FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The play happened in the New York Jets‘ next-to-last practice. In a 7-on-7 period, rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson ran an intermediate crossing route and made a twisting catch on a pass from quarterback Zach Wilson that was behind him. It wasn’t a textbook route by Wilson, slightly out of position, but he demonstrated such concentration and body control that he was able to adjust and make a big play.
A play that could serve as a harbinger for the ballyhooed Class of ’22: Their top four draftees, learning on the fly, might veer off script at times, 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 end Jermaine Johnson II. All four are expected to play significant roles as rookies, combining with last year’s draft class to form a foundation.
After wrapping up four weeks of non-contact practice last Wednesday, each rookie has made their initial on-field impressions on teammates and coaches.
Gardner (Round 1, fourth overall)
Beyond the obvious physical traits, Gardner impresses with his intangibles, according to the coaches. They like his football aptitude and his willingness to learn. When he makes a mistake, he goes immediately to his position coach for an explanation. In one open practice, he wore puffy gloves — picture oversized oven mitts — as a way to improve his hand placement and to prevent grabbing. He started that practice in college, where he accumulated nine penalties over his final two seasons.
“They call a lot more stuff in the league,” Gardner said. “I thought it would be the other way around, but it’s not.”
Safety 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 rookie, he will get confused by certain route combinations and formations, but he displayed an uncanny ability in practice to adjust midplay to situations where the offense purposely tried to throw him off.
“He’s going to have his lumps and his rookie moments, which they all do, but at the same time there’s not going be a lot of them,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “Probably less than most.”
Garrett Wilson (Round 1, 10th overall)
The Jets made an offer for San Francisco 49ers star Deebo Samuel and looked into A.J. Brown, who was dealt from the Tennessee Titans to the Philadelphia Eagles, before taking Wilson — the top receiver on their draft board. Long term, Wilson could turn out better than both, if he reaches his full potential.
The Jets like his versatility because he can play inside and outside, a huge plus in a scheme that demands receivers to master more than one position. Wilson is smooth and fast with sticky hands.
The coaches like the focus he shows in meetings rooms. The pre-draft vetting process is intensive, but you never really know a player until he’s in your building. Wilson has exceeded their expectations in that respect. In fact, he’s planning to remain in Florham Park during the six-week break to work with the conditioning staff.
The big question: How will he respond when the game gets physical? There was no bump-and-run in offseason practices, providing easy releases for the receivers. It’s a different world when there’s a cornerback in your face, looking to knock wideouts off their route. At 6-foot, 183 pounds, Wilson isn’t the biggest receiver.
“He’s going to have to continue to learn how much more physical this level is, and that’s going to be especially when we put on the pads, and you go through that daily ringer going against our secondary,” offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur said.
Barring injury, Wilson will have a big-time role in the receiving corps.
Johnson (Round 1, 26th overall)
Because the offseason was basically a passing camp — no run game, no live pass-rushing drills — it was difficult to get a good read on Johnson. This much we know:
On a deep defensive line, he worked mainly with the second and third teams, often as the wide-9 defensive end. That is the key pass-rushing position in the Jets’ four-man front, and they believe he’s ideal for that spot because of his size (6-foot-5, 254 pounds), explosiveness and motor.
Nearly two months after the draft, the Jets still can’t believe Johnson fell to 26th. In the documentary, Douglas reveals that Johnson told him before the draft, “Trade up to get me.” And they did.
“He’s got explosion, he’s got speed, he’s got bend — all the stuff that rushers need to have from a physical standpoint,” Ulbrich said. “Now it’s just learning his game, learning the intricacies of the position, learning how to strain on a daily basis, learning the grit that’s necessary to be successful on the line.”
Hall (Round 2, 36th overall)
Even though he lasted until the second round, Hall is viewed by the organization on the same level as their top three picks. The only difference is he plays a position that has been devalued in recent years. In their eyes, he’s a big-time talent, a three-down back who can make an immediate impact as a runner and receiver.
Hall didn’t get a chance to show off his rushing skills in practice, but he excelled as a pass-catcher. He seemed comfortable swinging out of the backfield or running sharp-breaking routes over the middle. He was such a prolific runner at Iowa State that his receiving skill was overshadowed (36 receptions last season).
The Jets love his home-run potential, a dimension sorely lacking in their running game. Hall is 220 pounds, so there’s a power element to his game as well. He and Michael Carter figure to be the one-two punch for an offensive that relies heavily on the ground game.
“He’s a fluid mover,” LaFleur said. “He sneaks up on defenders more than I guess you could say watching on tape. When you’re there in person, it’s just a different movement style that guys aren’t as used to, I guess you could say.”