The New York Jets had their first preseason game on August 12 and while the big story was of course the Zach Wilson injury, there was still a battle that occurred after the early exit — and not just with the Philadelphia Eagles.
The roster competition tends to be the real purpose of the preseason. It’s an opportunity for bubble candidates to emerge and it’s also a chance for the coaching staff to truly evaluate all 90 players that enter training camp with the team.
Having said that, here are your five biggest NYJ risers after Week 1 of the preseason.
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Shout-outs of the Night
This weekly winners and losers piece is more about bubble candidates than roster locks, but I will give a few shout-outs to 53-man guarantees that showed up in Philly.
Tyler Conklin continued his torrid summer with both Wilson and Mike White at quarterback. The tight end not only appears to be more of a playmaker than many realize, but he also seems to be a focal point of this offense early on.
Rookies Micheal Clemons and Jeremy Ruckert also made the most of their opportunities. The fourth-round defensive end had his first sack and he also sealed the edge on a really nice outside-zone run stop.
Clemons got turned around once or twice but generally speaking, he was either around the ball or in the backfield hassling the quarterback. The guy also looks like a five-year veteran, physically speaking, so there’s that.
Ruckert had a similar impact with fourth-string QB Chase Streveler — who played great by the way, but will not break into this list being that he has no shot of making the roster. A short touchdown reception headlined a few designed motion passes to the third-round TE.
One last note — there was an opinion last weekend that wide receiver Jeff Smith’s roster spot was “as safe as anybody.” The WR5 had a solid night in limited second-team action with one 20-yard catch. He appears to be well ahead of players like Denzel Mims and Calvin Jackson Jr. at this time.
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5. La’Mical Perine/Zonovan Knight (RBs).
Unfortunately, these two are in direct competition with one another and neither might end up making it when all is said and done. Perine had a renaissance effort with 5.1 yards per carry (YPC) and a nice cutback gainer for a 14-yard first down.
Knight was actually much worse statistically — a dreadful 2.2 YPC — but displayed fight and toughness on his touchdown push. He also looked decent as a potential backup kick returner behind Braxton Berrios.
It’s fair to note that the run-blocking was mostly poor and these two had to grind for every yard — outside of encouraging efforts from Grant Hermanns and Dan Feeney — but Perine and Knight still gained some ground on Ty Johnson and Tevin Coleman who did not play against the Eagles (Johnson is injured).
4. Calvin Jackson Jr./Irvin Charles (WRs).
The two undrafted rookie wide receivers that stood out most were Charles and Jackson. Although both played a very imperfect game — would have been nice if Charles came down with that near touchdown fade route — they each had really positive moments to build on next week.
Jackson’s was the obvious, a game-winning corner route touchdown that left an Eagles DB shaking his head in disbelief. The former “Last Chance U” member and Washington State star also had a designed catch-and-run in the flats and looked to be a part of Mike LaFleur’s plans.
Charles had no catches but he’s making this list because of his tremendous special teams effort as a gunner. It was an “almost” night for the ex-Penn State receiver — almost a touchdown, almost brought down the returner but did enough to send him spinning, and almost had a couple of receptions.
Both distanced themselves from Keshunn Abram and Rashard Davis but still have a long way to go in unseating Mims.
3. Rachad Wildgoose (CB).
You might be asking yourself: ‘Who?’ Wildgoose was poached off the division rival Buffalo Bills practice squad in 2021. He didn’t get much burn last season but impressed last night.
Wildgoose was all over the football, especially against the run, and showed really strong pop on his tackles. The 22-year-old ended up with five tackles (four solo) and didn’t really get beat too often in coverage — if at all. He is a former 2021 sixth-round pick who could challenge Brandin Echols and Isaiah Dunn for the final role in the secondary.
2. Lawrence Cager (TE).
The problem with Cager is that it’s really hard to see where he fits onto this 53-man roster. The Jets have three tight end locks in Conklin, Ruckert and veteran C.J. Uzomah. Behind them, Trevon Wesco and Kenny Yeboah have played well both on offense and special teams and seem to have a firm lead on the WR hybrid.
Having said that, Cager continues to flash his potential as a pass-catcher. He led Gang Green and their comeback victory with two short grabs that he took for 40 yards — and most of that came after the catch.
Cager still profiles as more of a practice squad candidate as he learns how to block at his new position and impact special teams, but he’s certainly still a name to watch.
1. Jabari Zuniga/Tanzel Smart (DL).
I know, I’ve cheated and added some spots to this “top five” but this pair of third-team disruptors deserves to share in this week’s number one honor.
Zuniga has been having a scorching hot training camp and he continued that in Philadelphia with his fifth sack of August (padded practice and games combined). It’s not just the pass-rushing that’s been a breath of fresh air from the perceived 2020 draft bust, Zuniga was at the center of a fourth-and-one run stuff and he was rarely caught out of position.
He finished with six total tackles (one for a loss) and two QB hits, plus the aforementioned sack.
The veteran defensive tackle and staff favorite, Smart, was also revitalized. Some pegged the eventual practice squad mainstay as a sneaky roster candidate last summer but in the end, the Jets went with Nathan Shepherd as the fourth D-tackle.
Last night, Smart thoroughly outplayed Shepherd, second-year DT Jonathan Marshall, and even veteran Sheldon Rankins for that matter. He was right next to Zuniga on that fourth-and-one stop and finished with six total tackles, two TFLs, two partial sacks and three QB hits.
Stay tuned for our five biggest losers vs. Philadelphia, which will post on August 14.