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2008 Season Preview: New York JetsJeff Rison. 23rd August, 2008 - 5:09 pm
Last Season: 4-12, 3rd in AFC East, -4 turnover ratio, -87 point differential
Additions: G Alan Faneca, OL Damien Woody, QB Brett Favre, LB Calvin Pace, DT Kris Jenkins, TE Bubba Franks, FB Tony Richardson
Subtractions: DT Dewayne Robertson, LB Jon Vilma, QB Chad Pennington, LB Victor Hobson, S Erik Coleman, G Adrien Clarke, WR Justin McCairens, T Anthony Clement, CB Andre Dyson
Rookies of Note: DE/OLB Vernon Gholston, TE Dustin Keller, CB Dwight Lowery
What I like
Offense: The Jets identified the problem on the offensive line, and they addressed the problem by bringing in Alan Faneca, the best free agent on the market. He might not have upside left, but he remains among the elite guards in the game and will provide a major upgrade in run blocking. Sandwiched between third-year talents D?Brickashaw Ferguson at LT and Nick Mangold at C, Faneca also fills the mentorship void lost when the Jets foolishly parted with Pete Kendall last summer. I have reservations about grossly overpaid free agent Damien Woody on the right side, but in limited duty in 2007 he showed above-average competence in Detroit after eating and sulking his way onto the bench. His versatility is a nice safety net if the tackle experiment proves a false start. Mangold didn?t progress as much as anticipated in his second season, but he remains a rock-solid force in the middle and an adept signal caller for line adjustments.
The running back duo of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington should benefit from the improved OL. Jones played reasonably well in his first season in New York, and Faneca will help facilitate what Jones does best, which is make quick cuts off inside blocks and get into the open field. Few teams run the ball up the gut more than the Jets, and Jones is well-suited for the job. Washington fits nicely as a change of pace back, netting 5 yards per carry and showing nice hands out of the backfield. The ageless Tony Richardson steps in at fullback, where not many have shown his package of blocking and receiving ability. So long as those three all stay healthy, the running game should move back into the upper half of the league. Washington is also proving to be an elite return man, evidenced by his 3 TDs and nearly 10 yard average on punt returns. Tony Richardson isn?t the weapon he once was, but the 14-year vet is still a solid blocker who can make catches out of the backfield.
Trading for Brett Favre and cutting Chad Pennington has potential to make a huge splash. Favre?s arm strength and ability to make great plays out of potential disaster will invigorate the Jets oft-stale offense. If you need more breakdown of Favre?s assets, you should probably stop reading. Perhaps the biggest impact Favre will have is for WR Jerricho Cotchery. Already one of the more productive wideouts in the league, having Favre will allow Cotchery to flash his speed and make more plays downfield. I fully expect a breakout season where Cotchery ranks among the league leaders in yardage and receptions for 1st downs, and a spike in his heretofore lowly TD numbers as well. Picking up Favre?s favorite red zone target, TE Bubba Franks will help transform more of those short Mike Nugent FGs into TDs.
Defense: The Jets feature two legit playmaking stars in the secondary. CB Darrelle Revis was all over the field as a rookie, finishing second on the team in tackles and showing consistently great cover skills. He progressed nicely in terms of handling more physical receivers and at being patient on crosses and double moves. Safety Kerry Rhodes is the best player in the league who hasn?t yet made a Pro Bowl, a rangy hitter with a great nose for the ball. Both Rhodes and Revis are dangerous every time the ball is in the air, and Revis possesses great return skills as the cherry that tops the sundae.
New York finally made moves that should solidify the transformation to the 3-4 base defense. After drafting ILB David Harris and watching him rack up tackles and shed blocks like a 10-year vet during his rookie year, the Jets addressed the OLB spots this offseason. Signing former Cardinal Calvin Pace to man one side represents a major upgrade if (big if!) he can play like he did in 2007, where he menaced opposing QBs and showed strong ability when dropping into coverage. It was the first season for Pace playing LB, so it?s either a great move or the case of a 1st round bust candidate turning it up in a contract year, a la Eddy Curry, a name Jets fans know well from their hoops brethren in NYC. I?ll give Pace the very tentative benefit of the doubt, in part because even during his struggling days in ARI he was as good as what he?s replacing on the Jets. For the other side, they spent the 6th overall pick on Ohio State product Vernon Gholston, an athletic freak who will make the transition from college end to pro OLB. At times dominant and with all the physical tools to handle the rigors of the new gig, Gholston should immediately upgrade the pass rush and make opposing LTs lose a little sleep. A lot of come-latelies to evaluating Gholston ripped his run defense and energy level, but in all my years I?ve never seen a collegiate DE defend screen passes better than Gholston. With Bryan Thomas still around, they can bring Gholston along slowly if needed.
What I dislike
Offense: For all the money they spent up front, the OL is still questionable. Ferguson has not met expectations at left tackle, struggling with physical strength and getting caught leaning far too often. Steelers fans will quietly snipe that Faneca failed to bring the fire in pass blocking last year, a claim that isn?t entirely unfounded but overstates the issue. Damien Woody has played 4 good games in the last 3 seasons; they happen to be the final 4 games of a contract year, after chronic issues with weight, conditioning, and effort marred his Detroit tenure. Both he and Faneca are over 30 and signed ridiculously lucrative contracts, so the incentive to produce isn?t strong. It will also take some adjustment to learn how to block for Favre, who likes to move around and have a fluid pocket, unlike Pennington, who preferred to stand still in the middle of the field on quick drops.
No matter how Favre performs, one of the primary issues is the lackluster group of wideouts. Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery form a decent starting pair, though Coles has a nasty habit of alternating very good and very mediocre seasons (he?s due for a very good 2008). Alas, behind them is a converted QB/gadget play guy in Brad Smith and, well let?s just say it?s a good thing the Jets don?t employ many sets with more than 3 WRs. As of June 16th, the entire WR corps after Coles and Cotchery has combined for 47 catches, 412 yards, and 2 TDs, or an average Peyton Manning day versus the Texans. Chris Baker has nice hands at TE and is a good 3rd down receiver, but he defines the word ?disgruntled? and is demanding a trade. Rookie 1st rounder Dustin Keller has all the makings of a very good receiving TE, but he has to adjust from playing in a spread offense where he had to block about once a week. The group sorely lacks height, a real liability in the red zone. It?s also a group that doesn?t have any physical receivers or legit possession-type wideouts (assuming Coles and Cotchery are used more downfield).
Defense: Outside of the prominent pickups and the two secondary stars, the Jets defense is chock full of ?just another guy? players. The starting ends will be Kenyon Coleman and Shaun Ellis, which isn?t awful but also isn?t very inspiring. Coleman does a nice job against the run and holding his ground, while Ellis has some ability to get to the QB. I don?t want to sound overly critical because both players are solid contributors and good teammates, but when you compare the Jets front 3 to what other teams (SD, NE, BAL, PIT, even CLE now) who run that defense have, the Jets simply don?t stack up.
The biggest question on the defense, both figuratively and literally, is prized acquisition Kris Jenkins. At times among the very best of the active space-eaters in the league, Jenkins has struggled mightily with various issues, including weight, depression, and alcoholism. At one point last year in Carolina the team very nearly released him for being a 390-pound malcontent who was undermining the coaches and poisoning the locker room. He is eminently capable of fixing what ails the Jets awful run defense, able to tie up multiple blockers and still get an effective push into the backfield. He is also not missed at all in Carolina. At least the Jets have a competent backup in Sione Pouha, who isn?t going to make many plays but won?t get pushed around. Unless the team decides Calvin Pace can play some end again (not a good idea!), Pouha represents the entire game-tested depth of the DL.
The rest of the secondary around Revis and Rhodes is a revolving door that leads into one of those older malls nobody shops in anymore. Justin Miller is coming back from knee surgery and will start opposite Revis, but he?s much better as a return specialist than he was as the nickel back in 2006. Hank Poteat, David Barrett and rookie Dwight Lowery will fight for the nickel and dime spots. Poteat will earn one spot because he?s a leader and a Mangini favorite, not because of anything he does on the field. Barrett had to take a pay cut or else he would have been released this summer, while Lowery has nice ball skills but plays neither fast nor quick. Abram Elam is the other starting safety, a high-effort, low-skill refugee from Dallas. Another Mangini favorite, Eric Smith, will split time with Elam. I openly root for players like Elam and Smith, who bust their butts on special teams and give 100% every snap, but neither would see the field on most teams.
Best Case: The Favre of 2007 and not 05-06 shows up; all the highly-paid additions make the huge impact GM Mike Tannenbaum expects; the young playmakers on the defense (Rhodes, Harris, Revis, Gholston) prove they are legit difference-makers every week; Laveranues Coles has his typical bounceback year, while Cotchery proves he is a legit star WR; the OL gels quickly around Faneca and Mangold, establishing the run up the gut and keeping Favre comfortable. The Jets aren?t going to catch the Patriots, but they have a schedule that could produce 10 or even 11 wins if they avoid any letdowns. Bypassing the improving Bills and securing a Wild Card spot is certainly viable, and as the Steelers and Giants have proven in recent seasons, it?s not the better team but the hotter team that wins in the playoffs. That would mean all of us Sirius NFL Radio subscribers would have to listen to insufferable Adam Schein froth at the mouth nonstop about his beloved J-E-T-S.
Worst Case: The Favre drama blows up in their face, stymieing any offensive progress and leading to bad turnovers and the defense being asked to do too much; Jenkins and Woody eat their way out of the lineup; control-freak Coach Mangini loses the respect of his players and they dog it to get him fired; the special teams continue to slide and the Jets fail to control field position and time of possession; the pattern of good season/bad season snaps and the Jets are forced into full rebuild mode, needing a new coaching staff, QB, RB, and other key pieces in 2009. It?s not likely to happen, but the Jets could fall behind former coach Parcells and his Dolphins in the AFC East, a mighty embarrassing proposition. That would mean all of us Sirius NFL Radio subscribers would have to listen to insufferable Adam Schein bellyache nonstop about his J-E-T-S. I guess that will happen whether they win or lose...
Bellwether Games: It?s hard to put so much importance on opening weeks for a team with so many changes, not the least of which is getting a new starting QB in August. But Weeks 1 and 2 shape up that way for the Jets, with division games @MIA and home for NE. The opener is a must-win, both to build confidence in themselves and to quash that of the improving Dolphins. I don?t think many will expect the Jets to beat the Patriots, but making a strong showing and keeping the game close would set the tone that these Jets are not the pushovers of 2007. They absolutely cannot afford to start 0-2, even though they might not lose between Weeks 4 and 10.
Prediction: It can?t get much worse than 2007, when the team notched just one win against teams that won more than 4 games. No team made more offseason noise than New York, which brought in Brett Favre and broke the bank to plug many holes. They will certainly be better, but I believe much of what they did is lipstick on the pig, not growing a prized playoff hog. If Favre still has the magic and all the pricey imports earn their keep, the Jets have a good chance to notch 9-10 wins and earn a Wild Card spot. I?m not quite that optimistic. This Jets team finishes 8-8 and misses the playoffs thanks to problems with run defense and a spotty passing game.