An essential part of any quality NFL roster is a well-established “middle class” of talent. These are the players who aren’t your headline names or playmakers nor are they bottom of the roster depth guys. Generally, they are competent starters and reserve players who are talented enough to be regular contributors without consistently hurting your team. In 2009 and 2010, the Jets had a wealth of these players. Yet as the roster deteriorated at the top and bottom, the middle suffered as well. A huge part of the Jets rebuilding process will be reestablishing this middle class of talent.
When the Jets were having success under Rex Ryan, Calvin Pace, Bart Scott and Bryan Thomas were all good representatives of this middle class as starters at linebacker. None of them were ever going to receive Pro-Bowl consideration but they thrived in their specific role on the defense and were necessary complimentary pieces to Darrelle Revis, David Harris and Antonio Cromartie. Gradually the play of the three of them fell off to the point where all were overmatched as starters last year. This season, the Jets will need 2nd year player Demario Davis to become a competent starter in Scott’s old spot. Similarly, they will be looking for Antwan Barnes to bring more production off the edge than what Pace or Thomas offered last year. Nobody expects Davis or Barnes to be All-Pros but a decent season from both of them could help bump the Jets defense to the next level.
Staying on that side of the ball, Rex’s Jets have found success on defense with tons of middle class talent at safety. Jim Leonhard, Eric Smith and Brodney Pool were all prime examples of this. In 2009, Leonhard played well next to Kerry Rhodes who was inconsistent and replaced by Smith at times, who despite a poor 2011 and 2012 was a capable spot starter in 2009 and 2010, just like Pool was. Dawan Landry should be a steadying hand in the Jets secondary and hopefully either Antonio Allen or Josh Bush can handle extended reps alongside him. Antonio Cromartie and Dee Milliner will be the headlining players of the secondary but again, competent seasons from Landry and one of the other young safeties on the roster is what can take this defense from good to great.
Offensively, the Jets were filled with middle class talent in 2010, their best season under Rex Ryan. Jerricho Cotchery was a productive third receiver. Brad Smith was officially the team’s fourth receiver but was a weapon who could come up with a huge play or two every few weeks. Ben Hartsock was a very good blocking, backup tight end. Damien Woody was a quality right tackle. He wouldn’t be confused with D’Brickashaw Ferguson at that point of his career but he was never a liability. The Jets need Austin Howard to take another step forward in his development so he can be relied on like that. They need Stephen Hill and another wide receiver to grow up fast so the depth chart is rounded out properly. Can somebody like Chris Pantale become a similar player to Hartsock? The Jets roster is going to be perilously thin if certain young players to can’t meet and exceed expectations.