Robert Saleh’s Challenge to Jets CBs: Can You Win on Third Down?

Brandin Echols

Getty New York Jets cornerback Brandin Echols breaks up a deep ball on August 14, 2021.

Back on August 5, head coach Robert Saleh challenged this young cornerback room during a press conference.

“Can you win on third down?” The New York Jets HC responded bluntly, “it’s that simple.” Saleh went on to say that his cornerbacks “come in all shapes and sizes,” a phrase reminiscent of Mike LaFleur, when the offensive coordinator was first asked about his running backs.

He elaborated: “The dog mentality, the ability to win in man coverage, the fearlessness to get up there in press [coverage] and win their one-on-ones, that’s what matters.”

This CB room has talent, what it lacks is experience. The veteran of the group outside of special teams expert Justin Hardee is a third-year pro in Bless Austin. Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich has rotated these corners a bunch over the course of the summer periods, but Saleh did confirm that he prefers to have three set starters at the position — two outside CBs and one nickel.

Let’s dive into who’s leading the pack so far.

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Projected Starters at Corner & Nickel

Bryce Hall

Hall had a rough game against the Green Bay Packers, but he’s still the favorite to headline this core Week 1 in Carolina.

The 2020 fifth-round pick was a top-ranked prospect before an injury affected his draft status. Saleh described Hall: “Bryce is so long and big… but [he and Austin] both have an incredible mindset to get up there, get in your face, use their length, [and] use their athleticism.”

Ulbrich’s mentality has been that “the best man will play,” no exceptions. The Jets DC also spoke on Hall during a presser on August 4.

“Bryce is long, strong, same as [Austin], maybe a little bit more of a cerebral type. He really wants to study the stances and study the releases and play a little different brand of ball.”

Based on how intent he seems on mastering his craft from an intellectual standpoint, we’ll nickname Hall ‘the Professor.’

Bless Austin

To my surprise, Austin has battled and stuck as the second starter deep into training camp. He missed the Packers game due to personal reasons but he should be back for joint practices with the Philadelphia Eagles.

Saleh called Austin “wiry and twitchy,” while Ulbrich labeled him as “long, strong, aggressive [and] tough,” adding that the corner will “challenge you at the line of scrimmage, get his hands on you, [and] disrupt” play.

Another thing the Rutgers product has is extreme self-confidence. “A lot of people forget that me and Bryce [were] highly rated dudes coming out of college, we just fell short due to injury,” Austin told reporters. “There’s a reason they didn’t bring in a veteran corner… [the coaching staff] sees something in us.”

The third-year player highlighted Jalen Ramsey and Emmanuel Moseley as two players that he’s studied tape of to learn this 4-3 scheme. “I come to camp looking forward to getting my next contract,” Austin stated boldly, “I don’t worry about who’s starting.”

Coach Saleh said that Austin has a “dog’s mentality,” explaining that he’s “fearless.” The veteran of the group seems to take pride in that, so we’ll nickname him ‘the Warrior.’

Javelin Guidry (Nickel)

The 2020 undrafted free agent is known for his lightning-quick 4.29-second 40-yard dash time, but Guidry has become so much more than that. You have to credit the Utah product for his diligence in coverage, as he’s made major strides from his rookie campaign to now.

According to the Jets’ unofficial depth chart, Guidry is the current starter in the slot. Last week in Green Bay he proved that projection was no fluke with another top-notch performance. He has earned a 91.0 coverage grade from Pro Football Focus for his efforts in preseason so far. This nickname is an easy one, ‘the Speed Demon.’

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Second-Team All-Stars

Brandin Echols

In terms of the four rookie corners, the pleasant surprise of the group has been the sixth-rounder out of Kentucky. I won’t lie, I didn’t expect Echols to be the guy that would separate himself from this group, but the former junior college prospect truly has no quit.

He’s been a ball-hawk this summer with multiple interceptions in practices and games, including one versus the Packers, which can be seen above. During the postgame press conference after the New York Giants preseason bout, Saleh told the media that he “thought it was a really good first day for him,” adding that he “loves his mindset, how physical he is at the line of scrimmage, his hands [and] his footwork.”

Echols’ one problem area so far has been with defensive pass interference calls throughout the early stages of his rookie campaign. “There’s going to be some things that he can learn from in those one-on-one opportunities on the edge where you’re on an island,” Saleh explained. This scheme requires aggressive play from its cornerbacks, which fits Echols’ skill set, but the Kentucky product must learn the difference between aggressive and grabby.

This first-year player has dealt with adversity his entire career, awarding him the nickname, ‘the Overcomer.’

Isaiah Dunn

While Echols seemed to get his big opportunity versus Big Blue, Dunn’s chance came against the Packers, only it didn’t go so well. The 2021 undrafted free agent has become a fan favorite this summer but the stage appeared to be too great for him on Saturday, and that was against Green Bay’s second-team wide receivers.

The UDFA didn’t play against the Giants, but his PFF coverage grade was a lousy 41.9 in game two. We’ll have to wait and see if Dunn gets another shot at the starting job, but the perfect nickname for the Oregon State product is ‘the Dark Horse.’

Michael Carter II (Nickel)

The job in the slot has been hotly contested, mostly because Guidry and Carter II have both been such perfect fits in this scheme. The Duke graduate played a ton of nickel in college, so this role is not foreign to him.

Carter II described the major differences from the collegiate level to the pros, saying; “the speed is definitely a lot faster,” adding that without schoolwork he can now put 100% focus into football and his craft. The rookie recounted his first preseason appearance as a “surreal moment,” but clarified that he “felt like he belonged.”

It’s impressed me how astute and mature Carter II seems whenever I hear him speak, so I’ll nickname him ‘the Professional.’

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Slipping in the Depth Chart

Lamar Jackson

Technically, Jackson is ahead of Dunn on the depth chart but the 2020 undrafted free agent with the infamous name has yet to receive first-team snaps. Even so, he made the most of his time against Green Bay.

Jackson’s been having a solid camp and the interception above may have been the high-note, along with a 90.9 coverage grade versus the Packers. General manager Joe Douglas made a strong effort to replace players like the former UDFA, so we’ll refer to him as ‘the Longshot.’

Jason Pinnock

The Pittsburgh product had the whole world at his fingertips when he was drafted in April, but he’s been outshined throughout camp despite a couple of interceptions. Pinnock’s PFF grades against NYG were average (66.8), not poor, so it’s unclear why he’s fallen in the ranks.

Perhaps he doesn’t fit Saleh’s scheme as much as initially anticipated, perhaps he’s struggled with the playbook or the mentality that Saleh’s looking for, or maybe it’s simply an overreaction from me. An injury kept Pinnock off the field in preseason week two, according to New York Daily News reporter DJ Bien-Aime.

Can he reclaim his seat at the table? We’ll nickname the childhood Darrelle Revis fan, ‘the Scheme Fit.’

Elijah Campbell (Nickel)

The third-man in the slot competition has really turned heads, and I’m not just saying that as some phony coach-speak. It’s unfortunate that he’ll probably end up being a victim of circumstance with Guidry and Carter II playing so well.

Due to his positive film this summer, Campbell we’ll most likely latch on elsewhere if he doesn’t make the roster, which is why we’ll nickname him ‘the Odd Man Out.’

This battle is far from over, but Saleh did note that they’re getting closer to a decision on August 19. He said: “We got two practices coming with Philadelphia plus the game, and it’s coming closer, it’s starting to take shape… they’re all getting better but there are a few of them, actually, that are starting to separate.”

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