New York Jets' gamble: Why they're rolling with NFL's youngest corners

Robert Saleh, Jets confident with Zach Wilson as their QB (3:30)

Robert Saleh discusses taking the Jets head coaching job, what he has learned about himself and what he expects from rookie QB Zach Wilson. (3:30)

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- From March to June, the New York Jets acquired a veteran player at every position group except two -- quarterback and cornerback -- and you certainly can't accuse them of ignoring quarterback because they took Zach Wilson with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

Cornerback is a different story.

The Jets' front office made no major moves, a tacit vote of confidence for the holdover cornerbacks, all of whom are between the ages of 23 and 25 and have combined for a league-low 35 starts.

"There's a reason why they didn't bring a veteran corner here," returning starter Blessuan Austin said. "Not to knock any of the veteran corners, but there's a reason why. They see something in us."

The Jets like their version of Generation Z, even if you don't.

It's a gamble because the NFL is a pass-happy league and an overmatched group of corners will get you beat on more Sundays than not. But the Jets coaching staff, led by the defensive-minded Robert Saleh, studied last season's tape and came away convinced it can make it work with Austin (16 career starts), Bryce Hall (seven) and a bunch of no-names. They actually got younger in the offseason by bringing in four rookies, none of whom was drafted earlier than the fifth round.

How unproven are they? Consider this wild comparison: Former free-agent bust Trumaine Johnson is counting more on this year's salary cap ($8 million in "dead" money) than the 10 corners on New York's roster. That doesn't include former New Orleans Saints veteran Justin Hardee, 27, who landed a three-year, $6.75 million contract based on his special teams play.

In many ways, Austin represents the group. He's brash and hungry, and plays with a "dog mentality," according to Saleh. Like Hall, Austin slid in the draft because of injuries playing at Rutgers, tumbling all the way to the sixth round in 2019. (Hall was a 2020 fifth-rounder.) It put an immediate chip on Austin's shoulder, and it remains there. Despite his modest résumé, he believes he's one of the best.

"I'm the real deal," Austin said. "It ain't no secret in that. Click the tape and press play. Of course I made mistakes, but there's also a lot of plays on that field that other corners in this league aren't making."

In 2020, the Jets' corners ranked in the bottom third of the league in several categories based on nearest defender, according to NFL Next Gen Stats -- 24th in passer rating (106.8), 22nd in completion percentage (66.7), 22nd in yards allowed (2,270) and 25th in "open" wide receivers (39% of targets).

Where have you gone, Darrelle Revis?

Free agency wasn't loaded with cornerbacks, but a few fetched significant deals -- Shaquill Griffin (Jacksonville Jaguars, $29 million guaranteed), Adoree' Jackson (New York Giants, $26.5 million) and William Jackson III (Washington Football Team, $26 million). The Jets, with plenty of salary-cap room, decided to sit it out.

In the draft, they waited until the fifth round before picking Michael Carter II and Jason Pinnock, grabbing Brandin Echols in the sixth and Isaiah Dunn as a free agent. Echols and Dunn have impressed the most, although Dunn is now nursing a knee injury. In the end, the incumbents -- Austin and Hall -- probably will emerge as the Jets' starters. Carter is battling Javelin Guidry for the nickel job.

The Jets are the only team in the AFC East without a lockdown corner. The Buffalo Bills have Tre'Davious White, the Miami Dolphins have Xavien Howard and the New England Patriots have Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson. It puts the Jets at a distinct disadvantage at one of the most important positions, but say this for Saleh: He's willing to put green on green -- money on his inexperienced players.

The belief is Austin and Hall are underrated talents, and that the new, zone-based scheme will be able to camouflage the group's weaknesses. They also hope the rookie class will yield one or two contributors. They will have a better idea where they stand after facing the Giants, Green Bay Packers and Philadelphia Eagles in the preseason, with joint practices against the Packers and Eagles. If they're concerned about depth, they could try to acquire a veteran, but let's be realistic.

Quality corners don't shake free too often. The Jaguars' CJ Henderson, a 2020 first-round pick, could wind up on the trading block, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported. Unless it's a fire sale, it's buyer beware when a high pick is available the year after he's drafted.

Saleh said he's cool with playing so many young players, and he sounds confident in his Kiddie Corps. He knows what he wants.

"Can you win on third down? That's pretty much it. It's that simple," he said.

Saleh has coached big corners (Richard Sherman, 6-foot-3) and small corners (Jason Verrett, 5-foot-10), so size doesn't matter to him.

"They come in all shapes and sizes," he said, "but the dog mentality -- the ability to win in man coverage, the fearlessness to get up there in press and win one-on-ones -- that's what matters."