The level of excitement around New York Jets nation right now is fairly high, but one area still has many fans rolling their eyes — cornerback.
As most people know by now, the plan from Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh has been to develop the first and second-year defensive backs on the roster. Saleh and positional coach Tony Oden are very confident that they can mold at least one or two of these youngsters into NFL-caliber starters.
The Jets general manager addressed these concerns during his recent press conference. “Look, when you have a young position group you do wonder how some guys — there’s a little bit of an unknown factor… but also we’ve been in practice, we’ve seen the games, we’ve seen guys compete, we’ve seen guys move around. I know they’re getting the best coaching that they can possibly get from Coach Saleh, from [Jeff Ulbrich], from [Oden], so I have a lot of confidence in this secondary,” Douglas stated.
After the draft, the player that stood out as a scheme fit appeared to be Pittsburgh product, Jason Pinnock. He may still take the starting job opposite Bryce Hall when all is said and done, but another rookie has earned the first crack at it against the Carolina Panthers.
That player is sixth-round draft pick, Brandin Echols.
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Open Competition Points to Echols
The 2021 Jets defensive coordinator commonly referred to as ‘Brick’ addressed the media on September 9. During the presser, he explained that this cornerback group has a ton of belief in themselves.
“This will be a great challenge for [the CBs],” Ulbrich began, “I think they’re all up for it though, just to see their demeanor, it’s not a passive group [even though they are] inexperienced and young. None of them came highly regarded from the standpoint of draft status or whatever the case may be, [but] they all have their own inner confidence swag to them that makes me feel better. They don’t seem overwhelmed by any means.”
From an outside perspective, no one seems to match this description more than Echols — outside of the absurdly confident Bless Austin, who was recently cut. The Kentucky product has fought his way up from junior college to the pros, defying the odds at every turn.
It’s been no different during training camp. Everyone, including myself, overlooked Echols from the get-go. Many believed in Pinnock but others leapfrogged undrafted rookie Isaiah Dunn over him too, despite a level of consistency throughout practice.
Pinnock and Dunn have flashed, but they’ve also looked overmatched at times. Besides a couple of defensive pass interference calls, Echols has proven that he belongs.
Pro Football Focus awarded the rookie with a 73.4 coverage grade during his first preseason. This ranked first for Gang Green’s outside cornerbacks. Here’s how his competition faired.
- Lamar Jackson, 67.8.
- Pinnock, 63.1.
- Austin, 60.5.
- Hall, 59.6.
- Dunn, 43.1.
Ironically, Jackson was sent to the practice squad and Austin is now with the Seattle Seahawks, despite their performances in camp, while Hall has been named a starter.
PFF grades aside, Echols has also passed the eye test. His aggressive style of play should appeal to Saleh’s model, which rewards players that are willing to battle on the field.
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Saleh Praises Echols for Seizing the Opportunity
It just seems like the Kentucky graduate has caught Saleh’s eye more than the others. Pinnock is rarely spoken about and Dunn has had too many lows, even if he’s had a few highs. Saleh talked about Echols’ draft status on September 10.
“Why guys go late [in the draft], I can’t answer that, because it happens every year… you don’t know why guys go undrafted they just do, you don’t know why guys go late they just [do]. You trust your evaluation process, it happens, you get them in the building and then they ball, but it goes back to what I’ve talked about [in the past] with regards to the difference between player A and player Z [being] minimal and the thing that keeps player Z from becoming player A is reps and opportunity. Brandin got an opportunity by being drafted and he’s been getting reps at corner and he’s taking advantage of it,” Saleh said.
He added: “You never know what you might find if you’re open-minded and you continue to work with everybody as if they’re a first-round draft choice.”
Saleh has refused to name the Week 1 starter to this point, keeping the Panthers in the dark on who they might be facing. The decision could even end up being matchup-based, but if we’re going solely on performance, it should be Echols that wins the job.