It has been 11 years since the Jets last reached the postseason, over a decade of futility that has led to a parade of top draft picks.
The latest one, No. 4 overall selection Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner, doesn’t know what has gone wrong in past seasons, but he knows what he sees: potential.
“This [team], it reminds me of Cincinnati a lot,” he said on Saturday, referring to the school he helped to last season’s College Football Playoff. “I think this year, we’re going to make a huge change.
“I just feel like every everybody’s buying into the program. I don’t know how things were last year, but I know we got a lot of great talent, people from free agency, the draft, coaches, everybody, and they know it. Everybody has that feeling. It’s not just me. Everybody is like, ‘we’re going to do this.’ ”
The 6-foot-3 Gardner’s presence is a big part of that optimism around the Jets. With Gardner and veteran newcomer D.J. Reed, the Jets are expected to have a much-improved secondary this year after the spot was a major weakness a season ago. Garrett Wilson, a first-round pick who has gone against Gardner early on in training camp, described his new teammate as a “dog” — in a good way. Head coach Robert Saleh said he is a “sponge” and fellow rookie Jermaine Johnson praised Gardner as having “juice.”
So far, Saleh has stopped short of anointing Gardner a starter, opting to make him earn the starting spot opposite Reed. The team’s top first-round pick doesn’t seem upset by that.
“They drafted me here for a reason: They drafted me to come be the best version of myself,” Gardner said. “That’s all I do. I try to be the best teammate, help whoever I can.”
He added: “My main goal: I just want to be the best.”
Gardner believes he’s made a lot of progress from the time he joined the Jets until now, crediting a host of teammates and cornerbacks coach Tony Oden for the strides he has taken. He even singled out some receivers who have told him what they look for in opposing cornerbacks. The biggest thing he’s learned: Trust himself.
“Your eyes aren’t going to lie to you,” he said. “That’s the main thing in playing cornerback: Believe in what you see.”
Gardner had nine interceptions and didn’t allow a touchdown in three years at Cincinnati, an impressive stretch of dominance. He was the lone cornerback to limit Alabama star receiver Jameson Williams, holding him to seven catches for 62 yards. Teams mostly stayed away from Gardner last year, but that is an unlikely scenario this fall. He’ll be a target.
“I’m looking forward to whatever comes,” he said. “If they want to test me all day, that will be better for me.”
Fortunately for Gardner, he has teammates going through the exact same thing: fellow first-first round picks Johnson and Wilson, and second-round selection Breece Hall. There are high expectations for the foursome, a group that enters their first training camp with considerable hype.
Hall and Gardner already seem like fan favorites. Projected starters at their positions, they drew roars from fans on Saturday for merely jogging past them.
“It takes a lot of pressure off because you have people to talk to that are going through the same things you’re going through, the same expectations,” Wilson said. “When you’re a first-round pick, you’re expected to come in and make an impact right away.”
That pressure doesn’t seem to be a concern for Gardner. In his first practice in front of fans on Saturday, he seemed loose. He ran 100 yards with Reed following his pick-six and punctuated it with a back flip.
“It looked kind of bad,” Gardner recalled with a sheepish smile. “I was just in the moment.”