When the Jets take the field on Sunday in Carolina, many will consider the immense pressure on rookie quarterback Zach Wilson. Whether he quickly goes through his progressions, his accuracy down the field and how he handles the pass rush will all be meticulously dissected.
Likewise, attention will focus heavily on first-year head coach Robert Saleh as he runs the stairs before kickoff. His mistakes will be heavily scrutinized, his triumphs viewed as ingenious.
And while Wilson and Saleh will command the eyes of Jets fans and the lenses of cameras throughout the afternoon, the pressure really isn’t on them at all. A first game is far from indicative of a career. Peyton Manning threw three interceptions in his first outing. Sam Darnold looked like a world beater for 59 minutes in his. The real pressure is on the man sitting upstairs in his box watching the team he assembled take the field.
Joe Douglas is entering his third season as the Jets’ general manager. This roster is almost entirely his own, made over in that short span of time. And even under the aura of a rebuild, there is pressure on Douglas’s hand-picked guys to hit.
To say the 2021 Jets are a young team would be underselling it. This team is entirely founded on youth with a focus on building through the draft. A rookie quarterback, running back, wide receiver, offensive lineman, two rookie linebackers and at least two rookie cornerbacks will all start or see significant action in Week One. If New York is going to be even a remotely competitive football team this season, the 2021 draft class is going to be the driving force behind it.
After a mixed bag when it comes to the 2020 class, that could be a tall task. Mekhi Becton and Denzel Mims have flashed, but both struggled mightily in training camp and have battled injuries in the lead up to this season. Ashtyn Davis won’t take the field at all to start the year after missing time due to injury. Neither will LaMical Perine, who would otherwise be the RB4 on the depth chart. Jabari Zuniga and James Morgan failed to make the roster. Cameron Clark has had a slew of medical issues. Bryce Hall looks like the potential gem of the group in the fifth round. Braden Mann is a punter.
The jury is still out on most of these guys, some of whom show great promise, but the 2020 draft class is a motley crew. This new one needs to be better.
By all accounts, it should be. Zach Wilson has been everything Douglas could have hoped for when he drafted him second overall. Elijah Moore has been the star of training camp. Hamsah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood have shown in the preseason that safety-converted-linebackers might be the new fad in the NFL. There is legitimate reason for excitement.
For the Jets, though, the excitement always peaks in the spring and summer. Douglas’s task is making sure that excitement lasts through the winter. Last year was the start of the rebuild. This is the continuation of it, and there needs to be progress when the team takes the field in Carolina.
One of the biggest surprises of the offseason was when Douglas cut projected starting cornerback Blessuan Austin. With the move, the combined NFL experience in the cornerback room went from four years to two. It signaled that New York would undoubtedly be starting a Day Three rookie against Carolina, likely Brandin Echols. Echols will spend a good portion of the day opposite Robby Anderson. Those passes to Anderson, they’ll come from Sam Darnold.
For Douglas and the Jets, they can pretend this is a season opener just like every other, but if Darnold-to-Anderson is a consistent combination against New York, guess who takes the heat?
Sunday’s game might boil down to the quarterback who Douglas vowed to his parents he’d protect, throwing to the wide receiver Douglas admitted he’d made a mistake by not re-signing, against a rookie cornerback who Douglas thrust into the starting role by cutting the guy in front of him.
This isn’t just any other game. This is the Joe Douglas game to prove that his way is the right way, that his players are the right players, that the youth movement will lead to success in the long run.
There will still be struggles, of course. In fact, there will be more valleys than peaks for the 2021 Jets. That comes with youth and inexperience. But the Jets can make that all palatable if their young players can showcase on the field the potential that caught Douglas’s eye in the first place.
If Becton and Alijah Vera-Tucker can slow down the pass rush of Brian Burns and open run lines on the left side, if the Wilson-to-Moore connection showcases early chemistry, if Nasirildeen and Sherwood can shoot gaps and bring down Christian McCaffery in the open field and if Echols and Hall can man the outside well enough with safety help from Maye over the top, this will look like a competent football team for the first time in over a year.
If the Jets can do that in Carolina on Sunday, whether it's enough to win or not, the belief in Douglas won’t falter. Because convincing the fan base that the good football days are coming in the future isn’t enough. Douglas’s guys need to show that they’re capable of getting there on the field.
As New York’s former head coach Bill Parcells once said, “Don’t tell me about the pain. Show me the baby.”
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