Four years after aggressively moving into the top five to select Mark Sanchez, the New York Jets begun their quarterback evolution when West Virginia's Geno Smith fell into their laps in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft.
Rated by most as the draft's top quarterback, Smith should represent the jump-start of change that has been coming for the Jets at the game's most important position.
Sanchez, now a four-year starter, finished last season as arguably the worst starting quarterback in the NFL. He completed just 54.3 percent of his passes with 18 interceptions and a passer rating of 66.9.
Tim Tebow, released by the Jets on Monday, threw just eight passes and was relegated mostly to special teams duties. Greg McElroy played in two games but lost his only start, a December home game against the San Diego Chargers.
The Jets originally appeared ready to hand Sanchez the starting job for a fifth season, as only David Garrard—who hasn't thrown an NFL pass in two seasons—and journeyman Matt Simms were added to the quarterback depth chart.
But by inserting Smith, who has an NFL-ready arm and the potential to start in Week 1, into the equation, the Jets have finally added legitimate competition to Sanchez's hold on the position.
Smith certainly doesn't enter the NFL as a finished product capable of turning around a franchise in his first year, as we saw the likes of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III do in 2012. But Smith does bring a lot to the table in terms of advancing the quarterbacking skill set in New York both now and in the future.
Here's a look at how Smith can help evolve the Jets' still-shaky quarterback situation.
Experience Handling the Blitz
At West Virginia, Smith was routinely blitzed because of the way the Mountaineers played offense. Far from a pro-style offense, the Smith-led attack played nearly all of its snaps in a spread look that rarely featured a tight end or blitz-pickup help in the form of a back.
As a result, Smith has accumulated a wealth of experience making decisions against blitzes and extra pressure.
Such a trait will be welcomed in the Jets' quarterback room.
Geno Smith completed 70.8% of his passes vs. the blitz last season. That’s better than RGIII’s 70.2% in his final college season.— Numbers Never Lie (@ESPN_Numbers) April 2, 2013
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Sanchez finished last in the NFL last season in passing accuracy under pressure (50.0 percent). He also threw zero touchdowns and four interceptions during the 144 dropbacks in each which pressure was applied.
In comparison, Robert Griffin III completed more than 70 percent of his passes under pressure for the Redskins, despite being under pressure an a much higher rate than Sanchez. It's a shocking gap between one of the NFL's up-and-coming stars at the position and a below-average backup.
The Jets will now hope Smith can provide an effectiveness against the blitz that compares more to Griffin III than to Sanchez. Judging by his college success (which included a completion percent of more than 70 percent), we can be fairly confident that Smith will eventually lean more toward Griffin III.
No quarterback from the 2013 class will enter the NFL with more experience from the shotgun or pistol than Smith.
According to ESPN Stats and Information, Smith attempted a ridiculous 96 percent of his passes from the shotgun or pistol formation while at West Virginia. Dropping from under center will be mostly foreign to him, at least in game-time situations.
Maybe such a history won't be a bad thing for Smith.
Considering offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg is still a shotgun-heavy play-caller, especially in the pass game, Smith should be able to make a smoother transition. In the previously linked ESPN article, Jets beat writer Rich Cimini notes that 69 percent of Mornhinweg's called passes last season came from the shotgun.
Such experience in a shotgun offense was, at least in the past, widely considered a detriment for quarterbacks making the move from college to the NFL. Mornhinweg—if his previous play-calling history holds—could present Smith with a package that helps slowly ease him into the traditional sets of an NFL offense.
Overall, the Jets offense lacked creativity for most of the 2012 season, in large part because of Sanchez's limited skill set. Smith should help the Jets open up some new packages for a more creative play-caller like Mornhinweg.
Upside, Upside, Upside
The Jets know what they have in Sanchez. Entering his fifth NFL season, Sanchez is unlikely to take huge strides at the position or develop into one of the game's better quarterbacks. His ceiling is very limited.
The same can be said for a veteran like Garrard. His peak has already come and gone.
Even a player like McElroy, who is young and intelligent, doesn't have great upside. He has a noodle arm and limited physical skills, which are fine in a backup, but very limiting as a starter.
Smith, for all his own faults, finally offers the New York Jets what every franchise covets at the position: upside and potential.
Regardless of whether Smith starts a game in 2013 or marinates on the bench, the Jets have a player at the game's most important position who possesses the upside of a top quarterback.
Smith has the NFL-caliber arm. He's mobile and athletic in and out of the pocket, although he's much more of a pocket passer than a runner. There's intelligence and work ethic. As a raw quarterback, Smith has the tools necessary to become very good.
This element, above all others, provides the kind of building block for evolution the Jets desperately needed at quarterback.
Early on, Smith may excel at throwing against a blitz or operating out of the shotgun—two elements the Jets didn't have before his addition.
But it's his long-term potential that changes this awkward quarterback for the better.
Sanchez and his paycheck will likely stick around in 2013, and Garrard may get a start or two when things go south next season. But the Jets finally have the piece of the puzzle that provides hope, a sense that better times are eventually on their way.
For a franchise as poorly run at quarterback as the Jets were last season, such an evolution is a huge step in the right direction.