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Jets Position Battles to Watch in Training Camp

Keep an eye on these five position battles when Jets training camp begins.

With OTAs in the rearview and training camp just weeks away, the Jets roster construction is starting to take shape. General manager Joe Douglas and his staff did, by all accounts, an exceptional job in the offseason filling the abundance of holes New York had on both sides of the ball.

Sauce Gardner and DJ Reed address the issues at corner. Jermaine Johnson, Michael Clemons and Jacob Martin address the need at rush end. Laken Tomlinson provides some stability at guard. The addition of Garrett Wilson gives the Jets their best wide receiver corps since 2016.

For the first time in years, the Jets have actual depth pieces to work with, creating more camp competition as former starters now have to compete for spots. And for a team looking to climb out of the gutter, that can only be a positive. Here are five position battles to watch as training camp inches closer:

LB: Jamien Sherwood vs. Hamsah Nasirildeen vs. Del’Shawn Phillips

The Jets entered the 2021 season with one proven commodity at linebacker — former Pro-Bowler CJ Mosley. Douglas selected Sherwood and Nasirildeen in the draft, hoping they could make the transition to linebacker and earn starting reps. Instead, it was Quincy Williams who came from out of nowhere to solidify his place in the second level of New York’s defense. That still leaves one spot up for grabs, particularly on early downs, as the Jets tend to employ nickel packages often on passing downs.

Sherwood and Nasirildeen will get the first crack to fill that void. Both converted safeties and Day Three selections a year ago, they battled through injuries and a difficulty getting a grasp of the linebacker position at the NFL level. Sherwood saw the field in just five games before tearing his ACL, while Nasirildeen played in 12 but got just two starts.

If he’s cleared health-wise, Sherwood should be the favorite to land the job. He’s the heavier hitter of the two second-year guys, the more natural fit at linebacker and he earned the starts last year prior to his injury. Nasirildeen has the traits that lend themselves to man coverage acumen. He’s 6-foot-3 with an 83-inch wingspan that allows him to shadow tight ends and use his safety skills to break up passes at the catch point.

The wildcard is Phillips, who saw the field in all 17 games last year and is a more natural linebacker than Sherwood and Nasirildeen. If neither of them step up in training camp, Phillips could win the job with his familiarity in the defense and consistent play.

Two outside shots to look out for are DQ Thomas and Kwon Alexander. Thomas, an undrafted free agent out of Middle Tennessee State, has a good chance to make the roster and can play his way into starting reps. Alexander, a former Pro Bowler with the Buccaneers will surely start if the Jets manage to sign him, but he seems content playing the waiting game and signing somewhere this summer.

S: Lamarcus Joyner vs. Ashtyn Davis vs. Jason Pinnock

New York went out and signed Jordan Whitehead to replace Marcus Maye, but Whitehead’s partner in the backend of this defense is still undetermined. Joyner will probably get the first crack at the role, as he entered Week One as the starter last season before suffering a torn triceps that would sideline him for the rest of the year. The Jets signed Joyner with the expectation that he would transition back to safety, the position at which he found success with the Rams early in his career before moving to corner with the Raiders. That was four years ago, though, and he turns 32 in November.

The Jets are still holding out hope that Ashtyn Davis can flash and earn the starting job. He is the most natural center-fielder of the group as one of the fastest players on the team, and his college tape at California suggests that he can man that spot for an NFL team. He’s shown those brief moments of brilliance, forcing five turnovers a season ago. Positioning has always been the issue with Davis, though. He’s frequently out of position in coverage and at the point of attack, leading to missed tackles and blown coverages that haunted the Jets late in the season. Week 11 against the Dolphins was perhaps the greatest example of that. The tools are there, but time is running out to put them together, as he’s entering the third year of his four-year rookie deal.

Conversely, Jason Pinnock really flashed when the Jets tried him out at safety for the final three games of the season. A fifth-rounder out of Pittsburgh a year ago, Pinnock finished those three games with two forced fumbles, one pass defended, 16 tackles, and only six receptions allowed. The coaching staff has taken notice, and both Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich have gone out of their way to compare him to Jimmie Ward, who played under Saleh in San Francisco.

“Here’s this long, big, physical safety that just has range,” said Ulbrich of Pinnock during OTAs. “He checks all the physical boxes. Now, for him it’s really learning the position, he’s a long-time corner. He’s a guy that’s getting better and he’s getting more comfortable at the position.”

Pinnock is 23 years old with plus-size and top-end athletic ability, evidenced by his 39.5-inch vertical at the combine last year. He might not be the Day Two pick Davis was or the coveted free agent signing Joyner was, but he might just snatch the job from both of them if he can build on his play late last season.

T: George Fant vs. Mekhi Becton

If they’re healthy, and that’s a big if for Becton, both of these guys are clear cut starters. They aren’t competing for a job, they’re massive linchpins in the prospective success of this franchise. Still, only one of them can play on the left side. Becton played his rookie season at left tackle, looking like a future star at the position in the process. It’s been all downhill from there, though. The knee injury that was supposed to sideline him for 4-8 weeks ended up being the whole season. His weight became a problem, reportedly ballooning up to 400-pounds in the offseason.

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The Jets flirted with the idea of selecting a tackle in the first round, but opted to pass instead, banking on Becton’s resurgence in camp. So far that hasn’t happened, as Becton understandably missed optional minicamp to be there for the birth of his child, and worked out away from the team when he did attend, still rehabbing from injury. If he regains his form, he can push George Fant for the left tackle spot. Right now, though, Fant has a stronghold on it after posting the lowest pressure rate from a Jets tackle since 2006, per PFF.

Fant is in a contract year and has said publicly that he wants to remain in New York for the rest of his career, but the two sides haven’t reached an extension just yet. Douglas and his staff are likely waiting to see whether 2021 was a flash in the pan, or whether Fant really can be the left tackle of the future for this franchise. The Jets will need both of these guys to play at the top of their game this season to properly evaluate Zach Wilson and the rest of this offense, but which side of the line each of them plays on will depend on what they show the staff in camp.

WR: Denzel Mims vs. Jeff Smith vs. Lawrence Cager

The first four wide receiver spots on the roster are pretty much locked in. The Jets used premium capital the past two years for Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Garrett Wilson and Braxton Berrios. Should they choose to only keep five receivers, though, the last spot will likely come down to a battle between Mims and Smith. And given New York’s recent injury history at this position, the WR5 can become the WR2 in an instant.

Of course, the Jets would love to see Mims go out and snag this last spot. They drafted him in the second round back in 2020 with the hopes that he’d be a starter sooner rather than later, and that hasn’t come to fruition. He has had a hard time seeing the field, which has been chalked up to a lack of discipline and just too many mistakes in key situations. To his credit, the coaching staff has gone out of their way to rave about the shape he showed up in.

“He’s a lot further along today then he was a year ago,” said Saleh earlier this month.

The strong start from Mims early in offseason workouts probably would be enough to slide into that WR5 spot if not for the performance from Jeff Smith, who was one of the standouts in OTAs. Smith has seen ample time for the Jets over the past couple seasons due to injury and has carried that level of familiarity into this offseason, where he has seen snaps with the first team and has continued to contribute on special teams. If Smith keeps his foot on the gas, it might be hard for Mims to make the roster, unless the Jets keep six wide receivers.

Lawrence Cager is more of a tight end-wide receiver hybrid at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, but he also had a strong showing at OTAs. A fan-favorite as an undrafted free agent a couple years ago, Cager has battled injuries and has seen some time with both the Jets and the Cleveland Browns over the past two years before re-signing with New York in January. He has reportedly wowed in a couple practices thus far and still has an uphill battle to make the roster, but he is a name worth watching.

K: Greg Zuerlein vs. Eddy Pineiro

As if the Jets’ offensive and defensive struggles haven’t been enough the past couple of years, the kicking game has been a disaster since Jason Myers left for Seattle. Matt Ammendola and Sam Ficken never got into any sort of rhythm, and extra points became far from a guarantee. New York tried Alex Kessman late in the year, only to watch him miss each of his extra point attempts against the Eagles.

Finally, New York found something with Eddy Pineiro at the tail end of the 2021 campaign. Pineiro made all eight of his field goals including a 51-yarder, as well as nine-of-ten of his extra points. Still, the sample size is quite small, and the Jets would be remiss not to bring in another kicker to compete with him.

That’s exactly what they did by signing Zuerlein, a veteran and former All-Pro who spent his last two seasons with the Cowboys. Dallas reportedly tried to re-sign “Greg the Leg,” but he inked a 1-year, $2.75M contract with New York instead. Zuerlein probably has the leg up on Pineiro given his years of NFL experience, but this is one of the more true battles in camp at the most meritocratic position in the game.


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