New York Jets Training Camp Preview: Quarterbacks

David Aitken breaks down the New York Jets quarterback position heading into 2017 training camp…

David Aitken kicks off his in-depth 2017 training camp preview with a look at the quarterback position…

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Projected Depth Chart

  1. Josh McCown
  2. Christian Hackenberg
  3. Bryce Petty

Is 2017 going to be looked back at years from now as the start of when the Jets started building something successful or as one of the most embarrassing chapters in Jets history? The Jets are rolling the dice with young players at virtually every position but it’s the quarterback position that will spearhead (or nosedive) the Jets’ 2017 fortunes.

Free agency brought no obvious starter like Tyrod Taylor or Jay Cutler, nor did the draft bring Patrick Mahomes or Deshaun Watson. And so for all the talk of whether the Jets have had a real plan under Maccagnan and Bowles, the commitment to redshirting and giving Christian Hackenberg a chance to play in 2017 has remained in tact. The basic outline goes like this: the 2016 second round pick Hackenberg will be given every opportunity to earn the starting position in training camp (as well as Bryce Petty in theory). Standing in his way is journeyman Josh McCown who has done this all before. It’s been common chatter to praise McCown’s experience and mentorship to justify the signing but the reality probably has more to do with McCown fully understanding what is expected of him. McCown will start if he has to, but the Jets would really prefer if Hackenberg gave the coaches a reason not to.

Josh McCown in recent years has earned the dubious reputation of being the man that gets the tank done. It’s a little unfair for a player that’s only been available for about half the games his last three seasons, but in a way that’s the point. He’s not good enough for fans to feel happy he’s starting to begin with, and if he’s injured there are even poorer options behind him. Over the last three years his employers have combined for just six wins, have clinched the first overall pick twice and the second overall pick once. He’s like The Wolf from Pulp Fiction, except he brings a mess rather than cleans one up. 

As a player McCown shares so many characteristics with Ryan Fitzpatrick it’s worth wondering whether Maccagnan would have actually brought Fitzpatrick back another year if the fan base reaction wouldn’t have been so overwhelmingly negative. McCown is basically the exaggerated version of Fitzpatrick – an even older, less productive and more injury prone version of the smart, heady journeyman™ that in reality puts his body in danger and takes chances with the football way more than he should. And yet somehow the Jets are paying double the amount for McCown that Fitzpatrick is making in Tampa Bay.

He has two potential roles here – he’s the benchmark that Christian Hackenberg must clear, and he must keep Hackenberg off the field if Hackenberg remains miles away.

Whether Hackenberg can be at least “Josh McCown good” is the season defining question. It should be a low bar for any somewhat highly drafted quarterback to surpass, but Hackenberg was no ordinary top 50 pick. The last time Hackenberg looked anywhere close to on the right trajectory toward NFL success he was an 18-year-old freshman in Bill O’Brien’s offense at Penn State. His following two years were a mess with O’Brien’s departure to Houston as completion percentage dropped from “pretty good for a freshman” 58.9% to 55.8% to a putrid 53.5% as a junior. But the story goes that with his physical traits, impressing with his football acumen at 18 years old and entering the league at just 21, there’s ability to mine and ample time to do so. The issue this season with his development curve is that even if Hackenberg is to one day be a starting caliber quarterback, this still may be too early. He was bubble wrapped for all of 2016 for a reason as his preseason confirmed just how far he has to go. If judged purely by skill level coming into the league, he would not be drafted.

And then, well, there’s Bryce Petty. If there is anyone actually still out there holding out hope that he’s got it in him to take the reigns I wouldn’t hold my breath. Indulging that fantasy would require forgetting that Petty was given a chance for a handful of games last year already. He used the opportunity to show people saying “well it can’t get any worse than this!” after Ryan Fitzpatrick that it actually could.

There’s a plan in place, the question is just whether it’s a very good one. Plans can go awry, and there’s serious disaster potential here. All eyes are on Hackenberg to take an enormous step forward and that may not be realistic. Otherwise Maccagnan has his fingers crossed for a healthy McCown to buy Hackenberg more time or at least prevent the wheels from coming off entirely, which may also not be realistic given McCown’s injury record.

Position Group Strength (Out of 10): 3

While you could split hairs about which team has the very worst quarterback situation in the league, the Jets are in the very bottom tier.  Josh McCown is as bottom of the barrel as it gets for a journeyman option and the two young players behind him are long shots to win anyone over in 2017. With the 2018 QB class supposedly looking like a strong group, the most important thing is the Jets have an answer either which way about whether their future quarterback is on the roster. From that perspective, Hackenberg needs to see the field at some point.

Best Case Scenario: Hackenberg takes a major step forward and is in contention to start opening day. Protected by a strong commitment to the running game, Hackenberg avoids rookie mistakes and keeps the Jets in more games than expected. He improves as the season goes on and creates enough big plays to have the Jets move forward in 2018 with Hackenberg as the unquestioned starter.

Prediction: Hackenberg takes a step forward but that step forward is looking better than Bryce Petty rather than being better than Josh McCown. The team takes the “start McCown and evaluate midseason” approach, which thrusts Hackenberg into the starting lineup earlier than anticipated due to a McCown injury. All three quarterbacks end up starting games at some point, and the Jets finish the season with eyes firmly on a top passer in the 2018 draft.

Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com