FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Minutes after he was picked by the New York Jets, Sauce Gardner was doing a media interview backstage on the 2022 NFL draft in Las Vegas when, out of the nook of his eye, he noticed Garrett Wilson strolling out to the stage for his welcome-to-the-league hug from commissioner Roger Goodell. Wilson was carrying a Jets cap, similar to he was.
“Oh, yeah, this is gonna be crazy,” Gardner mentioned to himself, imagining the long run.
Gardner was drafted fourth total at 8:34 p.m. ET on April 28. At 9:15 p.m., Wilson was chosen with the tenth decide.
Identical to that, the Jets added two former faculty stars who would turn out to be essentially the most dynamic gamers on their group — a 6-foot-3 cornerback in Gardner who covers like an umbrella insurance coverage coverage and a large receiver who can separate higher than church and state. Franchises can go years with out discovering one impression rookie; the Jets discovered two in a span of 41 minutes.
Whereas their season has unraveled in current weeks — they take a three-game shedding streak into Thursday evening’s recreation in opposition to the Jacksonville Jaguars at MetLife Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) — the Jets (7-7) can take solace in understanding they hit the every day double within the draft.
Wilson and Gardner are favored to win the NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the 12 months awards, respectively, which means they might be a part of New Orleans Saints working again Alvin Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore as the one teammates because the 1970 merger to win the awards in the identical 12 months. They did it in 2017.
“If you told me in 15 years that Garrett was the greatest Jets receiver of all time and Sauce was in the conversation for being better than [Darrelle] Revis for the best Jets DB of all time, I’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re probably right,'” mentioned Jets defensive deal with Sheldon Rankins, a former teammate of Kamara and Lattimore. “You see the talent. You see the mentality.”
WHAT HAPPENED IN Vegas did not keep in Vegas for lengthy. Gardner, Wilson and defensive finish Jermaine Johnson — drafted later within the first spherical — have been escorted by the Jets that evening to New Jersey. They flew on a personal jet, three newbies above the clouds in additional methods than one.
They chopped it up for some time, recounting their draft experiences and discussing the nice issues they’d do collectively. There was some turbulence and no meals on board, recalled Wilson, who was so drained that he wore a sleep masks for the primary time in his life and simply handed out till they landed at 5 a.m. It was an exhausting evening of maximum feelings.
“In the moment, it felt like a dream come true — a movie,” Gardner mentioned. “Imagine: You just heard your name called and your family, they’re proud, they’re happy. Then you get on a private jet to start the next chapter in your life. It felt like a movie.”
A blockbuster, because it turned out.
Aside from some early struggles in coaching camp by Wilson, the 2 rookies have made remarkably seamless transitions to the NFL. Wilson leads all rookies in receptions (67) and receiving yards (966). Gardner has allowed solely a 47% completion charge as the closest defender, second to the Philadelphia Eagles’ James Bradberry amongst cornerbacks with not less than 400 protection snaps, per NFL Subsequent Gen Stats.
Barring harm, Wilson would be the Jets’ first 1,000-yard receiver since 2015, when Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker each reached the milestone. Gardner is their first shutdown nook since Revis, circa 2010.
“You got a guy like Sauce, who cherishes these moments to go against guys like Justin Jefferson and [Stefon] Diggs and Tyreek Hill and Ja’Marr Chase and all the different guys that him and D.J. Reed have had to play,” coach Robert Saleh mentioned. “Then, Garrett Wilson, [he’s] just thriving. If you ask him, we should throw the ball 90 times a game. You want guys who want the ball in the biggest moments.”
On Wednesday evening, Gardner turned the primary Jets rookie since security Erik McMillan in 1988 to be chosen to the Professional Bowl, a pleasant accomplishment for a franchise recognized for its spotty drafting historical past. A number of days earlier than the announcement, Gardner turned conscious of the 34-year drought. Requested how it will really feel to finish it, he advised ESPN, “Oh god, that would be crazy.”
Then he smiled.
“I always say I want to make history,” he mentioned. “That’s always going through my head. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I’m always trying to make history.”
At Cincinnati, Gardner’s objective was to turn out to be the highest-drafted participant in program historical past. He checked that field. He wasn’t handed a beginning job when he obtained to the Jets — do not forget that pseudo training-camp competitors with Bryce Corridor? — however that did not cease him from pondering huge. One in all his objectives is defensive rookie of the 12 months.
“Of course it would mean a lot,” he mentioned. “We grow up with so many things we want to accomplish, goals and aspirations, but when we’re in the moment, we basically just think about winning. Winning games is more important than any and everything. But, of course, it would be big to make that happen.”
Gardner has ascended to the purpose the place he does not get examined a lot by opposing groups — rarified air for a rookie. He wasn’t focused on a single certainly one of his 38 protection snaps final Sunday by the Detroit Lions, per NFL Subsequent Gen Stats — tied for the fourth-most protection snaps and not using a goal by an outdoor nook since 2017.
Chatting with hometown associates in Detroit, the place he was raised, Gardner did some trash-talking on the eve of the sport, predicting a pick-six. He was bummed that he by no means obtained an opportunity, saying, “I actually took it kind of personal, because I wanted to make a bigger and better impact in the game.”
His impression was hidden, however nonetheless profound. Principally, he eradicated half the sector from the Lions.
Gardner does not care about stats and eye-popping metrics that illustrate his precocious capability. He cares about one factor: “I don’t know too much about the numbers. I just want to dominate whoever lines up across from me.”
Wilson developed the identical mindset at his place, beginning his sophomore 12 months at Ohio State. He studied video of Jefferson, the Minnesota Vikings’ star receiver, figuring out certainly one of his huge receiver position fashions.
“I watched him as a rookie and I said, ‘I want to be like him,'” Wilson advised ESPN. “I want to play like him and have an impact on the game like he’s having. … You want to chase the ones that are the best. He’s been the best at the position. Hopefully, at some point, I can get up there.”
With Jefferson watching, Wilson exploded for eight catches and 162 yards in opposition to the Vikings on Dec. 4. Throughout a postgame embrace, Jefferson advised Wilson he is “fun to watch.”
Wilson is making this look simple. He has reached 95 receiving yards in 5 video games, certainly one of solely 10 gamers — and the one rookie — who could make that declare this season. He already has the franchise document for catches and yards by a rookie, surpassing Wayne Chrebet (66 in 1995) and Keyshawn Johnson (844 in 1996).
Unbeknownst to many, Wilson skilled an acute, albeit transient, interval of rising pains in the summertime. There have been dropped passes, performs he did not make. It threw him right into a mini-funk.
“It really beat me up,” he mentioned.
By the beginning of the season, he was dazzling teammates together with his route working, physique management and uncanny capability to separate from defenders on the high of his route. “College-like jukes and cuts — so exciting to see,” linebacker C.J. Mosley mentioned of Wilson’s strikes.
Wilson has been a consider nearly each recreation since a game-winning landing catch in Week 2 in opposition to the Cleveland Browns. Not even a refined place change — slot to separate finish (X place) — has impeded his progress. He has produced 433 yards over the previous 4 weeks, second solely to Jefferson (530).
That dropped-pass problem? Wilson has solely 4, none within the final eight video games.
One space he must examine is his demonstrative shows of frustration on the sector. It occurred once more final Sunday, as he threw up his arms after an errant cross by Zach Wilson — not a great optic. Afterward, Wilson sought out the quarterback and gave him a protracted embrace on the sideline. He is studying.
That emotion and swagger are a part of his DNA. As Wilson defined, “I want everyone to tell, ‘OK, that dude loves playing football.'” Gardner performs the identical means. Across the locker room, they exhibit the identical chill vibe, in keeping with teammates. In New Orleans, Rankins noticed the identical traits from Kamara and Lattimore after they have been rookies.
“There was never a moment where either of those guys were starstruck,” Rankins mentioned. “They never looked across the opposing line and said, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Julio Jones!’ Alvin was never, ‘Oh, my God, that’s Luke Kuechly!’ For them, no moment was going to rob them of the opportunity to be great. You see the same with Sauce and Garrett.”
A franchise with a protracted historical past of draft blunders obtained it proper in 2022, with Gardner, Wilson and others. For years, the Jets lacked star energy, marquee gamers with aggressive charisma. Gardner and Wilson may fill the void.
“They’re going to carry the torch from us older guys,” Mosley mentioned. “They’re the future.”