NFL Training Camp Snapshot 2013: New York Jets
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It's easy to imagine New York Jets head coach Rex Ryan saying to people, Troy McClure style, "You may remember me from the Jets' two AFC Championship Game losses in the 2009 and '10 seasons." Since those first two seasons of Ryan's career in the Meadowlands, which did indeed end fairly successfully, the Jets have unraveled loudly and spectacularly. A great and interesting team once built on a power run game and constricting defense has become a team that can't get out of its own way -- on or off the field.
In 2012, Ryan's team won just six games, and quarterback Mark Sanchez was the league's worst starter at his position, per Football Outsiders' metrics. That formerly top-tier defense looked disturbingly mediocre at times and lost its most talented player in the offseason. The rushing attack was an afterthought, because the quarterback wasn't a threat to do anything but famously run into the rear end of his own right guard and fumble the ball.
The Jets have a new general manager in John Idzik, and one of the first things Idzik did was engage in discussions about the future of cornerback Darrelle Revis that turned contentious, and ended with the Jets trading Revis to Tampa Bay. Now without their best player, and with noise swirling them as usual, the Jets must find ways to get past the ancillary distractions and win some football games. That may not be as easy a task as Ryan would like.
• Biggest storyline: Who will wrest defeat from the jaws of victory in the Jets' QB battle?
The Jets are stuck with Sanchez through this season because of the contract extension signed in March of 2012 that guarantees him $8.25 million this year. Sanchez has not proven that he can be an upper-echelon starter at any point in his career, and we've all seen the lowlights. He needs everything around him to go well to succeed, and even when it does, Sanchez can't make it happen half the time.
Seemingly aware of this now, the Jets selected West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith in the second round of the 2013 draft. Ryan has declared an open competition, and there's no clear winner at this point, according to all available sources. Smith has been limited by an ankle injury, and Sanchez has thrown two embarrassing interceptions in the Jets' two preseason games -- an ill-advised screen pass into the waiting arms of Detroit Lions rookie defensive end Ziggy Ansah, and a red-zone pick to Jacksonville Jaguars veteran cornerback Marcus Trufant. Smith will start against the Giants this Saturday, and as long as he plays decently, one wonders how he doesn't win the starting job. In the end, the Jets know what they have in Sanchez. It's clearly time for new blood.
• Most intriguing position battle: (Backup) outside linebacker.
Oh, you want an intriguing position battle? The Jets lost 2012 first-round pick Quinton Coples for an indefinite amount of time to a fractured ankle, and that leaves backups Antwan Barnes and Garrett McIntyre to compete for that spot in Coples' place opposite veteran Calvin Pace. Barnes had an outlier season in 2011, when he amassed 11 sacks for the San Diego Chargers, but he had three last season in 11 games. McIntyre is a third-year undrafted player who put up 3.5 sacks for the Jets last year. The Jets were planning to use Coples this year as a very large (285-pound) "endbacker," but he'll have to wait to start that transition from defensive end.
• New face, new place: Running back Chris Ivory.
Ivory was lost to an extent in the New Orleans Saints' cadre of backs, but while there he showed the kind of power and burst that would seem to make him a real asset to any offense determined to attack the line of scrimmage with consistency. The Jets signed Ivory to a three-year, $6 million contract in April, and if he can stay healthy (a rather large caveat, as there's a long injury history here), Ivory is the ideal type of back for a Ryan team. The Jets would like Ivory to be an every-down back, but they'll probably settle for running him in a committee with Bilal Powell, who leads the team in rushing this preseason.
• Impact rookie: Defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson.
Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner will get most of the press because he's been tagged to replace Revis, but of all the Jets' draft picks, Richardson impressed me the most with his college tape. Few defensive linemen were more effectively versatile in this draft class, and Richardson may be the best overall gap penetrator -- he has a marvelous ability to "get skinny" and knife through double teams.
The Jets plan to use the Missouri product all over their two-gap fronts -- as Richardson recently told the team's official site, “A little end, a little three tech[nique], a little nose, shade, all that… The only thing I haven’t done yet is play rush, so I pretty much have my hand in the dirt.”
Richardson has gained a few pounds to help him win those battles at the NFL level, but he's already got the pursuit idea sewn up, and he could be a very special player in this system.
• Looking at the schedule: Per Football Outsiders' Projected Average Opponent metric, the Jets have the 12th-toughest schedule in the NFL this year, and the first half of the season is especially vexing. After a home opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ryan's team heads to Foxboro and Tennessee, with a road game against the Bills in-between. Then, a five-game bruiser before their Nov. 10 bye -- at Atlanta, home against Pittsburgh and New England, at Cincinnati, and home against the Saints. After that much-needed week off, things get a little easier in the abstract -- there are games at Buffalo and Baltimore, then homers against the Dolphins and Raiders. The Jets end their season with trips to see the Panthers and Dolphins, and a home finale against the Browns in the middle.