The Jets have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons — during which time they’ve gone 8–8, 6–10 and 8–8 again last season — but owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik decided to bring coach Rex Ryan back for a sixth season.
Ryan, despite an extension, is essentially coaching for his job again in 2014. If the Jets are to make the playoffs — which would significantly help Ryan’s case — they must improve their passing offense and passing defense. Those units ranked 31st and 22nd in the NFL, respectively, last season.
Some of the passing offense issues last year were due to rookie Geno Smith’s struggles. But he didn’t have a lot of weapons to work with. He has more now. The Jets’ pass defense is rebuilding, with the release of veteran cornerback Antonio Cromartie and the first-round draft selection of safety Calvin Pryor.
The Jets have a strong running game that is perhaps stronger now. They have one of the best defensive lines in the NFL. If they can shore up their passing game issues, on both sides of the ball, they could be a playoff contender in 2014.
The Jets went out and got the best free agent receiver available, Eric Decker. But is he enough of a speedy, downfield threat to be a No. 1 receiver? Plus, how much were his stats in Denver a product of Peyton Manning? All of that remains to be seen.
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Instead of drafting a receiver in the first round, the Jets supplemented their passing game with several other pieces. They drafted a tight end in the second round, Jace Amaro, who was basically a receiver in college. They added speed to their backfield by signing running back Chris Johnson, who has always been a receiving threat.
You have to wonder how much Johnson has left. He will be 29 in September, and he has 1,742 NFL carries on his body. He played last season with a torn meniscus in his knee and had the least productive year of his career. The Jets won’t need to lean on him. They can use his speed, presuming he still has it, as a complement to running back Chris Ivory’s power.
Despite all of these additions, the offense’s success — or lack thereof — will largely hinge on whether Smith can make better decisions in his second season. His numbers last season were dreadful (12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions), and the Jets signed Michael Vick this offseason to push him. But they would prefer for Smith to win the job.
Under Ryan, the Jets have regularly fielded a strong defense. But the past two seasons, they ranked 25th and 30th in the NFL in yards gained and 29th and 28th in points scored. Throw in Mark Sanchez, and over the past three seasons, the Jets’ starting quarterbacks have combined for 57 interceptions. Until all those numbers improve, the Jets won’t be a playoff team.
First, the good news: The Jets have a prodigious defensive line led by end Muhammad Wilkerson and tackle Sheldon Richardson. Wilkerson, arguably the Jets’ best player on either side of the ball, has an absurd combination of size (6'4", 315 pounds) and speed that makes him a pass-rushing terror (10.5 sacks last year). Richardson shows elite agility for a 294-pound player. On his way to winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last season, he also rushed for two touchdowns in goal-line situations.
The Jets could use more production from rush outside linebacker Quinton Coples (4.5 sacks last year, 5.5 the year before as a rookie). But their defensive front is solid and the team also added veteran Jason Babin, who has collected 45 sacks over the last four seasons, to the mix early in training camp.
The issues come in the secondary. Cornerback Dee Milliner looked lost at times last year as a rookie and could miss the season opener due to a high ankle sprain. Cromartie, battling a hip injury, couldn’t defend deep balls. The Jets failed to land an elite free agent corner to replace him. They got only Dimitri Patterson, who will be 31 this season and has never proven himself as a consistent starter.
The Jets need to hope their safeties — and Pryor in particular — can cover up for their corners. Pryor’s ability to hit and stop the run is unassailable. But can he cover slot receivers and tight ends in the NFL? The Jets had better hope so. Pryor will likely challenge Antonio Allen — a seventh-round pick in 2012 — for a starting spot. Allen also had to learn cover skills in the NFL, since he was an outside linebacker in college.
Like Smith, Milliner is under tremendous pressure in Year 2 to live up to his potential. Milliner is now the No. 1 corner. He will get the toughest assignments. He closed strong last year and was named NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month for December. The Jets need him to keep it up.
The Jets bring back both kicker Nick Folk and punter Ryan Quigley. Folk benefited last season from a lighter midweek workload during practice. Under the Jets’ previous special teams coordinator, Mike Westhoff, Folk was required to kick far more often during the week than he would have liked. Westhoff retired after the 2012 season, and Folk cut back his kicking under 2013 coordinator Ben Kotwica. Folk had the best season of his career in 2013, as he made 91.7 percent of his kicks. Kotwica left during the offseason to take a special teams coordinator job with the Redskins, and the Jets replaced him with Thomas McGaughey. Expect Folk’s lighter routine to continue under McGaughey.
Between free agency and the draft, the Jets gave McGaughey plenty of special teams speed. Jacoby Ford, a free-agent receiver, figures to be the new return man. A couple of undersized drafted players — receiver Jalen Saunders and inside linebacker Jeremiah George — could become immediate contributors on coverage units. The Jets struggled in that area last year. They ranked 27th in the NFL in average punt return yards allowed.
This is not a Super Bowl contender, and the roster does not even seem as talented as Ryan’s first two Jets teams, which made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in 2009 and 2010. But these Jets don’t need to reach the doorstep of the Super Bowl to help Ryan’s job security. Making the playoffs alone would be a start.
It won’t be easy. From Weeks 2-7, the Jets face six brutally efficient passing offenses — Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit, San Diego, Denver and New England. Last season, those teams ranked sixth, fifth, third, fourth, first and 10th in the NFL in passing yards, respectively.
If the offense isn’t clicking early in the season — since it might have to score a bunch of points to win those games — the Jets could be out of the playoff race by the time they reach their bye in Week 11. But if Smith, Decker and Johnson prove to be a successful combination, look for the Jets to battle for a playoff spot well into December.