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FLORHAM PARK, NJ – The play took place in the New York Jets’ penultimate practice. In a 7-on-7 period, rookie-wide receiver Garrett Wilson ran an intermediate crossing route and made a twisted catch on a pass from quarterback Zach Wilson who was behind him. It was not a textbook route by Wilson, a bit out of position, but he demonstrated such concentration and body control that he was able to adjust and make a great play.
A spectacle that could serve as a warning to the bally-skinned class of ’22: Their top-four draftees, who learn on the go, can at times deviate from the script, but they can compensate with pure talent.
“Playmakers, baby,” general manager Joe Douglas said on draft night.
Douglas ‘comment, captured in the Jets’ new, in-house documentary, “Flight 2022: New Heights,” came after the selection of running back Breece Hall in the second round. The Jets believe they got playmakers in Hall and Wilson, along with two dynamic defenders in cornerback Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner and defensive than Jermaine Johnson II. All four are expected to play important roles as beginners, combined with last year’s draft class to form a foundation.
After completing four weeks of non-contact training last Wednesday, each rookie has made their first impression on the field on teammates and coaches.
Gardner (round 1, fourth overall)
With DJ Reed and Brandin Echols on the sidelines with injuries, Gardner got many reps with the starting lineup. A permanent promotion is only a matter of time.
In addition to the obvious physical traits, Gardner impresses with his intangible things, according to the coaches. They like his football skills and his willingness to learn. When he makes a mistake, he immediately goes to his position coach to get an explanation. In an open practice, he wore raised gloves – pictured oversized oven mitts – as a way to improve his hand placement and to prevent him from grabbing. He started that practice in college, where he accumulated nine penalties over his last two seasons.
“They call a lot more things in the league,” Gardner said. “I thought it would be the other way around, but it’s not.”
Security Jordan Whitehead said Gardner reminds him of former NFL star Richard Sherman because of their similar build. Gardner is 6-foot-3, with 33 1/2-inch arms. When he intercepted a Zach Wilson pass in the end zone, he reached up and snatched it out of the air.
Despite his inexperience, Gardner has enough raw talent to stick to top receivers in man-to-man coverage. Like any beginner, he will be confused by certain route combinations and formations, but in practice he showed an eerie ability to adapt the midfield to situations where the attack deliberately tried to throw him out.
“He wants his lumps and his rookie moments, which they all do, but at the same time there will not be many of them,” said defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “Probably smaller than most.”
Garrett Wilson (Round 1, 10th overall)
The Jets made an offer to San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel and examined AJ Brown, who was given from the Tennessee Titans to the Philadelphia Eagles before taking on Wilson – the best receiver on their draftboard. In the long run, Wilson can be better than both if he reaches his full potential.
The Jets like his versatility because he can play inside and out, a big plus in a scheme that requires receivers to master more than one position. Wilson is smooth and fast with sticky hands.
The coaches like the focus he shows in the meeting rooms. The pre-draft assessment process is intensive, but you never really know a player until he’s in your building. Wilson has exceeded their expectations in that regard. In fact, he plans to stay in Florham Park during the six-week break to work with the conditioning staff.
The big question: How will he react when the game becomes physical? There was no bump-and-run in offseason drills, providing easy releases for the receivers. It’s another world when there’s a cornerback in your face looking to beat wideouts of their route. At 6 feet, 183 pounds, Wilson is not the greatest receiver.
“He’s going to have to keep learning how much more physical this level is, and that’s especially true when we put the pillows on and you go through the daily ringtone that goes against our secondary,” said offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur.
Aside from injury, Wilson will have a major role in the receiving corps.
Johnson (rounds 1, 26th overall)
Because the offseason was basically a passing camp – no running game, no live pass-rushing drills – it was hard to get a good read about Johnson. So much we know:
On a deep defensive line, he worked primarily with second and third teams, often as the wide-9 defensive end. It’s the most important pass-rushing position in the Jets’ four-man front, and they think he’s ideal for that spot because of his size (6-foot-5, 254 pounds), explosiveness and engine.
Nearly two months after the draft, the Jets still can’t believe Johnson dropped to 26. In the documentary, Douglas reveals that Johnson said to him before the draft, “Bid to get me.” And they did.
“He has explosion, he has speed, he has bending – all the things that rushers need to have from a physical point of view,” Ulbrich said. “Now it’s just learning his game, learning the intricacies of the position, learning to exert himself on a daily basis, learning the gravel needed to succeed on the line.”
Hall (round 2, 36th overall)
Although he lasted until the second round, Hall is seen by the organization at the same level as their top three picks. The only difference is that he plays a position that has been devalued in recent years. In their eyes, he is a great talent, a back with three down who can have an immediate impact as a runner and receiver.
Hall did not get a chance to show his rushing skills in practice, but he excelled as a pass-catcher. He seemed comfortable swinging out of the backfield or running sharp breakaway routes across the middle. He was such a prolific runner in Iowa State that his reception ability was overshadowed (36 receptions last season).
The Jets love his home running potential, a dimension that is largely lacking in their running game. Hall weighs 220 pounds, so there is also a power element in his game. He and Michael Carter expect to be a one-two-stroke for an offensive that is heavily dependent on the ground game.
“He’s a fluid trait,” LaFleur said. “He sneaks in on defenders more than you can say when you look at tapes. When you’re there in person, it’s just another style of movement that guys are not so used to, you might say.”