Here are five storylines to watch for when the New York Jets take the practice field this spring and early summer, starting this afternoon for OTAs…
The Quarterbacks The biggest storyline of the summer and probably of the Jets’ entire season will be Christian Hackenberg’s development or lack thereof. Put on ice for the entirety of his rookie year, fans will expect Hackenberg to win the starting job by Week 1 over journeyman backup Josh McCown and the mediocre Bryce Petty.
Mike Maccagnan’s gamble on the much maligned former Nittany Lion will be the front and center topic of the entire summer. If Hack shows even competent play in his second year, it would go a long way towards buying the GM some good will among the fan base. The scrutiny will also give us an opportunity to see how Hackenberg reacts under the media microscope of New York City. Will he stand tall or will he crumble? Who knows. But what I do know is “Swagga Like Us” might as well be the new anthem of the quarterback room. “What the &*#$ you boys talkin’ bout? It must be us cause we’re the only thing to talk about.”
The Rookie Leaders Another useful aspect of mini-camp is getting to see the incoming rookie class practice with the rest of the team for the first time instead of just other rookies and tryout players. So much emphasis was put on the draft by the Jets to bring in rookies who could be leaders and change the locker room culture. However, that is easier said than done. How will Jamal Adams, who many have pegged as the next heart of the team, react to being on the field for the first time with players 5-10 years older than he is? The same can be said for guys like Marcus Maye and ArDarius Stewart, who were lauded as tone-setters and “alpha dogs.” We’ll learn a lot about these rookies in a few weeks time.
Offensive Line The New York Jets boast and young, and potentially talented group of players along the offensive line. James Carpenter and Brian Winters have been rocks for the team at either guard position, and Brandon Shell and Wesley Johnson had promising ends to the 2016 season which have led to hopes that they could be solid starters the the right tackle and center spots beginning this year. With the free agency signing of former Steeler and Jaguar Kelvin Beachum, the Jets possess a group of big uglies up front where nobody is over 28 years old.There are still plenty of question marks for the group, however. Can Johnson and Shell carry over their momentum from 2016? Can Kelvin Beachum stay healthy and return to the form he showed early in his career in Pittsburgh? And where does Ben Ijalana, who the Jets went out of their way to resign this offseason, fit into all this?
After the Beachum signing, Jets fans assumed Beachum was brought in to fill the left tackle position, but recent comments from Mike Maccagnan have suggested they would also be open to playing him at right tackle. Are Beachum, Shell, and Ijalana in an open competition for the two tackle spots?
If they can play up to expectations, the Jets could be looking at a young core of offensive lineman who hopefully can grow together with sophomore Christian Hackenberg under center.
A Peak Behind The Offensive Curtain One of the biggest questions of the Jets offseason has been what the offense will look like under new Offensive Coordinator John Morton. Much of the speculation lends itself to the fact that Morton has not himself been the play caller since he assumed the role for USC from 2009-2011. Many assume he will bring over a wide open, West Coast style system similar to what they run in New Orleans, where Morton spent his last two seasons and the Wide Receivers coach. But up to this point, nobody can honestly say with any certainty that they have any idea what the Jets offense will look like under Morton.
The other question regarding the offense will be how Morton aligns the pieces on the board, and how the Jets players are utilized. What will the running back shares look like, with sixth round pick Elijah McGuire joining a stable already including Matt Forte and Bilal Powell? With not one, but two new wideouts being drafted by the Jets in the premium rounds, where will the receivers line up and in what order on the depth chart? (The Jets and Coach Morton are reportedly very high on former Alabama receiver ArDarius Stewart, who basically seemed to have been hand picked by Morton on Draft weekend.) With the injury to Devin Smith and the off field issue regarding Robby Anderson, the depth chart at receiver seems surprisingly open for the Jets behind Quincy Enunwa and pending Eric Decker’s health. Will the rookies step up and command reps through their offseason performance?
And will we finally have an OC who prioritizes the tight end in an age where the position is more valued than ever? Finding Jordan Leggett in the fifth round may have been Maccagnan’s best value of the entire draft, and he has the potential to be the best player at the position for the Jets on day one. Will Morton get him the ball? We will soon begin to find out.
Calvin Pryor & Sheldon Richardson Over the last two years, Calvin Pryor and Sheldon Richardson have both found themselves to be the odd man out in their position groups. Richardson has seen the drafting of Leonard Williams and the big contract given to Muhammad Wilkerson combined with his own off the field and locker room issues sour his image in the eyes of the front office. And Calvin Pryor watched as the Jets selected safeties with both of their top two draft picks, which has to make him feel as though his days in green and white are numbered.
Pryor and Richardson are both former first round picks from a bygone front office era, and the new GM and coach aren’t tied to them at all. It has been no secret that the Jets have been trying to trade Richardson since the middle of last season. And the Jets recently declined to pick up Pryor’s fifth year option. So what happens to the two of them? The question with Richardson has never been his talent, whereas talent has very much been the question with Pryor. Perhaps Pryor could have a better year as a LB/S hybrid roving around the box than in single high coverage which he was asked to do too much last season and has never been his strong suit. Does Bowles use three safety defensive looks with Pryor in the box and Adams/Maye behind him?
Neither player seemingly has a part in the team’s long term plans, so it will be interesting to watch what they do with them short term. Will they give both players snaps, hoping that improved performances will raise trade value or a compensatory pick next offseason? This sounds nice, but in the process you would be taking reps away from players who are part of your vision long term. Do the Jets just sit them both or cut them to just simply shed the weight? Both will certainly be worth watching for the summer.
Photo Credit: Jets Wire – USA Today