2021 New York Jets Preview: Cornerbacks

Jets Cornerbacks

This off-season, New York Jets General Manager Joe Douglas addressed a lot of dire needs. He got them a flashy new quarterback, loaded up on weapons, and revamped the trenches. Yet, of all the additions that were made, there was little movement at cornerback.

New York’s cornerback group in 2020 was a major weakness, in large part because of injuries and inexperience. Now, entering 2021, while things may look promising, there is a lot to worry about.

Here is how the 2021 New York Jets cornerbacks will make their mark…

2021 New York Jets Preview: Cornerbacks

The Starters: Bryce Hall (CB1), Blessuan Austin (CB2), Javelin Guidry (SLCB)

The Good

Douglas has not shied away from taking risks in the draft. He simply wants talented leaders. So, it made sense why he took a chance on two late-round cornerbacks who slid due to injury in 2019 and 2020. And now, both Bryce Hall and Blessuan Austin find themselves in a position to be the Jets starting cornerbacks.

Hall, a fifth-round pick in 2020, played eight games (seven starts) after starting the season on the non-football injury list. He finished the year with 36 total tackles, three pass deflections, and one interception. Come season’s end, he was one of the team’s most reliable defenders in coverage. No wonder the Jets believe in him to be their number one corner this year.

Whereas Austin is looking for a bounce-back season. As a rookie sixth-round pick in 2019, Austin had an impressive showing in seven games (six starts). However, in year two, Austin dealt with lingering injuries in 11 games (10 starts) and had various ups and downs. At the same time, because he is the most experienced outside corner on the team, he’s likely to be starting come Week 1.

Meanwhile, the position of slot cornerback has not been determined. Javelin Guidry could very well be the one to take the job. After going undrafted last year, Guidry made his way onto the Jets roster and never looked back. In 11 games (two starts) he made 22 tackles and forced four fumbles. He was a stud in coverage and held his own against the run in a small sample size of 15% of defensive snaps. If he can produce those numbers in 2021 in a bigger role, the Jets made the right decision letting Brian Poole walk in free agency.

The Bad

Again, the Jets are not overflowing with proven talent at cornerback. Between Austin and Hall combined, they have 23 starts. Throw Guidry into the mix, and the career starts only increase by two. There is also the matter that both Hall and Austin have lengthy injury histories, and all three of them are still adjusting to the pro game.

Looking back at Head Coach Robert Saleh’s time as defensive coordinator of the San Francisco 49ers, his defense was based around applying pressure to support the cornerbacks. Additions like Carl Lawson, Sheldon Rankins, and more are going to go a long way to do that. But if the pass rush falters, the decision to not make a splash at cornerback this off-season will come back to haunt Joe Douglas.

The Backup Field: Justin Hardee, Michael Carter II, Brandin Echols, Isaiah Dunn, Jason Pinnock

The second unit of this group is where things get interesting. There is a lot of talent here, yet having only so many roster spots will force the Jets to make some tough decisions. Justin Hardee is an apparent lock, despite most of his playtime coming on special teams. Already, it has become clear that is why he was brought in on a three-year deal in the first place.

So, one might be asking, who are the real backups then on defense? Well, at slot cornerback, it would be Michael Carter II. The 155th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Carter is not out of the battle for the starting slot gig. The Duke product has shown he can come in and play early. Expect to see him early and often this season.

On the outside, training camp has shown that rookies Brandin Echols and Isaiah Dunn are ready for big roles. Echols, a sixth-round pick out of Kentucky, has impressed coaches, even earning first-team reps as of August 2nd. The same can be said about Dunn too. The undrafted free agent out of Oregon State caught the coach’s eyes during OTA’s and has seen an increase in reps. He too has recently worked with the first-team defense.

At the same time, fifth-round pick Jason Pinnock has seen limited reps in training camp. The Pittsburgh product has had a solid camp, just not on the level as his fellow rookies. Nevertheless, Pinnock may have the most upside of all the corners taken in the draft. He has the size to stick on the boundary, as well as a very high football IQ.

The Bubble: Lamar Jackson, Corey Ballentine, Zane Lewis

The interesting thing about the Jets cornerbacks group is the potential of the young guys on the team. Yes, Lamar Jackson gave up the infamous game-winning strike to Henry Ruggs III against the Las Vegas Raiders. But people forget what the former undrafted free agent did in 13 games as a rookie.

Of those 13 games, injuries forced Jackson into the starting lineup for six games. He deflected two passes and accounted for 28 tackles. He only missed one tackle and gave up a modest completion percentage of 60.9. Jackson was at his best in run defense, and in a new Jets defense has improved compared to last year.

As for Corey Ballentine, he has made his money on kick returns. At Saturday night’s Green & White Scrimmage, he may have had two returns for touchdowns had the plays not been dead after he passed the 50. He is not going to make a big impact on defense, but Ballentine offers another strong special teams player.

Lastly is Zane Lewis, a 6’1” and 190-pound corner out of Air Force. The 23-year-old has been on and off the roster over the past year and has made a few good plays during training camp. Considered a developmental prospect, his speed and instincts could be what ultimately makes him stick in their new zone defense.

Final Cornerbacks Analysis

In case it is not obvious, the Jets have a very, very young cornerbacks room. There surely is upside, especially in Bryce Hall, but it will come with growing pains. Having a strong pass rush to back them up will be huge.

Stay tuned for the next article in the 2021 New York Jets Preview series with safeties!

2021 New York Jets Preview Series: Quarterbacks, Running Backs, Wide Receivers, Tight Ends, Offensive Tackles, Interior Offensive Lineman, Interior Defensive Line, Edge Rushers, Linebackers

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