The Jets have gone through seven practices of training camp — three of them with pads on. Head coach Robert Saleh said at the start of camp that much of the evaluation would come once the pads went on and hitting started — although there hasn’t been any tackling to the ground yet.
The Jets are off on Thursday — other than a walkthrough, media not allowed — so in lieu of our usual practice observations, this felt like a good time to highlight some players fighting for roster spots who have helped themselves.
The Jets return to the practice field on Friday before Saturday night’s Green and White scrimmage at MetLife Stadium.
DE Bryce Huff
Of everyone on this list, Huff feels like the safest bet to make the 53-man roster. The Jets are deep at defensive end and, as Saleh has said, an NFL-caliber player or two is going to wind up getting cut.
Carl Lawson, Jonathan Franklin-Myers, Jermaine Johnson and Micheal Clemons are all locks, leaving Huff to duke it out with Jacob Martin, Vinny Curry and Jabari Zuniga for two or three spots. All four have had their moments throughout training camp, but Huff has clearly made the most noticeable impact — and probably has “sacked” the quarterback more than anyone on the defense through seven practices.
He missed eight games due to injury last season, but when Huff was healthy he flashed some of that talent, notching two sacks, six QB hits and 17 total pressures in nine games.
“He is a really, really good pass rusher,” Saleh said. “He knows how to win one-on-ones. When he was fully healthy a year ago, we were pretty darn good up front and he’s a good player. It’s his third year now so he’s even more comfortable, he’s stronger, he understands and he’s year two in the schemes.”
DE Jacob Martin
As mentioned, all four of the Huff, Martin, Zuniga and Curry group have had their moments. Curry was disruptive in the first few practices but is out with a hamstring injury. Zuniga had a practice-ending sack on Tuesday.
But Martin, signed as a free agent from the Texans this offseason, has outplayed both of them. He hasn’t “sacked” the quarterback as much as Huff, but he’s provided plenty of pressure and the Jets coaching staff values his versatility. He had four sacks and two QB hits for the Texans last year — and he received practically equal snaps lining up from the left and right sides.
“The way he operates, he is so calculated in the way he approaches everything that he does,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “There is a specific thing he is working on every single play, every single day… What I’m starting to learn about him — obviously, you watch the tape and you see the strain and you see the effort, you see the explosion, the speed. You saw that. We all knew that. What you didn’t know is the brain. What you didn’t know is the man he is. So, I think he’s going to really give us the opportunity to open up the playbook a little bit and take advantage of his versatility.”
DT Jonathan Marshall
The Jets need depth on the interior of the defensive line — and it’s still possible they look for a veteran addition over the next few weeks — but Marshall has helped his case in camp. He’s likely battling Nathan Shepherd for a roster spot, and through seven practices Marshall has the edge.
The 2021 sixth-round pick has made some plays as both a pass rusher and run stopper. Saleh wants Marshall to develop into more than just a run stopper.
“One thing with our system, we don’t really designate any of those guys ‘run stuffers.’ We want a bunch of three techniques that just fire off the ball creating knockback,” Saleh said. “His area of emphasis is to just continue to strain and grind through the double-team blocks and the backside double teams and all the different ops that he has to strain and create push and not get moved. It is something that he has improved on greatly over the last couple of days, but now he’s got to prove it.”
WR Jeff Smith
The Jets are loaded at wide receiver, with four players — Elijah Moore, Corey Davis, Garrett Wilson and Braxton Berrios — locked into significant roles.
Last year, the Jets kept seven wide receivers on their initial 53-man roster, but with the depth they have at other positions, it seems unlikely they’ll keep that many again.
On that note, Smith and Denzel Mims are locked in a battle for the fifth receiver spot. It’s certainly possible both will make the team (if Mims isn’t traded) but if they’re fighting for a role, Smith is still ahead of him.
Mims has made some plays in camp, including a nice 60-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown on Tuesday. Mims has also been working with the special teams unit, a necessity for any fifth receiver.
But Mims’ work has been almost exclusively with Mike White at quarterback, while Smith — a standout in the spring — has been getting his reps with Zach Wilson and Joe Flacco, making plays with both of them. On Wilson’s perfect 8-for-8 day in team drills on Wednesday, Smith caught one of the passes. He caught a touchdown in red zone drills from Flacco on Monday.
Smith also played quarterback in college so he adds some intriguing skills as a potential gadget player and most importantly (for a fifth receiver) Smith can contribute as a returner and gunner, too.
— Zack Rosenblatt (@ZackBlatt) August 2, 2022
LB Kai Nacua
The 27-year-old moved from safety to linebacker. He’s mostly been a special teams player but he’s made some plays as a linebacker already in camp, including putting a big hit on running back Zonovan Knight on Wednesday.
His path to the 53-man roster is still via special teams, but it’ll be interesting to watch him at linebacker in the preseason.
K Greg Zuerlein
In the kicker battle between Zuerlein and Eddy Pineiro, the man they once called “Legatron” has the early advantage. He’s dealing with a toe injury and sat out Wednesday’s practice, but assuming that’s not a long-term issue, he should still be viewed as the favorite to win the job.
Monday, Pineiro and Zuerlein took turns kicking field goals from 28, 32, 40 and 46 yards. Zuerlein made all of his attempts, while Pineiro missed his from 28 and 32.
With Zuerlein out on Wednesday, Pineiro was 3-for-4 on long field goals, missing one from about 55 yards.
For now, it feels like Zuerlein has the edge, although the job will be won or lost in the preseason.
(Top photo of Bryce Huff: Kirby Lee / USA TODAY Sports)