Geno Smith has the upper hand in the Jets’ QB competition. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Breaking news from Cortland, N.Y.: Rex Ryan is confident. OK, OK, so that doesn’t actually surprise anybody. But here’s the thing, the Jets coach feels much better about this team than he did a year ago. And last year, he managed to coach an unproven roster to an 8-8 record. “Last year, we had seven new starters on offense, seven new starters on defense, a new punter and 11 new coaches,” Ryan said. “I mean, I was confident, but it was like, ‘Whoa, I don’t even know these guys!’ ” That was an honest admission from a coach who is usually bullish on his teams. He has some key new pieces for the team’s yearly pilgrimage to SUNY-Cortland—Chris Johnson, Eric Decker and Michael Vick—but expectations are now higher in Year 2 of the rebuilding process under new general manager John Idzik.
One vivid memory from watching practice
It was just one practice, but Tuesday’s session was an unflattering snapshot of the Jets’ offense. Consider this one stretch of plays between the starting units in team drills: broken-up pass, false-start penalty, sack, running back stuffed for no gain. The defense is usually ahead of the offense this early in training camp, but there’s also a sense of déjà vu as the Jets are trying yet again to make a quarterback situation work, and therefore willing yet again to dip back into the Wildcat portion of the playbook to try to manufacture offense.
How this team can go 12–4
Geno Smith would have to take a huge step forward to improve upon his 12-touchdown, 21-interception rookie year. The team got an insurance policy in Michael Vick, but this is Smith’s job to lose, and the organization doesn’t want him to lose it. Smith was wildly inconsistent as a rookie (his passer ratings ranged from 8.3 to 147.7) but a stronger finish in December gave the team hope. Part of his improvement was learning when and how to run (186 of his 366 rushing yards came in the last four games), and it’s an asset he needs to use. The Jets would also need the common ingredient found in each of Rex Ryan’s two playoff teams: A dominant defense that ranks among the league’s top five.
How this team can go 4–12
The defense fails. Rex Ryan’s defenses (ranked No. 1, 3, 5, 8, and 11 in his first five seasons as Jets coach) have been able to cover up the team’s warts. If that were no longer the case, a four-win season or worse could happen. This year’s unit is built differently than in years past—instead of being led by a shutdown cornerback, the strength has shifted up front—which will require an adjustment in how Ryan schemes. The young faces in the front seven, such as Muhammad Wilkerson and Demario Davis, understand how much is riding on them. “It seems like guys are starting to get it, but we’ve still got a long way to go,” Davis said. “Guys have got to be able to understand that you can say you want to be a great defense, but greatness doesn’t just happen. Greatness is doing the little, small things every day. We’ve got six, seven guys in there watching extra film together. But we need even more than that.”
Now, from fantasyland …
1. Don’t worry about the knee or if there’ll be a rotation at running back: draft Chris Johnson.
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2. Don’t count on Eric Decker matching last season’s 1,288-yard, 11-touchdown performance in Denver. A run-first offense led by a second-year quarterback doesn’t lend itself to gaudy receiver stats, but as the team’s primary target, he should be a mid-round pick.
3. Jace Amaro, the Jets’ new 6-foot-5 tight end, has enormous potential as a red zone target. But the second-round pick is still learning the Jets’ offense and at times looked lost, running wrong routes. Could be a while before he makes an impact.
How I project the lineup, with competitive spots in bold:
Jeff Cumberland / Jace Amaro
Stephen Hill / David Nelson
Geno Smith / Michael Vick
Antonio Allen / Calvin Pryor
Dawan Landry / Calvin Pryor
The division of first-team reps in Tuesday’s practice was par for the course in the quarterback competition: Geno Smith 15, Michael Vick 4. ... If the Jets had their way, Stephen Hill, whom they traded up for in the second round of the 2012 draft, would be a sure starter, but he’s competing with David Nelson. … Three guys are competing for two starting safety spots (which are interchangeable in the Jets’ system). First-round pick Calvin Pryor figures to start alongside either Antonio Allen or Dawan Landry.
Best new player in camp
For receivers, changing teams as a free agent makes it hard to duplicate stats from seasons past—especially when a receiver is no longer catching passes from Peyton Manning. But Eric Decker gives the Jets an anchor that the receiving corps desperately needs. He’s well aware of the challenge that comes with a new team and a new offense, one led by a second-year quarterback no less. “Anquan Boldin is a guy I’ve watched,” Decker said. “He’s been successful [going] from Arizona to Baltimore and now to San Francisco. What stands out to me is his work ethic and his style of play. If you can build trust with the quarterback, and you can run good routes, you can fit in with a team.” So each day, Decker stays late with the rookie receivers and both quarterbacks to get in extra reps. On Tuesday, they worked on post routes and stop routes after practice. He also hopes the route-running ability he mastered under Manning—precise, consistent and smart—rubs off on his younger teammates.
Strong opinion that I may regret by November
Chris Johnson will be one of the league’s top five running backs this season. The Jets want to run, a lot, and Johnson (when healthy) adds the element of breakaway speed that this offense has sorely lacked. His production dipped last season; notably, his 3.9 yards per carry was the lowest season average of his NFL career. But Johnson also said that he couldn’t really make lateral moves after tearing his meniscus in Week 3, and he still rushed for 1,077 yards.
Something I’ve never seen before
This training camp feels like the quietest one yet in Rex Ryan’s six seasons with the Jets. The chilly and rainy weather may have turned some fans away, but the crowds during my visit were smaller and less rowdy than the ones I saw in years past, which has made for quiet morning practices. Maybe that’s a good thing.
What I thought when I walked out of camp
This squad feels very similar to many of Rex Ryan’s teams during his Jets tenure: They have a defense that can win them games, and an offense that they hope won’t lose games. Ryan has a roster that is better than last season’s, but what’s most important is the answer to this question: How much better is Geno Smith going to be?