2012 was a disappointing year for the New York Jets. While most of the pieces remain from the team that went to back-to-back AFC Championship games in 2009 and 2010, this past season's version of the team was ineffective and earned only six victories.
Many changes are coming into effect this offseason. The Jets have already hired a new general manager and a new offensive coordinator. Several assistant coaches, including the offensive line coach, have been let go.
There are a slew of aspects of this team that need to be different in 2013, ranging from the cap to the roster to the game plans. Many of the pieces are there, as evidenced by their impressive success only two years ago. However, the Jets have significant work to do to achieve further success with the talent they have and the new pieces they will be acquiring in the coming months.
Here are the six most important changes that must happen in New York in order for 2013 to be a better year for the Jets.
Quarterback Mark Sanchez tends to take most of the heat for the Jets' failures on offense. However, plenty of the blame has to fall on the shoulders of the man in charge of the offensive game plans and play-calling. In 2012, those were the shoulders of recently-fired offensive coordinator Tony Sparano.
The fact of the matter is that Sanchez is below average but nowhere near as terrible as some believe. In his first three years in the NFL, Sanchez showed slow but steady improvement. His overall quarterback rating improved from 63.0 to 75.3 to 78.2. In 2011, he racked up a decent 32 total touchdowns.
When looking at the painfully bad 2012 campaign, one has to consider more than simply the quarterback play. Sanchez dealt with abnormally high amounts of pressure all season long. In the one game in which he did not start, backup Greg McElroy was sacked a Jets record 11 times.
Blaming the quarterback is always easy, but it is lazy to ignore the rest of the team. The Jets repeatedly displayed miscommunication along the offensive line, resulting in unblocked pass-rushers. Having miscommunication, failing to block all assignments and failing to get chip blocks from tight ends: these are all signs of sloppy offense.
The Jets signed a new offensive coordinator—Marty Mornhinweg—during the offseason. Mornhinweg will likely be bringing major changes, including a shift to a West Coast offense. However, what he really needs to bring to the offense is discipline and communication. Whoever is lined up behind center needs to have reliable protection and needs to trust his receiving targets.
Watching Sanchez in 2012, it was clear he had little to no trust in the players around him.
Remember how I just said Mark Sanchez is not as bad as you think? Well, that is true, but he is still not very good.
The Jets need to have a significantly different quarterback situation in 2013. It goes without saying that backup Tim Tebow needs to be released or traded, and that looks like it will happen soon enough.
Nevertheless, Sanchez needs competition this summer, and Greg McElroy alone is not enough. It might not be crazy for Sanchez to be the starter in 2013. If he can adapt to a radically different West Coast system, then he might still be useful.
However, the important thing is for there to be real competition. The biggest problem in 2012 was that the Jets lacked a viable backup option. Sanchez had a few truly terrible games, and head coach Rex Ryan had nowhere to turn. He finally gave one start to McElroy, and McElroy did no better than Sanchez.
Therefore, in 2013 the Jets need to either replace Sanchez off the bat or have a legitimate player ready to go at the first sign of trouble. There are myriad options available this offseason. While there are no obvious franchise quarterbacks available in the draft, guys like Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, Tyler Wilson, Ryan Nassib and E.J. Manuel have all shown varying degrees of promise.
There are also plenty of veterans who could be signed or traded for, including Alex Smith, Matt Flynn, Matt Moore, Chad Henne and Kirk Cousins. With none of those five quarterbacks having starting jobs locked up, the Jets should be able to acquire one of them if they make it a priority.
Regardless of who is going up against Sanchez this summer, Jets fan should be much happier if it is someone who can provide him with some real competition and stir up a real sense of urgency.
In 2008, the Jets invested the No. 6 overall pick in the draft in defensive end Vernon Gholston. Gholston turned out to be a tremendous draft bust, arguably the biggest bust in Jets franchise history. In his career to date, he has not recorded a sack.
Since then, the Jets' front office has been wary of investing in outside pass rushers. The outside linebacker position has not received any high draft picks or any risky investments.
It is time now—five years later—for the Jets to get over their fear and take a risk.
With the unsurprising release of veteran outside linebacker Calvin Pace, the Jets now have no viable starters at the position.
This year's draft is unusually stocked with outside linebackers and outside pass rushers in general. The one piece missing on the almost-great Jets' defense is an outside pass rush. Their line is consistently great and is now anchored by young stars Quinton Coples and Muhammad Wilkerson. They have David Harris and now Demario Davis as inside linebackers. Blitzing the quarterback with those guys inside would be a dream for an athletic outside pass rusher.
With a new general manager can come a change in philosophy. The failure of the Gholston pick is not on John Idzik's hands. It is time for him to take a risk and invest in a top flight outside linebacker.
The Jets have too much money tied up in their defensive backs, including Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and (if they re-sign him) free safety LaRon Landry. A great way to save money this offseason would be to not keep Landry.
The recently voted in first-time Pro Bowler did little in 2012 to earn the accolades he has received and should not become a new money sink for the Jets.
The two major factors that caused Landry's stock to suddenly rise were the move to the New York market and the injury to Darrelle Revis. The result is that Landry has garnered increased media attention and his price tag in free agency is going to be much higher than what he is worth.
Last year, Landry was a smart pickup for the Jets. Vastly underrated and coming off of an injury, Landry was signed to an inexpensive one-year deal. With his recent Pro Bowl appearance, Landry's stock is rising at just the right time for him to cash in.
The problem with having Landry at free safety is that he lacks some key skills and is highly injury prone. He is better as a run-stuffing pseudo-linebacker role than in coverage. The folks at Pro Football Focus have Landry as the No. 65-ranked safety in the NFL, grading out as an average safety in pass coverage. Note that he is average for all safeties, whereas free safeties should be above average when compared to strong safeties.
By garnering fewer pass deflections than missed tackles, one could argue that Landry has gotten worse this season, rather than better.
One of Landry's biggest selling points—especially this past season—is that he his "hard-hitting." This is a fair point, and Landry is an extremely strong player physically. The problem is that while he hits hard, he is an undisciplined tackler. His successful tackles often make the highlight reels, but he misses tackles more than most because he does not wrap up players with his arms. When analysts talk about the lost art of tackling, Landry is the kind of player they are complaining about.
During the 2012 season, Landry officially missed 13 tackles, one more than the heavily-maligned Roman Harper.
Looking out at the free-agency market, the Jets should be able to find a decent safety replacement for the veteran's minimum or slightly more. In order to keep their investment in defensive backs at a somewhat reasonable level, they should aim to spend only the minimum on their 2013 starting free safety.
A veteran like Dashon Goldson—who might not get a solid offer from the San Francisco 49ers—would be more desirable than Landry. Even former Jet Jim Leonhard would be a significantly better value for the money than Landry.
Defensive end Quinton Coples had a solid but not outstanding rookie season. Fortunately, he showed significant promise for the future.
The man who lines up across from Coples—Muhammad Wilkerson—made an enormous leap in his second season. After a moderately successful rookie season, he broke out as one of the top defensive players in the NFL in 2012.
One of most underappreciated players in the NFL this past season, Wilkerson has been slowly building up his recognition around the country. He was recently selected to the "All-Joe" team for underappreciated and valuable players. He was also considered by many to be a tremendous Pro Bowl snub.
The second-rated (via ProFootballFocus.com, subscription required) 3-4 defensive end in the NFL, behind Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans, Wilkerson stood out in every facet of his game. He was a relentless pass-rusher, garnering 22 quarterback pressures. He was especially great against the run and totaled 57 tackles for the year, tied with Watt for the most at the position.
This is exactly the sort of improvement the Jets need to see from Coples, who is equally gifted physically. It takes two or even three quality players to generate at truly fierce pass rush in the NFL. If Coples can get onto Mo's level in 2013, the Jets defensive line could become a major game-changer.
The number one problem for the Jets in 2012 was injuries. It is a tough problem to correct and is not entirely controllable, but the conditioning staff and the players need to do everything they can to fix this.
The rash of injuries that hit the Jets throughout the year was almost beyond belief. Losing their best defensive player—Darrelle Revis—and best offensive skill player—Santonio Holmes—was just the start. Injuries also struck Sione Pouha, one of the best nose tackles in the league, and his backup Kenrick Ellis.
The wide receiving core was perhaps struck the hardest. In addition to Holmes, injuries also waylaid Stephen Hill, Clyde Gates and Jeremy Kerley, with Hill having very few healthy games. Dustin Keller—the top receiving tight end and one of Mark Sanchez's favorite targets—missed most of the year with injury.
Add in running back and kick returner Joe McKnight and linebacker Bart Scott, and the list starts to get out of control. Getting as many of these guys as possible back to health has to be a top priority for the Jets. Playing in the NFL without your most valuable players is an essentially impossible task.
More than anything else, the 2013 Jets need to get the talent they do have on the field and keep it there. With a roster that is somewhat top-heavy and lacking in depth, players like Revis, Hill and others simply cannot be replaced.