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10 New York Jets Players Feeling the Most Pressure Heading into Camp

Philip SchawillieContributor IIIMay 15, 2013

10 New York Jets Players Feeling the Most Pressure Heading into Camp

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    "Competition through and through" is general manager John Idzik's mantra for the New York Jets' 2013 season. Fighting for one's job is a kind of pressure with which most fans easily identify. However it's only one of the pressures the players in these slides will experience.

    The pressures these players face can be categorized as follows:

    The shoes they're being asked to fill

    The Jets lost half of their 2012 Week 1 starters to salary cap cuts, free agency or trade. Some of them were of Pro Bowl caliber or greater. These players must replace the departed stars and achieve a semblance of their level of play.  

    Example: S Dawan Landry

     

    The battle of raised expectations

    The moves Jets made in free agency and the draft defied nearly everyone's expectations. For example, they did not draft an outside linebacker to bolster the pass rush, even though Georgia's Jarvis Jones was available in the first round. They'll have to rely on their current roster to generate quarterback pressure.

    Example: OLB Antwan Barnes

     

    Being a starter by default

    These players play a position marked for upgrade but lack the credentials to be considered the long-term solution. They must raise their performance level to that of a competent starter while the window of opportunity is there.  

    Example: TE Jeff Cumberland

     

    Fighting for a job

    Maybe they've been starters but must best a newcomer to keep their jobs. These players aren't battling to keep a roster spot, they're fighting to keep their place on the depth chart.  

    Example: CB Kyle Wilson

     

    Fighting for a career

    Perhaps they were a draft bust. Perhaps they suffered an injury whose long-term effects are uncertain. Perhaps they played their hardest, only to face a challenger who is younger or stronger or more versatile. Whatever the reason, these players are truly "on the bubble," because if they don't meet expectations this time, their Jets career—perhaps even their NFL career—might be over.  

    Example: G Vladimir Ducasse

     

    Here's a list of Jets players who face some form of pressure in 2013.

     

    SOURCES

S Dawan Landry

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    When the Jets traded Darrelle Revis to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that was the final blow to a secondary that had been the team's crown jewel in 2012. Granted, Revis missed most of 2012. However, after losing starting safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell to free agency, losing Revis as well seemed to add insult to injury.

    Could the secondary recover?

    That's why getting LaRon Landry's brother, Dawan, who played the last two years with the Jacksonville Jaguars, was so important. He brings back a veteran presence to a position that has no returning starters.

    However, he'll have large shoes to fill. All LaRon Landry did in 2012 was play his way into being one of the Jets' two Pro Bowl representatives.

    Here's how the brothers' 2012 seasons compared:

    Name GP GS Sk Int PD FF FR Tkl Ast
    LaRon 16 15   2 8 4   75 25
    Dawan 16 16   1 2     81 18

    Their performance lines were fairly close. I'd give a slight edge to LaRon because of his edge in passes defensed and forced fumbles, but that may have been a result of defensive scheme more than ability.

    The Jets didn't draft a safety or sign another veteran free agent. If Dawan Landry doesn't come close to last year's numbers, filling his position will be up to the unknown and inexperienced Jaiquawn Jarrett and Eric Crocker. Josh Bush, slated to start opposite Landry, and his backup Antonio Allen will be the veterans of the unit.

    If Landry maintains his current standard and can demonstrate more pass coverage skills, he'll be a vital cog in a revitalized Jets secondary.

TE Jeff Cumberland

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    Jeff Cumberland has something to prove to those who feel the Jets need a better tight end.

    Although he had a career year in 2012, he accomplished it essentially as a part-timer. He's never had the opportunity to prove that he could match the production of departed Jets TE Dustin Keller.

    This year might be his chance.

    Last year Cumberland appeared in 15 games, starting 12. He caught 29 passes for 359 yards, averaging 12.4 yards per catch, and scored three touchdowns. Keller appeared in eight games, starting five and caught 28 passes for 317 yards (11.3 yards per catch) and two touchdowns. Their combined production was 57 catches, 676 yards, averaging 11.9 yards per catch, and five touchdowns.

    In 2011, his best year, Keller appeared in all 16 games, starting 12. He caught 65 passes for 815 yards and five touchdowns, averaging 12.5 yards per catch. That is the standard to which Cumberland must aspire, in addition to blocking responsibilities.

    Can he do it? ESPN's Rich Cimini seems cynical:

    Cumberland displayed some big-play ability -- six of his 29 receptions went for 20-plus yards -- but he was an inconsistent route runner and made mental mistakes in hot-read situations....Cumberland is a solid No. 2, with room to improve. There's nothing special about him, but he could be the starter by default.

     

    Cumberland tops the depth chart at tight end. Cimini says Cumberland's backup, Konrad Reuland "played mostly as an H-back, doing the dirty work," a role for which seventh-round draft pick Tommy Bohanon could compete.

    The Jets did not draft a tight end but instead signed undrafted free agents Chris Pantale and Mike Shanahan. There will be competition. However, it won't be of the sort that would make Cumberland's victory a ringing endorsement of his skills.

    He'll have to wait for the regular season for that. Otherwise, the Jets will be thinking tight end in the 2014 draft.

OLB Antwan Barnes

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    When the Jets signed outside linebacker Antwan Barnes as a free agent, most observers believed he would complement a first-round draft pick like LSU's Barkevious Mingo or Georgia's Jarvis Jones in enhancing the Jets' outside pass rush.

    Instead, Barnes seems to have the primary responsibility.

    Barnes had one year, 2011, in which he appeared in all 16 regular season games and recorded 11.0 sacks as a member of the San Diego Chargers. That's the form he must display to fulfill the Jets expectations.

    The problem is, he's had only one year like that in his six-year career. All of his five career starts came in 2011. His next highest sack total was 4.5 in 2010.

    Granted, Antonio Garay and rookie Sheldon Richardson are supposed to provide more quarterback pressure up the middle. Plus, Muhammad Wilkerson will provide pressure from defensive end.

    Rex Ryan is also trying an experiment to give Barnes more help. He's trying to convert Quinton Coples from defensive end to outside linebacker.

    If that works, the Jets could have a formidable front seven, capable of pressuring the quarterback from all parts of the field.

    If not, Barnes will face demands that he might not have anticipated when he signed his deal.

CB Kyle Wilson

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    Kyle Wilson will probably be a Jet on opening day. The question is in what role.

    Wilson assumed a starting cornerback spot when Darrelle Revis injured his ACL against the Miami Dolphins and was part of the second-best pass defense in the NFL. However, the Jets choice of Dee Milliner as their No. 1 draft pick indicates that Wilson's status is far from secure.

    Like Milliner, Wilson was a first-round draft pick. However, he did not break into the starting lineup consistently until his third season. According to Scouts Inc., "He has adequate size and good strength and athleticism. He can be an explosive run defender and improved versus the pass..."

    Some think that may be enough to hold off Milliner, at least at first. In his preview of rookie camp battles in the AFC East, ESPN.com's James Walker states Wilson's case:

    Incumbent: Kyle Wilson

    Rookie challenger: Dee Milliner

    Analysis: We've written a ton about the pending, three-way quarterback battle in New York between Mark Sanchez, David Garrard and rookie Geno Smith. So we want to switch things up a little bit and provide more focus on the cornerback competition. Wilson and Milliner are both first-round draft picks just three years apart. Both can play and will have a big role on the team. However, the question is who will start in Week 1? Milliner has to learn Rex Ryan's complicated defense. Wilson has a three-year head start and played pretty well last season in the absence of Darrelle Revis. He barely holds off Milliner to start the year, but that's always subject to change.

    Prediction: Wilson

     

    Wilson's role in 2013 depends on a number of factors: how quickly Milliner learns the Jets defense, how Milliner does in one-on-one pass coverage and how much Wilson himself improves.

    Once Milliner learns the defense, whoever is the better one-on-one defender will start opposite Antonio Cromartie. The other player will most likely play in nickel or dime coverages.

    In other words, Wilson should have a job with the Jets on Week 1. However, he'll be in a fight to keep his starting position all season.

FB Lex Hilliard

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    Lex Hilliard must be confused about his job security. After the most recent Jets draft, he has every cause for concern.

    Writers like ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini wrote Hilliard off as "plucked...off the scrap heap," unlikely to return to the Jets.

    That's despite a Scouts Inc. report that stresses Hilliard's versatility:

    Hillard is a powerfully built ball carrier who is best between the tackles. He has good vision, balance and agility to hit a crease. He can move the pile on contact, running with good pad level. He has reliable hands as a receiver but has limited ability downfield after the catch. He is solid in pass protection. He makes most of his contributions on special teams.

     

    The Jets, seemingly in agreement with Scouts Inc., signed Hilliard to a one-year deal for $780,000. At that point, he must have breathed a small sigh of relief. Perhaps he'd be able to showcase his receiving skills in the Jets' new West Coast offense.

    Draft weekend came, and the Jets had another surprise for Hilliard.

    They drafted fullback Tommy Bohanon in the seventh round. Maybe the pick was too low to threaten Hilliard. On the other hand, they may agree with another of Cimini's assessments:

    Hilliard...isn't a great fit in Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast-style system because he's not a particularly good pass receiver. He's a solid lead blocker in two-back sets, although his blitz pick-up leaves a lot to be desired. He blew some blocking assignments that resulted in quarterback hits.

     

    If that's the case, Hilliard's job security is not what it used to be.

    At the NFL Scouting Combine, Bohanon led running backs in the bench press workout with 36 repetitions at 225 pounds. He also placed well in the vertical jump.

    Cimini summarizes Bohanon's projected role:

    The Jets are hoping this "T-Bo" contributes more than the last "Tebow." Bohanon's main competition is incumbent FB Lex Hilliard, but his ability to play H-Back will help his chances of making the team. Obviously, Bohanon will have to make a niche for himself on special teams.

     

    In his post-draft news conference, Bohanon described his experiences playing both halfback and tight end, a versatility Hilliard lacks. If Bohanon can assume Hilliard's responsibilities while expanding his role, Hilliard may be looking for work after cut-down day.

G Vladimir Ducasse

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    A former second-round pick is fighting for his professional life in 2013.

    Last season, Vladimir Ducasse platooned with Matt Slauson at left guard. With Slauson gone, Ducasse should be the heir apparent. However, Ducasse has not fulfilled expectations.

    Rich Cimini has offered the following assessments:

    When evaluating the offensive line's 2012 performance:

    They groomed Ducasse last season to replace Slauson at left guard—Ducasse played in 272 offensive snaps (25 percent)—so you have to think he's the favorite. Ducasse isn't on scholarship anymore because his biggest ally, former GM Mike Tannenbaum, is gone.

     

    When weighing the Jets' draft needs at guard:

    Ducasse, a former second-round pick, was given an opportunity to start in each of his first three seasons—and he failed every time.

     

    ESPN.com's James Walker's assessment of former general manager Mike Tannenbaum's failures includes Ducasse:

    ...Tannenbaum's drafts have been below average. You can start with back-to-back first-round picks of Vernon Gholston and Sanchez in 2008 and 2009, respectively. Both players were taken in the top six overall and the Jets whiffed...Other draft busts like Vladimir Ducasse also stand out.

     

    On the current depth chart, Ducasse is listed as Stephen Peterman's backup at right guard. The sixth-round draft pick, William Campbell, is behind Ducasse. That could work to Ducasse's advantage, as Campbell spent most of his collegiate career playing defense.

    However, if Campbell's inexperience is the only thing keeping Ducasse employed, the writing is clearly on the wall. Unless Ducasse fulfills the potential that made him a second-round pick, he could be looking for work after cut-down day.

WR Stephen Hill

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    A major flaw in the Jets offense is the lack of "game-changers," players who can turn the tide of a game with a single play.

    Second-round draft pick Stephen Hill was supposed to be that type of player. Indeed, Hill's rookie year began with what many considered a breakout performance: five catches for 89 yards and two touchdowns in a Week 1 blowout of the Buffalo Bills.

    However, that promising start was followed by disappointment, as dropped passes, not touchdowns, defined Hill's season. Hill only caught 16 more passes for 163 yards and one touchdown in his next 10 games. The knee injury that ended his year prematurely may almost have been a relief.

    To his credit, Hill has remained in New York during the offseason to rehab his knee thoroughly (via espn.com). He pronounced himself fully recovered in February.

    If offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and wide receivers' coach Sanjay Lal do as good a job with Hill's hands as physicians did with Hill's knee, he could become the offensive weapon the Jets so sorely need.

    Otherwise, he'll spend his career as a backup receiver or worse.

WR Santonio Holmes

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    Santonio Holmes' September 30 foot injury was one of the earliest calamities to befall the Jets in 2012. How completely he has recovered will be a large factor in the success of the wide receiving corps in 2013.

    The problem is, the nature of Holmes' Lisfranc injury, is such that it's hard to project how complete his recovery will be. Holmes has had two operations associated with the injury: one to insert a plate in his foot, the other to remove it. He began post-surgical rehabilitation in April.

    Conventional medical wisdom projects that it takes at least a year to recover from a Lisfranc injury. Cases such as Holmes' that include a fracture, may take longer. It depends on the complexity of the break.

    Holmes doesn't have "longer" if he wants to play in Week 1 of the 2013 season. In fact, between the rigors of training camp and the September 8 opener, Holmes is cutting his recovery significantly short. In fact, September 8 falls 22 days short of his injury's first-year anniversary.

    Rex Ryan recognizes this and will adjust Holmes' training camp routine if necessary.

    The Jets can't afford to have Holmes return too soon, reaggravate his injury and either miss more playing time or not play to his potential. That scenario would revive memories of 2012.

    Holmes, Stephen Hill and tight end Dustin Keller missed significant parts of last year because of injuries. Of the Jets' Week 1 corps of starting wide receivers, only slot receiver Jeremy Kerley stayed healthy for all 16 games. Backups like TE Jeff Cumberland and WRs Clyde Gates and Chaz Schilens, along with late-season pickup Braylon Edwards, saw far more playing time than they expected.

    That may have contributed to Mark Sanchez's problems. He had too many unfamiliar faces, with the exception of ex-Jet Edwards, to assimilate. Combined with the seemingly random use of Tim Tebow, it's amazing the Jets had the offensive rhythm they did.

    The question is, will Holmes' return help to restore that rhythm? It depends on how close he comes to regaining the form that earned him a Super Bowl XLIII MVP award. That's the Holmes the Jets expected when Mike Tannenbaum acquired him as a free agent.

    However, should the foot injury permanently hamper Holmes, his return could do more harm than good. Instead of getting the Super Bowl MVP Holmes, the Jets would get a receiver whose skills were significantly diminished, making last year's substitutes relatively attractive by comparison.

    In other words, it's probably better for Holmes to come back later in the year at full strength than to come back prematurely and be ineffective.

    If Holmes doesn't return to his pre-injury form, he'll stay on the Jets only as long as he must. Once his cap situation favors trade or release, he will be gone.

QB Geno Smith

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    This slide is here not because of which quarterback the Jets drafted in 2012.

    It's here because the Jets drafted a quarterback in 2012. His name is immaterial. The situation would be the same.

    If the Jets had not drafted a quarterback in the second round, they could have addressed other offensive needs. For example, USC wide receiver Robert Woods, San Diego State tight end Gavin Escobar, Rice tight end Vance McDonald and Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson were still available when the Jets selected Smith. Selecting any of them instead of Smith would have given Sanchez, David Garrard or any other starting quarterback a new weapon and provided the offense a new look.

    Selecting a potential franchise quarterback before upgrading the rest of the offense may do him more harm than good. Granted, the Jets provided significant help to their offensive line and backfield, which should help their pass protection. The Jets have also added backs, such as free-agent Mike Goodson and seventh-round pick Tommy Bohanon, who are skilled pass-receivers.

    However, even the best protection eventually breaks down if no receiver gets open. Hence the term "coverage sack," which ascribes blame for the loss not on the pass protection but on the receivers.

    The result of drafting a quarterback at this stage in the team's development is this: If a veteran wins the starting job, his performance could suffer from the missed opportunity to provide another weapon. In the case of Sanchez, his ability to redeem himself could be hampered because the Jets drafted his potential successor in place of a wide receiver or tight end.

    If the rookie starts, his inexperience only exacerbates the issue. He experiences the world of NFL quarterbacking not as one in which he contributes to his team's success, but as one in which he is either succumbing to pressure or running from it—all because his team didn't finish building the rest of its offense before selecting its long-term leader.

    The only way in which a rookie can triumph in this circumstance is by somehow inspiring the whole to be more than the sum of its parts.

    Is that what the Jets expect from Smith?

    They have another alternative: Resist the urge to treat every positive moment in Smith's performance as evidence of his readiness to start.

    Instead, start either Sanchez or David Garrard. Let Smith observe, practice and learn. Let him see how a veteran quarterback deals with adversity, how he responds to surprise and how he makes something from nothing. Let Smith see how a veteran responds to less than ideal circumstances.

    Then, let him compete for the job in 2014.

    The NFL has evolved from a league in which it took five years to groom a starting quarterback to a league in which rookie quarterbacks turn basement dwellers into playoff contenders. However, not every team is ready for such a transformation.

    If John Idzik, Rex Ryan and Marty Mornhinweg think Smith is the missing link that separates the 2013 Jets from the playoffs, let him start. Otherwise, let him wait a year and provide him more weapons in 2014.

    Waiting a year didn't hurt Colin Kaepernick. It shouldn't hurt Geno Smith either.

QB Mark Sanchez

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    There can't be any Jet feeling more pressure to succeed in 2013 than Mark Sanchez. He can't show his face in public without being booed.

    Sanchez must overcome memories of his worst season as a professional quarterback. The following statistics indicate the lowlights.

    • His combination of 18 interceptions and 14 fumbles established a career-worst mark of 32 turnovers.
    • Most of his advanced passing statistics hit career lows. To make a long story short, Sanchez's passing productivity relative to that of the average NFL quarterback was generally lower in 2012 than in his rookie year.
    • Even his fantasy stats took a huge hit. Sanchez's 118 points were a career low, 40 points below his rookie year. His positional rank of 30th was a career low as well, down from 10th in 2011.

    Numbers alone don't tell the whole story. Bad timing adds to the picture. For example, in the Jets' Week 15 loss to the Tennessee Titans, the straw that broke the camel's back was Sanchez's fumble of the snap of the final play of the game, which eliminated the Jets from playoff contention.

    In 2012, Tim Tebow's presence may have contributed to Sanchez's fragile mental state. Many felt that the possibility of replacement by such a celebrity affected Sanchez's self-confidence.

    Tebow is gone. However, in his place is a rookie to whom many would give Sanchez's job—Geno Smith.

    Sanchez may not get to challenge Smith. Many are calling for the Jets to release Sanchez before training camp begins. That means the Jets would either pay him for sitting out the season or for playing elsewhere. But that's how far beyond redemption Sanchez might be right now.

    Even if he wins the starting job, Sanchez must have a career year that positions him among the NFL's elite to remain with the Jets beyond 2013. For that to happen, Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast offense will have to surpass all expectations.

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