When Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez said he thinks he can be a top-10 NFL quarterback, what might be perceived as overconfidence by some wasn't met with a slap of the wrist, a wag of the finger or even so much as a scoff from this writer.
That's because it's not overconfidence; statements like those are to be expected. That's why we get Joe Flacco, who is clearly far from a top-five quarterback, coming out and making that equally far-fetched claim.
If you don't think you can be among the best, you probably don't have what it takes to play in the NFL.
The question is, can he do what it takes to be considered among the best? And what has to happen for him to get there?
The Jets Must Surround Mark Sanchez With Talent
Yes, this has nothing to do with Mark Sanchez and what he can do personally to improve. But in a team sport, individual improvement is a lot easier when you're surrounded by talent.
Tom Brady has succeeded behind a consistently solid offensive line, throwing to multiple weapons over the past few years. And Eli Manning had a season unlike any other he's enjoyed in recent years as a result of a bevy of offensive firepower at his disposal.
Perhaps that offensive firepower already resides on the Jets' roster, but Sanchez and the Jets need some of those young weapons to step forward and reveal themselves.
They drafted wide receiver Stephen Hill in the second round to provide a physical and vertical threat for outside the numbers. Jeremy Kerley has earned the ire of Rex Ryan for a "disappointing" offseason program. The 26-year-old Chaz Schilens has the physical tools to succeed in the NFL, but he has to stay healthy for a full season.
Sixth-year veteran wide receiver Santonio Holmes remains the team's best option in the passing game. That's not necessarily a bad thing, only if the Jets aren't able to get the most out of Holmes, which was the case last year.
It's not just the receivers, though. In his countdown of the top 30 quarterbacks in the NFL (a list on which Sanchez ranked No. 23), ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski says, "Sanchez is a complimentary quarterback. He's at his best working off a strong running game with defined reads. That allows him to get the ball out quickly within the structure and timing of the offense."
The Jets hope to execute a ground-and-pound style of offense, but can they do that with running back Shonn Greene as their bell cow? If not, can the other backs step up to provide enough of a presence on third down and as spell backs to make the running game "strong," as Jaws says?
Greene has come under fire as well, with critics saying he isn't the type of back who can break a game open and shouldn't be counted on to spearhead a run-first offense. If that's the case, will Joe McKnight find his way onto the field as a true running back? Is Bilal Powell ready to break out in his second year?
It doesn't look good. One reporter indicated that the Jets' most explosive weapon on offense is Tim Tebow:
The most dynamic offensive playmaker on the Jets right now? Tim Tebow. And there isn't a close second. #nyj— Manish Mehta(@MMehtaNYDN) August 16, 2012
That simply can't be the case if the Jets want Sanchez to develop into a top-10 quarterback. If Sanchez is to emerge into a top-10 quarterback, he won't likely be able to do it alone.
Whew, I need a cigarette after that. But there's more, and unlike the talent on the roster, the rest of it is within Sanchez's control.
Sanchez Must Learn From The Past, Improve Decision-Making
Last year's collapse may have been marked by Sanchez's nine turnovers over the final three games of the season, but he was not the only player in a Jets uniform to blame.
Still, there is a lot for him to improve upon.
"Each year as a quarterback in any organization, you've got to get better and learn from your mistakes the previous year," said Sanchez, per the Star-Ledger.
Sanchez has improved statistically in each of his three seasons in the league (more on that later), but more than just those tangible improvements, he must improve in some intangible areas.
"After three years in the league, Sanchez continues to struggle in two critical areas: decision-making and down-field accuracy," said Jaworski. "When he plants his back foot, doesn't get what he wants and then has to reload, he loses clarity."
It was poor decision-making that led to a costly sack in the end zone against the New York Giants in one of the final games of the season. Instead of getting the ball out quickly, Sanchez hung on for far too long and then tried to throw the ball away while he was in the grasp—fundamentally, a poor decision.
The worst part? He had a checkdown wide open. This is about decision-making, but also about knowing the situation and making reads that match up with the situation.
Improve His Efficiency
Sanchez has improved in most major statistical categories in each of his first three years, but those improvements haven't been significant, especially in the stats that matter; efficiency, not volume, wins and loses games.
To have ranked in the top 10 in 2011 in terms of completion percentage, Sanchez would have had to complete an additional five percent of his passes in order to surpass Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Below 60 percent won't cut it if he wants to be considered among the top-10 QBs in the NFL.
Big plays are great, and as Jaws mentions, they're necessary. But Sanchez should focus on being less Drew Brees and more Matt Ryan if he wants to be considered among the top-10 signal-callers in the league.
Offense Must Play Into His Strengths, but Sanchez Must Improve Weak Spots
Bye-bye Mr. 59-passes-in-a-game Brian Schottenheimer. Hello Mr. Ground-and-Pound Tony Sparano. That switch alone could do a great deal to help Sanchez's growth.
"Sanchez has shown some very positive attributes that will fit well with Tony Sparano's run-first approach to his offensive design," says Jaws, "but to move up on my big board, Sanchez must improve his coverage recognition and his intermediate to deeper accuracy. Otherwise, he'll remain a player with limitations."
For now, they must understand what those limitations are and do their best to nurture his growth by adjusting the offense to put some powder on those pimples.
Inevitably, though, the powder will wash off and reveal those pimples when a defense throws water in Sanchez's face. In order to respond, he'll have to improve upon his limitations in order to answer the bell when he's forced outside of his comfort zone.
His weaknesses in terms of accuracy, efficiency and decision-making have been covered here already. But there's one more weakness, arm strength, that is correctable and could go a long way in helping Sanchez improve.
"Sanchez is most effective throwing in the middle of the field, between the numbers. He lacks the arm strength demanded to drive the ball outside with the necessary velocity, but he's made some very good seam throws," Jaws said.
The best quarterbacks can make all the throws. By strengthening his arm, Sanchez can increase the repertoire of throws at his disposal, forcing opposing defenses to respect everything without focusing on the few things he does well.