One position that should provide a tight training camp battle is nickel cornerback.
The New York Jets have lined up Brian Poole in the slot the past two seasons, but the defensive back is currently an unsigned free agent after missing time with injury in 2020, and Joe Douglas has made no efforts to bring him back.
With other general managers and coaches in recent years, the Jets have commonly brought in a veteran to play this role. Before Poole, Buster Skrine held down the job during the Todd Bowles era. Douglas and Robert Saleh are doing things a bit differently.
This response came after he was asked about bringing in a veteran at cornerback. Saleh’s initial comments explained the Jets’ urge to develop the youth rather than go this route: “The easy answer is to right now bring in a veteran, but a veteran will probably just eat up reps and not give us an ability to look at these young guys who are just starving for an opportunity.”
Bold is one way to put this strategy, forward-thinking is another.
Football is a young man’s game, and the franchises that draft well usually dominate the league in the long run. Douglas has noted many times that he wants to rebuild through the draft. If that’s your game plan, why wouldn’t you give these players the reps to actually develop in camp? Especially since it’s under the tutelage of Saleh, who practically has a Ph.D. in NFL defense.
The Jets may also go this route on the outside, but it’s almost a certainty that they’ll go with a young core at nickel.
Competitors & Favorites in the Slot
First off, it’s important to understand that different types of players may compete for this position. There will be the coverage backs that garner the most media attention in the slot but expect a few safeties to mix in here as well when the opposing offense gives defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich a ‘bigger look.’
We’ll begin with the coverage specialists that will take on slot receivers like Cole Beasley of the Buffalo Bills.
It’s not entirely clear whether rookie Brandin Echols will play outside or the slot, but his versatility allows him to try out at both positions. At Kentucky, the sixth-round pick played 77% of his snaps as an outside corner, but at the NFL level, he profiles as more of a nickel or dime.
Javelin Guidry and Michael Carter II however have been competing for the slot job at OTAs. The third name in battle has been defensive back Elijah Campbell.
No offense to Campbell, who doubles as a safety and special teamer, but it’s expected that Guidry or Carter will be the day one nickel in coverage situations.
Guidry replaced Poole after his injury last season, and the former undrafted prospect played well in the audition. His 4.29-second 40-yard dash makes him the fastest player on the Jets roster, but he also has strength as the first player in combine history to total 20-plus bench press reps along with a sub-4.3 40-time.
In 11 games and two starts in 2020, Guidry was credited with an absurdly efficient four forced fumbles off 22 combined tackles. Pro Football Focus awarded the slot CB with a 73.1 grade, which was the highest out of the Jets cornerbacks last year, but they also determined that he allowed 12 receptions on just 15 targets.
As mentioned, Guidry’s greatest challenger is the Duke product, Carter. According to Connor Hughes of The Athletic: “The Jets clearly want [Carter] to seize the job.” Hughes went on to note that the Jets had a “very, very high grade on him” because of his scheme fit, versatility and leadership in the locker room.
It definitely showed at OTAs, as Carter received a bulk of the playing time. He even recorded an interception off a deflected pass in the red zone 7-on-7 drills.
Possible X-Factor at Nickel
One player missing from OTAs right now that could potentially factor in at nickel is safety Ashtyn Davis. Douglas spent a third-round pick on the safety out of California because of his ability to move around and make an impact all over the field.
The utility player had trouble getting acclimated to the NFL during his rookie campaign, but it’s important to remember that Davis only really started playing professional football in college. He may still be raw, but his natural ability and athleticism made him an asset in the eyes of the Jets GM. Perhaps Saleh and Ulbrich can teach him the rest.
Don’t expect Davis to cover the top slot receivers in the game, but he may become that extra safety that subs in to help with a two-tight end set or any situations that require a “big nickel” package.
Keep in mind that the Jets also drafted Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen as linebackers this April, but both played safety in college. Although one of the two may land a starting role at WILL linebacker, they could also be utilized in a big nickel scheme.
The Jets have plenty of options on defense, and the main thing these players have in common is that they’re young and hungry for opportunity. Trust the process Jets fans, this is what developing NFL talent looks like.