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2011 Season Preview: New York JetsJeff Risdon. 31st August, 2011 - 12:54 pm
2010 Record: 11-5
Point Differential: +63
Turnover Margin: +9
Sack Differential: +12
3rd Down: 15th
QB: 2011 is Year Three for The Sanchize, and it is time for Mark Sanchez to take the next step towards being an elite performer. Most Jets fans would happily accept him being a consistent asset and not the frustrating yo-yo whose only consistent attribute is inconsistency. At times Sanchez has shown great poise and confidence in leading the team to several clutch victories, but just as frequently the team has won in spite of him. His accuracy simply has to improve from his 54% last season, a number made more troubling by the fact Sanchez ranked near the bottom in yards per attempt. It is one thing to keep misfiring when attacking down the field, but Sanchez has yet to demonstrate he can consistently nail the shorter, easier throws. He did cut down on the head-scratching interception problems that plagued him as a rookie, but his 17/12 TD/INT ratio is not that of a reliable contender, especially when you consider he stood at 8/0 after five games.
That is not to say The Sanchize is not capable of making the leap. He has two real strong characteristics in his favor. First, he embraces the pressure of being the quarterback of a high-profile team in a demanding media market. Sanchez seems genuinely at ease with all that goes along with being the leader of this team, a pressure that has felled many a prior incumbent. Secondly, when Sanchez has been good, he has often been exceptional. Most of those stellar performances have come against 4-3 defenses, however, and he must learn to read linebackers in coverage better. I like that the game and the moment are not too big for him. Now it is incumbent upon him to consistently live up to the moment.
The aged Mark Brunell returns as the backup and consigliore to Sanchez. He has thrown just 43 passes since 2006 and the legs that made him a Pro Bowl talent in his Jacksonville era are shot, but the soon-to-be 41 year old knows the offense and accepts his role. Behind Brunell--and assuming the Jets keep a 3rd quarterback, which is not a given--is pop-gun armed rookie 7th round pick Greg McElroy from Alabama. All the eggs are in the Sanchez basket.
RB: I was skeptical of the move to bring in LaDainian Tomlinson a year ago, but LT found a spark and wound up being a very nice and valuable acquisition. He showed rejuvenated legs and raised his yards per rush by almost a full yard over his disappointing final season in San Diego, and he also looked excellent in pulling down 52 receptions. LT is 32 now with a lot of miles on the tires, but it is not out of the question to expect him to run for another 700 yards and pull down another 40 receptions, strong numbers from a #2 back. The key will be not having to overuse him, and that means the #1 back, Shonn Greene, must live up to being a legit #1 back.
Thus far Greene has, like Sanchez, been just good enough to keep the dogs at bay but not consistent enough to show he is The Man. Powerfully built and not afraid to lower the shoulder, Greene can be slow to find the hole and slow to get through the hole once he finds it. The luster he acquired in an impressive 2009 playoff run dimmed last year as he struggled to find running room. He is the kind of runner that needs a clearly defined hole, because Greene is not super shifty. I love his balance and his drive, though, and he markedly improved in all facets of the passing game. For the Jets to improve offensively, Greene needs to get back to 4.5 yards per carry and, more specifically, better than the 3.2 yards he averaged last year on 1st down attempts. The ability is certainly present, and Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer does a good job calling run plays that suit his style.
Joe McKnight reported to camp in much better shape and could see his role expand in his second season. He ran all over Buffalo in the finale last year and the team is hopeful he can build on that momentum. Despite running pretty upright and with only average speed, McKnight has a subtle toughness and shifty shoulders. It would help his case if he displayed better hands and pass protection skills. Rookie Bilal Powell is likely practice squad fodder but has some promise.
John Conner made a strong impression at fullback during his rookie season. The team loves his nose for contact, and he sees the defense like a running back, a great attribute for a blocking fullback. He also looked good toting the rock in the finale, though those were his only attempts on the season. Brian Toal backs him up and will only be active on game day in the case of injury, if he makes the squad at all.
WR/TE: Santonio Holmes returns as the top downfield target, but the rest of the wide receiver corps will look a lot different than in prior years. Gone are Braylon Edwards, Brad Smith, and Jerrico Cotchery, who accounted for nearly 40% of the passing yards. The only other returning receiver is Patrick Turner, who caught two balls as a rookie and is no safe bet to even repeat that meager feat.
The Jets have rolled the dice on the replacement front. Plaxico Burress was one of the premier big-play targets in the league when we last saw him. That was two seasons ago, before he shot himself in the leg while wearing sweat pants in a nightclub and subsequently went to prison. Now he is 34, has not played organized football in two years, and has spent most of training camp on the sidelines with a badly sprained ankle. I am willing to overlook his regrettable off-field behavior, but an old wideout with bad wheels and lots of rust does not inspire confidence. As maddeningly inconsistent as Edwards was, he held it together pretty well last year and fit into the unique locker room Rex Ryan fosters. Plaxico is a different kind of person. Hope for the best but expect no more than about 60% of the team-leading 53 receptions and 904 yards from Edwards.
I applaud the decision to keep Holmes instead of Edwards, both of whom were free agents. Holmes is a proven clutch performer and a better vertical threat. He is also an outstanding blocker and a more professional employee. That is saying something considering Holmes has been twice suspended for violating the league substance abuse policy and is no stranger to the criminal justice system. Still, he has done a good job leaving off-field issues off the field. It will be interesting to see how he and Plaxico interact, as both are talents that the Steelers let go because of character concerns.
Ostensibly replacing Cotchery will be veteran Derrick Mason, a curious move to cut a team leader in order to get older and more expensive. Mason is probably a better all-around receiver even though he is 36 and coming off a disappointing year with Baltimore, but Cotchery was very well-respected in the locker room and was a solid 3rd down receiver. Replacing Smith as the gadget play/slot guy will be rookie Jeremy Kerley, who has the physical gifts to do it but lacks the experience and grittiness Smith brought to the table. Kerley is a more natural receiver but has had trouble staying healthy, and he does not have the experience of Smith or instincts as a runner or Wildcat director. I find it an interesting gamble that the Jets appear to be expecting Sanchez to make a great leap forward, but downgraded (arguably) his weaponry to help foster his development. It is not hard to see this blow up in the face of GM Mike Tannenbaum, but it is also not a stretch that the new cast is better-equipped in the red zone and run blocking, two areas the Jets cited as room for improvement as well.
The Jets have a very good young tight end in Dustin Keller, who led the team in receptions last year. Keller has been remarkably consistent with his production, and he should chart similar numbers in 2011: 52 receptions, 650 yards, 5 touchdowns. He makes a living splitting the zone between the LBs and safeties and running drags underneath the outside receivers. There is a massive dropoff should Keller get hurt, as a camp battle between Matt Mulligan and Jeff Cumberland will settle the backup TE spot. Each have exactly one career reception for a combined 8 yards; the Cumberland catch came on a ball that hit a lineman in the head and bounced right to him. Do not expect the Jets to run many multiple tight end sets.
OL: Center Nick Mangold deserves more attention than he gets as one of, if not the top center in the game today. Mangold is the complete package and a very steady performer in the pivot, the anchor of a solid line that brings back almost every regular contributor.
The only change is at right tackle, where Damien Woody retired after tearing his Achilles tendon in the playoff opener. Wayne Hunter will take over for Woody as he did last year, and while he is not near the run blocker Woody was, Hunter is a solid player. Ideally he fits best in his prior role as the swing backup tackle, but Hunter is arguably the best starting RT in the AFC East. That is assuming he wins the job over 2nd year man Vlad Ducasse, which he should unless the 2010 2nd rounder makes a quantum leap forward over his heavy-footed debut season. Ducasse is also in the mix at right guard--which suits him better--but the team is confident in returning starter Brandon Moore. He and Mangold work well together, though Moore has yet to practice (as of August 16) as he recovers from hip surgery. Left guard Matt Slauson has been a pleasant development, to the credit of his college coach and current OL coach Bill Callahan. His footwork and pad level have noticeably improved over the last couple of seasons.
The one area where Woody will be missed is leadership, and that goes beyond the offensive line. Left tackle DBrickashaw Ferguson is a skilled player but does not offer the sort of veteran rudder that Woody provided. Mangold can certainly step up in that role though. Ferguson still has issues with power rushers, but few left tackles have his quick feet or mirror blocking skills. The other main issue is depth, where the loser of the Ducasse/Hunter battle is the only lineman with any real experience. Massive Chris Stewart and pugnacious Robby Felix are the inside backups; neither has taken an active rep outside of the preseason. I like Felix as a developmental project, but there is lots of work to be done. Robert Turner, who will likely be the primary backup tackle but can also play center, has appeared almost exclusively on special teams in his few years with the Jets. He broke his leg in the preseason opener, leaving his availability in serious doubt.
3rd Down: 15th
DL: Rex Ryan dumped on his defensive line after last season, and with good reason. That group simply was not up to par with the rest of the defense and had enough exploitable weaknesses that it dragged down the entire unit. They jettisoned two starters and will prominently feature two rookies this year.
The lone holdover is NT Sione Pouha, he of the immovable object type of nose. He has one basic assignment on every snap: occupy the center and a guard. For the most part Pouha is game, and last year he even flashed more ability to locate the ball and finish some tackles. Pouha, like most noses, performs much better when he gets frequent rests. To that end, the team drafted man-child Kenrick Ellis from Hampton, and the big man will see a lot of action. Ellis has surprising quickness for such a massive behemoth, but needs a lot of work on technique and consistently applying himself. I was a staunch supporter of Ellis during the draft process and his personality is an excellent fit with this group.
Mike Devito will take on a starting role at one end, a reward for being a good soldier and a function of a lack of other options more than it is a testament to anything Devito offers. He is a solid, lunch-pail type yeoman best served as a rotational backup playing primarily on running downs or at 3-technique when the team (rarely) uses a 4-man front. First round rookie Muhammad Wilkerson got the other starting DE job the second he was drafted, for better or worse. Early camp reports are pretty positive, but count me among the skeptics; it is one thing to whip 280-pound MAC guards that have no future in football, it is another to face complex zone blocking schemes and bigger guys that move well and can consistently get under his pads, a legit problem for a guy that plays so upright. It is not that I am that down on Wilkerson, but more a case of the Jets having expectations that are far higher than anything I believe he can carry out in his first couple of seasons. It is a risk borne of necessity, and how quickly Wilkerson gets up to speed is no small part of the difference between competing for an AFC East title or scavenging for the final Wild Card spot.
One guy to watch is Ropati Pitoitua, a tall drink of water that missed 2010 with a torn Achilles. He is an active presence that knows the system. At the very least, his sheer length can disrupt some passing lanes. The rest of the depth is infamous Bears flop Jarron Gilbert, who can jump out of a pool but cannot defeat even 2nd team NFL blockers; journeyman-in-training Marcus Dixon, who has looked very good to impartial observers in camp but has scant experience; and run-stuffing specialist Carlton Powell, still trying to crack an active NFL roster in his third season out of Virginia Tech. I actually like both Pitoitua and Dixon as high-energy reserves, and it would not surprise me if a healthy Pitoitua starts ahead of Devito.
LB: The Jets are one of the few teams which run a 3-4 defense that have better backers inside than out. That makes them different to prepare for, but also leaves them struggling to rush the passer.
Those inside guys are Bart Scott and David Harris, two of the most diametrically opposite people playing the same position you can ever find in one locker room. Scott is brash, abrasive, outwardly arrogant, and not afraid to get in the face of anyone. Harris is pensive, quiet, and the kind of player who will help an opponent up after a hit, whereas Scott is more likely to spit on him than offer a hand. Yet these two fit very well together. Scott is the attack dog, more apt to blow up the blocker on his way to the ball and to gamble at guessing holes and jumping outside. Harris is a read-and-react guy but has excellent instincts and great closing burst. Rex Ryan let Harris blitz more frequently last year, while Scott continued to fare well at running with tight ends in coverage. After being rewarded with a big new contract, the team expects Harris to get back up to the 130+ tackle number and chip in 4-5 sacks. I expect that as well. Scott might only bag around 80 tackles again, but his sheer nuisance to play against gives him more value than the numbers indicate.
Getting a better pass rush from the outside backers is an imperative. Veterans Bryan Thomas and Calvin Pace hold the starting spots, and each notched 6 sacks a year ago. That led the team, but that number is about half what most teams want from their rush linebackers. Neither is such an asset against the run that it justifies low sack and QB pressure numbers. Yet they will have to hope for late-career resurgence, as the only other outside backer with any real promise is young Jamaal Westerman, who has just 1 sack in two seasons. The Rutgers product has a golden opportunity to earn more reps, and the Jets are hopeful he takes advantage. Do not be surprised if the Jets scour the waiver wire for a functional veteran to help on the outside before the season begins, much the way they did with the (thankfully) departed Jason Taylor.
The depth inside is a little more promising. Undrafted rookie Nick Bellore has been the talk of camp after the Jets won a bidding war for his services. The Central Michigan grad is a throwback kind of backer, blessed with an outstanding football IQ and seek-and-destroy mentality. He is still an undrafted rookie with athletic limitations, however. Josh Mauga did not look out of place in limited action a year ago, and he appears to have gained some needed lower-body bulk. Still, this is a linebacking corps where the starters must stay healthy and provide more action in the backfield or else the defense is not going to come close to meeting expectations.
Secondary: In Darrelle Revis, the Jets have arguably the top cornerback in the game today. A confident, athletic gamer with tremendous ball skills and almost unparalleled instincts, Revis is a legit star. The Jets know what they have and have tailored the defense to take advantage of his ability to shut off one side of the field. He is also capable in zone coverage, though his skills shine best in man-on coverage. His ability to redirected the receiver and disrupt route timing is what coaches dream about.
There was rampant speculation the Jets would pursue the only other corner with a rightful claim to Best in Show, Nnamdi Asomugha. He ultimately ended up in Philadelphia, and the Jets were forced to open the checkbook to keep Antonio Cromartie, who was also a free agent and fancied himself a bigger fish than his pay scale would indicate. At times exceptional, at times egregious, Cromartie is a cocksure gambler that has never seen a throw he did not think he could pick off. When he keeps his head and performs within the framework of the called defense, Cromartie is an above-average cover man with great ball skills. When he decides to do his own thing--which got him angrily exiled from San Diego and cast doubts on his return here--Cromartie is a liability in deeper coverage with poor inside technique and apathetic tackling. All of New York (okay, the half that roots for the Jets) is praying Rex Ryan can put a rudder on Cromartie and keep his game, and his mouth, in check. He is not the most popular guy in the locker room but lacks the self-awareness to tone down his bark/bite ratio.
Much is riding on the progress of second-year nickel back Kyle Wilson. The 2010 first rounder was a bitter disappointment in his rookie campaign, struggling with the speed of the game and the complexity of the moving-parts defense. Wilson had major issues with his footwork and at quickly recognizing the routes, which was exacerbated by playing in the slot for the first time in his life. There is optimism Wilson will mature into a more consistent, reliable 3rd corner in his second year, but he is now viewed as more of a project than anticipated. Keeping his confidence high is imperative. Behind Wilson the lack of depth across this defense is really on display, as Donald Strickland and Marquice Cole are the next men up. Both would be lucky to make active rosters on most other teams.
One of the starting safeties will be the invaluable Jim Leonhard, a Ryan protégé that has intangibles through the roof. His tangibles are pretty darn nice too, as Leonhard has good range, solid field awareness, and the ability to really lay the lumber to a receiver or while filling the hole inside the box. The veteran has earned his fan favorite status and his presence is integral to lining everyone up and making the back-end calls.
A camp battle between Brodney Pool and Eric Smith will decide the other safety spot. Both will play, however the depth chart winds up looking. Smith has been more of a special teams stalwart, but he knows the defense and his teammates respect him. Pool has bounced around thanks to bizarre inconsistency in coverage. Normally Pool is one of the better coverage safeties in the game, but he is prone to inexplicable gaffes about twice per game that make you wonder if the other team is paying him to look so bad. If Wilson cannot step up, expect to see a lot of a 3-safety look in nickel situations. Dwight Lowery is a hybrid corner/safety that lacks the speed to play corner and the toughness to play safety, but he can function in a pinch.
Special Teams: A confusing camp battle will settle the kicking job. Confusing, you say? The battle between Nick Folk and Nick Novak is a toughie to sort out. Both are veteran journeymen, both are about the same size, and both have been better at longer kicks than midrange ones in their NFL careers. Folk has the better kickoff leg and his FG range is a few yards longer, so expect him to wind up with the job.
The punting gig is also subject to a camp battle. Former Buccaneer Chris Bryan has the better leg, but TJ Conley has shown a better ability to directionally place the ball and gets more consistent hang time. Either candidate has to deal with the unknown winds in the new stadium, a variable of a variable. Even though the Jets had little interest in bringing him back, departed Steve Weatherford led the league in fair catches forced and punts downed inside the 10 yard line. That will be a tough act to follow.
Rookie Jeremy Kerley will take over the Brad Smith role as primary return man. He has the slipperiness and ability to cut on a dime to be a very good one. The biggest drawback is that he is small-framed and has struggled to stay healthy, and the offense needs him quite a bit too. Leonhard can also return punts but is considered too valuable to the defense to risk full-time duty. The coverage units were very shaky a year ago, particularly punt coverage, and Smith was the best coverage man on the unit. The goal here is for the special teams to not give away games, not to win them, and any letdown could be real trouble.
Forecast: Rex Ryan has instilled a sense of swagger and bravado that has played very well in New York, with the Jets winning two road playoff games each of the last two seasons. That is very impressive, but it is also very hard to do yet again. If Mark Sanchez can take a big step forward, this team is a legit Super Bowl contender. But I have my doubts there, and the loss of three of the top four wideouts does not help matters. I also worry that the defensive front is very thin and will not improve the pass rush. There is a lot to like here, but I feel like this team has already maxed out what this core group can accomplish. The schedule is tough, enough to negate what I think will be a positive boost from the awesome new home field. I know I am out on a limb here, but I just do not see the playoffs in the cards for the Jets this year. New York finishes 8-8 and short of a Wild Card berth.