The New York Jets might eventually receive a small benefit in the upcoming season from what is happening thus far during spring practices, which continue this week.
New head coach Robert Saleh has gotten buy-in from most of the veterans on the roster. At a time when some teams have tamped down their spring schedules, such as Philadelphia, which has lightened its voluntary practices (called organized team activities) and canceled its mandatory minicamp, Saleh said last week on a Zoom news conference that most of the 90-man roster showed up for the first week of the Jets’ on-field workouts.
“It’s been great,” said Saleh, the former San Francisco defensive coordinator who was hired by the Jets in January to replace the fired Adam Gase. “I think we’re well over 80 (players) and it’s been fantastic.
“They want to put in the work,” he added. “It’s a long time to go without football. … At least here, these guys have the right mindset and like I said, we’ve had great collaboration between the coaching staff and the player representatives and I think everything up to date has been very productive.”
True, as even Saleh said, there are no pads and no jobs will be won during these OTAs, but it is impressive that the rookie head coach is getting most of his players on the same page, something that seemingly would bode well going forward.
“First day here, he just brought the energy and that’s what you want from a head coach,” veteran linebacker C.J. Mosley said.
He added, “Being around him this whole time, especially through this first week, he’s been very informative with the defense, because just the technique that we play is just coached very different and he’s been all ears and he’s been very informative when I’ve talked to him.”
Granted, players seemed to like Gase for the most part. They just didn’t play that well. But perhaps an upgrade in talent and Saleh’s approach will lead to better results.
Mosley back. As noted, one of those players in attendance in star linebacker Mosley, who opted out of the 2020 season because of coronavirus concerns. He was able to get a $10 million roster bonus that already had kicked in last March, long before he had to make that decision.
The five-year, $85 million contract he was signed to by previous general manager Mike Maccagnan has made Mosley, a former superstar with the Baltimore Ravens, nearly impossible to cut or trade this year because of the enormous financial ramifications. Consider that, even in 2022, the Jets still would be on the hook for $9.5 million in dead money if they cut Mosley after June 1, per overthecap.com. A trade next year would be less expensive, but they still would need to find someone to pick up $8 million in guaranteed salary.
Thus, the Jets need to try to make this work. He also has played less than one game for the Jets because of a groin injury that later was diagnosed, as he indicated last week, to have become more of a core injury. That injury was suffered in his first game with New York in 2019 and aggravated when he attempted to return later that season.
“I’m just excited after a two-year hiatus to be back on the field,” he said last week, “excited to be in the locker room, making new friends with my teammates, building relationships with the coaches and just happy to be here.”
He added, “The flame is back, 100%.”
As for opting out last year, he didn’t get into specifics, saying, “It was a tough decision. It was the best decision for me and my family. … It was definitely tough (sitting out), being looked at as one of the leaders on the team, one of the veterans on the team.”
“There’s a little added chip (on his shoulder) because you’ve always got your fans that are going to heckle,” 5he four-time Pro Bowler said, adding, “when I get back on the field, I definitely want to make sure they respect the name again.”
But he understand the attitude of the potential detractors. “As fans you want your players to play,” he said. “They have their right to do that (heckle). I’ve just got to make sure I do my job. It’s all good.”
Saleh likes what he has seen from the returning star, even in non-padded practices. “Obviously, we can’t tackle,” he said, “but you can see a lot of power in his movement.”
“I’m really excited to get a chance to work with him,” the coach added.
Zach on track. It’s spring, so of course everything is positive. That doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t true, though. Saleh also likes what he has seen from No. 2 overall draft pick Zach Wilson, the Jets’ hoped-for franchise quarterback from BYU.
“He’s relentless in terms of his want for knowledge,” Saleh said. “He’s got a lot of horsepower in his mind and he’s not afraid to use all of it.”
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge,” Wilson said of learning an NFL offense. “I’m excited for it. … You’ve just got to understand it’s going to be a process and you’ve just got to take it day by day and keep learning.”
As for Saleh’s praise, he said, “That’s nice of him. … I really have a strong passion for this game and I don’t want to let my teammates down and I’m going to do everything in my control to make sure I’m prepared.”
When asked about potentially starting the season opener at Carolina on Sept. 12, Wilson replied, “That’s definitely not my concern right now. Of course everyone wants to ask that question. But right now my goal is to just go in every single day (and say) how can I get better from the day before and what things can I clean up. How can we all keep pushing each other in the quarterback room?”
Those are all the right answers. But keep in mind that his predecessor, Sam Darnold, also had all the right answers whenever he met the media (and still does, to his credit, even with his new team, Carolina). The real test will be what Wilson does on the field when he plays against teams with different colored jerseys, and he processes information at that time, and how quickly he releases the ball then. The early signs are good, but they were good for Darnold, too.
But what is encouraging for the Jets is that Wilson himself realizes it’s early and that he has a long way to go.
June moves and beyond? A few days before the post-June 1 cut designation, the Jets were able to restructure the contract of veteran guard Alex Lewis, reducing his cap figure from $6.845 million to $4.878 million, per overthecap.com. Lewis figures now to compete for the starting job at right guard, manned last season by Greg Van Roten, now that 14th overall pick Alijah Vera-Tucker is penciled in at left guard.
The Jets could save themselves from $500,000 of dead money by making veteran tight end Ryan Griffin, part of a crowded group at that position, a post-June 1 cut. They only would be on the hook for $950,000 in dead money as opposed to $1.45 million in that case.
The quarterback room Wilson mentioned still lacks a veteran. Much speculation has centered on the Jets trying to swing a deal with Chicago for veteran Nick Foles, but there is a less pricey option that would not require the Jets even giving up a late-round draft pick. The only catch is whether will he be healthy.
Former 49er Nick Mullens, who made $750,000 on a one-year deal last season, is recovering from an injury to his right (throwing) elbow but reportedly is on target to be ready for training camp. He knows the system and could help Wilson in terms of making real-world reads at the line of scrimmage in a way the coaching staff simply can’t. And his stats last season—64.7% completions, 12 touchdown passes, 12 interceptions, 84.1 passer rating, 7.5 yards per attempt—compare very favorably to those of Foles. With the Bears, Foles had 64.7% completions, 10 TDs, eight picks, 80.8 rating and 5.9 yards an attempt.
Not cornering the market—yet. The Jets still haven’t signed any veteran cornerbacks in free agency, nor did they draft any plug-and-play ones, not selecting any until the fifth round. So what’s next?
Saleh said, “The easy answer right now is to bring in a veteran, but a veteran would probably eat up reps and not give us an opportunity to look at all these young guys who are starving for an opportunity. So we’ve got time and we’ve got a lot of opportunities for them to showcase who they are and what they’re capable of. And obviously on the coaching side we’ve got a lot of time to help these young men get better and see if we can find one or two” starters.
He added, “Right now the focus completely is on the guys we have. … We’ll cross that bridge with regards to veterans when we get to that bridge.”
If the season started in June, that likely would mean youngsters Bryce Hall and Bless Austin at outside corners and Javelin Guidry at slot corner. There will be competition, certainly, and Duke fifth-rounder Michael Carter II likely will push Guidry. If veteran free agent Richard Sherman, formerly of the 49ers, cannot find a spot with a contender, a reunion with Saleh remains a possibility. The Jets also probably want to see which veterans will be cut in the coming months.