Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The New York Jets check in at No. 19.
Rex Ryan will never admit it, but the Jets may well be in a rebuilding mode despite the presence of veterans such as running back Shonn Greene and linebackers Calvin Pace and Bart Scott.
That comes as a result of last year’s 8–8 debacle that ostensibly cost offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer his job for trying to turn Mark Sanchez into Peyton Manning. Former Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano now takes the offensive reins and will attempt to bring back the ground-and-pound attack that took the Jets to two straight AFC title games (2009 and ’10).
The biggest area of improvement needs to come off the field, however. Reconstructing locker room unity, which didn’t just disintegrate but exploded all over MetLife Stadium, will be a major undertaking and involve all of Ryan’s motivational skills — especially with wide receiver Santonio Holmes, who remains unrepentant for becoming the team’s biggest divisive force.
Ryan believes he has enough veteran talent to take the Jets back into the postseason. But after taking Brandon Jacobs’ advice to “Shut up, fat boy,” Ryan’s laying low on the rhetoric. But we all know how he feels. It’s up to the Jets to have his back — something they failed to do last season.
Sanchez has come perilously close to coach-killer status, as he showed an inability to control the game in 2011. Some of that was due to a shaky line that allowed 40 sacks, a dozen more than in 2010. Sanchez did throw 26 touchdowns, but he lost eight fumbles and tossed 18 interceptions as he was asked to throw way too much for his level of experience. This year, he should get back to being more of a game-manager with Sparano’s plans for a return to the physical running game. That should help his confidence. The addition of 236-pound quarterback Tim Tebow will make the Wildcat a more prominent part of the playbook.
Holmes will still be the No. 1 option in the passing game, but the Jets have high hopes for second-round pick Stephen Hill. If Hill can establish himself as a viable weapon, Holmes should thrive against single coverage — something that didn’t happen enough in 2011. After catching 52 passes for a 14.3-yard average in 12 games in his first season with the Jets, Holmes had only 51 receptions for a 12.8 average a year ago. Sanchez reached out to Holmes in the offseason to repair their working relationship. Both parties are saying all the right things, but the real test will come when the regular season begins.
Tight end Dustin Keller caught a team-high 65 passes last season working the short and medium routes over the middle of the field.
The passing game won’t be effective without a productive running attack in Sparano’s system. That means Greene, who had 1,054 yards last season despite topping the 100-yard mark only two times, must return to his 2010 form when he teamed with LaDainian Tomlinson to form one of the league’s best 1-2 backfield punches. With Tomlinson retired, third-year pro Joe McKnight will take over as the No. 2 back. A former fourth-round pick out of USC, McKnight has averaged 3.9 yards on his 82 rushing attempts.
The offensive line still needs proven upgrades on the right side, but 335-pound sixth-round pick Robert T. Griffin of Baylor could replace right guard Brandon Moore if he progresses quickly enough. The battle between shaky right tackle Wayne Hunter and 2010 second-round bust Vladimir Ducasse may be a matter of taking the lesser evil. The Jets acquired tackle Jeff Otah from Carolina via trade in late July, but the 2008 first-round pick was returned to the Panthers after failing his physical.
The Jets had the fifth-best defense in terms of yardage last year, but their 363 points allowed (22.7 per game) ranked 20th in the NFL. Their run defense was just okay, ranking 13th in the league at 111.1 yards per game. All in all, the stats could have been worse. But specific situations consistently let down the Jets, and that’s what Ryan has to fix.
He started with the draft, taking Quinton Coples with the 16th pick. Ryan says that Coples will play as a 3-4 defensive end, even though the former North Carolina star has the speed and hands to play outside linebacker. Coples will battle Mike DeVito for the starting spot opposite Muhammad Wilkerson. The Jets can go with a 4-3 look, as well, with Wilkerson, Coples and DeVito lining up alongside nose tackle Sione Pouha.
Aaron Maybin proved to be the only linebacker with the ability to rush the quarterback in 2011. He had six sacks in 13 games, being used primarily on third downs. Maybin, who is working on his run-stopping, has positioned himself for a bigger role. Pace and Scott, two constants on defense last year, should be even more productive thanks to the upgraded line.
Safety remains a big issue, however. When Jim Leonhard went down last year, the pass defense in the middle of the field went with him. The free agent additions of LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell should provide an upgrade. Landry, who has played in only 17 games over the last two seasons, must prove that he can remain healthy. Strong safety Eric Smith is the team’s only other experienced safety.
The corners are fine, however, with shutdown cover man Darrelle Revis and the physical Antonio Cromartie returning. Revis and Cromartie had four picks each.
Jeremy Kerley finished last year as the team’s leading punt returner with a 10.1-yard average and will likely handle those duties again. In fact, most of the special teams players from last year return, including kicker Nick Folk, who hit 19-of-25 field goals.
McKnight, who suffered some fumbling issues both in the backfield and as a punt returner, proved to be a weapon returning kickoffs with a very healthy 31.6-yard average on his 34 attempts. He had a 107-yard return for a touchdown against the Ravens. If McKnight can duplicate that type of production, he will put the Jets’ offense in advantageous positions — and take pressure off of Sanchez.
T.J. Conley, who had a 38.8-yard net punting average, has the ability to pin opponents deep in their own territory. Over 65 percent of his 92 punts were not returned, and he had only six touchbacks while putting 32 inside the 20.
Final Analysis: 3rd in the AFC East
The idea of going back to the ground game and limiting Sanchez’s passing is a good one. But a tough opening schedule that includes 2011 playoff teams Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Houston, and New England in four of the first seven weeks will be difficult to navigate. The Jets have talent, but too many things will need to go well — including improving team chemistry — for the team to return to the postseason after a one-year hiatus. Another .500 record could be in the cards.
Related: 2012 New York Jets Schedule Analysis
Outside The Huddle
The Wildcat hasn’t packed a punch since Brad Smith left the team after the 2010 season. But now, Tim Tebow’s in town, and he could be the ideal Wildcat quarterback. Tebow rushed for 660 yards on 122 attempts last season with the Broncos, and he gained 2,947 yards on the ground during his collegiate career at Florida. If offensive coordinator Tony Sparano is smart — and he is — he’ll tell Tebow to hang onto the football at all costs, since the 236-pounder’s throwing accuracy and mechanics in the short passing game are lacking.
Tebow, the Jets’ No. 2 quarterback, made the list of the NFL’s top 100 players as voted by players around the league; starter Mark Sanchez didn’t. Sanchez didn’t seem to be miffed by the slight, but it should provide motivation for him to prove his worth. It will also be interesting to see how long of a leash Rex Ryan gives his starter if the Jets get off to a slow start. Big storyline here.
There were some who questioned whether wide receiver Stephen Hill, the Jets’ second-round pick, would be able to make the transition to an NFL offense after playing in Georgia Tech’s option attack for three seasons. Well, take a look at Demaryius Thomas of the Broncos. The former Yellow Jacket had 35 catches for 745 yards and four touchdowns in the final seven games last year (including two playoff games).
Here’s a stat that aptly fits in with the Jets’ 8–8 season. They gained 4,989 yards on offense and gave up 4,993 yards on defense.
Sack challenged The Jets might think about ramping up their cornerback and safety blitzes, as defensive backs recorded only four of the team’s 35 sacks last year. Safety Eric Smith was the high man with 2.5 sacks.
Santonio Holmes doesn’t seem to have any regrets about the hubbub he caused in the Jets’ locker room at the end of last season. “Why should I?” was his response. Oh, boy. And the fans aren’t particularly happy with him or quarterback Sanchez. The duo was loudly booed when flashed on the Madison Square Garden video board while attending a Knicks game together.
Tebow’s arrival as a running option at the quarterback position could mean a reduced role for fullback John Conner. The Jets could elect to get by with either Bilal Powell or Joe McKnight in situations that call for a fullback. However, Ryan seemed to indicate that Conner would stick with the team. “Clearly, there’s a role for a traditional fullback (in Sparano’s offense),” Ryan says.
Talk about faith. The Jets failed to draft a right tackle, which means they’re staking their hopes again on Wayne Hunter, who at times looked more like a swinging gate than a pass-protector. But Ryan believes in the veteran from Hawaii. “I think Wayne will play better this year,” Ryan says. “I believe Wayne will have a big year for us.”
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24:Kansas City Chiefs
No. 23:Oakland Raiders
No. 22: Washington Redskins
No. 21:Seattle Seahawks
No. 20: Carolina Panthers
No. 19:New York Jets
No. 18: Wed., Aug. 8
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Related: 2012 New York Jets Schedule Analysis