The New York Jets defeated the Atlanta Falcons 17-0 in their first organized game of preseason football of 2018. Which players helped their cause and improved their stock and which players failed to capitalize on this opportunity?
The New York Jets first preseason game of the 2018 season is in the books and it’s hard to envision a more encouraging start to the year than what we witnessed last Friday. Gang Green’s defense dominated the “high-powered” Atlanta Falcons offense for the entire game, limiting Atlanta to just one first down through two quarters and holding them to under 50 rushing yards on the day.
Now to be fair, it is only the preseason.
Atlanta’s “high-powered” offense was charged by undrafted rookies Kurt Benkert and Malik Williams rather than the All-Pro duo of Matt Ryan and Devonta Freeman. That being said, it’s always nice to get a win no matter the time of year and if anything, this victory could be seen as a great way to build team chemistry as the regular season draws near.
The Jets had their fair share of standouts on both sides of the ball. Some of these players made names for themselves as they continue to battle for roster spots while others solidified their roles on the team making solid impressions in their 2018 debuts.
Unfortunately, despite the three-score victory, there were a good amount of players who either failed to live up to expectations or squandered a golden opportunity to improve their standing with the team.
The following slides will detail both the players who enhanced their stock with the team and those who saw their stock plummet faster than Rex Ryan’s coaching career.
Offensive Players Stock Up
Sam Darnold: While it’s best to curb expectations following just one preseason game, it’s difficult to argue that Darnold should not be the starting quarterback come Week 1 following this outstanding performance.
The USC product looked like a great fit for new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates‘ West Coast system working through his progressions very quickly while displaying impeccable accuracy on short and intermediate passes. His deep ball still needs some major work as he missed badly on a number of long balls but more important is the fact that Darnold protected the football and avoided any backbreaking turnovers.
Turnovers have been the major concern for Darnold coming out of college but if Friday’s contest is any indication, he may have already cut down on his one significant flaw. Overall, an excellent first look for the third overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft that should put him well on his way towards starting the first game of the season.
Teddy Bridgewater: Much like his fellow passing mate, Bridgewater seemed very comfortable with Bates’ West Coast offensive system completing 7-of-8 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown. The former Minnesota Viking completed short pass after short pass leading the Jets down the field for their first two scoring drives to give the team a 10-0 advantage.
Bridgewater appeared poised and relaxed in the pocket as he showed no signs of rust looking the best he has since before his devastating knee injury. Unfortunately, Bridgewater likely isn’t going to last long on the Jets roster but Friday’s performance certainly helped improve his stock with the rest of the league as the 2015 Pro Bowler attempts to regain a starting spot with an NFL team.
Trenton Cannon: Muffed punts aside, Cannon came out of Friday’s game looking like a game-changer in the offensive backfield and a steal of a sixth-round draft pick. The Division II product was not expected to contribute much if at all on offense during his rookie season and was really just expected to compete for a roster spot on special teams as a return man.
Instead, the Jets may have struck gold with the former Virginia State Trojan as Cannon has developed immensely since he first arrived at Florham Park. Cannon’s speed is for real and his capabilities as a receiver (he should have had a long reception on a deep ball that Darnold missed) and as a blocker should help him earn substantial snaps with the offensive unit.
Just don’t have him return punts again. Ever again.
Neal Sterling: Sterling put together a very fine day as a receiving option hauling in a team-leading four receptions for 38 yards before suffering an ankle injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the game. In fact, the injury occurred on a play where Sterling fought for extra yards to pick up the first down which likely raised some eyebrows of the Jets coaching staff.
His one poor play came early in the first quarter when he ran a hitch route a yard short of the first-down marker which ultimately led to a Jets punt. However, Sterling has been praised for his route running ability in the past so this shouldn’t come as too much of a concern.
The former Jacksonville Jaguar has had a strong training camp thus far and he’s arguably looked like the team’s best receiving tight end to this point. Considered a longshot at the start of camp, Sterling might just force his way on to the roster if he continues to put together performances like this one.
Next: Offensive Players Stock Down
Offensive Players Stock Down
George Atkinson III: With Elijah McGuire and Thomas Rawls both unable to play in Friday’s game, the Jets signed 25-year old George Atkinson III to provide another healthy body to take handoffs and amass carries. Unfortunately, that’s essentially all Atkinson did with his opportunity.
The son of former Oakland Raiders All-Pro safety of the same name, Atkinson failed to seize his opportunity as he made few defenders miss and went down on first contact more often than not.
His chances of making the roster or practice squad were already slim but at this point, it just seems that the Notre Dame product is taking up a roster spot that could be filled by a younger, more dynamic developmental running back. For now, Atkinson will likely continue to rack up carries with the backups while rookie Cannon is taking a breather.
ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen: It’s truly shocking how far Stewart and Hansen have fallen on the team’s depth chart after just one season of NFL experience. While Stewart had his fair share of troubles last year learning the playbook and running routes, Hansen looked solid in his little playing time and was expected to compete for an even larger workload come 2018.
After reports that he was the standout of the early portion of training camp and OTA’s, it seemed even more apparent that the California product would be in line for some significant snaps this season. But now, the two second-year wide receivers have been passed by nearly every receiver on the Jets roster, save for Lucky Whitehead (more on that later) and undrafted Jonah Trinnaman.
The likes of Tre McBride, Charles Johnson, and Andre Roberts have all seemingly surpassed Stewart and Hansen on the depth chart and Friday’s game was confirmation of this. Stewart received just two targets, both coming late in the game, and neither resulted in a completion while Hansen didn’t even see the ball thrown his way.
While one would assume Hansen’s roster spot should be safe, Stewart may not be so fortunate. The Alabama product will already serve a suspension for the first two games of the regular season for violating the NFL’s PED policy and his development as a receiver to this point has been slow, to say the least.
There may be hope for Hansen to turn things around a become the reliable possession receiver he has the ability to be but for Stewart, time may, unfortunately, be running out.
Lucky Whitehead: Stewart and Hansen aren’t the only receivers who find themselves falling out of favor with the team. Former Cowboys receiver Lucky Whitehead also received far fewer snaps than anticipated, this time as a return man. Whitehead didn’t receiver a single look at returner as the snaps went exclusively to veteran Andre Roberts and the speedy rookie Trenton Cannon.
Whitehead isn’t going to make the team as a receiver. His only chance at making the final 53-man roster is to win the job as the team’s primary return man. It’s hard to make an impression and win a position battle if you aren’t even given the chance in a game.
Clearly, the team believes that the competition has come down to Roberts and Cannon which unfortunately leaves Whitehead on the outside looking in.
Jordan Leggett: Leggett was once again held out due to an injury which has become a common theme for the former Clemson Tiger throughout training camp and now into the preseason. Coming into training camp, the starting tight end job was once considered his to lose and unfortunately his string on untimely injuries may have already forced him to lose it.
If Leggett can’t get healthy and find his way on to the football field soon he may not just have the starting job to lose, but his roster spot as well.
Antonio Garcia: Garcia has already had a very rough training camp to this point and his performance in Friday’s preseason game did him no favors. Working with the third-stringers, the Troy product was constantly out-muscled and over-powered by his foes who pushed him around in the run game.
Garcia, a third-round selection by the New England Patriots last season, missed all of last year after developing blood clots in his lungs. The results of this unfortunate turn of events were staggering as reports were that he lost up to 40 pounds due to his inability to practice.
Originally measured at 6’6″ and weighing in at around 305 pounds, Garcia has seemingly dropped a significant amount of weight and may not be big enough to play offensive tackle anymore. It’s an unfortunate scenario, but Garcia may continue to be a longshot for a roster/practice squad spot unless he is able to hold his own in the running game in the near future.
Time, however, is not on his side.
Spencer Long: Long wasn’t the largest offender of poor play in Friday’s outing but it’s safe to say that the game wasn’t necessarily the debut that he would have hoped for.
Much like Garcia, the prized free agent acquisition was over-powered on multiple plays in the run game. The worst of which came on a toss to the left side where the athletic Long burst out of his stance and accelerated to his left only to be shoved back about five yards behind the line of scrimmage on a play that resulted in a loss of yards.
Long has never been known as an excellent run blocker and he certainly held his own in pass protection but fans were likely hoping to see more from the man that the team just signed to a four-year, $28 million contract.
Much of the struggles from last year’s center Wesley Johnson derived from his inability to provide an adequate push upfront. Long is expected to be a major improvement over Johnson and to do that he will have to be a better run blocker than he was in this game.
Next: Defensive Players Stock Up
Defensive Players Stock Up
Nathan Shepherd: Shepherd saw significant playing time in the team’s preseason opener playing the majority of the first three quarters and he certainly capitalized on the opportunity with a very solid first impression.
The 2018 third-round draft selection was a constant presence in the run game making a number of stops near the line of scrimmage on his way to helping the Jets defense hold Atlanta to just 49 total rushing yards. Perhaps even more impressive was his athleticism in pursuit of ball carriers on outside runs.
One such play came early in the first quarter where Shepherd was lined up on the left side of the line of scrimmage when the Falcons ran a toss to the opposite side. Shepherd used his quick feet and agility to navigate past blockers and make the tackle near the sideline for a minimal gain.
Plays like this are why the 24-year old already finds himself among the starting defensive unit and his spot should become even more secured if he continues to impress.
Dylan Donahue: The Jets have been desperately in need of one of their young outside linebackers to step up and prove their effectiveness as a true pass rusher. Donahue’s performance on Friday showed that he at least has the ability to be a true presence as a pass rusher, or at least more so than his fellow OLB’s.
The West Georgia product picked up a sack and tallied two QB hits in a game that should certainly help his chances at carving out a situational role with the team. Donahue also made a couple plays on special teams proving his versatility, something that’s essential for roster bubble players.
His likely ensuing suspension will hurt his chances of getting in the rotation to start the year but more performances like this will certainly help his case to receive more playing time once he is able to take the field in the regular season.
Neville Hewitt: Hewitt received the majority of the snaps at inside linebacker with the second stringers and he certainly made the most of his opportunity finishing with a team-leading eight tackles as the former Miami Dolphin was all over the field making stops against the ground game.
Hewitt also made a couple of nice plays in coverage and was the beneficiary of a tipped interception courtesy of reserve defensive lineman Xavier Cooper. The fourth-year pro out of Marshall has quietly made a nice name for himself thus far as a solid special teams player and this will be where he needs to excel if he wants to make the final 53-man roster.
Hewitt is a reliable tackler who could provide adequate depth at the inside linebacker experience and games like this will only improve his chances of being on the roster come the regular season.
Derrick Jones: Derrick “Bones” Jones has been one of the team standouts from training camp and his string of impressive performances continued Friday night. Last year’s 6th-round draft selection was lockdown in coverage for most of the night not allowing a single catch on four targets.
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Jones, a converted wide receiver, has looked much more comfortable at the cornerback position than he did last year and it’s clear that a year of development has been imperative to his growth as a player.
The Ole Miss product has the size and speed combination to be an excellent fit on the outside in Todd Bowles defense and with the No. 4 cornerback spot wide open, Jones could be considered one of the favorites to land a role in the team’s dime package. With the team’s cornerback depth looking relatively thin, Jones could very well be the next man up were either Trumaine Johnson or Morris Claiborne to miss any time with an injury.
J.J. Wilcox: Despite getting beaten early on in coverage, Wilcox finished the game strong and ended up with a team-leading five solo tackles to go along with a tackle for loss. The veteran safety was a constant presence near the line of scrimmage showing excellent run fill ability when playing up and around the box.
The battle for the backup safety spots is ultra-competitive at the moment with both Terrence Brooks and Doug Middleton making strong cases to make the final roster. Not to mention longtime special teams ace Rontez Miles who will likely begin the season on the PUP list.
Despite having substantial starting experience, Wilcox will have to fight his way on to the Jets roster but if Friday’s game was any indication, it appears he’s off to a good start.
Next: Defensive Players Stock Down
Defensive Players Stock Down
Lorenzo Mauldin: Much like Jordan Leggett, Mauldin’s inclusion on this list isn’t a testament to his poor play on the field but rather a statement about his lack of play on the field in general.
With the abundance of young pass rushers at the Jets disposal, Mauldin needs every snap he can get to prove his worth and demonstrate his value to the team. Unfortunately, it’s hard to do that when you’re not even suiting up to play the game.
The 2015 third-round pick has seemingly been passed on the depth chart by the likes of Dylan Donahue and Brandon Copeland and his position will likely continue to fall unless he could get on the field and show the team some pass rushing production.
If not, it could be curtains for the once promising Mauldin whose career has been marred by injuries and inconsistency.
Xavier Coleman: With Parry Nickerson out and Buster Skrine banged up, Coleman was given the chance to play the team’s nickel cornerback role for a large part of the game. Although he made a nice play late in coverage, the Portland State product was beaten on a few passes earlier on and looked overmatched at points.
It was a golden opportunity for the undrafted rookie who spent much of last season on the injured reserve but he failed to make any headway as he tried to secure a spot on the team’s final roster.
Coleman’s ability to play the slot very effectively will serve him well as final roster cuts approach in the coming weeks but one can’t help but wonder if a better performance here would have helped his case a bit more.