Six starters fled the Jets in free agency, including their top running back and two safeties. Their best player, one of the great shutdown cornerbacks in football, was traded to Tampa Bay just prior to the draft. Their big free agent signing was a 35-year-old quarterback who retired in May. Owner Woody Johnson fired his general manager right after the 6–10 season but retained Rex Ryan for his final contract year, turning him into a lame-duck coach.
This has all the makings of a rebuilding season at best and a mess of a year at worst.
Despite heading into a win-or-else season with an uncertain quarterback situation, offensive backfield in flux, and an exodus that left the defense in shambles, Ryan doesn’t look at 2013 as a rebuilding season.
“I think (other teams) should be worried about us a lot more than they are,” Ryan says. “We’ll see what kind of team our opponents get to play, and I’m excited about it.”
He might as well be. A winning record seems like a daunting challenge, especially in light of a five-game stretch starting in Week 5 against Atlanta, Pittsburgh, New England, Cincinnati and New Orleans. Even without the Tim Tebow albatross, Ryan has plenty of pressure on him in 2013, not the least of which is his job security under a new GM. The quarterback position is no closer to being solved, and the rest of the offense is just as underwhelming. Meanwhile, the Jets were dealt a psychological blow with the trade of lockdown corner Darrelle Revis to the Buccaneers. This has all the makings for another long year in New York.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 13th
Related: 2013 New York Jets Schedule Analysis
Ryan’s enthusiasm could turn to despair quickly if keeping Mark Sanchez around backfires. Sanchez, to whom former GM Mike Tannenbaum handed a three-year extension with $20.5 million of guaranteed money prior to last season, took the first snap of minicamp, though second-round draft pick Geno Smith is poised to give him some competition in the summer. The Jets signed veteran David Garrard in March and had planned on giving him a legitimate chance to win the job, but he announced in mid May that he was retiring due to ongoing issues with his knees. So that leaves Sanchez as the likely Week 1 starter, but he may struggle in new offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg’s system. Timing and touch are essential in the West Coast offense, areas in which Sanchez has shown little comfort level the past two years.
Regardless of who starts at quarterback, he won’t have many targets out there. Jeremy Kerley is good, and when healthy, Santonio Holmes is better. But Holmes is returning from season-ending foot surgery and will take a limited workload through training camp. The team did bring back former Jet wide receiver Braylon Edwards and also signed tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. to add to its pass-catching options.
The running back picture became much more interesting when the Jets traded their fourth-round pick to New Orleans for bruising veteran Chris Ivory. He can punish a defense and has a 5.1 yards-per-carry career average. But injuries and his failure to exhibit significant receiving ability out of the backfield could make him miscast in Mornhinweg’s system. The Jets might end up starting free agent pickup Mike Goodson, whose pass-catching ability complements a 4.5-yard career average. Holdover Bilal Powell is also a candidate. He caught 17 passes and rushed for 437 yards and four touchdowns as a backup last year. Whatever they do, the Jets have to improve their 3.8 yards-per-carry average, which ranked 23rd in the league. In the end, Goodson — with his ability to run and catch — may be the best option, but his May 17 arrest on weapons and gun charges have complicated things, to say the least.
The offensive line is also in transition, with underachieving Vladimir Ducasse likely to move into the right guard spot to replace Brandon Moore, who departed in free agency. Willie Colon, a seven-year veteran who started 11 games at left guard for the Steelers last year after missing all but one game the two previous seasons, signed with the Jets in the offseason. He should help improve the blind side.
After a dramatic trade-him-or-don’t-trade-him decision in the front office, the Jets eventually sent Revis to Tampa Bay for the No. 13 pick in the 2013 draft and a conditional selection in 2014. The Jets then used the ninth overall pick to draft a corner in Alabama’s Dee Milliner. The Jets only partially replaced the other key personnel losses, starting with free agent acquisition of former San Diego linebacker Antwan Barnes, who had 18.5 sacks over the last three seasons. He dropped from 11 sacks in 2011 to just three in an injury-shortened 2012. But he is familiar with Ryan, having played for him in Baltimore in 2007. That’s a plus, since Ryan will return to calling his own defensive plays. And Ryan will need Barnes to boost a pass rush that tied for 25th last year with only 30 sacks. Barnes is also fast enough to cover the tough tight ends found in the AFC East, such as the Patriots’ Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, and former Jet Dustin Keller in Miami.
Muhammad Wilkerson showed signs of becoming a defensive line stalwart in his second year, compiling five sacks, 70 tackles and three forced fumbles at end. This year, Wilkerson will have to fight through a slew of double-teams unless the Jets somehow find some inexpensive players to replace Sione Po’uha and Mike DeVito. Best case would be for last year’s No. 1 draft pick, Quinton Coples, to take over DeVito’s spot.
Right cornerback Antonio Cromartie stepped up and had a great year once Revis went down with a torn ACL, and there’s no reason to believe he can’t do it again. But the middle of the secondary is rife with inexperience in Josh Bush and Antonio Allen. At least free agent acquisition Dawan Landry — brother of departed safety LaRon Landry — will provide coverage skills and durability after recording 100 tackles in 16 starts for Jacksonville last year.
Kicker Nick Folk was re-signed for his fourth season in green after going 21-of-27 on field goals. His 93 points tied him for 26th in the league. Robert Malone, the league’s 19th-ranked punter, returns after a franchise-record 45.8-yard average on 61 punts (38.5 net).
Joe McKnight likely will handle kickoff returns again after bringing back 39 for a 27.5-yard average (third-best in the league) that included a 100-yard TD against the Texans. The punt return game, handled mostly by Kerley last year, will need more yardage and fewer fair catches.
Final Analysis: 3rd in AFC East
It’s always bad medicine for an owner to change his general manager and keep his head coach. Ryan is entering the final season of his contract with a number of troublesome contracts, unfulfilled Super Bowl expectations and an unresolved quarterback quandary. The head coach may be optimistic, but the team’s roster indicates otherwise.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)