What seemed to be one of the more interesting offseasons in New York Jet history can finally take a backseat to some real action.
The 2012 NFL season is upon us, and the the Jets will officially kick it off August 10th at 7:30 p.m. ET vs. the Cincinnati Bengals, albeit in preseason. But let's be honest, at this point I am sure EVERY Jet fan would rather watch a meaningless game than more non-stop Jets media coverage of training camp fights and a made-up quarterback controversy.
Every camp and preseason has its storylines, and every team needs its answers, so with the action just hours away, let's take a look at some of the more interesting position battles.
I think every Jet fans can agree on one thing: The defense will not be the problem facing the Jets this season. They are geared up to have another top-five unit under Rex Ryan, and some (including myself) believe this defense has the potential to be top-three, so it is not a surprise to see that three of my five battles come from the offensive side of the ball.
WR3: Jeremy Kerley, Chaz Schilens, Patrick Turner
Had Jeremy Kerley come into camp in shape and healthy, I don't think there would be much of a battle here; it'd be his job to lose. Unfortunately for him, he came into camp out of shape and hurt. Kerley has missed a big chunk of camp, which led to head coach Rex Ryan uncharacteristically letting out a rare display of public criticism towards Jeremy, Per the New York Post:
"Jeremy needs to step it up, because, quite honestly, I was a little disappointed in Jeremy in the offseason. He’s got to pick up this system, this new system. He’s got to put the time in it."
Kerley had a solid 2011 rookie season for the Jets, playing in 14 games while catching 29 balls for 314 yards and a touchdown. He was expected to step into the role of slot receiver in 2012 and make a significant impact on offense. His debut will be on hold as he sits out Friday's game with a hamstring injury.
Chaz Schilens hasn't made much noise on the field in camp, but he has definitely made some noise off of it. Schilens was the only Jet to take offense to CB Antonio Cromartie's comments regarding his stance on the Jets wide receiver situation, saying he believes he is the team's second-best option outside of No. 1 wideout Santonio Holmes.
That being said, Chaz has the size and speed you desperately look for in a wideout, but he has yet to show he can stay healthy and be reliable. He needs a very good and healthy preseason to prove he can be the guy.
Patric Turner is a name that hasn't stopped buzzing up in Cortland. After two seasons as the team's fourth WR and key special-teamer, Turner may have found his role with the Jets and his former college quarterback, Mark Sanchez.
Turner has great size (6'5", 220 lbs) and can be a dangerous threat in the red zone, especially with the departure of Plaxico Burress, but he has yet to show he has the speed to be an every-down wideout.
I personally have been tough on Turner in his first few seasons in NY, but out of all the WRs in camp, Turner has impressed me the most thus far. I look for him to have the best preseason out of the three above, and possibly earn a bigger role in 2012.
Many are calling for the Jets to make a move at WR, especially with the injury to Santonio Holmes and the inexperience of the rest of the corps. Unfortunately, the pickings are slim, and if the Jets want to make a serious upgrade here, they may need to take a look at the trade market.
RB2: Joe McKnight, Bilal Powell
Joe McKnight is facing a make-or-break season this year; he said so himself. McKnight may be the Jets most explosive player on offense, but can he stay healthy, and can he be effective carrying the rock 10-12 times a game?
McKnight's Jet career didn't exactly get off to a great start, but his coming-out party happened on special teams last year when he led the NFL in return yard average (31.6). While Shonn Greene figures to be the lead back, McKnight bulked up in the offseason in order to become a major contributor on offense and to give the Jets another valuable option in the backfield.
The most important thing the Jets need to find out is if Joe can stay healthy and stay out of fights with his teammates. In a perfect world, McKnight takes a hold of new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano's system and flourishes much like Reggie Bush did last season in Miami.
Bilal Powell is a name that many thought would be mentioned on the chopping block (not in a competition for more carries), but Powell may be having the most impressive camp of all. Whether it was due to injury, or just a lack of an offseason in 2011, Powell was non-existent in his rookie season. Powell rushed 13 times for only 21 yards and a fumble in 2011, leading many to believe that the Jets fourth-round selection was a waste.
Fast-forward one year and Powell has done nothing but surprise everyone at camp; he has even received reps with the first team. If there is one Jet who needs to perform in live games, it's Powell. It's one thing to run against air on the practice field, but when you're the blood that the defense is sniffing in real action, can you get hit, pop back up and run just as hard on the next play?
The Jets desperately need a back to step up and break out, especially if they want to become that ground-and-pound team, which they appear to be heading towards...again.
TE2 Jeff Cumberland, Josh Baker
Here is one situation where I have been calling for an outsider since day one. It's no secret that the Jets need a pure blocking TE, but they have yet to address it. Dustin Keller is the starting TE and Mark Sanchez's security blanket, but he has shown he cannot be counted on as a blocking TE, so this spot becomes a MAJOR issue.
Last season the Jets failed to replace the departed Ben Hartsock. They tried to fill that gap with Matthew Mulligan, but we all know how that worked out. With an offense who wants to run first, run second, run third and hell, even run on fourth down, a blocking TE is as important as Shonn Greene's legs.
Jeff Cumberland has had an up-and-down start to his career. As an UDFA with the Jets in 2010, Jeff opened everyone's eyes in camp that summer. Cumberland came out of college as a wide receiver but made the transition to TE. After making the team as the second TE last year, Cumberland tore his Achilles in Week 3 vs. the Oakland Raiders and missed the rest of the season.
Cumberland has added weight in the offseason in attempts to become a more efficient blocker, but who knows if he can handle that load yet. Cumberland's size gives you a very nice red-zone target, but with Dustin Keller enriched as the starter, the Jets need a guy who will not only catch passes, but knock someones helmet off.
Josh Baker has been another eye-opener at camp. Baker, who was also an UDFA, has developed a nice rapport with backup quarterback Tim Tebow and has made a ton of plays in camp so far. So much so that Tony Sparano has some high praise for the second-year tight end.
Sparano says Baker can be used in the backfield, as an in-line blocking tight end or sent out on routes to catch passes. Want an example? Sparano compares Baker to a TE on the Washington Redskins. From The Star-Ledger:
“He has a unique skill set to me right now,” Sparano said. “Different than a lot of players I’ve coached in the past. He kind of reminds me a little bit—and I don’t like comparing players, probably shouldn’t do it—like a Chris Cooley-type of skill set.”
Baker is in the same boat as Cumberland. Both can cause havoc as a receiving option, but can they provide the Jets with what they REALLY need...a pure BEAST of a blocker? I don't think so. I see the Jets absolutely adding a blocking TE before they break camp and enter the regular season.
Which Defensive UDFA will make the team? (Marcus Dowtin, Ryan Steed, Donnie Fletcher, Damon Harrison)
It is going to be TOUGH to crack this defenses rotation, but the Jets have some solid UDFA's in camp.
The No. 1 UDFA, in my opinion, is LB/S Marcus Dowtin. Dowtin was a highly regarded LB at the University of Georgia until a second-degree assault arrest stemming from a bar fight in May of 2010 cost him his scholarship. I
n January 2011, the University found out about the charge and Dowtin was forced to transfer. He chose to attend North Alabama for his senior year and thrived, totaling 115 tackles, four sacks and one interception. The Jets had Dowtin ranked as a "type-A UDFA" and signed him immediately after the 2012 draft.
Also, Dowtin is a great coverage LB and that could help the Jets, especially against teams with high-octane offenses like division-rival New England.
Dowtin told JetsInsider.com that he is fairly comfortable with the system already, although an injury has slowed him down recently.
“I’m playing pretty much both linebacker spots. I’m moving to the dime, which you know is kind of like a cover [assignment]...I get in a little bit of that X, which does some covering too. So my job is basically to fit in where I can and do the best I can with the opportunity that I get.”
Two cornerbacks who the Jets were able to pick up following the draft also come to the Jets with some high praise. Ryan Steed and Donnie Fletcher are two names who, at the beginning of the draft process, received very high grades.
Ryan Steed was actually mentioned in first-round discussion early in the draft process, but slow 40 times at the combine and a medical issue forced him to go undrafted. Thus far in camp, Steed has showcased his quick hands and fluid movement.
Donnie Fletcher is a name that intrigues many, especially me. I can see him making a push for that fourth CB spot and a role on special teams. At Boston College, Fletcher showed good size, ball skills and a natural feel in coverage. Fletcher so far in camp looks like an ideal corner for covering two-zone schemes, which allow him to use his size and skill to make plays on the ball and have some upside in man-to-man.
Damon Harrison has not only made a name for himself on Twitter; he is making one in camp as well. With the Jets 3-4 nose rotation not as deep as you'd like, Harrison has a chance to overtake a Martin Tevaseu on the roster. He is extremely physical and surprisingly athletic for a man 6'3", 339 lbs. Harrison shined in minicamp earlier this spring, and it should be interesting to see how performs in preseason.
K Nick Folk, Kris Brown
We're talking about the New York Jets here, so it would be completely irresponsible of me NOT to mention Mike Westhoff. The Jets special teams coach is entering his final year of his illustrious 30-year career, and what better way to go out than with a old fashion kicking competition?
Nick Folk has quietly been effective for the Jets. Let's face it, unless you're Adam Vinatieri, you will face some type of heat from the fans.
Folk, who has made some important kicks throughout his Jet career, has been far from perfect. Entering his third season with the Jets and his sixth in the league, Folk finds himself in competition with nine-year veteran Josh Brown.
Folk's numbers have been good–-averaging 75 percent for field goals made over the past two years, but his inconsistency on longer kicks (10-20 on kicks 50-plus) has been his Achilles heel.
Josh Brown, on the other hand, has made a career on kicks over 50 yards (28-of-43 on kicks 50-plus). His strong leg and clutch field goals have made him the favorite in this competition, but it is yet to be seen if he can handle the winds at the Meadowlands.
Sure he has kicked in Seattle, where the weather isn't perfect, but the Meadowlands is one of the toughest places to kick in football. Brown has a career FG percentage of 80 percent with a kicking percentage of 75 last season.
So far in camp, Folk has the slight edge and is the starting kicker on the depth chart. It is apparently his job to lose right now as we enter the first game of the preseason. That can change quickly. I may be in the minority here, but I expect Nick Folk to beat out Josh Brown, just as he did with Nick Novak last season.
This preseason will be very important for a team that has many question marks entering the 2012 season. Outside of handful of guys on offense and defense, Rex and his staff will have their eyes open for guys who can come in and fulfill Rex's Super Bowl dreams.