Jets Preview: Who Doesn’t Like a Circus?
Yes, the New York Jets are a circus. So what? They’ve been a circus since the gregarious/boisterous/loquacious/bombastic/outspoken/pick-an-adjective Rex Ryan became their head coach. In Ryan’s first two years on the job the Jets went to two AFC Championship Games. The circus only became an issue over the last two years, when New York’s quarterback play slipped from mediocre to atrocious.
Of course, great organizations fix issues; circus-like organizations exacerbate them. The Tim Tebow move last offseason was the most misguided hiring Gotham has seen since the Knicks and Isiah Thomas. Tebow’s presence did not add a dimension to New York’s backfield, it only created distractions and rattled Mark Sanchez’s rhythm. To assuage Sanchez after their failed pursuit of Peyton Manning, the Jets signed the former first-rounder to a five-year, $58.25 million contract extension that guaranteed his salary in 2012 and 2013.
This disastrous decision further strained the Jets’ ailing cap and handcuffed them to a quarterback who would carry a clipboard on most teams. Justifiably, general manager Mike Tannenbaum was fired after the 2012 season. But the ensuing waves of candidates who turned down an opportunity to even interview for the vacant GM position suggests the organization’s issues can’t be pinned entirely on Tannenbaum.
Eventually, the Jets found former Seahawks VP of football administration John Idzik to fill the position. Idzik’s first order of business was to confirm owner Woody Johnson’s decision to retain Ryan. His next order of business was to trade superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis (likely per Johnson’s orders again). That was a painful move, but Revis’ expiring contract had a "no franchise tag" clause, meaning the Jets risked losing him outright after 2013. They opted for a bird in the hand, taking Tampa Bay’s first-round pick.
Idzik’s next franchise-shifting move came in the draft. Most notably, on the draft’s second night. With the 39th overall pick he chose quarterback Geno Smith, giving this circus another new act.
First things first: No matter what they might say, the Jets do not believe Geno Smith is a surefire franchise quarterback. If they did they would have drafted him with one of their two first-round picks. Most likely, the Jets were as concerned about Smith’s questionable pocket mechanics and field-reading as the other 31 teams that passed on him. And they should be concerned about the guy’s subtle off-field flags, which include things like his initial decision to not go back to Radio City Music Hall following a disappointing slide out of the first round, firing his agent shortly after that slide and reports that some teams did not like his attitude in the pre-draft process.
That said, it would be almost nonsensical for the Jets not to start Smith in Week 1. They already know what they have in Mark Sanchez: a mild-armed scattershot passer with poor pocket presence and a propensity for turnovers (18 interceptions in each of the last two seasons, each one seemingly more deplorable than the last). After 62 regular season starts and six career postseason starts there’s not much left in the 26-year-old’s development process. He is what he is. The Jets have tried to help Sanchez with less-demanding reads, but according to Pro Football Focus, half of his interceptions last season were on play-action, which is about as simple as reads get. (Sanchez’s 49.4 passer rating on play-action was the lowest among NFL starting quarterbacks; the league average play-action rating was 93.4.)
There are those who will say New York’s sub-par supporting cast could put Smith in a position to fail, damaging the rookie (think Tim Couch or David Carr). But the young quarterbacks who have been "ruined" were probably destined to fail anyway. Great ones, like Terry Bradshaw, Troy Aikman and Peyton Manning, learn from tough experiences.
Whoever starts under center, it will be up to new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg to make better use of his supporting cast. Predecessor Tony Sparano was a disjointed play-caller and unimaginative passing-game designer. Mornhinweg will benefit greatly from having a healthy Santonio Holmes (assuming Holmes, who is on PUP, does get healthy at some point). When the seven-year star went down last October with a season-ending Lisfranc injury, he took the remnants of New York’s passing attack with him. Holmes, perhaps the best pure route runner in the NFL, is the only Jet who can consistently separate from man coverage.
This season Holmes will regularly have to separate from double-coverage, as there are no other threatening receivers on this roster. Last year as a rookie, second-round pick Stephen Hill was as raw as war spelled backward. Even if he’s polished up considerably, he won’t be a consistent force in 2013. But if the long-striding Hill can at least become a more respectable field-stretcher (he had just two catches on 12 targets of 20-plus yard passes last season), things will open up for promising darter Jeremy Kerley in the slot. Kerley is very good on underneath out-routes. However, he’s not built to play as a pure No. 2. If Hill can’t cut it, the other outside options would be sluggish ex-Seahawk Ben Obomanu, underperformer Clyde Gates, a washing-up Braylon Edwards or undrafted rookies Ryan Spadola and Marcus Davis.
At tight end, Dustin Keller is gone. In his place is undrafted fourth-year pro Jeff Cumberland, who runs well but has never been an every-down player. Backing up Cumberland is Kellen Winslow, who has a rich pedigree but also a rich history of leg problems. Last year he was out of the league, save for a one-game cameo in New England. If Winslow doesn’t make the final roster, blocking-oriented Konrad Reuland will be the No. 2 tight end.
Mornhinweg, a West Coast offense guy, has spent most of his career substituting the run game for shorter passes. Being on Ryan’s staff, he’ll have to commit to the ground. In past years the Jets have willed themselves to the top of the rushing charts with elder veterans such as Thomas Jones and LaDainian Tomlinson. After last year’s failed experiment featuring backup Shonn Greene fulltime, they seemed inclined to go back to a committee approach. They signed former Panthers/Raiders backup Mike Goodson in March and dealt a fourth-round pick for New Orleans’ Chris Ivory in April. Ivory has always had a potent burst in a complementary role. However, he may wind up shouldering a heavier load than initially expected, as Goodson is facing weapons and drug charges from a May 17 arrest in New Jersey and is yet to report.
If Goodson, who has respectable downhill speed when given space, is unavailable, more carries will be there for incumbent backups Bilal Powell or Joe McKnight. Powell struggled as a receiver and blocker after supplanting the faster McKnight for third-down duties last season. McKnight has never lived up to his potential. With versatile fullback Lex Hilliard out for the season, rounding out the run game is seventh-round rookie Tommy Bohanon.
The adeptness of New York’s ground game will be determined in large part by the offensive line’s efficacy. This group must get back to its mauling ways after two years of decline. New left guard Willie Colon could help spark things. While not quite as mobile or shrewd as previous Steeler-turned-Jet Alan Faneca, the eighth-year pro is still a very fine run-blocker, both on the move and in north/south drive. If Colon can’t stay healthy—he missed all of 2010 with an Achilles, 15 games in 2011 with a triceps and five games in 2012 with a knee—third-round rookie Brian Winters will be thrust into the lineup.
Or perennial underachiever Vladimir Ducasse could get a look. The 2010 second-round pick has had every opportunity over the years to finagle a starting job. Yet come September he’ll likely be backing up either Colon on the left side or incoming veteran Stephen Peterman on the right. Sandwiched between the guards is Nick Mangold, who is still in the discussion of best center in the NFL. Bookending this front are left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and right tackle Austin Howard. Ferguson has always been a tad too finesse, but he’s athletic enough to survive on an island in pass protection. That’s all a team can really ask for in a left tackle. Howard struggles in space but can get by with help from chip blocks or protection slides. The Jets need him to get by; their top backup tackle is Oday Aboushi, an unfinished fifth-round rookie.
Idzik and Rex Ryan drew a lot of criticism for spending their first-round picks on cornerback Dee Milliner and defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. Both fill areas that weren’t of glaring need. But this is just a case of philosophical differences. While many see the draft as an opportunity to correct weaknesses, Idzik and Ryan viewed it as an opportunity to manifest strengths. Ostensibly they weren’t crazy about any of the offensive prospects in the mid-first-round after Tavon Austin came off the board, and they recognized that a domineering defense is what propagated their team’s success in Ryan’s first two years. So they chose to make sure that defense stays domineering.
Ryan believes you stop the run not so much with disciplined gap control but by physically dominating the man in front of you. The idea is to crumble blocking schemes and allow inside linebackers David Harris and DeMario Davis (who has good speed and is replacing Bart Scott) to instinctively hunt down the ballcarrier. Richardson potentially gives the Jets a mega force opposite the willowy and explosive Muhammad Wilkerson. Lined up between those two will be another hulking body, nosetackle Kenrick Ellis. This is a potentially destructive three-man line. The depth behind it, however, is dubious. Ex-Charger Antonio Garay is the only backup who is not undrafted in his first or second year.
Stifling man coverage from the outside corners is vital for Ryan’s aggressive sub-package attacks to hold up. This is why the Jets took Milliner at ninth overall instead of trading up or down to correct their shortcomings at outside linebacker. Milliner may not be Darrelle Revis, but if he can be effective in press position on the boundary side like he was at Alabama, he’ll be fine. He’ll have the benefit of working predominantly against No. 2 receivers; veteran Antonio Cromartie, who is rich in size and athleticism but poor in fundamentals, proved last year that he can shadow most No. 1s. In the slot will be Kyle Wilson, a serviceable former first-round pick. With Aaron Berry tearing his ACL, behind Wilson will be either Ellis Lankster or Isaiah Trufant, both of whom are more than qualified for dimeback duties.
There is understandable skepticism regarding New York’s plan to fill the outside linebacker spots with Antwan Barnes and Quinton Coples. Barnes has striking raw edge speed, but he has not been more than a situational backup at any of his previous three stops. Coples, who is currently recovering from a procedure on his ankle, was originally drafted to play the defensive line. He is supple and fluid, but he does not have the initial burst to be a dynamic pass rusher. Best case scenario: He becomes the next Calvin Pace (who was re-signed at a reduced rate after being cut over the offseason). The rest of the outside linebacking corps is comprised of Garrett McIntyre and Ricky Sapp—decent athletes but unpolished football players.
It’s possible the Jets do not share their fans’ dismay about this ho-hum pass-rushing group. Yes, outside linebackers are important in a 3-4, but most of Ryan’s pressure concepts come out of his Byzantine sub-packages, which are intended, as much as anything, to force incompletions and turnovers. Sacks are great, but they’re not the sole idea. In both of their two AFC Championship Game seasons, the Jets ranked in the middle of the league in total sacks but first in opponents completion percentage (51.7 percent in 2009 and 50.7 percent in 2010).
The pressure packages’ objective is to get the offense frenzied early in the down. That’s why the Jets are so aggressive in their presnap overload concepts. If they can create the illusion of pressure, they immediately wreck the offense’s comfort and rhythm. To help make the offense play fast, the Jets bring speedier blitzers—often safeties or slot cornerbacks. They’ll use what appears to be a wide variety of different blitz concepts, but most of them are just the same thing done only with different players and out of different looks. This can appear unconventional enough to confuse the offense.
Arguably, more important than who the Jets have at outside linebacker is who they have at safety. Not only do they need speedy blitzers, but they need guys who are smart and quick enough to get in the right position after disguising looks. (A lot of the times the Jets show an overload blitz but wind up dropping seven men into coverage in what’s called a "zone exchange.") In past years players like Tom Zbikowski, Eric Smith and, on athletic merits alone, LaRon Landry, were great in this role. They’re all with other clubs now. Filling the safety spots are ex-Jaguar Dawan Landry (LaRon’s older brother) and 2012 sixth-round pick Josh Bush, who played only 17 snaps as a rookie.
Ryan’s preference for defensive-back heavy sub-packages makes depth at safety critical. Unfortunately, the only options off the bench are ex-Eagles bust Jaiquawn Jarrett and 2012 seventh-rounder Antonio Allen. Most likely, this won’t suffice. Which is why safety is the position Jets fans should really be worrying about.
Nevertheless, expect the Jets to bring more heat this season. According to ESPN Stats & Information, they sent five or more rushers 52.4 percent of the time in 2009 (first in NFL) and 44.7 percent in 2010 (third). With Mike Pettine (now in Buffalo) calling the defensive plays in 2011 and 2012, those percentages fell to 32.8 (12th) and 34.0 (11th). Dennis Thurman is the new defensive coordinator, but the blitz-happy Ryan will be calling most of the shots.
Ben Kotwica, a low-level assistant since 2008, has replaced retired special teams savant Mike Westhoff. The roster’s collective lack of depth could make it challenging for Kotwica to put together a viable unit. At least his ball-handlers are workable. Nick Folk is certainly cut out for the kicking job, though he could stand to be just a tad more dependable. In 2012 Folk missed once from 20 to 29 yards, twice from 30 to 39 yards, twice from 40 to 49 yards and once from 50-plus. That’s not awful considering he had 21 makes, but it’s not great either. Punter Robert Malone’s net average of 38.5 last season ranked 22nd in the league. On returns, Joe McKnight is a threat to score on kicks and Jeremy Kerley is a threat to score on punts.
The Jets could very well have the worst offense west of whatever inland town is next to Oakland. It will create more slack than this defense has carried before. And this is a defense that no longer has veteran star power or great depth.