One of the common criticisms from New York Jets fans about Head Coach Todd Bowles is his reluctance to embrace utilizing the younger players on his roster. This has led to an assumption that Bowles would have a problem starting Sam Darnold during his rookie year, instead preferring to stay with 2017 starter Josh McCown. There are plenty of valid criticisms of Bowles through three years, mostly around his game management and lack of aggressiveness, but is being antiquated in his thinking about giving younger players and rookies an opportunity actually a fair complaint?
Bowles inherited a veteran heavy roster in 2015 after a spending spree in the preceding offseason. Despite this he opened training camp with Geno Smith as his starting quarterback, even with the presence of Ryan Fitzpatrick on the roster, who had substantially more starting experience. Smith lost his job due to an injury in the preseason and Bowles appropriately didn’t give it back to Smith due to Fitzpatrick’s production throughout 2015 but his initial inclination was to play the younger (at the time, potentially developing) quarterback over the veteran journeyman.
Beyond this, the 2015 draft class was not held back despite the roster being loaded up with so many veterans. First round pick Leonard Williams played 887 snaps (77% of the defensive snaps) despite the presence of Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, established above average starters at his position. Second round pick Devin Smith played 394 snaps and was immediately inserted in the offensive receiver rotation when he returned from his preseason injury in week 3. Smith’s snap total would have been higher if he had not been lost to a season ending injury in week 14. Third round pick Lorenzo Mauldin also played 353 snaps, despite missing multiple games due to injury. Bowles also had no issue with previously unproven second year player Quincy Enunwa knocking veteran Jeremy Kerley out of the team’s receiver rotation.
Bowles was not without his flaws in this regard during 2015. He should have played cornerback Marcus Williams (489 snaps) more than Antonio Cromartie earlier in the year (993 snaps) but on the whole, there wasn’t a reluctance to avoid first and second year players.
In 2016, the Jets season went dramatically different than 2015. Bowles likely stuck with the incumbent starter Fitzpatrick for a few games too many before benching him in week 7 for Geno Smith (who was promptly knocked out for the year). Over the reminder of the season, second year quarterback Bryce Petty was given four starts before also being knocked out for the year. To be fair to Bowles, there was no answer at quarterback for this team on his roster.
2016 first round pick Darron Lee played 788 snaps (62% of the defensive snaps), despite being largely ineffective. After an early season injury, third round pick, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins played 588 snaps despite the Jets being predominantly a nickel defense. Fourth round rookie corner Juston Burris played 486 snaps, while fifth round rookie tackle Brandon Shell started the team’s final few games, logging over 200 snaps.
Beyond that, rookie UDFA receiver Jalin Marshall received offensive reps starting in week 1 and totaled 226 snaps despite missing substantial time with an injury. Another rookie UDFA Robby Anderson began receiving reps in week 3 and finished the season with 717 snaps. Rookie seventh round receiver Charone Peake also added in 454 snaps himself, while the Jets seventh round rookie punter, Lachlan Edwards held his job the entire season. Another UDFA, Lawrence Thomas was in the defensive line rotation week 1 before being knocked out for the year with an injury and then converting into the team’s starting fullback in his second season.
Finally in 2017, there was no hesitation from Bowles to start both first and second rounder Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye from day one, as they finished second and third on the team in total snaps. Sixth rounder Elijah McGuire played 267 snaps, while fourth rounder Chad Hansen played 376. Despite being leap frogged by Hansen on the depth chart, third round rookie ArDarius Stewart was given an opportunity to be the kick returner and played 363 snaps. The Jets finished 8th in the NFL in total rookie snaps and the number likely would have been higher if late round picks Jordan Leggett, Dylan Donahue and Jeremy Clark weren’t lost for the season with injuries very early in the year.
A look at how many snaps rookies played for every team in the NFL! pic.twitter.com/QPRVgcZ4vM
— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) February 20, 2018
It should also be noted that Bowles gave second year quarterback Christian Hackenberg every chance to win the starting job last preseason over veteran Josh McCown. Hackenberg took the majority of first team training camp reps after the first week of practice and started the team’s second and third preseason game. He simply failed to win the job, leaving Bowles no choice but to start McCown, especially with Bryce Petty injured to end the preseason.
Bowles has been far from perfect but he has been more than willing to give his young players a chance, despite many of them getting hurt or being ineffective out of the gate. He is less popular with fans than GM Mike Maccagann for reasons we discussed here but there is validity to this observation:
Time has revealed Bowles’ reputation for not liking young players as actually reflecting that Macc has made a lot of bad draft picks.
— Jeff Weiner (@JeffWeinerOS) May 4, 2018
Moving forward, it shouldn’t be assumed Bowles or the Jets coaching staff will be hesitant to play Sam Darnold this season, if he acquits himself well in training camp and the preseason. It also shouldn’t be assumed that other rookies and younger players on the roster won’t receive substantial reps or roles based on his previous decisions around playing time.
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