Analytics love the New York Jets’ cornerback trio
When you narrow everything down, it’s clear that the New York Jets‘ cornerback trio of Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, and Michael Carter II was the heart and soul of the team in 2022.
New York’s fourth-ranked scoring defense carried the team to a 7-4 start, bailing out its 29th-ranked scoring offense. That fourth-ranked defense featured better play against the pass (second-fewest net yards per pass attempt allowed) than against the run (10th-fewest yards per rush attempt allowed). The pass defense was the primary reason New York won games.
And the cornerback trio was the primary reason New York’s pass defense was so fantastic. The Jets dealt with subpar play from the safety position. The elite production of the pass defense despite the struggles at safety is a testament to just how special the cornerback trio was.
An excellent pass-rushing defensive line also contributed heavily to the Jets’ success against the pass, but between the defensive line and the cornerbacks, the cornerbacks were more dominant compared to the rest of the NFL. The numbers bear that out.
I was curious to see where Gardner, Reed, and Carter II each ranked among all NFL cornerbacks as individuals. From there, we could figure out where they ranked as a trio.
To rank the league’s cornerbacks, I decided to compile each player’s average ranking across seven categories:
- Yards allowed per coverage snap
- Yards allowed per target
- Quarterback rating allowed
- Touchdowns allowed per coverage snap
- Penalties per defensive snap
- Passes defended per target
- PFF run defense grade
I evaluated the 82 cornerbacks who played at least 500 defensive snaps in 2022. After calculating every player’s ranking across each category, the 82 players were ranked according to their average ranking across all seven categories.
Here are the top 20 players.
This study agrees with the popular sentiment that Gardner was the NFL’s best-performing cornerback in 2022. With an average rank of 11.6 across the seven categories, there was a comfortable gap between Gardner and second-ranked Tyson Campbell of the Jaguars.
Reed checked in at the No. 6 spot. A poor season in run defense (an outlier for him after previously being a stellar run defender) prevented him from ranking even higher, as his coverage statistics were tremendous across the board.
Finally, Carter II checked in at No. 20, thanks mostly to his touchdown prevention and his impressive run defense. Among cornerbacks who played more than half of their snaps in the slot, Carter II ranked fourth-best, trailing only Darious Williams, K’Waun Williams, and Mike Hilton.
The Jets are the only team who landed three players in the top 20.
This would seem to suggest the Jets clearly had the league’s best cornerback trio, but to be completely sure, I ran another study to see where the Jets’ cornerback trio stacked up as a cumulative unit.
I took each team’s top three cornerbacks in total defensive snaps played and calculated their cumulative statistics as a trio in each of the same seven categories we analyzed above. I then ranked the trios according to their average ranking across the seven categories.
Here are the results.
The Jets came out on top by a fairly decent margin, earning an average ranking of 4.4 across the seven categories. Philadelphia’s trio of James Bradberry, Darius Slay, and Avonte Maddox came in second with an average ranking of 7.1.
Rounding out the top five were Jacksonville (Tyson Campbell, Darious Williams, Tre Herndon), Tampa Bay (Jamel Dean, Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting), and Denver (Patrick Surtain II, Damarri Mathis, K’Waun Williams).
These were the cumulative statistics of Gardner, Reed, and Carter II as a trio:
- Yards allowed per coverage snap: 0.77 (1st) – 1,372 yards on 1,791 snaps
- Yards allowed per target: 5.8 (1st) – 1,372 yards on 236 targets
- Quarterback rating allowed: 71.5 (2nd) – 137/236 passing for 1,372 yards, 4 TD, 5 INT
- Touchdowns allowed per coverage snap: 0.0022 (1st) – 4 TD on 1,791 snaps
- Penalties per defensive snap: 0.0034 (6th) – 10 penalties on 2,981 snaps
- Passes defended per target: 0.1737 (2nd) – 41 PD on 236 targets
- PFF run defense grade: 62.1 (18th)
There are a variety of different ways to evaluate cornerback play – my methods in this article were hardly scientific and should not be viewed as definitive. Still, I felt this agglomerative study painted an informative and easily digestible picture of the league’s cornerback landscape in 2022. No metric is perfect, so blending a multitude of them together is a great way to weed out the noise and reveal who is consistently thriving (or failing) across various different metrics.
It seems clear that, no matter how you slice up the numbers, the Jets’ cornerback trio was the league’s best in 2022. They were elite in just about every category, which is a distinction no other unit can match.
And remember: This is a trio, not a duo. Michael Carter II’s role in this unit’s success cannot be understated. He is the third-best player in the unit, and yet, his statistics last year put him in the discussion to be among the league’s top 20 cornerbacks. Carter II played better than the best cornerback on many teams. No other team in the league has a third corner as good as Carter II, and that is what truly sets New York’s unit apart.
The challenge for this trio is proving it can maintain its success for a second consecutive season. Cornerback play can be extremely volatile on a year-to-year basis due to the nature of the position.
There is often a tiny margin of error that differentiates an 80-yard touchdown from an incompletion – yet, despite these two outcomes being separated by such a slim difference in execution, it has a massive impact on season-long statistics like yards per target and quarterback rating. This is much different than aspects of the game such as pass-rushing, where statistics like pressures and sacks are collected one by one rather than in bunches. There, your down-to-down consistency fully determines your success, but at cornerback, you can be consistent and have your stats tanked by a handful of destructive plays.
Because of the cornerback position’s natural volatility, players’ statistics tend to fluctuate wildly from season to season even if their true level of play doesn’t actually change all that much.
The Jets’ cornerbacks will be held to impossibly high standards in 2023 because of the gaudy numbers they posted in 2022. The way Gardner, Reed, and Carter II managed to survive one week after the next whilst rarely ever having a truly “bad” game was unbelievable.
Jets fans must prepare themselves for a slight statistical decline from the cornerback trio in 2023. This is arguably the hardest position in football to maintain statistical success on a yearly basis.
But a statistical drop-off would not necessarily mean the unit is playing worse. It could easily mean nothing more than the scales of luck balancing out, as they always do.
However, the Jets’ cornerback trio was so far ahead of the league in 2022 that they can remain a top 3-5 trio in 2023 even if they suffer from significant regression toward the mean. You can tack a handful of long touchdowns onto their 2022 statistics and they would still be one of the top-ranked units. They were that good.
I expect a statistical drop-off from them in 2023, but nothing too significant. As long as they can stay in that upper echelon, Jets fans should be able to rest assured that nothing has changed from 2022 except for some normalization in the luck department.
Remember, when Week 1 arrives, the average age of this trio will be 24.3 years old, with Reed being the oldest at 26. These guys are in their primes – that is, if they have even hit their primes yet. Besides a tad of expected statistical regression that is natural for cornerbacks, there is no reason to expect any sort of substantial drop-off from the Gardner/Reed/Carter II trio. They are poised to be the gold standard of cornerback trios for years to come.
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