Reflecting on the offseason, expectations for key players, predictions and more from David Aitken…
A New Beginning
It took the current Jets regime four years, but the team is at last building clearly toward something resembling a long term plan for success. It was by no means a smooth arrival – a two year “competitive rebuild” had the Jets neither successfully rebuilding nor competitive, and regime self-preservation in 2017 meant Josh McCown started 13 games too many and delivered more wins than what would guarantee a top quarterback through draft position.
But a regime that has been accused of too often playing it safe in the offseason made a point to be more aggressive. An offer was tabled that would have made Kirk Cousins the highest paid player in NFL history, several million annually larger than his Vikings deal. Trumaine Johnson joined the Jets on a deal that is one of the most lucrative cornerback deals in NFL history. And of course, rather than gambling on the sixth pick in the draft being a safe landing spot for a quarterback in a class with three top prospects, the Jets made the trade from the sixth pick to the third pick very early in the offseason calendar. It was a rare but refreshing sight – the Jets making the move early in the game, landing in a position of great comfort, forcing other teams to react to the Jets rather than the other way around. And once again, Maccagnan’s luck at the top of the draft came through. Yet this time it was not a defensive interior player slipping through the cracks or a safety. It was the quarterback prospect that was so highly thought of he generated the most buzz at the scouting combine a year before he declared and was expected to be the first overall pick from that point until literally the day of the draft. This was no Kellen Clemens or Christian Hackenberg, this was not even Mark Sanchez or Chad Pennington. In selecting Sam Darnold, the Jets landed their best quarterback prospect since Namath.
The hard work isn’t over – losing three second round picks is still three potential good football players, and simply having a great deal of cap space is not a promise of any large-scale improvement. But the hardest part, certainly, may be done for a long time.
A Bowles Defense, Take Two
At this point we know who Todd Bowles the head coach is. He’s an ordinary head coach that struggles with time management and embracing that football is now played in the 21st century – flaws that are more common than you’d think amongst the rest of the league’s head coaching, but limiting flaws nonetheless.
But if we are to be fair to Todd Bowles, his arrival did not just come on the back of some high profile recommendations (Bill Parcells, Bruce Arians and Joe Gibbs to name a few). Bowles was also named AP Assistant Coach of the Year in 2014 and gained a reputation as one of the league’s brightest schemers throughout his two years in Arizona (Richard Sherman referred to Bowles as the best defensive coordinator he ever faced). We’ve seen some of this already – the Jets in 2015 were a top five defense in DVOA.
We know about the talent drain that soon followed. Players like Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie were on their last legs. It turned out Calvin Pryor’s encouraging 2015 season was just a prank. There was a logjam at defensive end that would inevitably require sorting (shoutout to Mo Wilkerson for helping sort it out himself). Schemes require players, and the Jets have had trouble finding them. But while the defense’s stable of pass rushers remains amongst the league’s absolute worst, there’s an argument to be made that the Jets have the ammunition to match 2015’s defensive effort.
Let’s first be clear about where the Jets will not be better. With Damon Harrison over the center and the defensive end position incredibly well stocked, the Jets in 2015 had arguably the best run defense in the league. The 2018 Jets will still hold their own though in the top third of the league, and that’s a fine place to stand. Defenses in the modern NFL must stop the pass first and foremost.
Todd Bowles, much like Rex Ryan before him, likes to build his defenses from the back. Physical corners that can man up on receivers are the priority and pressure can be generated through scheme if not by individual pass rushing talent. In any other offseason where the Jets did not land arguably their most exciting quarterback prospect ever, the Jets paying out one of their largest ever contracts for a defensive player would be generating more hype. Although he’ll never be peak Darrelle Revis, Trumaine Johnson should be a more consistent and medium term answer to the team’s number one cornerback problem that has plagued Todd Bowles’ Jets since Revis called it quits about halfway through the 2015 season. Johnson, who has given up just 1 TD each in three of his last four seasons, statistically came out as the league’s top press man corner in 2017 according to Ian Wharton.
The rest of the cornerback group, on paper, rounds out nicely. Mo Claiborne, up and down in 2017 but better than expected prior to injuries failing him, will settle in better as a number two corner than the de facto number one role he was cast in last year. Buster Skrine in the slot is much maligned through the fan base but remains one of the team’s most unappreciated players at a difficult position. The problem is the pair’s injury record. Claiborne has never played a full sixteen game season and Skrine has dealt with recurring concussion issues. At the back end of the group there is some real promise. Derrick Jones has put together a solid preseason and deservedly landed a spot on the 53 man roster. Don’t tell Jets fans, but another player who has shown in preseason is Rashard Robinson of #WorstTradeEver fame. Even Parry Nickerson, everyone’s favorite late round pick, had a solid debut in the fourth preseason game after missing most of camp with injury. And it’d be unfair to not give some love to Daryl Roberts, whose destiny is to be entrenched as the Jets fourth corner for the rest of eternity.
Two other big features of 2015’s defensive success (besides a favorable schedule and strong turnover luck) were the career years of two first round picks. 2015 was Muhammad Wilkerson’s most productive year, finishing on 12 sacks, and Calvin Pryor came through with a strong second season that he’ll never live up to again. TIME *CLAP* IS *CLAP* A *CLAP* FLAT *CLAP* CIRCLE.
Lions and Presidents
Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams. Before landing Sam Darnold, these two players were Mike Maccagnan’s crown jewels. They were not just touted as key pieces of a franchise’s defense for the next ten years, their draft reputations as “can’t miss players” were used as justification of a sometimes lukewarm best-player-available draft strategy that has struggled to adjust value for position importance. Both players have been good, but to take a defensive interior player or a safety in the top ten of a draft, being good isn’t good enough. Luckily, time is still on their side.
The selection of Leonard Williams in 2015 was Mike Maccagnan’s first ever pick as Jets General Manager, and now the last man standing from that class. Williams has been a good to very good starter in his fledgling years with the Jets. But perhaps because he is the only above average starter taken in Maccagnan’ first two drafts (Robby Anderson, while a stud and a steal, was technically undrafted), the scrutiny isn’t as high on Williams as it could be. But with Williams approaching the prime years of his career, the hope is that we will begin to see the player Maccagnan determined was draft-yet-another-goddamn-3-4-defensive-end-in-the-top-ten good.
After his first two seasons in the league, Leonard Williams seemed destined for a Wilkerson in 2015 type breakout season. Following a rookie year in which he hit the ground running as an excellent run defender and a sophomore campaign that saw him lead the team with seven sacks at 22-years-old, the next logical step was a proper arrival at the league’s upper echelon of defensive interior pass rushers. Instead what we got was a two sack season, a disappointing output masked by the clown show that was Muhammad Wilkerson’s final year as a Jet.
Without Wilkerson playing at a high level (or anything close to it), Williams was the focal point of the offense’s attention. Earning this attention is the sign of a strong player, but the elite players in the NFL find ways to produce even when consistently keyed by the opposition. At age 24 it’s still reasonable to expect he can yet reach another level (he’s 9 months younger than 2018 third round pick and fellow starting DE Nathan Shepherd), and the Jets being a legitimately good defense depends on it. Williams was second in QB hits with 17 according to PFF, so only two sacks on the season was a bit of bad fortune. But even when sacks do not come, pressure is always the name of the game – Williams ranked 11th amongst defensive interior players in total pressure (sacks, hits, hurries) last year. That has to get better.
As for Jamal Adams, no player outside of Sam Darnold should have Jets fans more excited. Despite the cynicism and jokes #thiswriter has made about investing a top ten pick in a safety, Adams is one of the few players on the roster with legitimate All-Pro potential. For all the mocking done #onhere in regards to overblowing leadership and culture change aspects of his arrival, this fan base really did need an injection of excitement and personality. After years of forcing ourselves to get excited over washed up journeyman quarterbacks and what super creative things a defensive coordinator could do with a thousand first round picks at 3-4 defensive end, Adams is the type of player that’s legitimately fun to watch and root for.
That being said, there should be a distinction at this point between how good he has proven to be so far versus how good he has a chance to be. He led all safeties last year in stops in the run game according to PFF, but he also was credited with six touchdowns allowed – tied for second most in the league among safeties. He can be caught being too aggressive in the run game and a similar issue has led to some embarrassing moments matching up against tight ends. But save for lacking elite ball skills, there are not any limitations to how good Jamal Adams can be. He is practically another linebacker in the box and he has shown the range and physicality to be a difference maker in the passing game as well.
Best Case Scenario: A bad AFC, good luck with injuries and Sam Darnold being the second coming of Andrew Luck sees the Jets sneak into the playoffs with a wildcard.
Worst Case Scenario: Sam Darnold is the most turnover laden quarterback in the NFL, injuries strike a roster not equipped to handle more than a few, the Jets defensively struggle to anchor against the pass with Trumaine Johnson unable to deliver as a top 15 corner and 2017 repeats from Jamal Adams and Leonard Williams. Top 5 pick and cleaned house.
Upset Watch: Week 4 at Jacksonville, Week 16 vs. Packers
Jamal Adams will… be the best player on the Jets defense and become a household name. Solidifying himself as one of the league’s best run defending safeties, Adams will also have more sacks than any Jets linebacker individually, cut down significantly on touchdowns allowed and pick off his first two passes.
Leonard Williams will… have his best season as both a run defender and pass rusher, but will still be a level below All-Pro caliber. 8-10 sacks.
Sam Darnold will… start strongly and gain early Rookie of the Year consideration after a Week 1 where the game plan for Darnold is panned as being too conservative. As the league catches up to him he has a particularly rough few games midseason (the Vikings, Bears games prove particularly challenging). He pulls a Geno Smith in December, playing well with playoffs out of reach and leading the Jets to an upset.
Record Prediction: 7-9. Darnold’s strong start and an easy start to the schedule has the Jets looking like a surprise playoff contender but it fizzles down the stretch.
Way Too Early 2019 First Round Pick Prediction: Brian Burns, EDGE, Florida State
The Quinton Copies Award – LB Darron Lee
Goes to the highly drafted player who at some point this season will be made an example of in the interest of #teamculture (but really because he’s not good).
The Aaron Maybin Award – LB Kevin Pierre-Louis
Goes to the player most likely to make a legitimate contribution to the team out of nowhere that is unlikely to be repeated.
The David Clowney Award – CB Rashard Robinson
Goes to the strong preseason performer that fails to make an impression in the regular season.
The Josh McCown Award – WR Terelle Pryor
Goes to the preseason non-factor that ends up making a substantial contribution.
The Jerricho Cotchery Award – WR Quincy Enunwa
Goes to the player that the league criminally underrates or simply refuses to acknowledge as alive, but every Jets fan knows is good and proves it.
The Dee Milliner Award – TE Chris Herndon
Goes to the rookie who fails to contribute most of the year but shows promise from Week 14 onward, which is definitely, absolutely, without a doubt a sign of things to come for 2019.
The Ricky Sapp Award – TE Jordan Leggett
Goes to the depth chart buried player with solid measurables, college production and pre-draft reputation that gets zero looks at a position the Jets struggle to get production out of. Fans don’t get it. Said player is out of the league in two years.
The Bilal Powell Award – RB Bilal Powell
Goes to the most talented underutilized player on the roster. It’s a dynasty!