The Jets have had some very impressive, promising play from the top of their draft class through the first half of this season. Sauce Gardner and Garrett Wilson are starting — and starring as well — and Breece Hall was dashing toward a potential Offensive Rookie of the Year award before he tore his ACL last month. Both already have produced a signature moment in their brief NFL careers and shown that they can, at times, be dominant.
It’s been an exciting start that has validated the selections made by the front office and not only helped the Jets begin this year with a 5-3 record but provided optimism about the immediate and long- term future of the franchise.
The kids are all right.
Well, most of them. The one first-round pick in whom the Jets invested the most draft capital in April has yet to put his stamp on this season. The Jets traded three picks, two of them in the top 69, to move up to 26 and grab pass rusher Jermaine Johnson. They thought he could become the type of player who could control the edge in the running game and torment opposing quarterbacks.
Even though he hasn’t done that yet, they still do.
Perhaps that will begin to show up on Sunday against the Bills when he returns after missing three games because of an ankle injury.
“I think he’s gonna have a really cool second half of the season,” Robert Saleh said Friday. “I think he’ll play well this week. He’s got great length, strength, power. He’s got deceptive pass-rush ability. And the more reps he gets, I think he’s gonna be a really good football player.”
Getting those reps has been the hard part. Unlike his fellow rookies who stepped right into starting roles, Johnson was part of a rotation when the season began. In those first four games, he had 1.5 sacks.
“It’s been very quiet for him because we have a deep defensive line,” Saleh said. “We’ve got a lot of different guys on the defensive line. I joked with him that he kind of fell into the perfect situation where there’s not a lot of pressure for him to produce but he was producing pretty well. And then he got hurt.”
The Jets’ trade of Jacob Martin to the Broncos this past week should open up some reps for Johnson, who said he is eager to get back on the field and keep pace with his fellow rookies.
“I’ve loved watching all my rookie classmates ball out,” he said. “I’m not surprised they’re balling out. That’s the type of players they are. I’m just excited to get out there and contribute to a win, contribute to the team and offer more than just being in the training room. Try to get back out there.”
He will be on Sunday, and in a game that is, at least partially, one of the reasons why he was coveted by the Jets in the draft process. There is nothing dainty about the Bills’ offense with their big, physical quarterback, Josh Allen, as the centerpiece. He’s been compared at various times to Ben Roethlisberger and Cam Newton in terms of being able to withstand hits and keep plays alive.
Johnson is just the type of ax the Jets think can fell this tree.
“We targeted him and drafted him because of the length and size and the ability he has,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “This is the type of game that you’re going to need it. I’m excited about him getting back out there, getting healthy.”
Johnson said there is no secret to stopping Allen. “Just play our version of defense,” he said. “Just make sure we do our film study, practicing what to do against their strengths and making sure we are on top of what we are good and bad at and going out there playing the way this defense has been playing the last four weeks.”
Three of those weeks, though, have been without him.
Now they’ll have him back.
“He adds another piece to the D-line,” starter Carl Lawson said. “He came in and worked really hard and he’s trying to get better at his craft like everybody else. [His return gives us] more bodies to cycle through so we can go eat.”
Johnson said he can hardly believe his rookie season is about half over. “It’s going fast, man,” he said. “That’s when you appreciate everything and take every second to enjoy it.”
There still is time for Johnson to do what the other high draft picks in his class have done, too. Not that Johnson is keeping score in that regard. “As a competitor you always want to make big plays,” he said, “but whatever I can be for this team to help them win games, that’s what I’m excited for.”
That’s why he’s here.