New York Jets 2009 Preview

June 29, 2009 by

Two things in pro football excite the media (especially the rabid New York media): a brash, garrulous head coach, and a sexy, high-profile quarterback. The 2009 New York Jets offer both. The coach is longtime NFL assistant Rex Ryan, one of the most respected and creative defensive innovators in today’s game. The quarterback is No. 5 overall pick Mark Sanchez, a polished though inexperienced Southern Cal star.

The effusive Ryan has already shown the type of personality that makes one think he could be introduced at press conferences by Ed McMahon. (Heeeeeere’s Rex!) So far, Ryan has called out the New England Patriots. He’s engaged in an amusing war of words with Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder. He said to Sports Illustrated that what happened when Brian Billick passed him over for a defensive coordinator position in 2002 was, “Basically, I got f*****.” Words are to Ryan what sprinkles are to children: colorful and something to be used prodigiously. You can’t help but love the guy.

Sanchez has been equally as publicized. Weeks after getting straddled by bikini-donning supermodel Hilary Rhoda in GQ Magazine, the 22-year-old signed the richest contract in franchise history. (Kudos to Sanchez’s agent, David Dunn, and Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum for the expediency.)

First-year coaches and rookie quarterbacks enjoyed astounding success in the NFL last season. Mike Smith and Matt Ryan led the moribund Falcons to the playoffs. John Harbaugh and Joe Flacco carried the Ravens to the AFC Title game. The Jets are much better off than either of those two clubs were, having just produced a 9-7 season. However, it was a season remembered for a dreadful 1-4 finish. And it was not without a scapegoat. (You didn’t think Eric Mangini got fired simply for being an “anti-Rex” with the media, did you?) The team’s coaching and chemistry were iffy, though many blamed New York’s December meltdown on an aging Brett Favre. (The 39-year-old quarterback was not the only Jet who ran out of fuel, though.)

As tends to happen when impatience takes over, the Jets are going from one extreme to another: out with the ancient passer, in with the callow one. Sanchez started only 16 games at USC. Though the web has become littered with football dilettantes reminding everyone that Sanchez ran a “pro style” offense, the fact of the matter is, he is utterly untested. While running USC’s “pro style offense”, Sanchez rarely had to throw from a dirty pocket. He rarely had to work through four or five progressions. He rarely had to rifle balls through tight windows. Thus, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer could face the same obstacles in ’09 that he faced after Favre joined New York in August ’08: what plays can be called? Schottenheimer’s offense was limited to almost comical simplicity last season.

A deeper backfield featuring contract-year running backs Thomas Jones and Leon Washington, as well as power-running third-round rookie Shonn Greene, should make the Jets a more grounded team. They’ll almost have to be, considering they got rid of their best receiver, Laveranues Coles, and replaced him with absolutely no one. Of course, Ryan, having been with Baltimore last year, knows it is possible to win in the NFL with just a monotonous rushing attack and remedial aerial assault. But doing so requires a stringy Ravensesque defense.

The Jets D is only a cheap ersatz of the Ravens’. Newly-acquired inside linebacker Bart Scott is an intelligent, blistering tackle machine who can play the part of Ray Lewis. But he’s a poor man’s Ray Lewis. Overpaid rush-linebacker Calvin Pace looks almost like a carbon copy of Terrell Suggs. Indeed, Pace––who is an inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than Suggs––shows the same relentless motor that makes the Ravens’ stud great. But Pace is not great. He’s simply pretty good. Safety Kerry Rhodes might be great, but being a true facsimile of Ed Reed means being legendary. The acclaimed fifth-year pro is not legendary.

But maybe none of these guys have to be superstars. Maybe New York’s defense can thrive with just regular stars. Ryan––who, in addition to Scott, signed former Ravens Marques Douglas (defensive end) and Jim Leonhard (safety) to help instill familiarity with his complex hybrid 3-4––might actually have a better collection of role players to work with here than he had in Baltimore. If he can uncover a pass-rushing diamond or two––we’re all looking at you, Vernon Gholston––he’ll easily improve New York’s 29th ranked pass coverage. And he’s already stated on the record that nobody can run on his D.

Instant success has become the expectation in the NFL these days. That’s especially true when you have big personalities proclaiming big ambitions in a big market like the Big Apple.

Offense

They’re calling it a quarterback competition because they have to. No team simply hands over the huddle to an untested rookie––that’s how locker rooms become divided. But make no mistake about it: Mark Sanchez, not Kellen Clemens, is the quarterback of this team. Yes, the 26-year-old Clemens understands Brian Schottenheimer’s offense better than the rookie. But Clemens also understood the offense better than Brett Favre last August. The fact of the matter is, the Jets correctly see Clemens as a good athlete with a bright future as a backup.

As for Sanchez, you’d like to think he’ll have to prove at some point that he has the arm strength to shred an NFL defense. But, looking at this Jets receiving core, it’s hard to picture them ever stretching the field. Leading wideout Jerricho Cotchery is a classic No. 2 possession receiver. Cotchery has great hands and can generate big yards running after the catch, but he doesn’t have the speed to get over the top and command double teams. David Clowney does, but the second-year pro caught just one pass last season and remains too raw to start. Right now, Clowney might be the only legitimate NFL wideout that maturing Chansi Stuckey can beat-out for a starting job. Stuckey is more quick than fast; his acceleration gives him enticing potential.

Twenty-five-year-old fringe receiver Wallace Wright was impressive in offseason camps and may push Brad Smith, an ex-college quarterback who must become more than just a crafty gadget player this year. Of all these receivers, Smith has the best sheer creativity. But, also like all these receivers, he lacks straight-line speed.

With this continuing to be a dink-and-dunk offense, Dustin Keller becomes even more important. Keller is often characterized as a wide receiver in a tight end’s body. Indeed, the second-year pro is rarely asked to block. As a pass-catcher, Keller has the frame and, usually, the concentration to operate in traffic. His value to this offense is intensified by the fact that veteran Chris Baker was let go, which leaves heavy-footed wash up Bubba Franks as the No. 2 tight end.

By now you’ve probably decided that this needs to be a run-first offense in 2009. Fortunately, the Jets concur. Two-hundred-and-twenty-seven-pound Shonn Greene was drafted in the third round to give the backfield the punctuating power that a chiseled but somewhat finesse Thomas Jones can’t regularly provide. Greene, New York hopes, will become the featured ballcarrier one day. For now, those duties still fall to Jones.

Jones led the AFC with 1,312 yards rushing last season. Being a Drew Rosenhaus client, he avoided virtually all offseason activities in hopes of getting an update to the final two years of his contract. Jones turns 31 in August, so it’s hard to blame the guy for wanting to capitalize while he still has a smidgen of earning power. But he’s been paid a handsome $13 million over the past two years already.

Backup running back Leon Washington is also angling for a new deal. Washington, by far New York’s most lethal big-play weapon (and that’s as a runner, receiver or returner), is earning just $535,000 in the final year of his rookie deal. Given that Greene is as adept in the passing game as Jim Carey is in horror films, the Jets desperately need Washington’s contributions, both this season and long-term.

Not to be supercilious, but Thomas Jones does not have the type of talent that normally defines a conference rushing leader. He benefits from the occasional services of veteran fullback Tony Richardson and the regular services of one of the game’s best front fives. Left guard Alan Faneca is the big-money veteran up front, though center Nick Mangold has actually become the anchor. Rank is not important, though, because Faneca and Mangold rely on one another. Schottenheimer, like any play-caller would, loves to get both men run-blocking out in space. The Jets’ mobility-based run-blocking system on the left side is ideal for Jones’s patient, slashing style.

Right guard Brandon Moore was actually New York’s best lineman last year (granted, he always had the much simpler assignment of delivering powerful downhill blocks). Still, the Jets did not want to pay Moore the $7 million they owed him in salary, so they released him in February. The fact that the 29-year-old later re-signed for less tells you that a.) Chris Kemoeatu chose to remain a Steeler, and b.) Moore has an honorable sense of humility.

New York’s bookends are both prototypes, and a cut above average. Left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson is an athletic pass-blocker, and right tackle Damien Woody is a mauling run-blocker. Ferguson may never be mean enough to flatten defenders in the run game, but he’s nimble out in front. And, as spongy as he tends to be in pass pro, he usually keeps his side of the pocket clean. Woody must always monitor his conditioning.

It’s vital that all five starters once again stay healthy for the Jets. Not a single backup has viable experience.

Defense

Monster disappointment Vernon Gholston may just be the most important Jet defender in 2009. As the No. 6 overall pick a year ago, Gholston missed some of the early offseason activities because NFL rules stipulated that he finish out his spring semester at Ohio State. Gholston couldn’t have found Eric Mangini’s playbook more challenging if it had been Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment in the original translation. He fell behind and never adjusted from a three-point stance to playing upright.

Rex Ryan’s playbook isn’t much simpler, but the new head coach has no choice but to work with his talented second-year player. The Jets desperately need a pass-rusher and it’s clear to anyone watching closely that starting outside linebackers Bryan Thomas and Calvin Pace are B-grade in this sense. But they might still be decent fits. Thomas’s agility could help him in the short zone coverage that this schemes likes to use (though he’s never been completely comfortable away from the line of scrimmage). Pace will have to improve his dexterity at taking on blocks, but he has the build to be a staunch play-side run-defender.

Pace will benefit from working near defensive end Marques Douglas. Though not especially gifted, Douglas has an innate ability to infiltrate the backfield in run defense. Left end Shaun Ellis is not a bad run-stopper from the back side, though he’d much rather be a 4-3 edge-rusher. Ellis’s output in the 3-4 tends to waver. It wouldn’t be at all bad if backup Mike Devito, who plays with outstanding leverage, got more of the 32-year-old Ellis’s snaps this season.

Kris Jenkins makes life easy for venomous inside linebackers Bart Scott and David Harris. (If you were to boil it down, Scott provides speed and Harris strength. Though both are well-rounded, sideline-to-sideline forces.) Jenkins proved willing and able to fight double teams in his debut at nose tackle last season. His propensity for burling into the backfield is his most noted feature. The Jets must be leery of exhausting the ninth-year pro, though. Bringing in former Seahawk Howard Green to share backup snaps with strong but capricious Sione Pouha was a smart move. Green might also be able to contribute as an end from time to time.

The Jets secondary is much better than their ’08 pass defense ranking (29) suggests. Given that this front seven will be tough to run on, New York should surrender a few aerial yards simply because of opponents’ high volume of pass attempts. Of course, Ryan’s ’08 Ravens faced the same issue, and they turned the tables by snagging a league-best 26 interceptions. Of these defensive backs, free safety Kerry Rhodes is most likely to fashion turnovers. Rhodes is a film-studying savant whose speed affords him great range. He’s also an adept run-defender and will switch off with strong safety Jim Leonhard in the box from time to time.

Most of Rhodes’s coverage range will be dedicated away from ascending third-year lockdown corner Darrelle Revis. A Pro Bowler in ’08, Revis is one of the rare corners who relish facing the opposing team’s best receiver week in and week out. He’ll have an opportunity to play more zone coverage in this scheme, which could lead to more interceptions (he had five last season).

Ex-Eagle Lito Sheppard will compete with Dwight Lowery for the other starting cornerback job. After going from Pro Bowler to benchwarmer in Philadelphia, Sheppard is one of the few “chip on the shoulder” players who actually does have something to prove. He should be good in this zone system. Lowery is still a work in progress, though he showed bright flashes as a fourth-round rookie last year. He’s a natural at defending the slot and, in the very least, should hold that position ahead of overhyped (as in, he’s actually been hyped) free agent Donald Strickland.

Special Teams

Kicker Jay Feely has a strong enough leg to overcome the tricky gales of the Meadowlands. And, thanks to his experience with the Giants, he has the intestinal fortitude to handle high-pressure moments. Punter Reggie Hodges was sub-par last year. He averaged 42.8 yards per boot and netted only 36.3. He left only 14 punts inside the 20. Leon Washington is electrifying on kick and punt returns. Perennial Pro Bowl special teamer Larry Izzo will also be coming aboard in 2009.

Bottom Line

The Jets have unusually high expectations for a team featuring a first-year head coach and rookie quarterback. However, those high expectations are largely self-created. This season comes down to the passing attack. Can Mark Sanchez flourish right away, and can this commonplace receiving core elevate to a level of acceptability? The defense lacks a premium pass-rusher, but Rex Ryan is crafty enough to fashion pressure schematically. It’s not quite a defense rigid enough to carry the team for 16 weeks, though. And with a developing offense, that’s probably what it’ll have to do.

Predicted: 4th AFC East


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