Jets need major upgrades in passing game to return to respectability
While it’s not as simple as overhauling the front office, coaching staff and secondary, the Jets this offseason made plenty of moves in the right direction as they try to put last season’s 4–12 misery behind them. New GM Mike Maccagnan was aggressive in free agency, as he upgraded the Jets’ beleaguered defensive backfield. So far, new head coach Todd Bowles has brought a more businesslike approach to the organization than his predecessor, Rex Ryan.
The Jets did some great things under Ryan. They made the AFC Championship Game in each of his first two seasons, 2009 and 2010. But they haven’t made the playoffs since, and they are 26–38 during this four-year slide, with zero winning records.
But there’s still a nagging question surrounding this team: For as promising as the Jets’ new secondary looks, their quarterback situation is still a giant question mark. Can they overcome that and be a legitimate factor in 2015?
The Jets should be able to run the ball. That hasn’t been an issue in recent seasons. Power running back Chris Ivory is still around. He has rushed for 833 and 821 yards, respectively, in his two seasons with the team. And the Jets added Stevan Ridley in free agency, though you have to wonder if he can return to his old form after last season’s torn ACL and MCL. The Jets still lack a back with breakaway speed.
A bigger issue for this team is the passing game. The past three seasons, the Jets ranked 32nd, 31st and 30th in the NFL in passing offense. Nowhere to go but up, right? In two seasons, quarterback Geno Smith has 41 turnovers, including 34 interceptions. It is time for him to take a step forward with his decision-making in 2015.
The Jets traded for Ryan Fitzpatrick in the offseason, and he will compete for the starting job with Smith. Fitzpatrick is competent enough, but if he beats out Smith in training camp — or replaces him during the season — the Jets will be in the market for a quarterback after this season, as they will almost certainly dump Smith.
Trading for Brandon Marshall this offseason gives the Jets a big-bodied wide receiver who can be a red-zone threat, even if he isn’t as effective overall as he was earlier in his career. Marshall had a streak of seven straight seasons with at least 1,000 yards receiving snapped last fall. The Jets have been pitiful in the red zone recently, ranking 32nd, 27th and 25th in the NFL the past three seasons in red-zone efficiency.
The Jets’ second-round draft pick, Ohio State’s Devin Smith, is a deep-threat receiver, and maybe nothing more. But he could help stretch the field and force defenses to play more honest coverage against Marshall and Eric Decker.
The secondary was, by far, the Jets’ biggest defensive shortcoming last season. Maccagnan went out and signed two new cornerbacks — familiar faces Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie — and acquired a free safety, Marcus Gilchrist. The latter should allow second-year pro Calvin Pryor (last year’s first-round pick) to play closer to the line of scrimmage as a strong safety, where he is most comfortable. Maccagnan also signed corner Buster Skrine in free agency.
Between the revamped secondary and the already strong defensive line, the Jets have a chance to be one of the NFL’s top defenses. Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson are two of the league’s best young defensive linemen. Then the Jets saw USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams (maybe the best overall player in the draft) fall into their lap with the No. 6 pick, which creates an issue for Bowles: How does he deploy all these linemen? It’s a good problem to have, especially since Richardson is suspended the first four games for a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy.
A bigger issue for the Jets comes at the edge rusher/outside linebacker spot in their 3-4 defense. Strong-side linebacker Calvin Pace turns 35 in October. Backup rush linebacker Jason Babin, a pass-rushing specialist, is already 35. The Jets would love for Quinton Coples, their 2012 first-round pick, to develop as a rush linebacker. But he has disappointed so far in his career. He has 16.5 sacks in three seasons, with a high of 6.5 last fall.
The Jets’ defense wasn’t terrible last season under Ryan. The unit finished sixth in the league in yards allowed but was 24th in points allowed and 26th in red-zone defense. Having a better secondary — and a dominant corner like Revis — should help improve those latter two stats.
Nick Folk is back as the Jets’ kicker and Ryan Quigley returns as the punter. This will be Folk’s sixth year with the Jets, and Quigley’s third season. Folk wasn’t as good last season (32-of-39 on field goals) as he was in 2013 (33-of-36), though three of his misses last season came on kicks of 50 yards or longer. Quigley last season ranked 14th in the NFL (45.9-yard average), after ranking 17th in 2013 (45.5).
Worth noting: The Jets this season will have a different special teams coach for the fourth straight year, as longtime special teams coach Bobby April arrives, following Thomas McGaughey, Ben Kotwica and Mike Westhoff, a special teams coaching pioneer. Receiver Jeremy Kerley seems likely to return punts again, though the Jets have options there, just as they do at the kickoff return spot. It will be interesting to see if they give Smith, their blazing-fast rookie receiver, a shot on kickoff returns. He dabbled in them during his time at Ohio State.
You can’t win in today’s NFL unless you have at least competent quarterback play. And there have been plenty of times over the past two seasons when Smith has looked totally incompetent under center. In fact, it’s been a long time since the organization has enjoyed steady, reliable play at the most important position on the field.
So that’s what it boils down to for these Jets: Unless Smith takes a step forward in 2015, or Fitzpatrick performs well as his replacement, it’s hard to envision this team being anything better than average.
Yes, the defense has a chance to be elite, with stars such as Revis and Wilkerson and Richardson. Yes, the Jets should be able to run the ball well, presuming their aging — but still not yet crumbling — offensive line holds up. But without a better passing game, the Jets will probably hover around 7–9 to 9–7. The latter wouldn’t be all that bad for a team coming off 4–12 with a rookie head coach. Either way, look for the Jets to be in the hunt for a playoff spot entering December. This team isn’t going to start 1–8 like last year’s group did.
Keep an eye on the final three games, though — at Dallas, home against New England and at Buffalo. With a playoff spot potentially on the line, those challenges could prove too daunting for a team in transition.