FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:
1. Sauce on the menu: They dined at a swanky Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, then sat together courtside at the Garden. It was just the two of them, Aaron Rodgers and Sauce Gardner — an NFL icon and one of the game’s young stars. In a tweet, Gardner jokingly referred to Rodgers as his “chaperone.” They hung out for seven hours on Tuesday night, talking ball and life in New York.
Gardner came away from their night on the town more convinced than ever that Rodgers will help him become a better player, something he talked about during the long run-up to the blockbuster trade. Gardner once thought that process would occur only on the field, with “tough throws that would be hard for me to intercept and break up,” but the 2022 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year now believes Rodgers’ assistance will happen on a deeper level.
“He was telling me he’s going to be able to help me out, tell me how teams are going to attack me, tell me the things I can work on as a cornerback,” Gardner said. “He was telling me he’s got the secret gems that he can just give me.
“That’s not what I was thinking, though, when I said he was going to make me better. Just hearing that from him made me respect him even more. Yeah, man, he’s a great guy. I wasn’t expecting that, but I’m looking forward to being able to just sit down and watch film and tell him what we’re trying to do and he can tell us what they’re trying to do on offense.”
Rodgers hasn’t played a day of cornerback in his life, but he knows pass routes, leverage and every type of coverage imaginable. So, yes, he has a library of intel he can share with Gardner and other players.
They also discussed the crucible of Gotham and its challenges.
“There’s no pressure when it comes to playing in New York,” Gardner said. “You’ve got to tell yourself, ‘I’m built for this.’ Me and Aaron, we caught ourselves (Tuesday), telling each other like, ‘I’m built for this.’ … We had that one-on-one moment when we were eating dinner.”
Gardner had one of the best rookie seasons in the history of the sport — the first rookie cornerback to be named first-team All-Pro since Ronnie Lott in 1981 — but now there’s a new challenge. He admitted, “I’m a target now.” Some instant stars fall victim to complacency, but he insisted that won’t happen because he intends to work harder than last year.
“There have been a lot of distractions,” he said, “but I’m keeping my head on straight.”
2. Let’s make a deal? Two defensive tackles from Quinnen Williams‘ draft class — Tennessee Titans‘ Jeffery Simmons ($23.5 million per year) and the New York Giants‘ Dexter Lawrence ($22.5 million) — have received big extensions this offseason. Williams appears to be The Next Man Up, but the two sides aren’t close to an agreement even though the second-contract market for top defensive tackles is clearly formed.
The Jets have leverage because they have Williams’ rights for 2023, plus a potential franchise tag in 2024, but it doesn’t do them any good to upset one of their top players. In the meantime, he’s skipping voluntary workouts.
3. A dream grows in Brooklyn: What a week for former Pitt running back Israel Abanikanda: Drafted in the fifth round by one of his hometown teams, attended his first rookie minicamp and signed his first contract (four years, $4.2 million). He was raised in Brooklyn, New York, but his parents are from Nigeria.
“They moved over to the States for a better life,” he said Friday. “For them to see this happening, they did it for a reason.”
4. Aaron’s BFF: The addition of wide receiver Randall Cobb sparked some mocking criticism of the Jets, with folks saying it’s just another Rodgers-orchestrated move. Maybe so, but there’s no denying Cobb and Rodgers had a good thing in Green Bay.
Over the last two seasons, Rodgers posted a 90.7 QBR when targeting Cobb, his second-highest QBR targeting a single player over that span behind only Davante Adams (90.8), according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Since entering the league in 2011, Cobb has posted more catches, yards and touchdowns from the slot than any player.
If Cobb makes Rodgers feel more comfortable in his transition to New York, what’s wrong with that?
A potential issue is the composition of the receiving corps. The Jets have six veterans, none of whom played special teams last season. That could create roster-management problems on game day. A player like Denzel Mims, who has speed and untapped potential, could wind up being the odd man out when the roster is pared to 53.
5. For an encore…: Wide receiver Garrett Wilson, who said at the end of the season that he wanted to add weight and strength to help him at the line of scrimmage, is up to 188 pounds after finishing his rookie year at 181. He’d like to get into the 190s without sacrificing speed and quickness.
The 2022 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year received quite a compliment from Rodgers, who told the “Pat McAfee Show” that Wilson reminds him of Adams the way he gets in and out of his breaks so smoothly. Wilson said he’s “honored” to be mentioned in the same sentence as Adams, whom he considers the best in the league.
6. Name to watch: The Jets didn’t draft any receivers, but they signed an undrafted free agent and paid him like a draftee.
Southern Mississippi’s Jason Brownlee is receiving a $246,000 guarantee — equivalent to a low fifth-round selection. Clearly, the Jets see potential. Brownlee is 6-foot-2 with a 40-inch vertical jump. He caught 55 passes for 891 yards (16.2 average) and eight touchdowns last season.
7. Tips for Tippmann: Former Jets tackle Jason Fabini, a member of the offensive line that paved the way for Curtis Martin’s NFL rushing title in 2004, goes way back with second-round pick Joe Tippmann (Wisconsin). Fabini coached him in junior high and at Bishop Dwenger High in Fort Wayne, Indiana, their hometown and Fabini’s alma mater. There’s a family connection, too. Fabini’s ex-wife is a cousin of Tippmann’s father.
He might be biased, but Fabini sees a bright future for Tippmann.
“He has a good football IQ from being around it for so long,” Fabini said in a phone interview. “He loves the game, he’s a hard worker and he’s tough.”
When the Jets made the pick, Fabini left Tippmann’s draft party and raced home, returning a short time later with Jets gear for him to wear at the celebration.
Tippmann will have a chance to compete with Connor McGovern for the center job. Asked what he told Tippmann about the Jets, Fabini said, “There’s nothing like winning in New York.”
8. Big Woods: Newly signed Al Woods is a 36-year-old defensive tackle who started last season for the 30th-ranked run defense (Seattle Seahawks). Cause for concern? Let’s take a closer look.
Woods wasn’t the problem. Seattle allowed 4.4 yards per rush when the 330-pounder was on the field (close to the league average), but it ballooned to 4.9 when he wasn’t. His differential was the best among their linemen. He will replace Nathan Shepherd, who had the top differential among the Jets’ linemen.
9. AVT update: Alijah Vera-Tucker, rebounding from triceps surgery, expects to be cleared for team drills in training camp. For now, he’s limited to individual work in very light practices. Vera-Tucker, who has played four different positions in two years, is taking reps at right guard — his best position, according to the Jets. Which player lines up at tackle is difficult to say. They have four candidates for two spots — Duane Brown, Mekhi Becton, Billy Turner and Max Mitchell.
10. The last word: “It probably (didn’t) sink in until I caught that first pass from him. That’s a legend right there. That’s a Hall of Fame player.” — Wilson on Rodgers