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Watchlist For Jets Preseason Opener Against Eagles

From Zach Wilson to fringe players competing for playing time, Blake Pace breaks down what you need to watch closely during Friday night's preseason opener.
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As we inch closer and closer to the highly anticipated 2022 NFL season for the New York Jets, the next step commences Friday as the boys travel to Philadelphia to take on the Eagles in some preseason action.

While I’ve never been the biggest proponent of preseason football — this will be the first game I’ve watched in the last eight years — there will be plenty to keep our eyes on as this team looks to take the jump from laughingstock of the league to a formidable foe. With a roster littered with young talent, position battles and new talents, the preseason should be an exciting watch for Jets fans around the world.

Here’s what I’m keeping my eye on when the first whistle blows:

Zach Wilson, KISS. Keep It Simple Stupid

We won’t see too much of Zach Wilson on Friday, but in those limited reps I want to see how he operates the “easy” parts of being an NFL quarterback. We’ve seen the highlight-reel throws, the elusiveness in a broken pocket and the fun off-platform darts. Wilson has arm talent and improvisational skills to let me know he has the potential to really stretch a defense. Now I want to see him become a cerebral assassin working the middle of the field.

A lot of this will be dictated by how offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur wants to balance the pass and run game on Friday, but being able to see on-target throws in the short-to-intermediate levels of the football field will highlight the next stages in this young quarterback’s development. Timing, a consistent throwing motion and throwing receivers open across the middle of the field will open opportunities to burn a defense deep, which will allow Wilson to establish himself as a legit quarterback in this league and a difficult one to gameplan for.

How Do the Rooks Look?

The most exciting aspect for Jets fans this weekend will be the first live action for the much-anticipated rookie class, highlighted by cornerback Sauce Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson, edge rusher Jermaine Johnson and running back Breece Hall.

Gardner is the only of the bunch to make the first-team roster — with Wilson listed as the fourth wide receiver, Johnson as the fifth edge rusher and Hall as the third running back — but I’d be shocked if we didn’t see both Wilson and Hall getting first-team reps on Friday.

It’ll only take one or two dazzling plays by these rookies to leave a strong impression on the Jets fanbase, so I’ll be looking forward to seeing how many of them can get things rolling in game one.

Solomon Thomas …. Starting Defensive Lineman?

Take a team's first unofficial depth chart with a very heavy grain of salt, but I can’t say I wasn’t pleasantly surprised to see newly acquired defensive lineman Solomon Thomas listed with the first-team defense beside Quinnen Williams.

Thomas, a former third overall pick who spent the first four seasons of his career with head coach Robert Saleh in San Francisco, had an underwhelming start to his career as an edge rusher. After joining the Raiders in Vegas this past season, Thomas moved to the interior parts of the defensive line and carved out a solid reserve role as a 3-tech and excelled at getting to the quarterback from up the middle.

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Reunited with Saleh in New York under this new role has seemed to really pay off, as he’s earned his way into a starting role through two weeks of practices. I’ll specifically be looking toward how he shows up in the run game, as that was the weaker part of his game, but what was first envisioned as a depth signing could end up being a much more rewarding transaction.

Fringe Players at Thin Position Groups

Two of the weakest position groups for the Jets reside in the back seven of its defense, with several depth questions surrounding both linebacker and safety rooms.

Linebacker CJ Mosley has been as available as they come outside of his lone injury season in 2019, but his new running mate in Kwon Alexander has dealt with a series of injures throughout his career and has missed 27 games in the last four seasons. With Mosley getting older and Alexander struggling to stay healthy I really want to see how younger guys like Jamien Sherwood, Marcell Harris and Del’Shawn Philliips look as they fight for backup spots.

Safety Lamarcus Joyner is entering his ninth NFL season and has only made it through a full 16-game slate once in his career. His most recent season ended as quickly as it started, as a torn triceps in their season opener shut him down for the year. While his new counterpart Jordan Whitehead has avoided major injuries in his career, aside from playing in Super Bowl LV with a torn labrum, he plays a very physical style of football which adds an extra risk. Seeing who from the group of Jason Pinnock, Ashtyn Davis, Elijah Riiley and Will Parks rises to the top will hopefully provide some stability behind these two starters.

You can never predict when someone needs to step up into a starting role, but these are the two groups I’m most worried about as we near the regular season.

What I Won’t Be Receiving: Players Not Playing

One of the most difficult things to balance in preparation for the regular season is how to have your players game-ready by early September while also maintaining a healthy roster by early September. Injuries are such a fluky, uncontrollable and unpredictable part of the game and can derail a teams’ hopes before the season even begins.

We do know, however, that available starters will most likely be playing in the teams’ first two series and potentially the entire first quarter. Those who aren’t at 100 percent health will most likely be kept out, but even those returning from serious injuries like Carl Lawson are expected to see some action.

If it was my choice, I wouldn’t have Jets starters suiting up until their second game against the Falcons on August 22nd. It would allow them an extra 10 days to get into “football shape,” which isn’t a surefire way to avoid injuries but a much safer approach than not. I understand the importance of giving a new team enough time to gel together, especially considering how difficult the first half of their schedule is, but it will only take one serious injury to completely change the tone of this Jets season.

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