee has also shined a lot playing on special teams. Hardee is also a decent tackler but must be more consistent as he has a habit of missing easy tackles. Hardee is also not the best blitzer. Hardee needs to improve as a slot corner in coverage as it is a clear weakness for him. He does have a durability concern as he missed a few games due to injury. To me, Hardee has more value as a special teamer than on defense. If Hardee can be more consistent on defense, fix his slot coverage, improve tackling players, and stay healthy then he can potentially win the No. 3 cornerback position.
Jason Pinnock was selected by the Jets in the 5th round of the 2021 NFL draft. Pinnock spent his college career with the University of Pittsburgh. Pinnock was an intriguing pick that was made by Joe Douglas who was willing to give the one-year starter an opportunity. He mainly lined up as a slot corner where he did an amazing job covering receivers. Pinnock has the ability to recover fast in coverage and excels in his leaping ability. He even has good hand usage when catching and tipping the football. Pinnock is not the best in man-to-man coverage and lacks the explosiveness and clean release from coverage. Pinnock is not the best tackler and sometimes lacks awareness trying to make the tackle. While durability isn't a big concern with Pinnock he did miss a few games due to injury. If Pinnock can improve in coverage and tackling he possibly could win the No. 3 cornerback position.
1. Kicker- Matt Amendola vs Chris Nagger
The New York Jets for years have not had a consistently good kicker since Nick Folk left the team. This team almost had it with Jason Myers as in his one season with the team he was by far the best kicker in the league which led to a Pro Bowl appearance. But former GM Mike Macccagnan forgot that he can use the franchise tag on a kicker and decided to lowball him in negotiations for Chandler Cantanzaro who had his confidence shattered so much that he ended up retiring before suiting up for a preseason game during his second stint with the team. Ever since it has been a rotating door of kickers on the Jets roster. Now that the Jets recently released Sam Ficken who was their kicker a majority of last season they will once again have a new face at kicker. Let's take a look at the new kickers currently on the roster.
Matt Amendola is a kicker that went undrafted in the 2020 NFL Draft. Amendola did spend time on the Carolina Panthers roster but was soon released from the team.
Amendola was a kicker at Oklahoma State University. In college, Amendola showed the ability to adapt to pressure as he did make some game-winning kicks for the team. Amendola's longest field goal that he made was 56 yards so he does have the leg strength to make the kicks. Problem is that he only made two field goals above 50 yards and is not the most accurate kicker available. If Ammendola can be consistent when making kicks then he will have a chance at winning the starting job.
Chris Nagger is also a kicker that went undrafted in the 2021 NFL Draft. Once the draft concluded he was immediately the first player that was signed by the organization.
Nagger was a kicker for Southern Methodist University (SMU). In some of the kicks that I have seen with Nagger, he has a good ability to adapt to pressure and is able to adjust his body when making kicks. He does need to be a little more consistent and make longer field goals. The longest Field goal he made in college was 48 yards. If he can showcase and consistently make longer field goals then he should have an advantage in winning the kicking battle.
This will be a very interesting battle to keep an eye on. Especially as a kicker can be the deciding factor on if we win or lose games. If both kickers struggle in the preseason then it wouldn't be a surprise if Joe Douglas decides to bring in another kicker in the future.