Did the Jets Do Enough to Fix Their Cornerback Problem?

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With the NFL Draft now officially in the rearview, most report cards have been kind to the New York Jets. 

Zach Wilson, Alijah Vera-Tucker and Elijah Moore all in the first 34 picks cemented this team’s future offensively. They filled holes that had plagued New York’s passing attack throughout the 2020 season.

In trading up for Vera-Tucker and bolstering the offensive line, though, the Jets gave up two marquee picks in the third round that many projected would be used on a cornerback. Several pundits expected New York to select a corner as early as the first round. 

Instead, Joe Douglas and the Jets went for quantity over quality, selecting three corners in the later rounds in the hopes of finding a diamond in the rough. It’s a strategy that yielded Bryce Hall and Blessuan Austin in each of the last two drafts, both of whom have looked promising, projecting to be starting corners for Gang Green to open the season. 

This year’s class includes Duke’s Michael Carter II, Pittsburgh’s Jason Pinnock and Kentucky’s Brandin Echols. The Jets also gave undrafted free agent Isaiah Dunn from Oregon State a fully guaranteed contract last Saturday. 

Carter played safety, slot corner and a bit of outside corner in college, posting 41 tackles, two interceptions and eight pass breakups in 2020. A captain at Duke, he projects to compete with Javelin Guidry for the slot corner role in Jeff Ulbrich’s defense, where his man-coverage skills and 4.32 40-time can shine.

Pinnock is more of a prototype at boundary corner, particularly in a cover-3 scheme. Both him and Echols have been lauded for their elite athleticism, but are regarded as very raw prospects. Echols, who ran a 4.28 40-yard-dash at his pro day, can play on the boundary or in the slot.

But are those additions enough to fix the holes in the secondary?

The Jets finished 29th against the pass a season ago and lost Brian Poole (PFF’s 11th ranked corner in 2020) to free agency. The hope in New York is that Saleh and Ulbrich’s scheme will create sufficient improvement alone, but this is still an extremely inexperienced cornerback room. Only special-teamer Justin Hardee has been in the league for more than two years. Every other corner will be making less than $1M this season.

Heading into the draft last week, New York was set to pay Trumaine Johnson more money than the entire cornerback room for the 2021 year. 

New York could use a veteran in the room, but the options are thinning. Teams and free agents alike often wait until after the draft to assess needs further, so the unofficial secondary free agency window is in session. Poole is still unsigned, and after enjoying a standout year in the Jets secondary a year ago, he could bring stability to the nickel role. Richard Sherman has surfaced as a possibility for a reunion with Saleh, but the Jets reportedly are not one of the teams that have had preliminary conversations with the 10-year veteran. 

Steven Nelson is the last big name in the free agency pool. The ex-Pittsburgh Steeler was cut this offseason after signing a three-year, $25.5M deal in 2019. The move wasn’t performance-based, but rather to clear up cap space. Nelson is only 28, and would immediately become the best cornerback on the roster, pushing everyone down a spot and vastly improving the secondary.

So what’s stopping Douglas from picking up the phone?

One reason could be the Jets’ cap situation. New York will have around $15M of cap space after signing its draft picks. Signing Nelson, as well as a veteran backup quarterback, will leave the Jets with only a couple million dollars remaining, giving Douglas very little cap flexibility should a player he covets become available on the market.  

Douglas could cut Alex Lewis or Greg van Roten in order to create more space if he wants to sign Nelson, but that would effectively eliminate the camp competition that is likely to exist for the right guard spot. Cutting Jamison Crowder would save up to $10M, but Crowder was an instrumental safety valve for Sam Darnold over the middle, and could play that role for Wilson as well, even with a more crowded receiver room. Ryan Griffin figures to be a cap casualty that would free some money, but not enough to move the needle if this decision is, in fact, contract related. 

Maybe the Jets are content with the youth movement at corner right now. Maybe the scheme change will make all the difference. 

More likely than not, however, the Jets are on the verge of adding that much-needed veteran presence to strengthen the secondary. They're just waiting for the right moment.

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