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Regardless of how the 2017 NFL Draft plays out, how competitive the New York Jets will be in 2017 will largely be influenced by the growth or lack of growth from a set of young players at critical positions. Part of their problem in 2016 was the failure of these players, think Lorenzo Mauldin and Calvin Pryor, to take positive development steps. Who are the key players to watch this season?
1. Brandon Shell, Right Tackle – The second year player was better than expected in three starts last season. Already 25 years year old despite being drafted in 2016, Shell will be given every chance to be the long term right tackle. If the Jets found a competent starter in the 5th round, it would be a nice victory for Mike Maccagnan and ease many of the concerns about the offensive line’s talent level.
2. Darron Lee, Inside Linebacker – Lee was average at best as a rookie, flashing speed and range at times but struggling in coverage and to make any impact plays. The Jets drafted him to be a movable chess piece who would be freed up to make plays by their defensive line and a bruiser next to him like David Harris. This team cannot afford low impact first rounders. A breakout season from Lee would make the second level of the Jets defense look much prettier than it currently does long term.
3. Jordan Jenkins, Outside Linebacker – Many expected Jenkins to walk into the starting lineup as a third rounder last year and be an impact player from week 1, which was far from the case. After a slow start, hampered by injuries Jenkins began to find his form in December and show flashes of being the new age Calvin Pace. Similar to Lee, the Jets badly need Jenkins to take the next step to stabilize the second level of their defense.
4. Christian Hackenberg, Quarterback – Maccagnan’s most controversial draft pick is likely to get his chance to start at some point this year (unless the Jets aren’t putting up smokescreens about interest in a quarterback in the first round and make a move for one), if Hackenberg can show signs of being “the guy” long term, it changes the complexion of the current team and could validate a highly criticized pick. If Hackenberg is who many assume him to be, it could one of the nails in Maccagnan’s coffin as the GM here.
5. Wesley Johnson, Center – Struggled when replacing Nick Mangold in 2015 but improved when given the chance last year. He is playing for a long term contract this season from the Jets and similar to Shell could stabilize a position group that many are doubtful of.
6. Juston Burris, Cornerback – Up and down as a 4th round rookie in 2016. The Jets are thin at cornerback and with Morris Claiborne’s injury history, Burris is likely to get plenty of chances on the outside. Did the Jets find a potential starter here or is Burris better suited to be a role player and special teamer? Maccagnan could use a late round steal here on the only defensive back he has drafted so far.
7. Deon Simon, Nose Tackle – Charley Casserly said last offseason that Simon was the next Damon Harrison…that may be a bit much but Simon did show flashes last season after being selected in the 7th round of the 2015 NFL Draft. The Jets are hoping he can grab the nose tackle position from Steve McLendon and become a long term fixture next to Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson on the defensive line.
8. Quincy Enunwa, Wide Receiver/H-Back – From year 1 to year 2, Enunwa went from a practice squad player to a quietly critical H-Back and role player on the Jets offense who did all the dirty work. From year 2 to year 3, he went from that role player to a playmaker with improved hands and route running. In year 4, the targets and the attention from the defense will be up. The Jets should manufacture him more touches. Can Enunwa become a 1,000 yard receiver with Brandon Marshall no longer here?
9. Robby Anderson, Wide Receiver – Anderson was a pleasant surprise as a rookie but similar to Enunwa, can he handle more attention from the defense and a consistently bigger role in the offense? The Jets will find out this year if he is a role player as a deep threat or a legitimate starter on the outside.
10. Kelvin Beachum, Left Tackle – The Jets are betting he is the player he was in Pittsburgh, not the player he was in Jacksonville. If they are wrong, they have an enormous hole at a critical position. If they are right, they have a critical position filled by a young player on a highly affordable deal.
11. Charone Peake, Wide Receiver – Can be an afterthought after Enunwa, Anderson and Eric Decker or can become a useful role player, and playmaker that flexes the Jets young depth at the wide receiver position. Peake has all the physical tools to play a part on offense next year but will need to beat out veteran Quinton Patton for targets.
12. Lorenzo Mauldin, Outside Linebacker – A 2016 disappointment who has dropped back down to rookie playing weight to hopefully find more explosiveness. The Jets don’t need Mauldin to be an every down edge setter but they do need him to at least be a competent, situational pass rusher who can contribute 6-8 sacks next season.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com