The New York Jets are not a top 5 NFL team in terms of talent. Let’s look at this with some perspective, as many are trying to do amongst a 2 game slide that makes the season feel like it’s already over.
Quarterback: Mark Sanchez is 6’2, and does not have the arm strength of a Stafford or a Freeman. He may be more mobile than both of those guys, but when you toss it 30 yards for an interception, you can dance all you want, the results are the same. The NFL is ushering in the new breed of quarterbacks that have huge arms and are more around the 6’4 to 6’5 range. If Sanchez succeeds, he will have to do it with accuracy, which seems to be harder and harder with an offensive line that is full of scrubs and aging players.
Running back: John Conner is one of the best 5th roundfullbacks (something that most teams don’t even consider a vital position) an NFL team has been able to use on both offense and special teams. Could Tony Richardson help? Yes. Some sort of two fullback set could prove brilliant if the defense plays man on either Burress or Holmes, and Sanchez has enough time to let routes develop.
Shonn Greene is a 3rd round pick that had an explosive year in college, and has the power to run over corners and safeties with relative ease. The problem with Greene has been that he is a downhill runner who isn’t agile enough to switch holes and cutback with the speed of most new era running-backs a la Darren Mcfadden. They need to utilize the speed of McKnight (whose confidence has to be at an all time high) to keep defenses on their toes, instead of continuously running a 3-4 stack defense and clogging all the gaps between the tackles. Teams know Greene isn’t going to tiptoe behind the offensive line, so he needs to be the Earth in the Jets version of earth, wind, and fire. (My apologies for any relation to the Giants former trio).
McKnight looks more and more like a guy who is going to be the ace in the hole of the Jets. If they decide to utilize him on pitch, toss and off tackle plays, he has the speed to elude linebackers and grab first downs at will. With his performance last week as a punt returner, the Jets may have finally found their speed guy who can catch out of the backfield if given the opportunity.
LaDanian Tomlinson is running on fumes at this point. He won’t last a whole season sharing the load with Shonn Greene, so look for his role to diminish over the next few weeks, especially in third and fourth quarter situations. 3rd down back, as cliche as it sounds, is entirely appropriate at this point in his career.
Bilal Powell is the third 5’11 running back in the trio of new Jets in the backfield. It is strange, but he literally fits between the 198 lbs of Mcknight, and the 225 lbs of Shonn Greene as the middle man. As the Jets like to test any new draft pick on special teams, he will probably only see time if there is some sort of injury to either Tomlinson or Shonn Greene. He needs to learn the playbook, and having a Pro Bowl veteran, a two year starter, and a rookie who struggled should give Powell a huge amount of information as to how the Jets approach their running game.
All in all, the Jets running game is probably a top 10 running attack with a great ratio of veteran to rookie players that is being hampered by offensive line woes. It is not necessarily a weak point, but the fact that any run game only goes as far as their blocking up front illustrates how interdependent many facets of an NFL offense are.
Plaxico Burress: At 34, he does not have the quickness to overpower man coverage on short routes, and he doesn’t have the top endspeed to outrun young corners on vertical routes. Luckily, he has shown that he can block with the best of them, so look to Burress in bunch formations more often and less kicked out wide. If it is a jump ball, I’ll take Burress all day. He’s experienced, and hasn’t taken the beatings of football for two years. Look for him big in the second half.
Santonio Holmes: Rex Ryan was not kidding when he said Holmes was his best offensive weapon. With the loss of Cotchery and Edwards, they need Holmes to be the leader of the entire offense. After two weeks of inefficiency on offense, look for Holmes and Burress to be in two wideout sets for the majority of the game. Holmes is only 27, with the experience of a 35 year old receiver. As one of the few first round picks on the Jets, and the only one with a Super Bowl MVP, this will be the year that Holmes is a focal point and his first full year under the offense.
Jeremy Kerley is a smaller, faster version of Brad Smith. He didn’t play quarterback, and I just don’t think he’s big enough to be any sort of legitimate threat at wide receiver. If Burress is old, Mason is ancient. He doesn’t have the size of Terrell Owens or the speed of a Randy Moss. He is a panic pickup because of the Jerricho Cotchery loss that the Jets will have to use in interesting ways. His last Pro Bowl was 2003, and it is no surprise that the Ravens saw him as the fourth best receiver on their team. He will help coach up Mark Sanchez, but will not be a serious factor throughout the season. If the Jets can get Edwards back next year, they need to do it, because Mason isn’t getting any younger. He will make some plays, but there’s nothing that stands out at this point at this career.
Both Logan Payne and Patrick Turner are emergency valves that will probably only see time as run blockers, or stopgap solutions if the Jets lose either Burress or Mason. I don’t see either of them playing unless there are injuries, as they both had relatively poor showings in the preseason. They will not be the Jets version of Victor Cruz. Again, sorry for the Giants comparisons.
As a unit, the receiving core is going to have more learning to do than they should at this point in the season. Mason, Burress, and Kerley are all still trying to learn this offense, which is hard to do when the ball isn’t even coming in your direction with all the hits Sanchez is taking this early in the season. There is no hiding the fact that this crew is a downgrade in terms of chemistry and a wash in terms of physical skill compared to last year’s unit.
Tight ends: Tom Moore is supposed to do interesting things with tight ends, so look for jumbo packages to reemerge for the Jets with no fullbacks early on in the Patriots game. Matt Mulligan, like Josh Baker, is one of those nameless pieces that will probably not be around at the end of the season. He’s going to be subject to replacement if the Jets draft a tight end in the 3rd or 4th round next year. If ground and pound is to have any longevity, a taller, faster Dustin Keller could do wonders for run blocking and quick slants in the flat. Guys like Coby Fleener and Ladarius Green could provide the size the Jets need up front to keep their I formation strong.
I keep asking myself this question. Is Dustin Keller a Pro Bowl tight end? Probably not, but he can certainly get his career highs in yardage this year. He’s not as big as a Gronkowski, and he’s not as fast as Aaron Hernandez (undoubtedly the new breed of tight end). Was he worth it as a 1st round pick? That remains to be seen, but if he does make a Pro Bowl I will again issue formal apologies to the entire Keller family. It should be noted that all tight ends rely on the play of their QB, so looking at Tony Gonzalez going to the Falcons should provide all the context necessary.
Offensive line: Wikipedia says that Colin Baxter was one of the best center prospects in his class. That class was probably not very deep at center. Can Colin Baxter be a good backup? Yes. Not when you have to face the Raiders and Ravens back to back with two weeks to learn all the line protections. That’s right. No training camp. No OTA’s. Two weeks. No undrafted rookie can come in and do that, which resulted in god awful results with Mark Sanchez on his back more often than not. If you’re not comfortable with the center, you speed everything up, and suddenly one missed rusher throws the next three downs off. Baxter will be useful, just not this season.
Vlad Ducasse is slowly proving my pessimism in his ability at the NFL level correct. He has the size to be a good tackle, but he didn’t face elite competition at college and relied more on his size and weight to throw off much smaller pass rushers. He doesn’t have the instincts to play at the NFL level, and no amount of physical training can overcome mental mistakes. If he can’t at least start this year, he’s going to be relegated to the practice squad, and the Jets will be looking for a veteran free agent to help provide the push up front. He will get one more year before they give up on him altogether.
Between Nick Mangold and D’BrickashawFerguson, the Jets have nailed two of their best draft picks in a long time. There is no doubt either of these guys are both top 5 at their position in the NFL. If the Jets can get it together in the run game, it will be because of these two. They are the good half of what is slowly devolving into a bottom half offensive line. Mangold can arguably be considered the best center in the league next to Jeff Saturday, and Ferguson has been their only good tackle. If Tannenbaum was a gambling man, he won big with these two.
I think Matt Slauson is the type of player that proves offensive line players can be boom or bust. A 6th round pick from a major school (Nebraska) that is head and shoulders above a 2nd round pick from a small school. (I will get into this later, but look at Kenrick Ellis from Hampton as a defensive equivalent)
I shuddered when I realized Wayne Hunter was a third round pick. Then I saw that pick was by the Seahawks, who also took Aaron Curry and James Carpenter in the first round. Bad picks bad. This guy is getting $15 million for four years? Are you kidding me? This guy has been with the team, and nothing seems to indicate he will be around next year if the Jets don’t make the playoffs.
If you want stability on the offensive line, look at Brandon Moore, who went undrafted and has been the best guard since the departure of Alan Faneca. Rob Turner probably won’t get his due, but it could be argued that the Jets have done better on those two undrafted players than they have in Ducasse and the acquisition of Wayne Hunter. Seriously. $15 million. AJ Burnett has a new classmate. Somebody needs to move from guard to tackle.