2014 Preview: New York Jets
The 2013 New York Jets missed out on the playoffs, but did improve on their 6-10 2012 record by two wins. With rookie Geno Smith’s developing nicely down the stretch of a tough rookie year and a ferocious defense, there was enough there to keep the Rex Ryan Show renewed to see if he could return the team to it’s former competitive glory.
Entering 2014, the Jets have added some flash to the offense (Eric Decker, Michael Vick and Chris Johnson) while hoping that their defense, bolstered by a terrific defensive line, continues to make strides. Here’s a look at both sides of the ball and some factors that will play pivotal roles in the Jets’ upcoming season.
Five Reasons to be Confident
Peyton Manning’s loss is New York’s gain as ex-Bronco Eric Decker is now Geno Smith’s No. 1 wide receiver. Perhaps overshadowed by the other, more prolific receiver that he worked with in Denver (Demaryius Thomas), Decker still caught 87 passes in the regular season (tied for 11th best in the league) for 1,288 yards (12th best) and 11 TDs (tied for eighth best with A.J. Green). The previous year he had the second-most scoring grabs during the regular season (13) and the year before that he still put up numbers with Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow throwing him the ball. Decker should prove to be a reliable target for the young Smith.
“CJ2K” is not the runner he once was, but he is one thing that Chris Ivory, who was supposed to be NYJ’s feature back last year, is not: durable. Maybe it’s because Chris Johnson has a tendency to try and avoid contact, but the simple fact is that to contribute, you have to stay on the field, and Johnson has proven capable of doing that. In the past three years, Johnson has played a starters’ share of snaps in every contest, and not missed any games. Ivory, who remains on the team in a backup role, has not. Last year alone he had a laundry list of injuries throughout (hamstring, ribs, knee, ankle, quad, etc.) and already suffered a rib injury in the preseason opener this year. Although Ivory only technically missed one game last year, there were six games were he could barely stay on the field (12 snaps twice, eight snaps twice, nine snaps once, and four snaps once). Johnson is a huge upgrade for the mere fact that he’s a runner that can be counted on to start and finish a game, something the Jets did not have last season.
That Defensive Line
It’s no surprise that the Jets are stacked on the defensive line. Their highest overall graded defensive players were nose tackle Damon Harrison (and Secret Superstar backup Kenrick Ellis) along with defensive ends Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. They’re the reason that this squad had by far the best Run Defense grade in the 2013 regular season (+84.2, with the next best being +56.8). While Wilkerson is the only one who had consistent success rushing the passer (11 sacks, nine QB hits, 32 hurries and a pair of batted passes), the others aren’t slouches. Harrison had a sack of Tom Brady, Richardson put opposing QBs on the ground nine times, and Ellis had seven hurries on limited snaps. Richardson also scored two rushing TDs, which is a nice bonus.
Quinton Coples Showed Promise Late
Yes, 2012 first-round pick Quinton Coples has been a disappointment his first two years in the league, but let’s take a closer look at his resume. As a 3-4 defensive end his rookie year, Coples offered a pass rush but not much in run defense. Last year he was asked to become an outside linebacker, but fractured his ankle in the preseason, sidelining him for the first two regular season games. He made his debut in Week 3, and for the next six weeks was not productive, registering a sack, four QB hits and four hurries on 203 blitzes. That earned him a -7.9 pass rushing grade. The final eight games of the season, however, saw him show a little more life. Starting with the upset over the Saints through the season-ending win over the Dolphins, he produced five sacks, 11 QB knockdowns, 19 hurries and a pair of batted passes. That production is a far cry from the ‘red’ stained performances he put together in the beginning of the year and he also ended up with a good run defense grade. Coples will be a player to keep an eye on this year.
Yes, the New England Patriots have had a stranglehold on this division for seemingly forever (the last time they didn’t win it was the 2008 season with Matt Cassel at the helm, and even then the division champion Miami Dolphins needed a tie-breaker to win it). Chances are good the Patriots will win it again this year. Still, after two years of being swept by their Boston rivals, the Jets finally evened things up last season by splitting the season series. More importantly, they also get to play the perennially weak Dolphins and Buffalo Bills twice. It’s possible that Miami or Buffalo finally puts together a winning record for the first time in years, but not likely. The AFC East may not be the easiest division in football, but it’s certainly not the NFC West, and that gives the Jets a better chance at making the playoffs.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
Can Geno Dial Down the Turnovers?
In his rookie year, Geno Smith earned the second-worst passing grade among signal-callers (-20.6), much of which can be attributed to an abundance of turnovers. Smith had his moments, particularly the game-winning field goal drive against the Falcons on Monday Night Football early in the season. Yet he coughed the ball up repeatedly with 21 interceptions (five of which were returned for TDs) and nine total fumbles (five of which were lost, one recovered for a TD). If Smith can secure the ball – and not hand opposing teams direct points – it will go a long way in helping the Jets compete for a postseason spot. The promising news is that his play come the end of his rookie year showed tremendous improvements, boding well for the future.
Once a strength of Ryan’s Jets defenses, the corner group right now is a worry. Much of cornerback Dee Milliner’s rookie year was a struggle, but he ended it on the upswing and performed well in the preseason opener, but he now has a sprained ankle and will likely miss multiple weeks in the regular season. Rookie third-round pick Dexter McDougle already tore his ACL and while journeyman Dimitri Patterson showed well in 2013, he’s had his struggles in preseason and is best suited to a sub package role. Ex-Saints third-round pick Johnny Patrick has a -17.8 coverage grade over the past two seasons and Darrin Walls, a 2011 undrafted free agent, has never played more than 10 games for the Jets. And, last but not least, 2010 first-rounder Kyle Wilson has yet to post a positive coverage grade for a season beyond the mild +0.6 on 229 coverage snaps in his rookie year. It’s a work in progress and sometimes they can be ruthlessly exposed.
Just like the secondary, the offensive line was once one of the best aspects of the team and just like the secondary, that is no longer the case. Center Nick Mangold and ex-Steeler Willie Colon were the only members to hold their own in 2013, though their play has clearly slipped a notch or two. Otherwise, rookie left guard Brian Winters earned the fifth-lowest overall grade among guards, left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s play dropped from +20.0 overall in 2012 to -3.4 last year, and new Jet right tackle Breno Giacomini was one of several weak links on Seattle’s offensive line.
Veteran outside linebacker Calvin Pace did have 11 sacks last season (remember we don’t count half sacks), tying Wilkerson for the team lead. However, upon further review, he only beat three offensive linemen for sacks. Six of the sacks involved him being unblocked, becoming unblocked, or dropping into coverage and then forcing the QB out when he scrambled. He did force two fumbles (one of Tom Brady’s where he legitimately beat RT Sebastian Vollmer, the other where he ran right by TE Jimmy Graham), but otherwise his sack count is a good example of why all sacks are not created equal. Overall on the season he had a mere 35 official pressures, which doesn’t include an unblocked QB hit of Tom Brady in Week 2, made invisible on the stat sheet by an accepted penalty.
Like the CB position, safety is a potential problem for the Jets at the moment. Rookie first-rounder Calvin Pryor made his preseason debut last week after sitting out the first exhibition game with a concussion. While he did make several plays, he was barely tested (targeted once) so it’s too early to tell how impactful he’ll be in coverage this year. Otherwise, all the safeties currently on the roster – Jaiquawn Jarrett, Josh Bush, Antonio Allen, and Dawan Landry – graded negatively in coverage last year. This is a situation to keep an eye on, though it’s perhaps slightly less than dire than the CB situation.
Follow Trey on Twitter