Jermaine Johnson, the third of the Jets’ three first-round draft picks this season, is practicing power and patience.
Sauce Gardner, the Jets’ first pick, immediately ascended to the top of a thin cornerback depth chart. And Garrett Wilson, the team’s second pick, was viewed as the missing piece to elevate a group of solid receivers.
Johnson, on the other hand, is carving out a role in head coach Robert Saleh’s deep defensive line rotation and ignoring that many first-rounders have been handed quicker paths to stardom.
“However I can help the team win is honestly how I look at it,” Johnson said. “I practice like I’m a [undrafted] free agent anyway, so I don’t really care. It’s like I’m fighting for my life. That’s how I am, what I believe and how I practice — and it just lines up perfectly with what Coach Saleh is all about: Practicing hard, balls to the wall, giving 110 percent not only for yourself but for the team.”
The Jets likely will start Carl Lawson, Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins and John Franklin-Myers along the line. Franklin-Myers’ versatility allows him to move from the edge to the interior in passing situations, making room for a situational rusher. For that first call to go to Johnson as often as (or more so than) veteran Jacob Martin, the rookie must broaden his repertoire of moves so that offensive tackles don’t sit on his speed.
“The power game has to be a big part of what he does because his hand-eye coordination and his movement — ability to win one-on-ones — is pretty good,” Saleh said. “He’s just got to learn how to bring all that power and make it a guessing game to give himself a three-way go.”
Johnson flushed Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts out of the pocket on the first drive in his preseason debut, and he would have sacked Falcons rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder during a joint practice Saturday if plays weren’t being blown dead. He figures to draw a heavy workload in the game Monday night against the Falcons.
“[When] you are going against the same guys day-in day-out everyone starts to get a good feel for one another,” Johnson said when asked about the value of joint practices. “Now you can come out and throw fastballs on people that don’t really know you that well. Everything is working.”
Johnson had trouble cracking a deep defensive line rotation of future high NFL draft picks over two seasons at Georgia, but hindsight suggests that was a rare misjudgment by the SEC powerhouse. After he transferred to Florida State in 2021, Johnson was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year and collected 12 sacks. Just scratching the surface, perhaps.
“Making sure I’m even in all aspects of my game is something I pride myself in,” Johnson said. “Like my coach says, the most common ways to sack a quarterback in the league have been power and counter rushes, so getting good at that in my game can do nothing but help me.”
Saleh believes in keeping defensive linemen fresh by maxing them out at about 40 snaps, so veterans Solomon Thomas, Nathan Shepherd and Vinny Curry are in the mix. Returning youngsters Bryce Huff and Jabari Zuniga could be squeezed out by the arrival of Johnson and fellow rookie Micheal Clemons.
“Both of them came in a little bit wide-eyed — not in a negative way, just in that I think they got 3-4 days in and realized all of this stuff is brand new,” defensive line coach Aaron Whitecotton said. “Both figured out they have a lot to learn, and I’m seeing two guys hungry to do it right and grow in this scheme. It’s very different from what they did in college. There are so many fine details they have to learn to become instinctive with.”
As Johnson climbs the depth chart and sharpens techniques, he is trying to become a contributor on special teams and in run defense, Saleh said.
“I love the way Jermaine has attacked practice,” Saleh said. “It’s just going to be a matter of time before he ties it all together with power and it becomes exactly what we think he’ll be.”