Training camp is underway in Florham Park, New Jersey, as Saturday marks the first Jets practice open to the public in nearly two years.
With Zach Wilson’s contract schism in the rearview, and several players — including team captain Marcus Maye — coming off the PUP list, the opening day roster is starting to take shape. In the next month, that roster will trim down from 90 to just 53, and for a young team that’s in the midst of a major personnel overhaul, several starting spots are up for grabs.
Here are four position battles that fans should look out for in training camp and throughout the preseason:
WR: Keelan Cole vs Denzel Mims
Maybe the biggest positional transformation on the roster comes at receiver, where a massive weakness a year ago is looking like a strength as this team heads into August.
Corey Davis is New York’s bonafide WR1. Jamison Crowder will take his rightful place in the slot, where he excelled last year. Rookie Elijah Moore has earned his reps in practices, showing the versatility to line up in multiple formations. The main competition comes on the opposite side of the field as Davis.
When the Jets drafted Denzel Mims in 2020, the hope was that he would be the future of this receiving corps, and his promising play down the stretch last season figured to earn him that WR2 spot. As the season approaches, though, Mims has been practicing predominantly with the second and even third teams. Surprisingly, it’s Keelan Cole, the free agent acquisition from Jacksonville, that’s taking most of the first-team reps right now.
Cole is the safer option. He’s a proficient route runner and he can block off the edge especially well for a wideout. But Mims wasn’t drafted to be a WR5. He’s the more talented of the two, and if he can showcase his 4.38 speed and make some big plays in the team’s three preseason games, he can certainly leapfrog Cole on the depth chart.
RG: Greg Van Roten vs Alex Lewis
Joe Douglas’s biggest project in his two years as New York’s general manager has been the offensive line. Last year saw four new starters with varied success. The interior, in particular, was a concern heading into this offseason. Connor McGovern will retain his spot at center, and the Jets traded up to get their new left guard in Alijah Vera-Tucker. That pushes Alex Lewis into a battle with Greg Van Roten for the last vacant offensive line spot.
Van Roten seemed like the early favorite. He’s the incumbent at the position and cutting Lewis would have cleared millions in cap space. Once Lewis restructured his deal to take a significant pay cut, however, this became a much more even battle.
Lewis has shown that he’s the better run-blocker, while Van Roten has been the better pass-blocker, and it was Lewis who graded out higher overall a year ago (26th to Van Roten’s 42nd, per Pro Football Focus). This is largely going to come down to who excels more in Mike LaFleur’s new zone-heavy run scheme, and right now, it’s anybody’s guess.
OLB: Blake Cashman vs Jamien Sherwood vs Hamsah Nasirildeen
New York is moving to a 4-3 base defense under Jeff Ulbrich, which means that the outside linebacker position needs an overhaul from primary pass-rushers to guys who can play in space and cover. That’s why the Jets went out and drafted two college safeties in Sherwood and Nasirildeen on Day Three with plans to convert them to linebacker. They’ll both compete for the chance to start alongside former pro-bowler CJ Mosley and newly-acquired Jarrad Davis.
Sherwood is a heavy hitter who strikes fear over the middle and is a sure tackler. The former Auburn Tiger will need to adjust to taking on blocks, something he didn’t have to do in college, but his overall skill set lends itself well to the position change. Nasirildeen led Florida State in tackles in his sophomore and junior seasons as a box safety before tearing his ACL, and has the desired length to guard tight ends as a converted safety.
While they’ll both be projects under Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich, Blake Cashman is the veteran in the room. Cashman is entering his third year with the Jets and has shown promise playing on the inside, but injuries have been a concern. Cashman has missed 21 of 32 games due to injury. Couple that with the scheme change and the fact that he isn’t a Douglas draft pick and he could be looking over his shoulder at the two rookies.
Backup QB: James Morgan vs Mike White vs Other
The Jets chose not to sign a veteran quarterback to back up Zach Wilson this offseason, and after the first couple days of training camp during Wilson’s hold out, they may have come to regret it.
Morgan and White struggled mightily trying to complete passes down the field, and should anything happen to Wilson, Saleh might not be comfortable turning to one of those guys. In fact, neither have ever taken an NFL snap.
Morgan might have the edge over White, since he was drafted in the fourth round in 2020, but it’s very possible New York’s backup isn’t on the roster yet. The Jets worked out veterans in Josh Johnson and Sean Mannion on Wednesday.
Saleh and Douglas wanted to give reps to the younger guys and gauge their success before deciding whether to add a backup that can help mentor Wilson, and so far, they haven’t pulled the trigger. The preseason performances of Morgan and White will go a long way in deciding this battle, potentially more than any other competition. These guys aren’t just competing against each other; they’re competing against the free agency pool of veteran signal-callers.
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