While 2018 wasn’t exactly the season the New York Jets were hoping to have, the team still had a few players shine and improve immensely.
The New York Jets limped their way to a 4-12 record in 2018 and while expectations weren’t particularly high for the team, it’s difficult to argue that the season was anything but a failure. However, this doesn’t mean that there weren’t a few players who found personal success last year.
Multiple players on the Jets roster took the next step forward in their careers finding more on-field success than they had previously. Some of these players will be key building blocks for the team going forward as the Jets trudge towards contention over the next few years.
These individuals were able to alleviate some of the hardships of a disappointing season shining as bright spots on a mostly depleted roster. Their season-long improvement gave fans something to watch despite the lackluster overall season.
It should be noted that only players who were previously on the team are being considered so Jason Myers and Henry Anderson are unfortunately ineligible. From budding stars to overachieving veterans let’s take a look at the five most improved Jets players of 2018.
5. Darryl Roberts – DB
Darryl Roberts entered the 2018 season fighting for a role as the Jets dime cornerback. He was expected to be a solid special teams player with limited impact on defense serving as the team’s sixth defensive back.
However, multiple injuries to the Jets secondary forced Roberts into a starting role and he certainly made the most of his opportunity. The former 7th-round pick picked up seven pass deflections and his second career interception while earning a Pro Football Focus grade of 68.9.
While he split time between cornerback and safety, that grade was the second-highest out of all Jets cornerbacks ranking ahead of starters Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine. Only Trumaine Johnson recorded a higher PFF grade than the unheralded Roberts.
His games against the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears stand out in particular when the Marshall product filled in effectively for the injured Johnson. Against Minnesota, Roberts tallied a career-high 11 tackles including two for a loss as he was able to bounce back strongly after getting cooked by Adam Thielen early in the game.
Roberts ended up starting 10 games in total throughout the season and his versatility on defense and special teams contribution made him a very valuable player for the team. Given his backup-caliber play in his previous two seasons with the team, it was a pleasant surprise to see him perform at such a high level in 2018.
Roberts will be an unrestricted free agent this offseason and at 28-years-old, there’s no guarantee the Jets bring him back. But given his positional versatility and special teams value, this could be one of the few cases where a team should opt to re-sign an older reserve player.
Next: 4. Brandon Shell
4. Brandon Shell – OT
The development of offensive tackle Brandon Shell over the past couple of years is something that few Jets fans talk about, but probably should.
Shell is one of the few mid-round gems that general manager Mike Maccagnan has discovered and his transition from a raw, undeveloped mauler to a solid all-around starting tackle has been incredible to watch. Now with three years under his belt, the 2016 fifth-round pick has become a rock for the team holding down the right side of the offensive line.
Unlike some of the others on this list, Shell’s growth has been more gradual than immediate which is likely why few fans notice his progress. It also doesn’t help that he plays the unremarkable right tackle position.
Shell has grown into a steady player regularly dealing with some of the best pass rushers in the league rushing from the strong side. Khalil Mack, Von Miller, and Cameron Wake are all players who Shell has helped slow down and mitigate when matched up with.
Now with three seasons under his belt, Shell will enter a contract year in 2019. If he continues this level of progression, don’t be surprised to see the South Carolina product earn a sizable contract as a reward for his play.
Next: 3. Jordan Jenkins
3. Jordan Jenkins – OLB
Like Shell, Jordan Jenkins is a player who might fly under the radar sometimes. But Jenkins quietly put together a career year in 2018 totaling a career-high seven sacks, which tied for the team lead.
Jenkins has always been a solid, dependable run defender since joining the Jets back in 2016. He was highly regarded as an NFL-ready edge setter coming out of Georgia but still had quite some work to do as a pass rusher.
While there’s still room for more improvement, Jenkins showed significant development in that regard in 2018. The former third-round pick added some more pass rush moves to his arsenal including a bull rush move that helped him rush the passer with power.
Jenkins is never going to be the most athletic player nor the most accomplished pass rusher, but he plays with a fire that helps him make the most of his abilities. With the Jets expected move to a base 4-3 defense, Jenkins role on the team becomes a little less clear.
The Jets could opt to utilize him as a five-technique defensive end, a role he hasn’t played since high school. Or the team could even try him out as an off-ball linebacker, although that may be a stretch given his poor coverage abilities.
However they decide to deploy him in 2019, the Jets will be hoping that he grows into that new role as effectively as he grew into his previous one.
Next: 2. Darron Lee
2. Darron Lee – ILB
Darron Lee managed to turn the entire perception of him as a player completely, or at least partially, around with a strong 2018 campaign.
Lee looked like a misfit during his first two NFL campaigns. The former first-round pick was often overmatched in the run game and generally looked lost in coverage. He always had the athletic ability to be an excellent linebacker with his sideline-to-sideline speed matched by few in the league. But he struggled to put it all together lacking the football instincts to take the next step.
That seemingly changed in 2018 when Lee finally showed the potential that the Jets saw when they took him 20th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft.
Lee got off to a great start intercepting his first two career passes in the Jets Monday night opener against the Detroit Lions, returning one for a touchdown. It was an excellent beginning to what would be a much-improved 2018 season where Lee totaled 74 tackles, five tackles for loss, three interceptions, and five pass deflections.
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The Ohio State product’s improvement also showed in his final Pro Football Focus grade. Lee finished the 2017 season with an atrocious 38.0 grade grading out with the lowest score out of any Jets defensive player who qualified last season. This year, Lee jumped all the way up to a very solid 72.4 grade ranking him as the 24th rated linebacker in football.
The Jets will have to make a decision on whether or not they want to pick up Lee’s fifth-year option by May 3rd. Although there may have been some initial doubt, and some may not be too pleased about the way his season ended, his improved 2018 campaign will likely keep him around as the team decides whether he’s a long-term piece or not.
If he continues to play like he did this past season, expect the Jets to extend Lee sooner rather than later.
Next: 1. Jamal Adams
1. Jamal Adams – Safety
Jamal Adams is an all-world talent who brings an elite skill set to go along with his extraordinary leadership qualities. The Jets were only able to get a glimpse of that talent in 2017 but in 2018, Adams burst on to the scene with a breakout season.
The 2017 sixth overall selection emerged as a defensive playmaker finishing the season with 115 tackles, nine tackles for a loss, 12 pass deflections, 3.5 sacks, and three forced fumbles. This was enough to earn him his first Pro Bowl nod and a second-team All-Pro selection.
Adams is the epitome of everything you look for in a safety in today’s NFL. He does it all performing as an elite box safety, a great coverage safety, and a flashy playmaker to make him the ultimate swiss army knife for any defense. This combined with his old-school football mentality and new-school swagger make him perhaps the most valuable player on the team.
While Adams did some things well in his rookie season, the Jets knew that he was only scratching the surface when it came to his potential. Not only is Adams likely the most talented player on the Jets, but you could make the case that he’s the most talented safety in the NFL.
If 2018 marked the emergence of Jamal Adams, Jets fans should be eagerly anticipating what the future holds.