2016 record: 5-11
Point differential: -134
Turnover ratio: -20
Scoring offense: 30th
Scoring defense: 28th
Todd Bowles has his hands full in his third season as head coach of the New York Jets. After a 10-6 debut in 2015, the Jets grounded to a 5-11 finish, and statistically were lucky to win that many games. Now the franchise appears in the midst of a massive overhaul.
Bowles and GM Mike Maccagnan both are on the hot seat. They might not have any real chance, as the plan appears to be to secure the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. There is some promising young talent in a few spots, but New York is in serious trouble at so many key positions. Even the most optimistic Jets fans expect his to be one of the worst seasons in franchise history, and this franchise knows some bad years.
Five questions for the Jets
- Who plays quarterback?
If Jets fans thought the Geno Smith/Ryan Fitzpatrick edition of “who sucks less” the last two years was tough to watch, they might want to wear blindfolds in 2017.
Both are now gone, and the team is rolling into the preseason with Bryce Petty, Christian Hackenberg and Josh McCown in a three-headed battle of “who sucks less.” The early money is on McCown, who has proven to be merely below-average when he hasn’t been sidelined with his latest major injury. The journeyman is now on his eighth team since 2005, and he has posted an 8-34 record as a starter in that time frame. The last three years, split between Cleveland and Tampa Bay, he’s 2-20 and lost his role as starter to injury each year.
If that’s bad, the prospect of Petty or Hackenberg is even scarier. Petty appeared overwhelmed and slow to process the action in limited duty a year ago. He’s coming off shoulder surgery to boot. Even though it’s his non-throwing shoulder, the recovery will inhibit his chances and progress.
Hackenberg, the surprise second rounder a year ago, proved completely unready for the Jets offense. He’s a bad fit schematically for Offensive Coordinator John Morton’s West Coast style with his poor accuracy on short passes and utter lack of anticipatory throwing ability. He’s no match for the negative New York media either.
The best hope is that McCown can stay on the field for more than half the year and also be a de facto QB coach while bringing some semblance of professional competence to the Jets’ long-running QB issues. Good Josh McCown is not quite as high as good Ryan Fitzpatrick, but bad McCown isn’t nearly as immolating for the team. If Petty (unlikely) or Hackenberg (even more unlikely) can fill in the rest of the season and not throw more INTs than TDs--something none of the troika could do a year ago--the offense has a chance to finish on par with last year’s 26th ranking in yards per game and 30th in points. That’s about as high of a bar as can be realistically set for this woeful group.
- What happened to all the veteran talent?
These Jets look nothing like the team Todd Bowles took over two years ago. The veteran talent drain is as radical as I can remember. Pretty much every quality veteran the team had in the core of a moderately successful team is now gone.
Over the past 12 months, the Jets have parted ways with Nick Mangold, Damon Harrison, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Darrelle Revis, David Harris, Calvin Pryor, Geno Smith, C.J. Spiller, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Marcus Gilchrist, among others. As recently as 2014 that base comprised one of the more talented core groups in the AFC. The Jets got old, overpriced and ineffective a lot faster than even the skeptics (I’m in this group) could have anticipated.
The best example of how dramatically inept this team has become is the Pryor trade. The Jets traded their 2014 first-round pick to get back their 2012 third-round pick in Demario Davis, who left in free agency after the 2015 season when the Jets didn’t show much interest in keeping him. They had to bring Davis back because 2016 first-round pick Darron Lee, his direct replacement, was often lost as a rookie. Of course they cut Harris, the other longtime starting ILB, as soon as they brought Davis back.
Ladies and gentlemen, that is a vicious circle of ineptitude and startling lack of vision. It will not be easy to recover from such egregious roster management over the course of the last few years.
- How good are the lines?
The strength of the team is the line play on both sides of the ball. It’s the one area where the Jets can reliably match up in talent.
Offensively, the interior line is where the Jets win. Guards James Carpenter and Brian Winters are one of the better tandems in the AFC. Carpenter at left guard is very good in pass protection and can latch on and move defenders in the run game when on the move. Winters doesn’t get enough credit for his solid all-around play; he’s not exceptional but does everything well enough. The right guard’s footwork in pass protection improved last year. They flank Wesley Johnson, who acquitted himself pretty well at center in place of the injured Mangold last year. If Kelvin Beachum can get his feet under him at right tackle, the Jets have a pretty solid line. Beachum was lousy last year in Jacksonville but likely came back too quickly from a torn ACL. He should be better in New York. Ben Ijalana at left tackle is the weak link, and that’s a bad spot for a hole. He’s an average talent on his best day. Young Brandon Shell could seize one of the tackle jobs after an impressive audition last year, and at worst he and Jonotthan Harrison provide some semblance of depth up front.
The Jets have spent loads of draft capital on the defensive front, with mixed but largely successful results. Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams are all first-round picks up front and all remain under 27 years old. The key player here is Williams, the 2015 first-rounder who has quickly emerged as one of the best interior linemen in the league. He plays end in New York’s 3-4 front with Wilkerson, and the duo presents serious issues for opposing blockers. Williams earned his Pro Bowl berth last year after bagging 7 sacks, but he’s much more than just a gap-shooting agitator. He’s a rising star and at 22 remains younger than several of the first-round picks from 2017.
Wilkerson sloughed off in 2016 but was a monster in the three prior seasons, including a 12-sack effort in 2015. He’s one of the best in the league against screens and draws, too. With savvy vet Steve McClendon capably manning the nose tackle, the front three is in strong shape. Richardson is expected to slide back down to the line too, after a disappointing transition to rush LB last year. He did it well enough to still present that as an option, but with Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins both showing some juice as young rushers, I like the idea of having three good ends to keep everyone fresh. Mauldin is a wild card after an impressive rookie year in 2015 but a regression in his second season. The Jets have to hope the same doesn’t happen to Jenkins, a ’16 second-rounder who was surprisingly adept in coverage as well as being a decent pass rusher. If either could even try to play the run it would be that much better, but that’s not really their role in Kacy Rodgers’ defense.
- Who is going to score touchdowns?
Last year’s starting WR tandem was Eric Decker and Brandon Marshall, with promising Devin Smith set to provide some deep speed in his second season after being a second-round pick in 2015. Marshall was coming off a Pro Bowl season where he caught 109 passes for over 1500 yards and 14 TDs. Decker caught 80 and topped 1000 yards on his own, and the veteran slot receiver snagged 12 TDs of his own.
The projected starters entering the preseason are Quincy Enunwa, Charone Peake and Robby Anderson. Enunwa was decent in his third season, hauling in 58 passes and using his nice frame to present a big target. Yet in a good offense he’s the third outside WR, not the clear-cut No. 1 option. Peake caught 19 passes as a seventh-round rookie. I was actually higher on the Clemson product than that in the draft process, and he could emerge as a fantasy sleeper, but thus far he’s not shown a lot in the NFL. Anderson figures to take over Decker’s role in the slot, where he has sporadically shown he can get open. He did catch 48 passes and scored twice as a rookie from Temple, so like Peake there is some developmental potential.
A pair of middle-round rookies can help. ArDarius Stewart (third round) and Chad Hansen (fourth) figure to compete right away. It will be surprising if Stewart doesn’t start by the end of 2017, and the future does look decent. But nothing is proven on the NFL level, and given the cloudy (at best) QB situation it might not happen soon.
Tight end is also a big question mark. I like fifth-round rookie Jordan Leggett, who played with Peake at Clemson and has sticky hands with his wide frame. Again, he’s a middle-round rookie who will be playing with a lesser QB in the NFL than he did in college (Deshaun Watson); expecting more than about 35 catches for 400 yards and maybe 3 TDs seems a real stretch. Reclamation project Austin Sefarian-Jenkins could help, and he is reportedly in good shape after bombing in Tampa Bay. As with receiver, there is some potential but it’s unproven and unfamiliar with working in this offense.
Matt Forte is the greybeard of the team, even though it’s just his second season in New York. He has to wonder what he did to anger the football gods to wind up in a mess like this. Now 31, the miles are really starting to show on Forte. He’s still outstanding in the passing game and can grind the reliable four yards, but the days of breaking multiple tackles and turning a 3-yard plunge into a 15-yard chain-mover appear done.
The best weapon on the offense is Bilal Powell, who took advantage of more opportunity and rushed for a career-high 722 yards at an impressive 5.5 per carry. Powell is also an outstanding outlet receiver and great in pass protection. He showed he can reliably find the holes created by the line and attack them with both vision and balance. If he gets enough carries he should top 1000 yards rushing and could also chip in 500 receiving yards. Getting more than the 5 TDs he scored on 190 touches last year is imperative for Powell.
- Are they trying to lose every game?
Tanking is not a concept the NFL takes lightly. It’s just so hard to assemble a roster in the salary cap era that is incapable of winning even one game. Only one team has done it, the 2008 Detroit Lions. That team had Calvin Johnson too.
The purge of recognizable veteran talent across the board is a clear sign the current Jets regime doesn’t think the team can compete right now. But it’s still awfully hard to convince a locker room of 53 proud professionals the management and ownership is purposely wanting them to lose. Players have pride. They also understand it’s a lot easier to get out of such a terrible situation if they show they still play hard and give whatever they’ve got.
Sam Darnold, the USC quarterback, is an outstanding prospect. For my money he’s better than Andrew Luck, Jameis Winston or Matthew Stafford at the same point in their college careers in terms of future NFL ability. He sure seems like a lock as the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, and the Jets would be wise to covet him. But I’m a believer in karma, and setting out on the season with the sole purpose of losing as much as possible to secure Darnold has a lot of inherent risk and negative karmic overtones.
The Jets will get their apparent wish and wind up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. But I do think they are good enough on defense to steal at least one victory, especially if first-round pick Jamal Adams is as good as expected and the secondary can create some turnovers. These Jets finish 2-14 in 2016, and those wins come in the first five weeks.