FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Minutes after he was picked by the New York Jets, Sauce Gardner was doing a media interview backstage at the 2022 NFL draft in Las Vegas when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw Garrett Wilson walking out to the stage for his welcome-to-the-league hug from commissioner Roger Goodell. Wilson was wearing a Jets cap, just like he was.
“Oh, yeah, this is gonna be crazy,” Gardner said to himself, imagining the future.
Gardner was drafted fourth overall at 8:34 p.m. ET on April 28. At 9:15 p.m., Wilson was selected with the 10th pick.
Just like that, the Jets added two former college stars who would become the most dynamic players on their team — a 6-foot-3 cornerback in Gardner who covers like an umbrella insurance policy and a wide receiver who can separate better than church and state. Franchises can go years without finding one impact rookie; the Jets found two in a span of 41 minutes.
While their season has unraveled in recent weeks — they take a three-game losing streak into Thursday night’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at MetLife Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, Prime Video) — the Jets (7-7) can take solace in knowing they hit the daily double in the draft.
Wilson and Gardner are favored to win the NFL Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards, respectively, meaning they could join New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara and cornerback Marshon Lattimore as the only teammates since the 1970 merger to win the awards in the same year. 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,'” said Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, a former teammate of Kamara and Lattimore. “You see the talent. You see the mentality.”
WHAT HAPPENED IN Vegas didn’t stay in Vegas for long. Gardner, Wilson and defensive end Jermaine Johnson — drafted later in the first round — were escorted by the Jets that night to New Jersey. They flew on a private jet, three newbies above the clouds in more ways than one.
They chopped it up for a while, recounting their draft experiences and discussing the great things they would do together. There was some turbulence and no food on board, recalled Wilson, who was so tired that he wore a sleep mask for the first time in his life and just passed out until they landed at 5 a.m. It was an exhausting night of extreme emotions.
“In the moment, it felt like a dream come true — a movie,” Gardner said. “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, as it turned out.
Except for some early struggles in training camp by Wilson, the two rookies have made remarkably seamless transitions to the NFL. Wilson leads all rookies in receptions (67) and receiving yards (966). Gardner has allowed only a 47% completion rate as the nearest defender, second to the Philadelphia Eagles‘ James Bradberry among cornerbacks with at least 400 coverage snaps, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Barring injury, Wilson will be the Jets’ first 1,000-yard receiver since 2015, when Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker both reached the milestone. Gardner is their first shutdown corner 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 said. “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 night, Gardner became the first Jets rookie since safety Erik McMillan in 1988 to be selected to the Pro Bowl, a nice accomplishment for a franchise known for its spotty drafting history. A few days before the announcement, Gardner became aware of the 34-year drought. Asked how it would feel to end it, he told ESPN, “Oh god, that would be crazy.”
Then he smiled.
“I always say I want to make history,” he said. “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 goal was to become the highest-drafted player in program history. He checked that box. He wasn’t handed a starting job when he got to the Jets — remember that pseudo training-camp competition with Bryce Hall? — but that didn’t stop him from thinking big. One of his goals is defensive rookie of the year.
“Of course it would mean a lot,” he said. “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 point where he doesn’t get tested much by opposing teams — rarified air for a rookie. He wasn’t targeted on a single one of his 38 coverage snaps last Sunday by the Detroit Lions, per NFL Next Gen Stats — tied for the fourth-most coverage snaps without a target by an outside corner since 2017.
Speaking to hometown friends in Detroit, where he was raised, Gardner did some trash-talking on the eve of the game, predicting a pick-six. He was bummed that he never got a chance, saying, “I actually took it kind of personal, because I wanted to make a bigger and better impact in the game.”
His impact was hidden, but still profound. Basically, he eliminated half the field from the Lions.
Gardner doesn’t care about stats and eye-popping metrics that illustrate his precocious ability. He cares about one thing: “I don’t know too much about the numbers. I just want to dominate whoever lines up across from me.”
Wilson developed the same mindset at his position, starting his sophomore year at Ohio State. He studied video of Jefferson, the Minnesota Vikings‘ star receiver, identifying one of his wide receiver role models.
“I watched him as a rookie and I said, ‘I want to be like him,'” Wilson told 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 against the Vikings on Dec. 4. During a postgame embrace, Jefferson told Wilson he’s “fun to watch.”
Wilson is making this look easy. He has reached 95 receiving yards in five games, one of only 10 players — and the only rookie — who can make that claim this season. He already has the franchise record for catches and yards by a rookie, surpassing Wayne Chrebet (66 in 1995) and Keyshawn Johnson (844 in 1996).
Unbeknownst to many, Wilson experienced an acute, albeit brief, period of growing pains in the summer. There were dropped passes, plays he didn’t make. It threw him into a mini-funk.
“It really beat me up,” he said.
By the start of the season, he was dazzling teammates with his route running, body control and uncanny ability to separate from defenders at the top of his route. “College-like jukes and cuts — so exciting to see,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said of Wilson’s moves.
Wilson has been a factor in almost every game since a game-winning touchdown catch in Week 2 against the Cleveland Browns. Not even a subtle position change — slot to split end (X position) — has impeded his progress. He has produced 433 yards over the past four weeks, second only to Jefferson (530).
That dropped-pass issue? Wilson has only four, none in the last eight games.
One area he needs to check is his demonstrative displays of frustration on the field. It happened again last Sunday, as he threw up his arms after an errant pass by Zach Wilson — not a good optic. Afterward, Wilson sought out the quarterback and gave him a long embrace on the sideline. He’s learning.
That emotion and swagger are part of his DNA. As Wilson explained, “I want everyone to tell, ‘OK, that dude loves playing football.'” Gardner plays the same way. Around the locker room, they exhibit the same chill vibe, according to teammates. In New Orleans, Rankins saw the same traits from Kamara and Lattimore when they were rookies.
“There was never a moment where either of those guys were starstruck,” Rankins said. “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 long history of draft blunders got it right in 2022, with Gardner, Wilson and others. For years, the Jets lacked star power, marquee players with competitive charisma. Gardner and Wilson might fill the void.
“They’re going to carry the torch from us older guys,” Mosley said. “They’re the future.”