Coming off two consecutive AFC Championship Game losses, the Jets feature the necessary blend of young talent and veteran leadership to make a legitimate Super Bowl run. Rex Ryan’s team should be a major factor in the playoffs for a third consecutive season despite falling short of the ultimate goal in his first two years at the helm. The brash, tell-it-like-it-is coach hasn’t toned down the rhetoric. However, Ryan’s next Super Bowl guarantee will fall on deaf ears if the Jets don’t deliver in 2011. “I think it’s about time we get it done and see this thing through because, after a while, people are going to start looking at it as a joke,” linebacker Bart Scott said on ESPN in the offseason.
The first order of business is for the Jets to beat the rival Patriots, who have owned the AFC East for the better part of a decade.
For all the growth Mark Sanchez has shown in the postseason with an NFL record-tying four career road playoff wins, the third-year quarterback must improve his accuracy (career 54.4 completion percentage) to take the next step in his development. Sanchez will need to display more consistency to avoid having to pull off fourth quarter comebacks like last season.
Expect Santonio Holmes, who was the team’s top free agent priority this offseason, to explode statistically. Plain and simple, Holmes is a game-changer who will have every opportunity to shine as Sanchez’s top target. Fourth-year tight end Dustin Keller could be the ultimate sleeper in Gang Green’s offense. He should be able to exploit mismatches against slower linebackers and smaller safeties in the middle of the field. Keller will become Sanchez’s second option in the passing game behind Holmes. Plaxico Burress, signed to a one-year deal, hasn’t played since the 2008 season. He will replace Braylon Edwards as a big-bodied target in the red zone.
But don’t expect Ryan’s club to air it out each week. The Jets will remain true to their ground-and-pound philosophy. The coaching staff fully expects third-year back Shonn Greene, who was part of a two-back platoon in each of his first two years, to be the primary back with the capability getting 18 to 20 carries per week. “Shonn’s ready to take that next step,” says offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. “We expect a breakout season from him. He’s a guy that’s got just huge, huge, huge potential that we think is right there ready for him to grab.”
LaDainian Tomlinson will give Sanchez another pass-catching option as he transitions into a third down role in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career.
A veteran offensive line is anchored by Pro Bowl left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, All-Pro center Nick Mangold and right guard Brandon Moore. Vlad Ducasse, the team’s second-round pick in 2010, is expected to start at right tackle after spending the bulk of his rookie season on the bench.
Thanks to an injection of youth along the defensive line, the Jets may have corrected their most troublesome area from a year ago. Rookie linemen Muhammad Wilkerson and Kenrick Ellis will play pivotal roles as part of a rotation that includes Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito. Ellis has plenty of room for growth, but he’ll be able to provide immediate help stuffing the run as a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle. Defensive end Marcus Dixon, who was picked up off the scrap heap last year, may make the biggest impact of them all.
Inside linebackers David Harris and Bart Scott should benefit from the improved defensive front by getting better lanes to the quarterback and ball-carriers.
The Jets’ decision not to draft an edge pass-rusher will put more pressure on outside linebacker Calvin Pace to produce as a reliable threat to relieve some stress on the secondary. Ryan would prefer not to dial up as many exotic corner and safety blitzes as last year, which means that Pace will have to bring more consistent heat on the quarterback.
The Jets appeared to be on the verge of pairing Darrelle Revis and Nnamdi Asomugha in what would have been one of the top corner tandems in the history of the NFL, but Asomugha opted to sign with the Eagles. The Jets regrouped and re-signed their own free agent, Antonio Cromartie, to a four-year contract worth a reported $32 million. Kyle Wilson, who was inconsistent as a rookie, will be the nickel back, but he will have to improve his man-to-man cover skills. He repeatedly got into trouble last season, when he struggled with ball awareness and recognition. The league’s labor impasse certainly didn’t help Wilson, who could have used the additional coaching during mini-camps and OTAs this summer.
Safety Jim Leonhard, the brains of the secondary, is expected to be fully recovered from his season-ending leg injury. Look for Dwight Lowery to transition from cornerback to safety after playing a hybrid role last season. Lowery’s intelligence and instincts could be a valuable asset in a scheme that relies on its safeties to make a lot of pre- and post-snap adjustments.
Nick Folk must improve his accuracy or he’ll be sent packing. Although Folk hit the game-winning field goal in the Jets’ wild card win over the Colts last year, his struggles beyond 40 yards have given the coaching staff cause for concern. Journeyman Nick Novak, who most recently impressed in the UFL, will push Folk. The Jets will have a change at punter, where T.J. Conley will step in for Steve Weatherford, now a member of the Giants.
Expect Joe McKnight to take over the punt return duties from Leonhard. McKnight, Wilson and rookie Jeremy Kerley will be in the mix to handle kick returns. They’ll be hard-pressed to duplicate Brad Smith’s big-play ability in the return game over the past few years; Smith helped the Jets lead the AFC in kick return average in 2010.
The Jets have all the pieces in place to end their four-decade Super Bowl drought, but they’ll have to navigate through a difficult early season stretch that includes three consecutive games on the road against the Raiders, Ravens and Patriots from Weeks 3-5.
The first hurdle to reaching the Promised Land will be to de-throne New England as AFC East champions to guarantee at least one home playoff game. For all the success in Ryan’s first two seasons, his team has yet to host a postseason game.
An uptick in Sanchez’s accuracy and consistency, combined with Greene’s ability to move the chains with tough yards on the ground, should turn the Jets into a top-10 offense. An improved defensive line coupled with solid secondary play will keep the Jets among the elite defenses in the league.
Outside the Huddle
Rex Ryan’s new book Play Like You Mean It peaked at No. 11 on the New York Times bestseller list in the spring. Ryan’s book tour media blitz included stops on The Late Show with David Letterman and The Colbert Report.
For the second consecutive year, Mark Sanchez hosted offensive skill position teammates at Jets West Camp in Southern California. Sanchez and his family organized the de facto OTA that included watching film, field work and free food from a variety of sponsors. Sanchez put up his teammates in a posh villa near the practice site.
Garden State Bias
For the second consecutive year, the Jets drafted a New Jersey native with their first-round pick. Muhammad Wilkerson grew up in Linden, N.J., while 2010 first-rounder Kyle Wilson hails from Piscataway, N.J.
Santonio Holmes, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Nick Mangold and Darrelle Revis made the Top 100 Players of 2011 list on the NFL Network as voted by the players. Revis finished in the Top 10.
Home Sweet Home
Left guard Matt Slauson moved his wife and newborn into his parents’ house this offseason to save some money due to the lockout. Slauson has a $480,000 base salary for 2011.
Sanchez has thrown more interceptions than touchdowns in the regular season, but has a three-to-one TD-to-INT ratio in six career playoff games.
Nose tackle Sione Pouha chronicled his days during the labor impasse on YouTube with a documentary entitled “Life of a Lockout.” The veteran also helped organize workouts for defensive linemen at a high school field in New Jersey.
All-Pro center Nick Mangold spent some time in the offseason working as an intern for Donald Trump in New York. Mangold’s adventures, which included getting The Donald a Diet Coke, were documented on one of Trump’s reality shows.
Ryan and his staff invited several former coaches to the team facility in the offseason to pick their brains about strategy, including Joe Gibbs and Tom Moore. Ryan spoke specifically to Gibbs about how he dealt with past work stoppages. Moore must have made a favorable impression; the Jets hired him in late July as a consultant.
Linebacker Bart Scott capitalized on his now famous “Can’t Wait!” postgame interview with ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio after the Jets’ divisional round playoff win against the Patriots by coming out with a new line of t-shirts commemorating his rant. The t-shirt sports an image of Scott with his arms widespread.
Revis made it known that he’d like to star in a reality show with best friend and manager John Geiger. He’s envisioning a series similar to MTV’s “Rob and Big.”
Jets seventh-round pick Scotty McKnight has been friends with Sanchez since they were eight years old. The Jets’ signal-caller helped out his pal by throwing to him at Colorado’s Pro Day. Sanchez watched the draft with McKnight at the receiver’s parents’ house in Southern California.