After three straight dismal seasons that produced a combined 14 wins, 2019 is a critical year for the Jets, a point already driven home by the surprising mid-May firing of general manager Mike Maccagnan. The move made it clear that the Jets are fully committed to first-year head coach Adam Gase, who was hired in part for his track record in helping quarterbacks succeed.
But while much of the focus will be on second-year signal-caller Sam Darnold, Maccagnan did give him some help by adding big-ticket free agents such as running back Le’Veon Bell and inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. Maccagnan may be gone but the expectations that the Jets will improve remain. Does that mean they can reach the playoffs for the first time since 2010?
The big story is Darnold. The No. 3 overall pick in 2018 worked this offseason on quieting his feet in the pocket. He believes this will be a big key to improving his accuracy and results in 2019. (He finished his rookie year 31st in the NFL in quarterback rating.) “Just calm down a little bit in the pocket,” Darnold says of his offseason goal.
After Darnold missed three games due to a foot injury, he returned and performed well in the season’s final four games, during which he had six touchdowns, one interception and a 99.1 rating. Now, can he build on that? He’ll certainly have more help.
The Jets gave Bell $52.5 million over four years, including $27 million guaranteed. Based on his track record, expect Bell to help Darnold almost as much in the passing game (as a check-down option) as he does in the running game.
Slot receiver Jamison Crowder was a less-hyped free agency addition, but in Gase’s offense the slot receiver plays an important role. Crowder, who has caught at least 59 passes in each season he has played at least 15 games, and second-year tight end Chris Herndon could both be valuable assets for Darnold out of the slot.
Crowder’s arrival is nice, but if Robby Anderson doesn’t prove to be more than a deep threat and Quincy Enunwa doesn’t stay healthy (both uncertainties), it’ll be a down year for the Jets’ receiving group. Anderson caught 50 passes for 752 yards and six scores while missing two games in his third season in the league. He has averaged just around 15.0 yards per reception in each of the last two seasons. Enunwa missed five games and saw his receptions dip from 58 in 2017 to 38 last season.
The Jets’ offensive line was a mess last season, largely because of center Spencer Long’s struggles. The Jets rolled the dice by not making a big-splash addition to replace him. Instead, they’ll go with Jonotthan Harrison, who played well after replacing Long last season but is unproven over the long haul. The Jets hope left guard Kelechi Osemele — who arrived via a trade with Oakland and should be a major upgrade over James Carpenter — can steer things on the interior of the line. Still, the line remains a large question mark for this offense.
And fixing an offense that finished last season 28th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA ratings is the top priority for Gase. That’s why the Jets hired him. That, and to develop Darnold. Is Gase, who failed in Miami, up to the task?
If Darnold is the star of the Jets’ offense, you could make the case that fiery coordinator Gregg Williams is the star of their defense. Yes, that’s how much Jets fans are expecting out of Williams, as he takes over a defense that finished 21st in DVOA last year.
The major questions for Williams start up front. How is he going to establish a pass rush without an elite edge rusher? Jordan Jenkins, Brandon Copeland and rookie Jachai Polite don’t exactly qualify for that title.
Williams must hope rookie defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, the third overall pick, can push the pocket from the middle and free up Leonard Williams from double teams.
But here’s the thing: If the Jets’ secondary can’t cover, it won’t really matter how effective the pass rush is. Along with center and edge rusher, the Jets also still have significant uncertainty at the outside cornerback spot opposite Trumaine Johnson. They let Morris Claiborne walk in free agency. And, much like center, they promoted a backup (Darryl Roberts) to replace him.
Then again, after Johnson’s brutal debut as the Jets’ big-money cornerback in 2018, maybe they should be more worried about him. The Jets are hoping Johnson’s reunion with Gregg Williams boosts his production. Williams was the coordinator for four of Johnson’s six seasons with the Rams (2012, 2014-16). He helped mold Johnson, who was a rookie in 2012.
While edge pass rush and back-end coverage are two notable issues for the Jets’ defense, their two biggest leaders — Mosley (a highly respected veteran) and safety Jamal Adams (a vocal, blossoming star) — should provide some stability. The Jets consider Mosley one of the NFL’s best leaders. They believe he has the ability to transform a young locker room. (They guaranteed him $51 million to do that and more.) Adams appears on his way to being a perennial Pro Bowler.
Mosley’s arrival as the middle linebacker will push Avery Williamson to the weak-side role — and push former first-round pick Darron Lee (a weak-side linebacker) to backup duty (though the Jets could also trade him).
The Jets made a couple questionable free agency decisions on special teams, as they let returner Andre Roberts and kicker Jason Myers walk. Both were Pro Bowlers last season. The Jets brought back Chandler Catanzaro, their kicker in 2017, to replace Myers. But they still have a hole at returner. The job is open entering training camp. Second-year running back Trenton Cannon appears the leading candidate. But he needs to demonstrate better ball security than he did last year in training camp, when fumbles cost him a job that Roberts seized and held all year.
Special teams coordinator Brant Boyer deserves credit for an impressive turnaround last season, when the Jets finished first in special teams DVOA, compared to 25th in 2017. With two key pieces (Myers and Roberts) gone in 2019, Boyer faces a big challenge to replicate that success.
The Jets still have holes. But they made enough improvements in free agency this offseason — or threw enough money around, at least — to expect much better than 4–12 in 2019. (In terms of the draft, Quinnen Williams is their only sure-thing, immediate-impact pick.)
Maccagnan’s lackluster mid-round drafting has left this roster still not really looking like a serious playoff contender. But the Jets hope a better coaching staff will mean that a couple of last season’s close, agonizing losses will go the other way this season.
Gase is a definite upgrade over offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, whom players openly criticized after last season. And former head coach Todd Bowles never proved to be much of a defensive wizard. Will Gregg Williams live up to his reputation for being just that?
Expect the Jets to at least be in the mix for a playoff spot in November, especially if they can survive a brutal early schedule that includes the Browns, Eagles, Cowboys and Patriots (twice) in the first six games. An AFC East title might not happen for Gase in Year 1, but it’s not unreasonable to expect him to challenge for a wild card spot.
Prediction: 2nd in AFC East
(Top photo courtesy of www.newyorkjets.com)