FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner introduced himself to college football on a Friday night in October 2019, when he scored on a 16-yard interception return that changed everything for himself and Cincinnati's program.
Facing 18th-ranked Central Florida, Gardner -- a freshman backup -- played "off" coverage at left cornerback, baiting quarterback Dillon Gabriel into throwing a hitch. Gardner broke quickly, reached up with his 33 1/2-inch arms to snare his first interception and cruised into the end zone for a go-ahead touchdown. The Bearcats pulled off the upset, starting a streak of 29 straight games as a ranked team.
More than two years later, the New York Jets studied that play and others like it, marveling at Gardner's guile, chutzpah and physical skills. They made him the highest-drafted cornerback in team history (fourth overall). For coach Robert Saleh, the images on his screen conjured up memories of a corner he coached with the Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers -- former All Pro Richard Sherman.
"You can see that he’s an outside-the-box thinker, he’s got great vision of the field, he’s a tremendous communicator (and he) can diagnose a play before it ever snaps," Saleh said of Gardner. "I’m not comparing, but just being with Sherm, I mean, the guy knew the play as soon as they broke the huddle. ... He’s playing a different game. So Sauce has a tremendous mental makeup to him that allows him to see the game differently than what most players can."
Gardner heads a seven-man draft class that is being hailed as one of the NFL's best. Time will tell, but with Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson (drafted 10th), defensive end Jermaine Johnson II (26th) and running back Breece Hall (36th), the Jets have four players who should be major contributors immediately.
Let's take a closer look at their projected roles (statistics via ESPN Stats & Information).
Barring injury, he will start on the outside with D.J. Reed, their $11 million-a-year acquisition in free agency.
When a cornerback is drafted this highly, he has to be on the field. Gardner, Jeff Okudah (Detroit Lions, 2020) Denzel Ward (Cleveland Browns, 2018) and Derek Stingley Jr. (Houston Texans, 2022) are the only top-four corners in the last 24 years. This means Bryce Hall and Brandin Echols, who combined for only two interceptions last season, are looking at backup roles.
The big question with Gardner is the transition from man-to-man to zone. At Cincinnati, he played 344 snaps in press (man-to-man) coverage in 2021, most in the FBS. While the Jets aren't a true zone team, they do play it an awful lot, especially on first and second downs (63%, 14th). Their zone usage drops considerably on third down (28%, 30th).
As Saleh likes to say, football becomes a one-on-one game on third down, and he asks his corners to win their individual matchups. Tackling also will be important, especially with the AFC North on the schedule. They're run-oriented teams that like to attack the perimeter.
"I like playing zone," Gardner said at last weekend's rookie camp. "I feel it's easier. I like it a lot. When it comes to zone, I like to know what everybody around me is doing. That way, I know where to be and when to be there. I think I'm a great zone player also."
If his anticipation and field vision are as good as Saleh believes, Gardner shouldn't have any problems in making the adjustment.
It would be an upset if Wilson doesn't join Elijah Moore and Corey Davis in the starting three. As he showed last year with Moore, who captured a starting job in training camp, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur isn't skittish about throwing rookies into prominent roles.
Where will Wilson line up for the majority of his snaps? At Ohio State, he played inside and outside. In 2021, he ran 87% of his routes on the outside. In 2020, he was in the slot for 73% of his routes. In Wilson and Moore, they have two versatile chess pieces.
Slot receiver Jamison Crowder wasn't re-signed, so there's a void at the position. LaFleur can opt for the committee approach, rotating Wilson, Moore and Braxton Berrios, although Wilson is better suited to the outside because of his ability to stretch a defense. He also has a knack for winning contested catches on the perimeter.
Wilson is a shade under 6-foot, but receivers "come in all shapes and sizes," Saleh said. "You got big guys who play small, small guys who can play big. What I think separates him is that he does have tremendous body control and range with regards to his length and all that stuff. He plays bigger than his measured size."
The Jets haven't had much luck when it comes to drafting receivers over the decades, but they believe Wilson -- the top-rated wideout on their board -- can reverse the trend. Rookies can be stars; just look at the Cincinnati Bengals' Ja'Marr Chase in 2021.
"I'm very confident," Wilson said. "I think I can have that impact."
Everybody looks at sack production when evaluating edge rushers, but what distinguishes Johnson -- and what could result in a Day 1 starting job -- is his ability to play the run. Florida State defensive coordinator Adam Fuller told ESPN that Johnson's best attribute is his physicality in the run game.
"There's no pretty-boy work in the trenches," said Johnson, who relishes that part of his game.
He proved to be an all-around player in the Seminoles' base defense, as he racked up 5.5 of his 12 sacks on first down -- the second-highest total in the FBS.
The Jets can start him at defensive end in the base, sliding John Franklin-Myers to tackle. Saleh already has said he'd like to get Franklin-Myers more work inside. He rushed only 49 times from the interior, recording two sacks -- a much better ratio than outside (342 rushes, four sacks).
If Johnson isn't ready to start, he can play a prominent role in sub packages. Everybody knows they do a lot of rotating. No defensive lineman played more than 65% of the snaps last season.
Hall and Michael Carter will share the carries, but Hall figures to move ahead at some point because of his quickness. He has "house" speed, meaning he can take it there at any time. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds, and he evaded tackles on 19% of his runs last season, second-highest among FBS running backs.
Carter enjoyed a solid rookie year as the team's leading rusher (639 yards), but he produced only three runs of 20 or more yards. Quite simply, the Jets need more lightning in their backfield. They expect Hall to bring it, which is why he was the 18th-rated player on their board. He ran an outside-zone scheme at Iowa State, so there should be a seamless transition. He expects to make an immediate impact.
"For sure, I feel that's the type of player I am," said Hall, who rushed for 1,472 yards and 20 touchdowns last season. "I'm an impact player."