FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Wide receiver Garrett Wilson went left, went right and slithered his way through the crowd, finding daylight. TV lights, actually.
In the New York Jets' victorious locker room last week, Wilson, who has a knack for finding open space, penetrated a pack of reporters and joined teammate Breece Hall at a makeshift podium. In a playful mood, Wilson leaned into Hall, listening as the running back explained how they pulled off an improbable 13-10 overtime win over the New York Giants.
"Luckily," Hall told the TV cameras and microphones, "Zach [Wilson] and Garrett did their thing, so it was a blessing."
Garrett Wilson put his left arm around Hall, who scored the game's only touchdown, and gave him an appreciative squeeze. Standing on the periphery of the scrum, waiting his turn in the media spotlight, was cornerback Sauce Gardner. Not far from him was defensive end Jermaine Johnson, who spoke to reporters at his locker after the first two-sack game of his career.
There, within a few yards of each other in the plush bowels of MetLife Stadium, stood a big chunk of the present and future of the Jets. Gardner, Wilson, Johnson and Hall -- members of the celebrated draft class of 2022 -- represent the Jets' "Core Four" of players under the age of 25. Or maybe they should be known as the "Restore Four" because of what they've meant to the previously downtrodden Jets (4-3), who hope to snap a 12-year playoff drought.
"Franchise-defining," coach Robert Saleh said of their '22 draft, which produced the NFL offensive and defensive rookies of the year in Wilson and Gardner.
This season was supposed to be about the oldest player in the league -- quarterback Aaron Rodgers, 39 -- but his left Achilles injury on the first series of the first game changed everything for the Jets.
The focus has shifted to the quartet of Gen Z players -- their leading rusher (Hall), leading receiver (Wilson) and leading sack producer (Johnson). Gardner isn't leading any statistical categories, but he's the most accomplished of the group -- first-team All-Pro as a rookie, the first corner to do that since San Francisco 49ers legend Ronnie Lott in 1981. That foursome is a big reason the Jets, left for dead after losing Rodgers, take a three-game winning streak into Monday night against the Los Angeles Chargers at MetLife (8:15 ET, ABC/ESPN).
"We all just understood that we had to come here and do big things and have a big impact for the team, for the organization," Johnson said. "And we kind of took that as a challenge, and with pride."
In the span of 24 hours, on the nights of April 28 and 29, 2022, general manager Joe Douglas changed the course of the franchise by drafting Gardner (fourth overall), Wilson (10th), Johnson (26th) and Hall (36th). Johnson was a backup last season and Hall missed the final 10 games with a left ACL tear, but now the group is intact. They're all starters and each is producing at or near a Pro Bowl level, according to Saleh.
The draft is a tricky business, and no one knows that better than the Jets, who have flubbed many top-10 picks over the years. They once chose a pass-rusher who didn't record a sack for his entire career (Vernon Gholston, sixth overall, 2008) and a cornerback who had more surgeries in college than interceptions in the NFL (Dee Milliner, ninth overall, 2013). For the record, it was five surgeries, three picks.
So there's no such thing as a gimme in the draft game, but Douglas, who had two first-rounders and two second-rounders, went into the '22 draft thinking "it could really be special." He wound up with four of the 18 highest-graded players on his draft board, using one second-round pick to trade up for Johnson in Round 1 and benefitting from Hall's fall into Round 2.
"They got four impact players for the team -- all home-run scenarios," one AFC personnel director said.
The draft was two years in the making. In July 2020, the Jets traded disgruntled safety Jamal Adams to the Seattle Seahawks for 2021 and 2022 first-round picks, which they used for guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and Garrett Wilson, respectively. They picked up an extra second-rounder when they dealt quarterback Sam Darnold to the Carolina Panthers in 2021.
It was a textbook case of how to acquire extra draft capital to accelerate a rebuild.
"We were brought here for a reason," Wilson said. "We all feel like we have something special to bring to the table. We all feel like we're unique and alphas."
Another key date for this class was Oct. 16, 2022. That day, at Lambeau Field, Gardner and Hall staged dominating performances in a 27-10 win over the Green Bay Packers, catching the eye of a certain future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Rodgers has remarked many times one of the reasons he picked the Jets was because of their talented young core -- budding stars on rookie contracts, the ideal roster-building situation for an aging quarterback. He really hit it off with Gardner, who had recruited him on social media.
"It's a blessing to be able to be one of the reasons why he's here," Gardner said.
The Jets' championship opportunity is short term, which made Rodgers' injury hurt that much more. While all four players are signed through 2025, they will be eligible for new deals after the 2024 season.
"Their window is now because they'll have to pay all those guys in a couple of years," one NFC scout said of the Jets. "That's why they felt so pressured to make the Rodgers trade. They have to win now or everyone is gone. You watch Saleh on the sideline and he lives and dies with every snap because he knows they mortgaged the farm."
IT STILL BURNS Hall that he wasn't a first-round pick. After a record-breaking career at Iowa State, he figured he'd be a Day 1 selection, but he was victimized by the devaluation of the running back position, according to multiple personnel sources in the league.
Because they graded him as the 18th-best player in the draft, the Jets had no qualms about trading up two spots to grab him in Round 2. In their eyes, he was a steal. If the past 24 games have proved anything, it's that the Jets are a different team when he's on the field.
It's simple math: The Jets are 9-5 with Hall in the lineup, 2-8 when he's not. When he scores a touchdown, they're 8-0.
Hall is a home-run threat, something they haven't had in the backfield since Thomas Jones rushed for 1,402 yards in 2009. Hall leads the league in yards per carry (5.7) and he's responsible for four of the top five ball carrier speeds on the team, reaching a high of 21.5 mph.
"It's like when you're watching a plane fly by," wide receiver Allen Lazard said of Hall's running style. "The thing's 30,000 feet in the air and it looks like it's moving slow, but the closer you get -- it's hauling and you probably should get out of the way."
As a runner and receiver, Hall already has broken plays of 83, 72 and 50 yards -- all this despite having major knee surgery last October. He began the season as a wild card; even people in the organization weren't sure how long it would take for him to be 100 percent.
Thanks to his "robot knee," as he calls it, Hall has answered that question.
WILSON ALREADY IS one of the top young receivers in Jets history. His 122 career receptions are the fourth most by a player in his first two seasons, behind Wayne Chrebet (150), Keyshawn Johnson (133) and Al Toon (131). At his current pace, he will finish the year with 178 through his first two seasons, blowing them out of the water.
The downside to his sudden success is opponents have made a significant adjustment in how they defend him.
Wilson is drawing press coverage on 44% of his routes, the third-highest rate in the league among players with at least 100 routes, per NFL Next Gen Stats. It's a big increase from last season (25%).
That's what happens when you amass 1,103 receiving yards as a rookie despite a less-than-ideal quarterback situation. It's what happens when you're as elusive as a drop of liquid mercury. Some call him Gumby because of his uncanny ability to contort his body, making impossible catches -- like his one-handed, juggling touchdown grab against the Buffalo Bills in Week 1.
"People don't want him to get loose, so they're going to get up and try and get in his face," said receivers coach Zach Azzanni, explaining the steady diet of press coverage.
Wilson has spent an inordinate amount of time working on his release from the line of scrimmage, studying film and honing techniques that will allow him to improve against press coverage. Not that he's worried; he still has 39 catches for 469 yards.
"There's nothing that's made me feel like, 'Oh, wow, they got the plan for me,'" Wilson said, adding that he's not as concerned with individual stats as he was last season. "I feel like I'm as good as I've ever been as far as my receiving skills."
BEFORE FACING THE Dallas Cowboys in Week 2, Gardner received a text from Rodgers, who was recovering from surgery in California.
"He told me to get a pick for him," Gardner said.
Sure enough, he was served one up by quarterback Dak Prescott, but Gardner dropped the would-be interception, a likely pick-six. Nearly two months later, he's still chafed by it.
"I can't believe it," he said, shaking his head.
Gardner has encountered a few hiccups in Year 2, including a costly holding penalty in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. Statistically, his coverage metrics are down from last season. He has been targeted at the same rate, but he's allowing a 77% completion mark and a 105.8 passer rating as the nearest defender, per NFL Next Gen Stats. A year ago, it was 48% and 62.9.
Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said "nearest defender" stats can be misleading because they don't account for the player's actual assignment.
"I still think he's an exceptional player," Ulbrich said. "He's a guy who I think can cover anyone in this league."
It would be hard for Gardner to duplicate his historic 2022 performance. He was an instant star who hit the first-year trifecta -- Pro Bowl, All-Pro and Defensive Rookie of the Year. He made it look easy, shutting down some of the league's premier receivers.
He has improved his on-field communication, according to Ulbrich, who said Gardner isn't like the proverbial star corner who prefers to live in isolation on his own island. He regularly engages with teammates in pre-snap conversations, helping to set the defense.
"Coverage-wise, I've been pretty solid. I'm not really having that many opportunities to get interceptions," said Gardner, who has zero, "so it just makes me think about Dallas every time. I just wish I could have that play back."
That's how Johnson reacted when he studied his rookie season on tape. He didn't recognize that player. Where was the burst? Where was the explosiveness that enabled him to win ACC Defensive Player of the Year at Florida State in 2021?
Determined to change, Johnson reinvented himself in the offseason, sculpting his body and improving his speed and get-off times, based on GPS tracking. He has improved his pressure rate from 9% last season to 10.1% this year. No doubt, he's the most improved player among his 2022 draft classmates.
His goal this season: "dominate."
"Just getting back to Jermaine," he said. "I wasn't playing like me last year. I don't know the cause of that, but I looked myself in the mirror and looked at my Florida State film and I was like, 'I want to be the guy that plays and acts like that. I want to see him.' So I took it as a challenge."
With a new-look body and a new number (he changed from 52 to 11), Johnson won a starting job in training camp, replacing Carl Lawson. Not only does he lead the team in sacks (4), but Johnson has gone from a bit player in a deep defensive-line rotation to one of the main cogs. He trails only Quinnen Williams in snaps played.
"I just have to remember that people have to deal with me," he said, "not the other way around."
These same people have to deal with Gardner, Wilson and Hall, too -- the "Restore Four."