Following the heels of the New England Patriots, the Falcons face the New York Jets in Week Five of the 2013 season, another team that has a lot of questions going into their training camp this summer.
A word that rhymes with “fluster cluck” comes to mind when thinking about the Jets and what has happened within that organization over the past year and change. Their struggles in 2012 are well-documented and questions abound going in 2013 on whether they can find any answers. The Jets will feature competitions at nearly every position group on offense, as well as relying on a bevy of new faces to restore a defense that was formerly among the league’s best.
The biggest question on the team is none other than the quarterback position. Mark Sanchez returns for a fifth season after an abysmal 2012 campaign where he seemingly lost all of his confidence and continued to make mistake after mistake, including the infamous butt fumble (I’ll never get tired of watching that!). To add to his worries, the team drafted Geno Smith in the second round in April. While Sanchez remains confident he’ll open the season as the starter, the tide of change seems to favor Smith. Neither emerged as a clear-cut front runner during OTAs but the inability of Sanchez to separate himself from Smith does not bode well for him. Sanchez at this point is a reclamation project, and one that Jets fans certainly have no patience for. Assuming Smith isn’t terrible this summer and shows improvement over the course of camp, he could easily wind up opening the season as the starter. But without a strong camp from either one of them, things won’t bode well for the Jets.
Rex Ryan’s success in New York has been built off strong defense and a steady running game. That latter aspect has been missing in recent years. And the Jets brought in former New Orleans Saints Chris Ivory alongside ex-Oakland Raider Mike Goodson to try and restore the ground attack. Ivory has been productive player when he played with the Saints, but those opportunities were sporadic over the years. He’ll hope to prove that he can carry the load in New York as they will rely heavily on him given Goodson’s off-field issues and the fact that Bilal Powell is seen more as a quality No. 2 than a full-time starter.
Helping to make that possible will be the Jets offensive line, which in their heyday of rushing success was one of the best in the league. This year’s group will feature two new starters at guard as gone are Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore. They will be replaced by Willie Colon and either Vlad Ducasse or Stephen Peterman, respectively. Colon is a good player, but is injury prone and hasn’t made it through a full season healthy since 2009. Ducasse has thus far shown he’s nothing more than a bust, and while Peterman was solid at times with the Detroit Lions over the past six years, he is by no means an upgrade over a fixture like Moore at right guard. The Jets also drafted Brian Winters in the third round and given the questions surrounding the starters, it wouldn’t be a surprised if he is the mix to play with a strong summer.
The tight end position is fairly wide open as well as the team picked up Kellen Winslow last month to compete with Jeff Cumberland. Winslow however has struggled with injuries as he has the knees of a 62-year old man and may not make it through camp unless he can rewind the clock. That leaves Cumberland as the likeliest candidate to open the season as the starter. Cumberland has good size, hands, and blocking ability but he is by no means a threat in the passing game.
Any the Jets field on offense will come with their trio of receivers, which happens to be the most secure position on offense. Santonio Holmes is the No. 1 option and hopes to rebound off an injury-shortened 2012 season. But Holmes is consistently inconsistent in terms of being engaged in the offense. And given the Jets questions at quarterback, if they cannot reliably get him the ball it may not matter whether he’s healthy or not. Opposite him will be second-year receiver Stephen Hill. Hill was raw coming out of Georgia Tech last year, but hopes that he can take a page from former Yellow Jacket receiver Demaryius Thomas and show tremendous growth in his second season. Hill’s size and athleticism make him an intriguing matchup problem on the outside, but he needs to polish his route-running and refine his overall game if he wants to make bigger contributions than the 21 catches he had in 2012. In the slot, Jeremy Kerley is coming off a breakout 2012 season where he emerged as their top receiver. Kerley is quick and flashes similar big play potential that Holmes does on his best days. The hope for the Jets is that one of the quarterbacks this summer can be competent enough to get this trio of weapons, their lone proven assets offensively the ball.
Defensively, the Jets are solid. Although they aren’t the elite defense they were a few years back when they were making deep runs in the playoffs. They suffered a huge loss last year with the injury to Darrelle Revis, and owner Woody Johnson opted to ship him to Tampa Bay rather than face the possibility of paying him another premium contract next year. The Jets used their top draft pick on Dee Milliner to replace him. He joins an already solid group of corners headlined by Antonio Cromartie. Cromartie’s play stepped up significantly last year in Revis’ absence, becoming their de facto shutdown guy thanks to good size and ball skills. Kyle Wilson should continue to man the nickel spot with Milliner on the outside. If Milliner can hit the ground running this summer, it should continue the Jets success in coverage.
But questions remain at safety. The team picked up Dawan Landry to replace his brother LaRon at strong safety. Dawan played for Rex Ryan in Baltimore and should be capable. But the other safety spot is up in the air. Josh Bush, Antonio Allen, and Jaiquawan Jarrett are competing for the spot. Bush is the front-runner, but largely was a special teams player in his first season with the Jets in 2012. He’ll be asked to work mainly as a centerfielder in their defense. He’ll need to have a strong camp to inspire confidence with this group.
In the front seven the Jets will have a few new faces. They drafted Sheldon Richardson in the first round this past April, and added Antonio Garay to replace Sione Pouha at nose tackle. The Jets would like to feature a few more four-man fronts this year rather than their traditional 3-4 looks. That will likely put Richardson inside beside Muhammad Wilkerson with Quinton Coples and as of yet to emerge player at the end spots. Coples will be asked to play more of a stand-up linebacker role this year, which will be a transition for 290-pound end. He does possess the athleticism to do so, but how quickly he adjusts to his new role will determine whether the Jets pass rush will finally be dangerous after a long drought since the departure of John Abraham in 2006.
The team also brought in Antwan Barnes, who has been very productive in recent years as a situational rusher, and Calvin Pace returns for another year to compete for that yet to be determined spot opposite Coples. Garay will be competing with Kenrick Ellis, a massive nose tackle prospect that has been disappointing thus far in his two seasons in New York. Garay is nearly 34 and at this point is more of a rotational player, so getting both of those players going this summer will be a priority.
Also in their front, they’ll be asking second-year linebacker Demario Davis to step in to Bart Scott’s vacated weakside linebacker spot. Davis is definitely an upgrade on speed and athleticism, but is largely untested on defense and certainly is a question mark in terms of instincts and toughness, ares where Scott was certainly not lacking. He’ll play beside David Harris, who hasn’t been the force in the middle that he was earlier in his Jets career. He’ll need to step up this year to shoulder more of the burden.
If they can see increased production from a player like Coples, and young guys like Richardson, Milliner, Bush, and Davis can step up, the Jets defense will once again be a tough and formidable unit. That will need to be the case given the questions offensively. But at least in the case of Geno Smith and Chris Ivory, there is at least much more reason to have hope for improvement in New York this summer. While they aren’t expected to be in the mix for the division title, they could become a tough out if their ground attack can get on track and whoever emerges at quarterback can provide the occasional spark in the passing game.