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Predicting the Winner of New York Jets' Biggest Training Camp Battles

Philip SchawillieContributor IIIOctober 9, 2016

Predicting the Winner of New York Jets' Biggest Training Camp Battles

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    By the time you read this, the New York Jets' training camp battles will be underway. For some of you, the first practices in pads will have come and gone. However, the biggest training camp battles for the New York Jets will take more than a few practices to resolve. Battles for the 53-man roster may continue throughout the season.

    Every player in camp is battling for something. The Jets must reduce their squad of 90 players to a 53-man roster and eight-man practice squad before Week 1. That means 29 players must go. In fact, more than 29 will most likely go to make room for other teams' discards.

    In other words, current starters must hold their own against those who would take their jobs. Second-stringers' place on the roster is safe provided they hold their positions. However, they'd prefer the prestige and earning power of a starting role.

    It's the players who are third-string and below who face the most pressure. These players must either move up or ship out. There's only room for seven third-stringers on the Jets' roster, assuming they keep only one fullback. Offensive skill positions (quarterback, running back, tight end and wide receiver) will take at least four of them.

    That's a story for another day. Today's focus is the marquee battles, the battles for starting positions that have consumed the media's attention.

    SOURCES

     

Fullback

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    Tommy Bohanon vs. Lex Hilliard

    The battle for starting fullback is the closest thing the Jets have to a win-or-go-home training camp battle. That's because the Jets most likely will carry only one fullback on their 53-man roster.

    For Lex Hilliard, this battle truly is "win or go home". Should the Jets decide to start Hilliard in 2013, they can still sign Tommy Bohanon to the practice squad. Hilliard has too much NFL experience to retain that option.

    Unfortunately, for Hilliard to keep his job he'll have to prove himself overwhelmingly superior to Bohanon. Bohanon would cost less to retain, in both salary-cap usage and cash.

    Hilliard signed a one-year contract worth $715,000 in base salary plus a $65,000 signing bonus. Because of the veteran's minimum discount, his cap value for 2013 would be $620,000.

    Bohanon signed a four-year contract. His base salary for 2013 would be $405,000. He also received a $62,248 signing bonus. If Bohanon makes the team, his cap value will be his base salary plus a quarter of his signing bonus, a total of $430,562.

    The losing player's signing bonus counts in full against the 2013 cap. The $2,752 difference between their bonuses doesn't change this: The dollars and cents favor Bohanon. If the two compete to a draw or close to it, expect Bohanon to prevail.

    If ProFootballFocus.com's assessment of Hilliard's 2012 performance is accurate, Bohanon's chances look good. When the Jets re-signed Hilliard, the site offered the following comment in one of its live blog posts:

    "Hilliard was our lowest graded fullback last year because his blocking is terrible. His best work is done on special teams so maybe that's why they're not washing their hands of him."

    This opinion, however, is not universal. Check out GangGreenNation.com’s Scott Salmon’s assessment of Hilliard's performance against New England last October:

    Hilliard was one of the underrated gems of last night's game. As a fullback, he had several crushing blocks that stood up Patriot defenders. On Joe McKnight's longest run of the night, thirteen yards, to the left side, Hilliard stuffed a free rusher coming from the right side that could have blown up the play.

    On Mark Sanchez's tight rope touchdown throw to Dustin Keller, Hilliard forced a free rusher to run past Sanchez, giving the quarterback enough time to throw the pass. Furthermore, Hilliard ran the ball three times for fourteen yards, giving him a good 4.7 YPC average. He also caught the ball once for an eight yard gain.

    Finally, Hilliard was regularly the first person on kickoffs to greet Devin McCourty. On a crucial play after the Keller touchdown, Hilliard forced the fumble by throwing his arm and shoulder into McCourty's gut, knocking the ball loose...

    ProFootballFocus.com graded (paid subscription required) that performance a -3.2. The worst element of that grade was a -4.1 in run blocking.

    Here's why Bohanon might do better: Bohanon has above-average upper-body strength. That's based on his NFL Scouting Combine performance, where he led all running backs in the bench press with 36 repetitions at 225 pounds.

    The key to victory is versatility. Fullback is a jack-of-all-trades position. Whoever wins the starting job will be able to block, catch passes and carry the ball from out of the backfield. In addition, the winner must be able to assume multiple roles in an offense, such as that of a second tight end, and contribute to special teams.

    This fits with his collegiate use as a blocker, short-yardage runner and short-range to medium-range receiver. He lined up at fullback, halfback and tight end in college. He has been a capable if not prolific pass receiver.

    Hilliard may have had his moments. However, if Bohanon proves to be a blocking upgrade and holds his own in other respects, it’s probably time for a fresh new face.

    Winner: Tommy Bohanon

Guard

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    Stephen Peterman vs. Brian Winters

    According to Jets' senior reporter Eric Allen, Willie Colon will be one starting guard in 2013. The other starting guard slot is available. Veteran Stephen Peterman is the presumed starter as the Jets enter training camp.

    Peterman may have been the best veteran option available to the Jets, according to ProFootballFocus.com’s Peter Damilatis. His March 29 article rated Peterman as an honorable mention. The only better choices, Brandon Moore and Matt Slauson, left the Jets to pursue free agency.

    However, other ProFootballFocus.com articles cite the following reasons for concern should Peterman start:

     

    Erratic run blocking

    Neil Hornsby's post ranks Peterman fourth in the percentage of blocks on running plays that deliver above-average results. On the other hand, Peterman was among the leaders in blocking errors at 13th. Hornsby concludes, “In essense that’s what the Jets have picked up as their potential new right guard—a very boom-or-bust player and very different from the excellent Brandon Moore."

    Inadequate pass blocking

    Khaled Elsayed’s article rated the Detroit Lions' line seventh best in the NFL. However, Elsayed called Peterman the line’s "dud", writing, "The run blocking from Stephen Peterman (-8.4) was as good as anyone on the team, but it’s inexcusable for a guard in that passing attack to get beat for 45 quarterback disruptions."

     

    The Jets are trying to get more passing in their offense. They need reliability up front.

    That may be why Brian Winters gets a chance to start. NFL.com’s Mike Mayock had this to say when the Jets drafted him:

    "I said in the second round they needed to start building the offensive line. This kid can start on either guard or he can learn to play at tackle."

    Winters offers a high school wrestling background that translates well into offensive line play. It’s not just the grappling, it’s the toughness as well. Winters played the entire 2011 season despite popping his left shoulder in the third game. Ironically, it was a recurrence of an old wrestling injury.

    According to his draft profile, Winters’ “frame has the room to grow”, which should help him with handling stronger opponents. He has to overcome the tendency to “latch on up top” but he’s had a steady record of improvement. Winters won a starting job at Kent State as a freshman, made third-team all-conference in 2010, second-team all-conference in 2011 and first-team all-conference and the Senior Bowl in 2012.

    Here’s how Jets’ senior reporter Eric Allen views the guard competition:

    If former Lion Stephen Peterman fends off a hard-charging Brian Winters, expect Colon to play LG and Peterman to line up at RG. But if Winters, a third-round pick from Kent State, isn’t to be denied, I would think Colon lines up at RG and Winters would be stationed between Mangold and Ferguson.

    It boils down to pass blocking. If Winters bests Peterman in pass blocking and holds his own on runs, one of the Jets’ new starting guards will be a rookie.

    Winner: Brian Winters

Tight End

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    Jeff Cumberland vs. Hayden Smith vs. Kellen Winslow Jr.

    When the Jets invited Kellen Winslow Jr. to minicamp, it was clear they sensed the need for more options at tight end. Winslow delivered enough to merit a one-year contract.

    However, Winslow’s history of knee issues suggests that in the worst-case scenario, he could be the second coming of David Garrard. At least minicamp allowed him to display his skills over successive days, which addressed concerns about his durability.

    It’s still a long season, and the Jets will monitor Winslow carefully to get the most productivity possible. That means opportunities for Jeff Cumberland and...Hayden Smith?

    Hayden Smith moved to the Jets’ 53-man roster from the practice squad late in 2012. His play during OTAs and minicamp indicates he has every intention of staying. Moreover, his post-practice coffee sessions in the locker room make Smith a unifying influence.

    He’s mounting a serious challenge to replace Konrad Reuland. Reuland would have a better chance if he were a better blocker. However, according to ProFootballFocus.com, run blocking was the worst aspect of his game. Reuland’s -6.9 grade for run blocking was the worst such grade among Jets tight ends in 2012.

    Smith’s skill set is still evolving, but, given his rugby past, it’s hard to imagine him shying away from contact. Despite limited action, his run blocking received the highest grade, 0.0, of any Jets tight end. That is the quintessential average grade for ProFootballFocus.com, which illustrates how poorly Jets tight ends run block better than anything else.

    In the short run, it may take help from someone like Tommy Bohanon to bolster the Jets' run blocking from the tight end position. However, Smith is so new to organized football that the progress he's made is remarkable. He could surprise us all by Week 1.

    For now, Winslow’s proven proficiency should win the starting job. He may not take as many snaps as a typical starting tight end. However, Cumberland has shown he can make catches, even in the red zone, and Smith is eager to take his next step. It should be an interesting year at tight end.

    Winner: Kellen Winslow Jr.

Safety

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    Antonio Allen vs. Josh Bush

    If Antonio Allen loses the battle for starting safety, it will prove how demanding these positional battles have become. One mistake may have turned the tide in favor of Josh Bush.

    Allen was working out with the first team during minicamp. He blew a coverage on the first day and was reassigned to the second team.

    Although Allen made light of the move, depth charts on both Rich Cimini's ESPNNewYork.com Jets blog and Ourlads' NFL Scouting Services place him behind Josh Bush in the battle for the starting job.

    Here's how Bush’s skills complement to those of presumed starter Dawan Landry according to ProFootballFocus.com's grades:

    • Landry’s run defense grade of 1.3 was the only positive achievement in an otherwise poor year. His net grade of -4.2 reflected issues with both rushing the passer and pass coverage.
    • Bush participated in a limited number of snaps but accomplished enough to earn a positive 0.7 grade. It’s only slightly above average, but he earned grades of 0.1 in both pass rush and pass coverage. That’s only slightly above average, but still better than either Landry or Allen.
    • Allen equaled Bush’s run defense grade of 0.5. However his pass rush grade of -1.3 and pass coverage grade of -2.4 suggest that he and Landry have similar skill sets.

    Although the evidence is slim, it appears that Bush and Landry could make a more complementary pair. Landry is stronger in run defense. Bush is stronger against the pass.

    However, this evidence is far from overwhelming. Allen may yet make his case where it counts—on the field.

    Winner: Josh Bush

Cornerback

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    Dee Milliner vs. Kyle Wilson

    Welcome to the Jets' battle of No. 1s. In the veteran's corner is Kyle Wilson. He was the Jets' No. 1 pick in 2010. Wilson’s break came in 2012 when Darrelle Revis tore his ACL and Wilson became a starter. Now he must defend his job against the 2013 No. 1 pick, Dee Milliner.

    Wilson has had a head start because Milliner is recovering from shoulder surgery. He’s making the most of it. According to ESPNNewYork.com’s Matt Ehalt, Wilson has had the best offseason of his NFL career:

    Wilson was primarily been used in the slot during his first two seasons in the NFL, but after Revis went down early last season, he manned the outside spot and played well. That strong play has extended into this offseason, as Wilson has continued to show signs of improvement while primarily playing the nickel.

    However, Ehalt also suggests that Wilson may not retain the No. 2 cornerback job:

    The Jets drafted Milliner with the ninth pick, and Ryan said the team has every intention of letting him compete for the starting outside cornerback spot opposite Antonio Cromartie. It even appears he's the favorite to win the position due to Wilson's increased time in the slot.

    Milliner's shoulder issues have limited his football activity to walkthroughs and meetings. However, Rex Ryan maintains that it is time well spent:

    It's huge. Through the walkthrough, he's a very sharp guy. Firing the questions at him the whole time, in the meetings and stuff like that, and we're a little different, in the meetings we teach the entire system, so we'll ask him defensive line questions and everything else.

    He's sharp. But it is (important to work on the mental side). He's got to nail down the mental part because he's not going to be able to physically do it. We'll see. Hopefully at training camp he's ready to roll. Clearly, he's showed in college he is familiar with the coverages. Several of the coverages that Alabama plays are some of our coverages as well.

    This is one competition where the loser will retain a critical role. The winner will start as the No. 2 cornerback opposite Antonio Cromartie. However, the loser will see action in schemes that need a third cornerback such as nickel coverage. For Wilson, it will be a return to his old role.

    Jets' senior reporter Eric Allen puts it another way:

    In reality, you start three cornerbacks because you are almost always in sub packages. The Jets think Milliner has "special" ability and they have praised Wilson for a stellar offseason, so it's a good situation to have. I think it is more likely Milliner goes outside and Wilson shifts back inside to the nickel role. From top to bottom, the Green & White have one of the most talented CB depth charts in the NFL.

    That's great for the Jets, perhaps not so great for Wilson.

    Regardless of how well he played replacing Revis, the Jets’ decision to make a top cornerback prospect their No. 1 draft pick indicates that Wilson still has something to prove.

    Winner: Dee Milliner

Running Back

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    Mike Goodson vs. John Griffin vs. Chris Ivory vs. Joe McKnight vs. Bilal Powell

    Mike Goodson’s legal issues make this battle more complex. Its outcome won’t be decided on football criteria alone. It will depend on Goodson’s ability to avoid jail.

    If he does, Goodson and Chris Ivory should prevail as the Jets' top running backs. Ivory adds the explosiveness Shonn Greene lacked to the power running game. Ivory's career average of 5.1 yards per carry tops Greene's average by almost a full yard. Ivory's average of 54.5 yards per game trails Greene's average by 1.6 yards.

    The significant difference between Ivory and Greene is that Ivory has played in 24 games over three seasons. Greene played in 61 games in four seasons. Ivory's challenge is to maintain his productivity as a full-time feature back. He must prove he can withstand the rigors of 15 to 20 carries a game over a 16-game season.

    Ivory's ProFootballFocus.com 2012 grade of 3.9 is more than twice that of the Jets’ 2012 running backs leader, Bilal Powell (1.5). However, both grades are one-dimensional. Powell’s pass-blocking grade of 1.7 is the basis for his above-average grade. Ivory's rushing grade of 3.7 dominates his score.

    Besides staying healthy, Ivory's main challenge in 2013 will be to become a multidimensional threat. Developing as a pass receiver would make him a more versatile weapon in the Jets’ West Coast offense.

    If Ivory is the power, Goodson is the grace. He has the breakaway speed the Jets crave from out of the backfield. His 6.3 yards per carry in 2012 (35 carries for 221 yards) was reminiscent of Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller. Plus, Goodson can catch as well. In 2012, Goodson averaged 12.2 yards per catch, grabbing 16 balls for 195 yards.

    Goodson’s ProFootballFocus.com grade reflects the importance of receiving to his game. The highest positive component in his 6.9 overall grade is his receiving score of 5.3. Rushing is second at 2.8. Negative grades of -0.2 in pass blocking and -1.0 in penalties reduce his grade.

    If Goodson remains available, the real battle among running backs will be for the third and probably last roster spot. John Griffin has shown himself to be quick and elusive but not a breakaway threat. He’s worked hard this offseason; hopefully that will get him an NFL job.

    Joe McKnight has been a useful third-down back and has returned kickoffs. However, few will forget his Thanksgiving fumble that New England recovered for a touchdown. What’s more, Goodson also has kickoff return experience. McKnight can't count on that role as his salvation.

    However, should the legal system end Goodson’s season, McKnight would be the best candidate to assume the change-of-pace back's role.

    Bilal Powell proved he could spell the starting feature back for a series or drive in 2012. He may not have the speed of a Joe McKnight, but he has the durability an alternative feature back needs. He’s also the best pass blocker of Jets' running backs according to ProFootballFocus.com.

    If Chris Ivory succumbs to injury this season, Powell would be the Jets’ best bet to assume the power running duties, with Goodson (or McKnight) as the change of pace back.

    If Goodson is available: Chris Ivory, Mike Goodson and Bilal Powell

    Otherwise: Chris Ivory, Joe McKnight, and Bilal Powell

Quarterback

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    Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith

    Is Geno Smith ready to start in the NFL? The evidence is mixed.

    Mark Sanchez's abysmal 2012 season didn’t hurt Smith’s cause. In fact, that's probably why Smith is here.

    He was the highest-graded quarterback at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine. Yet, the Buffalo Bills bypassed Smith in the first round in favor of E.J. Manuel. Does Smith have a tragic flaw that may keep him from stardom? Maybe.

    Smith's combine profile mentioned one issue that has recurred throughout this offseason.

    Runs a spread offense almost exclusively from the shotgun, needs work on his footwork coming from under center. Ball will float or sail if his feet are not set or he fails to transfer weight, either in the pocket when facing pressure or when throwing on the run.

    Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com made a similar observation after minicamp, stating, "I've said this before: When he sets his feet, he can really spin it."

    Maybe that's why NFL.com draft expert Mike Mayock's responded to Smith's second-round selection by saying:

    Geno Smith does an awful lot of good things. There are components of a franchise quarterback, I just don't see it enough. When I look at him, to be brutally honest, I think he fell to about where he should have gone based on what his tape tells me. To me, I don't think you can hand him the keys.

    He throws a great ball—once he’s completely set up. In other words, make Smith throw under duress and his vaunted accuracy suffers. He becomes turnover-prone and ineffective.

    That’s what the Jets were hoping to avoid.

    New quarterbacks coach David Lee must help Smith fix this flaw if Smith hopes to excel in the NFL. Lee's ability to do so quickly may decide Smith’s immediate future. If Lee succeeds, Smith's chances of winning the starting job will improve dramatically.

    There's something else. Smith also has to work on delivering the play in the huddle with more conviction. He may not call the plays, but he must sell them.

    Mark Sanchez has his own demons to vanquish. He must convince both the coaches and his teammates that he is not the turnover machine of the past two seasons.

    Sanchez has endured a revolving door of offensive coordinators and wide receivers in his four-year NFL career. In 2012, for example, slot receiver Jeremy Kerley was the only Week 1 starter to last the entire year.

    Sanchez has invested significant offseason time to learning Mornhinweg’s system. He had a rocky start, throwing three interceptions during his first public OTA session. However, Sanchez’s performance stabilized. He enters training camp as the favorite to be the Week 1 starter.

    I once thought Smith would have to engage in major self-destruction to deny himself the starting role. I may have been wrong. If Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith run neck-and-neck at camp, the Jets should let Sanchez start and earn his $8.25 million in guaranteed money.

    What's more, leading off the year with Sanchez would endear Smith to Jets fans all the more should he revive the offense after several weeks of stagnation. It would be far better for Smith to begin his NFL career as the rescuer instead of as the rescued.

    Winner: Mark Sanchez

    Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid

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