Sam Darnold and the Jets look to turn around one of the NFL's worst offenses
Will this finally be the year the Jets actually look competent? Head coach Adam Gase’s job could depend on it. He has a third-year quarterback, Sam Darnold. And Gase was hired to mold Darnold. If the Jets and especially Darnold don’t show progress in 2020, Gase could be a goner.
He started 1-7 last season but managed to finish 7-9. Acting owner Christopher Johnson will (and should) expect Gase to at least challenge for a playoff spot in 2020, particularly with the playoffs expanding by one wild card team in each conference.
The Jets haven’t reached the playoffs since 2010. They have six losing seasons since then, including each of the past four years. The Jets, for all their failings, hadn’t had four straight losing seasons since 1962-65. Their current, nine-season playoff drought is the second-longest in team history, behind an 11-season drought from 1970-80.
Time for all that to change — or there might be more changes up top.
The biggest question for this offense: Does Darnold have enough protection and playmakers? After losing wide receiver Robby Anderson in free agency to the Panthers, the Jets need newcomer Breshad Perriman to replicate the deep-threat presence that Anderson provided. Second-round draft pick Denzel Mims also has big-play potential, and he could challenge Perriman for the No. 2 receiver job behind Jamison Crowder. Beyond that trio, the Jets lack proven options at receiver. So Darnold will need Crowder, Perriman and Mims to stay healthy. In May, wide receiver Quincy Enunwa was placed on the PUP list for the season after doctors determined his neck had not healed from the injury he suffered in 2019. His football future is in question.
This will be $27 million running back Le’Veon Bell’s final season with the Jets if his production doesn’t improve. No more excuses about an awful offensive line. (That was a legit excuse last year.) The Jets upgraded the interior of their line in free agency — center Connor McGovern, offensive guard Greg Van Roten — so they ought to be able to get a better push for Bell.
The Jets took offensive tackle Mekhi Becton 11th overall in this year’s draft. And he’s going to start immediately, either on the left side (where he would battle newcomer George Fant) or on the right (replacing second-year pro Chuma Edoga). Yes, Becton is a bit of a project, but his massive frame (6'7", 364 pounds) alone gives him star potential.
No, Darnold doesn’t have a perfect playmaker or line situation. So he also needs to do his part. The jury is still out on whether he’s a legit franchise quarterback. His stats through 26 starts: 36 touchdowns, 28 interceptions and an 81.1 rating. This needs to be a springboard season for him, a year in which he consistently makes better decisions, especially under duress. The Jets signed Joe Flacco to be Darnold’s backup. This was an important move for Gase and Co., because Darnold missed three games in each of his first two seasons — and the Jets went 0-6 in those games, compared to 11-15 when he started. So they needed a backup they could count on. And presuming Flacco can recover from offseason neck surgery, he will fill that role.
Gase now has more to work with. That much is clear. He came to the Jets with a reputation for being an offensive guru. But that didn’t exactly show up last season, when the Jets finished 31st in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA ratings.
Roster-building work clearly remains for general manager Joe Douglas. His predecessor, Mike Maccagnan, didn’t leave Douglas with much, especially on offense. But there’s no reason the Jets’ offense should be as terrible as it was last season.
Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams earned his paycheck in a big way last season, as the Jets finished 10th in defensive DVOA. So Jets fans should have high hopes for what Williams can do in 2020 with a more complete group of players. Except that won't be the case.
C.J. Mosley and Jamal Adams were expected to be the anchors but neither will be a part of the team this season. Moseley, who was limited to two games in 2019 by a groin injury, decided to opt out due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Before that, Adams was traded to Seattle.
So not only does Williams have those two holes to address, edge rusher also remains an issue, as it has been since the Jets traded John Abraham after the 2005 season. Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins returns on a one-year contract, but he’s probably better as an edge-setting run stopper than he is as a pass rusher. It appears the same could be true of third-round pick Jabari Zuniga, presuming he transitions to 3-4 outside linebacker.
Last year’s first-round pick, defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, has to be more disruptive. Last season, he ranked 55th among interior defensive linemen in Pro Football Focus’ pass-rushing ratings. So much for him helping the Jets get push up the middle.
Moseley was expected to be the glue that holds this defense together, but now even more pressure falls to veteran Avery Williams and former Raven Patrick Onwuasor as the options behind them are unproven.
Adams, a first-team All-Pro selection last year, repeatedly expressed his displeasure with his contract and basically wore out his welcome after making unflattering comments about his now-former head coach. The Jets traded the disgruntled defensive back right before the start of training camp for a package highlighted by a pair of first-round picks. New York also received a third-round choice in 2021 and veteran safety Bradley McDougald with the Seahawks also getting a fourth-round pick in 2022. Adams' contract negotiations are now Seattle's problem but the Jets are left with a secondary that looks even murkier than before the trade.
McDougald will take Adams' spot at strong safety while Cornerback Pierre Desir arrives from the Colts. He's looking to bounce back after getting cut following a down season. He’ll have to show he can be a true No. 1 corner, especially in press man-to-man coverage, which Williams likes to use. The Colts played a lot of zone coverage.
Maybe the biggest question for this defense: Who is the other outside corner? During the draft, the Jets traded with the Colts for former second-round corner Quincy Wilson — another guy who had a down 2019 season in Indianapolis. He’ll have a good shot to land the starting job.
Free safety Marcus Maye is the most quietly intriguing player on this defense as he enters a contract year. He was healthy and played a full season in 2019. If he repeats his production, he could be on his way to big money. Though Maye was overshadowed by Adams, he still ranked 14th among safeties, per PFF, including 15th against the run and 14th in coverage.
The Jets will need Maye to be a linchpin of their pass defense, with Adams gone and so many questions at cornerback, even with Brian Poole returning as the slot corner.
The Jets added an intriguing punter in Round 6 — Texas A&M’s Braden Mann, the 2018 Ray Guy Award winner as college football’s best punter. He replaces Lachlan Edwards, whom the Jets let walk in free agency. Edwards was 15th in the NFL in yards per punt last season.
Sam Ficken will have to fight for the kicking job after he made 19-of-27 field goals last season and missed three extra points. The Jets’ offense doesn’t have that kind of margin for error. Ficken ranked 30th in the NFL last year in field-goal percentage (70.4).
The return jobs are also up for grabs, even though punt returner Braxton Berrios ranked second in the league last season in yards per return (11.4). Vyncint Smith will probably be the initial leader for the kickoff return job, but that can change quickly.
The Jets should be better. But how much better? And with their tough schedule, will it translate to more wins? This feels like an 8-8 or 9-7 team. The roster just isn’t completely there yet and it will be hard for the defense to overcome the absence of Moseley and Adams. Also, the trade of Adams was all about building for the future rather than just getting rid of an unhappy camper. As for 2020, now even more of the team's fortunes hinges on Darnold’s health and progress. The Jets absolutely need both. Yes, the AFC East has opened up with Tom Brady’s departure. But the Bills are improving, too, with promising young quarterback Josh Allen.
And remember that the Jets have to play the 49ers, Seahawks, Rams, Colts and Chiefs in 2020. They have the NFL’s second-toughest schedule. So there’s a chance the Jets will have to go through another coaching search in 2021.