New York Jets: 10 Incumbents to Watch During the Preseason
Much of the focus throughout training camp has been on newcomers. The scarce stories that have not been about Tebow have usually focused on rookies Qinton Coples and Stephen Hill, or even safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell. Yet there are many incumbent players to whom Jet fans should be paying more attention.
The Jets' preseason schedule begins Friday night against the Bengals. Over the course of the next three weeks, many young players will have the opportunity to stake their first claim to a breakout season or solidify a spot on the depth chart.
It's time to cast the star power aside and focus on these key players.
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While he is not exactly the center of attention at his position, Greg McElroy remains an important part of the Jets' future at quarterback. Depth is important at every position, and McElroy has shown the potential to be a true backup to Mark Sanchez while maybe one day succeeding him.
McElroy's 2011 season was cut short by a hand injury, but he had shown promise in camp and during the preseason. The former Alabama quarterback has a stellar college resume and has won consistently at every level of the sport, including his national title with the Crimson Tide.
There are many reasons to believe McElroy can be a successful NFL quarterback. It will be good for Jets fans to see him get second-half reps in the preseason.
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Joe McKnight has certainly been an exciting player during his first two seasons as a Jet. Last year, he morphed into a key contributor, playing at a near-Pro Bowl level on special teams and occasionally splitting out as a wide receiver.
What McKnight has not yet become is a useful NFL running back. His third NFL year is the time to make that transition. He needs to show better vision and an ability to gain the tough yards to make an impact at the position where he was initially drafted.
McKnight has a clear opening. LaDainian Tomlinson's retirement leaves a void at third-down back. He has not yet claimed the position as his own, but the talented back should have every chance to do so.
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Kerley was a quiet contributor last season, amassing 29 receptions and emerging as one of Mark Sanchez' preferred targets over the latter half of the year. Slot receivers are becoming more and more popular in the NFL, and Kerley fits that mold perfectly.
The former TCU Horned Frog has not gotten off to the best start to his sophomore season, with Rex Ryan publicly calling the receiver out for failing to grasp Tony Sparano's playbook. Yet he can be a weapon in the Jet offense, especially given Sanchez's preference for safe throws down the middle of the field.
The Jets' receiving corps is currently very thin, so Kerley has a big opportunity to step up and claim a greater portion of the weekly targets.
Another player whose 2011 was essentially lost to injury, Jeff Cumberland looked like a very promising tight end prospect before tearing his Achilles tendon. Cumberland, a former wide receiver, was proving a very difficult cover opposite Dustin Keller.
Like Kerley, Cumberland gives the Jets another receiving option between the hashmarks to play to Mark Sanchez' strengths. If Cumberland is fully recovered, he and Keller can almost be a poor man's version of Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez.
It remains to be seen what exactly Cumberland's role will be, as he may not block well enough to consistently complement Keller in Tony Sparano's system. But Cumberland has the potential to be a very good pass-catching tight end.
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Aside from Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes, there may be no Jet who received more scrutiny in 2011 than Wayne Hunter. Yet he will begin 2012 as the team's starting right tackle.
The Jets have tried to replace Hunter, notably acquiring Jeff Otah from the Carolina Panthers before voiding the trade after the player failed his physical. Hunter's grip on a starting job remains somewhat thin, as the Jets have indicated that Austin Howard is a potential replacement.
Yet the best thing for the Jets' offensive live would be for Hunter to have a dominant preseason. All the physical tools are there. He just has to put them together.
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Everyone in Jet camp is expecting big things from Wilkerson, who put together a solid rookie season in 2011. Rex Ryan has boasted that Wilkerson has been the best player in camp aside from Darrelle Revis.
The 2011 first-round pick plays a position of need for the Jets, who would benefit greatly from a solid all-around down lineman who was also capable of generating a consistent pass rush. By all accounts, the Jets believe Wilkerson can be that player.
As much as Wilkerson seems to have progressed, legacies are not made in training camp. They are not made in preseason, either. But at least Jet fans will have a chance to see what all the fuss is about.
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Maybin represents the other opportunity for the Jets to generate a consistent pass rush in 2012. His challenge will be to establish himself as an every-down NFL player.
The former Buffalo Bill was widely regarded as a bust before a resurgent 2011 season in which he recorded six sacks while serving primarily as a situational pass-rusher. Reports out of camp are that "Mayhem" has performed well and is pushing for a larger role.
The Jets have a great need for a player with Maybin's abilities, so they will make every effort to see if he can be used in situations other than obvious passing downs.
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Mauga enters his fourth season in the Jets organization as a career backup. The former undrafted free agent has yet to see consistent playing time behind David Harris and Bart Scott.
Yet it is clear the Jets, who could use better pass coverage from the inside linebacker position, remain high on Mauga. As Scott gets older, Mauga could easily see more snaps if he performs the way the team expects.
This is a big season for Mauga, as the Jets are high on rookie inside linebacker Demario Davis. If Mauga does not perform, he will no longer be next in line for a starting role.
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Kyle Wilson is another player looking to increase his role in the Jet defense. But in a division with Wes Welker and the Bills' spread offense, third cornerback is already a pretty important position.
Wilson clearly improved last year following a rookie season during which he often looked lost. He still has a ways to go to reach shutdown corner status, but he showed his considerable potential last season.
It will be interesting to see how the Jets use Wilson during the preseason. It is difficult to defend the slot, so it may make sense to get Wilson as many reps in that role as possible. Yet Darrelle Revis is not likely to play too many snaps, so there may be value in seeing how Wilson performs on his own island.
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Folk represents the incumbent end of the kicking competition that is likely to continue throughout the Jets' preseason schedule. Folk may be a slight favorite, but he is certainly no lock to keep the job over offseason signing Josh Brown.
Folk got off to a hot start last season, before fading down the stretch to convert 76.0 percent of his field-goal opportunities. He is not particularly strong on kickoffs, so the Jets certainly have room for improvement at the kicker position.
The question is whether Brown provides that improvement. The former St. Louis Ram has a distinctly better career field-goal percentage than Folk, though at age 33 he may be in the decline. If he is able to match his better season in St. Louis, Brown can easily steal this job.