After a 2017 season in which the Jets played with a stripped-down roster -- and won five games for the second consecutive year -- they need to start showing some progress in 2018. No, they don’t have to make the playoffs in order for coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan to keep their jobs. Acting owner Christopher Johnson has already said that. But they need to demonstrate that their rebuilding process is producing tangible results. And they better prove they can develop a quarterback -- long a problem for the Jets.
The Jets were thrilled when Sam Darnold fell to them at No. 3 in the NFL Draft. Now, it’s time to see if Darnold can make good on the hype in 2018. Darnold challenging for the starting job -- and if he doesn’t win it, the speculation about when he could start -- will be the primary storyline for the Jets this season.
This team hasn’t reached the playoffs since 2010. But now, the Jets believe they have a player in Darnold who could be an answer to their lengthy search for a franchise QB.
Darnold, whenever he plays, should be a good fit for the offense under new coordinator Jeremy Bates, presuming Bates uses a similar West Coast approach to what John Morton employed last season. Darnold has the touch and accuracy on his short- and mid-range timing throws that the Jets need. But can he eradicate the turnover issues he struggled with last season at USC? If Darnold isn’t ready, the Jets have a perfectly acceptable starter in Josh McCown, who started last year and is familiar with Bates. The Jets made a modest investment ($500,000 guaranteed) in Teddy Bridgewater, so they can cut him if his surgically repaired knee isn’t up to par. The knee injury he sustained in 2016 training camp was so serious that he hasn’t played in essentially two years. And the Jets are rightly skeptical about whether he can return to his previous form.
A major problem for the Jets last season was their offensive line. They allowed 47 sacks, tied for seventh most in the NFL. But they fixed a couple issues in the offseason. They let underwhelming center Wesley Johnson leave in free agency and replaced him with Spencer Long, who should be an upgrade. And right guard Brian Winters is healthy -- following surgery -- after he played most of last season with a torn abdominal muscle.
The Jets still lack a game-breaking running back and true No. 1 receiver, but they can perhaps get by with committee approaches at those positions. Running back Bilal Powell is going on 30, but he gives the Jets versatility, as a runner and pass catcher. Over the past two seasons, Powell has rushed for a total of 1,494 yards on a healthy 4.8-yard average and caught 81 passes for 558 yards. The Jets signed Isaiah Crowell in free agency, and he should complement Powell nicely. Crowell has started all 16 games in each of the last two seasons, with a total of 1,805 yards for two bad (obviously) Browns teams.
The biggest question for the Jets’ receivers is whether Quincy Enunwa can return to form after missing 2017 with a neck injury. He and Robby Anderson both have the ability to be No. 1 receivers, but neither has yet proved it over the long haul. Terrelle Pryor, a free-agent pickup, gives the Jets a big-bodied target in the red zone. And that type of target could be important for the Jets’ receivers because their tight ends are so unproven, after Austin Seferian-Jenkins left for the Jaguars. The Jets will essentially have two rookies leading that position -- Jordan Leggett and Chris Herndon (a true rookie). The Jets drafted Leggett last year, but he missed the entire 2017 season with a knee injury.
The Jets’ secondary was average at best in 2017. Ditto for the Jets’ entire defense, which finished 18th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings. But the team’s big-ticket free-agent acquisition, Trumaine Johnson, gives them a true No. 1 corner who could change the face of their defense.
Johnson, who comes to New York after six seasons with the Rams, has the size and physicality to thrive in Bowles’ defense, which requires corners to play press man-to-man coverage with regularity. Johnson’s presence also will take some pressure off Morris Claiborne, who isn’t a No. 1 corner but had to play that role last season. The Jets need slot cornerback Buster Skrine to cut down on his penalties. If he can, this should be a much-improved secondary.
The pass rush could be another issue, since the Jets didn’t do a ton to fix it in the offseason. They finished 28th in the NFL in sack percentage last season. Leonard Williams is a prodigious defensive end, but he needs to improve his first step in order to turn quarterback hits into sacks. Last season, he had 25 quarterback hits but just two sacks.
Another pass-rushing issue for the Jets is whether they can keep offensive lines honest and prevent them from double-teaming Williams. The Jets didn’t sign a big-name pass rusher to play opposite Williams. Instead, they’re taking the committee approach here, too, with veterans Xavier Cooper and Henry Anderson as well as rookies Nathan Shepherd and Foley Fatukasi. Will that be enough to free up Williams? This remains a large question for the Jets.
They also need Jordan Jenkins, a capable run-stopping outside linebacker, to give them more as a pass rusher. This is a big Year 3 coming up for Jenkins, a former third-round pick.
Middle linebacker is often an overlooked part of a defense these days, but Demario Davis very quietly had an excellent 2017 season with a career-best five sacks. The Jets didn’t want to meet his asking price, and he signed with the Saints. Davis’ replacement, former Tennessee Titan Avery Williamson, is three years younger, but he’ll have to learn Bowles’ defense quickly. Plus, there are questions about Williamson’s coverage skills, which will put pressure on the Jets’ other inside linebacker, former first-round pick Darron Lee, to finally show he can be a more effective coverage linebacker -- and a more disruptive defender.
Expect safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye to continue to progress -- especially with pre-snap reads -- in Year 2 after both impressed as rookies last year. They look like future stars, but both are still learning on the job.
Getting a more consistent pass rush and steadier cornerback play are the two biggest issues for this defense.
Three spots -- kicker, punter and long snapper -- are pretty secure. Expect Cairo Santos, coming off a nagging groin injury, to be the kicker as long as remains healthy. Lachlan Edwards has big upside as he enters Year 3 punting for the Jets. And Thomas Hennessy returns as the long snapper.
The return jobs should be interesting to follow. The Jets drafted a shifty running back from Division II Virginia State in the sixth round -- Trenton Cannon -- and they’re going to give him every opportunity to beat out veterans Andre Roberts and Lucky Whitehead for the return jobs. The Jets they haven’t had a dynamic returner since Leon Washington in 2008. Could Cannon break that drought?
What would represent adequate progress for this Jets team as the rebuilding process continues? Would six wins be enough for Bowles and Maccagnan to stick around? That is debatable. More important than wins, however, could be the development of Darnold at quarterback. He doesn’t have to be the Week 1 starter. But he has to demonstrate some growth in whatever action he gets. And maybe he doesn’t get the starting job until just after midseason, like Jared Goff with the Rams in 2016. There would be nothing wrong with that, as long as he looks like he belongs by the end of the season. And if he belongs, then it’s safe to say that his coach will be back for a fifth season.
Prediction: 4th in AFC East
(Top photo courtesy of www.newyorkjets.com)