Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh have made it adamantly clear that the goal is to develop as many of these young prospects into starters as possible, and there are at least seven rookies from this 2021 draft class that have a legitimate chance to start as early as opening weekend.
“The difference between player A and player Z [in the NFL] is minimal,” Saleh told reporters back on June 17, “and the only thing that keeps player Z from becoming player A is opportunity and reps.” He made sure to exclude the superstars from this theory but remained steadfast in the idea that you cannot be afraid to trust the youth.
There will be few starting lineups as young as Gang Green in 2021, especially when you factor in that second and third-year pros like Mekhi Becton and Quinnen Williams are guaranteed to be out there too as long as they are healthy.
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Rookies That Are Locks to Start
According to ESPN’s projected Jets depth chart, which is very subject to change after the preseason, the average age of the NYJ starting 24 (11 offense, 11 defense, kicker and punter) is 26.21 years old. This depth chart only lists two of those seven rookies as starters, however, first-round picks Zach Wilson and Alijah Vera-Tucker.
These two are probably the only rookies that can be considered locks at this point and time.
Wilson was anointed the moment he was drafted and the Jets haven’t exactly made it hard on him to win the job with James Morgan and Mike White as the only backups on the roster. Even if Douglas adds a veteran like Nick Foles late in the process, it will be the BYU star taking the snaps on September 12, 2021.
The left guard out of USC is also penciled in as an expected Week 1 starter. He was one of the more pro-ready college athletes in the draft and Saleh will hope to develop an early bond between AVT and Becton on Wilson’s blindside.
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Bet on Them Winning the Job
The next group includes the rookies that I’m expecting to win a starting role — if they haven’t done so already.
The first name on the list may come as a surprise to some but I think it’s a near certainty unless the Jets make a late addition in free agency. That player is Michael Carter II, who is expected to win the nickelback job.
Now I understand there are some semantics to explain here because chances are the slot corner won’t be considered a starter, but this is a key role in the modern football era so we’ll count it for the sake of this argument.
Javelin Guidry could carry over this role from 2020 and there’s always a chance the Jets resign Brian Poole. More likely than not though, Carter II was drafted to play this role.
Next up is the man, the myth, the OTA legend: Elijah Moore.
Corey Davis will start on one wing and Jamison Crowder should start in the slot. That leaves one starting wide receiver position that should be available (unless the Jets start two tight ends or some unexpected formation). This final spot should come down to Moore or Denzel Mims, with the possibility that Keelan Cole is in the mix.
It honestly may end up being a figurehead type of Week 1 start where Mims gets the nod by technicality as the best run-blocker, but if we’re going by snap count, Moore will be a starter against Carolina. Book it.
Rookies Currently Battling for a Starting Role
The final three rookies are battling for a job. It wouldn’t surprise me if none of the three end up starting in Week 1, but there’s a good chance they all take over as starters sooner than later.
If he can stay healthy, Blake Cashman may open the season as the WILL linebacker. Even so, Sherwood has all the tools to become the more natural fit that this scheme needs.
This is a total toss-up, so I didn’t include it in the rookie count above, but undrafted prospect Chris Naggar is still in the running for the kicker job. I do fully expect it to be Sam Ficken, a late signing or waiver claim based on what Naggar has shown so far.
If you substitute in Carter, Pinnock, Moore and Sherwood, that Jets average starter age drops to 25.62. Add nickel Carter II instead of SAM linebacker Jarrad Davis and it would get even younger.
However many day one rookies Saleh chooses to roll with, this is a very bright young core that should set this franchise up for years to come.