WATCH: Top four Jets roster battles as cutdown day looms
The final slate of preseason games are usually a tough sell for even the most avid football fans. Though hardly a watchable product, the game will determine the fates of hundreds of players across the league.
As is the case with all teams, the Jets will have some tough decisions to make in the coming days, as they prepare to trim the roster to 53 players by the league-mandated 4 p.m. deadline on Saturday.
I've highlighted four roster battles to watch:
In what has become arguably the most important preseason battle, the winner of the Neville Hewitt-Blake Cashman competition will be decided later this week. Hewitt, 26, is the clubhouse favorite, and rightfully so.
The fifth-year linebacker has appeared in 54 career games, including 11 starts. Starting four games for the Jets last year, Hewitt proved to be a smart, instinctual player that consistently put himself in position to make plays. His relentless flow to the football stems from his ability to react and disengage from blocks with efficient hand usage.
Cashman is a vastly different player from Hewitt. The rookie fifth-round pick fits the mold of the modern NFL linebacker. The Minnesota standout excels in space and demonstrates exceptional lateral agility when moving sideline to sideline. Regarded as more of a coverage specialist at this stage of his career, a prominent role in sub-packages may be what's best for Cashman in the early going.
My verdict: Hewitt has the experience and ability to be a three-down player for the Jets. While I anticipate Cashman having a more significant role as the season wears on, the experience that Hewitt provides will be invaluable to a young Jets defense.
Backup running back
On Thursday night, the Jets' backfield will belong to reserve runners Trenton Cannon and Elijah McGuire. While not ruling out the possibility that veteran Bilal Powell could become a casualty -- paving the way for both players -- there will likely only be room for one of them.
McGuire is the better runner, rushing 180 times for 591 yards and four scores on the ground and hauling in 36 catches for 370 yards and two touchdowns over the past two seasons (24 games). The 25-year-old has put together a lackluster preseason on the ground, however, carrying 16 times for 48 yards, and has been held without a touchdown.
Cannon, on the other hand, doesn't have McGuire's experience -- but he does fill a multitude of roles. The second-year running back also doubles as a special teams dynamo, contributing as a kick returner and standout gunner on punt coverage. With the fourth running back unlikely to see meaningful snaps on offense, teams will be looking for versatility.
My verdict: Cannon stays, as he is the more valuable of the two players.
Backup wide receiver
With Deontay Burnett expected to be the team's fourth receiver and rookie Greg Dortch having a stronghold on the fifth spot due to his value as a punt returner, the battle for the final spot(s) will likely come down to Charone Peake, Josh Bellamy and Deonte Thompson.
Peake, 26, is a former seventh-round pick that has appeared in 31 games over the past three seasons. Though he boasts just 22 receptions for 214 yards over that span, he has proven to be an asset on special teams. He's been relatively quiet during the preseason, however, totaling just one reception for 10 yards.
Entering his eighth NFL season, Bellamy is the senior member of the Jets' receiving corps. The 30-year-old has never been much of a factor on offense throughout his career -- his best season yielding just 24 receptions -- but like Peake, it's been his special teams prowess that's kept him employed.
Thompson has the most extensive resume of the trio. Originally entering the league as an undrafted free agent with the Baltimore Ravens, Thompson has 94 catches for 1,193 yards and four touchdowns to his name.
My verdict: When assessing roster spots 46-53, special teams ability is often the deciding factor. Given his ties to Joe Douglas from their time in Chicago, and what he adds to the game's third phase, Bellamy gets the nod.
While on the surface the battle between Brandon Bryant and Doug Middleton doesn't appear to be all that important, beneath the surface indicates otherwise. With more teams opting to deploy an extra safety when playing nickel -- as more teams transition to more two tight end sets and spread -- safety depth has become integral.
Middleton is a favorite of the coaching staff. A former undrafted free agent, Middleton has had to earn everything the hard way. Though multiple pectoral injuries have slowed his progress over the past two seasons, the 25-year-old started four of his seven games last season. A productive special teams player, Middleton currently has the inside track for the depth role.
Preseason miscues have become a common theme for Bryant as of late. The former Mississippi State standout joined the Jets as an undrafted free agent last season, spending the majority of his rookie season on the practice squad, before ultimately being promoted on Dec. 29. Bryant is a quick mental processor in centerfield, aggressive in pursuit and a strong tackler. He'll need to become more disciplined on the field in order to latch on as a special teams maven, however.
My verdict: Maybe it's the grit that he plays with, but I like Bryant's game. He's a bit of a raw prospect, but his aggressive nature should add to what's shaping up to be a quite formidable special teams unit. The best ability is availability, and Middleton hasn't shown he can stay healthy for a full season.