Jets' head coach Rex Ryan has unanticipated options at some offensive skill positions.
For the New York Jets to exceed expectations this season, help will have to come from unexpected sources. Fortunately, that may very well be happening. Many players having the best starts in camp are either undrafted free agents or those fighting their way up the depth chart.
This is evident in two critical areas: running back and wide receiver.
As the Jets' camp opened, running back was considered to be a relatively strong offensive skill position. Wide receiver was considered to be weak. However, Chris Ivory's hamstring injury and Mike Goodson's absence have cost the unit its strongest members and, combined with Joe McKnight's chronic injuries and recent legal issues, needed depth. The Jets brought in new blood, Chad Spann and Mossis Madu, to fill the ranks.
Meanwhile, Bilal Powell, previously regarded as a backup at best, has emerged as a legitimate contender for the No. 1 job.
In contrast to the running back position, wide receiver was supposedly undermanned and underperforming. The Jets' top receiver, Santonio Holmes, has yet to step on the field after his Lisfranc foot injury. In minicamp, dropped passes were more often the rule than the exception.
However, once camp opened, players like Stephen Hill, Clyde Gates, Ryan Spadola and Vidal Hazelton have stepped up their game. If this improvement continues in preseason games, head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg may find it difficult to release some of these guys. It's a happy dilemma to face.
Let's meet some players who may reshape the Jets' depth chart between now and the season opener.
Source: Green & White scrimmage: JetsNation.com The Official Green & White Scrimmage Thread (Note: this link goes to the thread's fifth page, where the scrimmage description begins.)
TurnOnTheJets.com's Mike O'Connor's profile of Vidal Hazelton suggests that Vidal Hazelton is a solid possession receiver with good hands who does not fear contact. Hazeltons's performance in the 2013 Green & White scrimmage suggests he may be a deep threat as well.
Hazelton catch was part of the night's longest gain: a 70-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Greg McElroy. The catch suggested that Hazelton may be more versatile than previous scouting reports suggested.
What's more, according to head coach Rex Ryan, Hazelton can block. That's a skill Ryan noted when he commended Hazelton's camp performance after the August 1 practice.
LATE NEWS: Hazelton tore his ACL during the August 6 practice. The Jets released him.
Tony Sparano may have left the Jets a positive legacy in the person of Clyde Gates.
Sparano coached the Dolphins in 2011 when they drafted Gates. When the Dolphins cut Gates in 2012, Sparano brought Gates to the Jets
Unfortunately, the effects of a concussion, one of which was increased sensitivity to light, hampered Gates' effectiveness in 2012. A hamstring injury restricted his minicamp participation.
Now that he's healthy, Gates has impressed both Mark Sanchez and Marty Mornhinweg with his combination of sub-4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash with precise route running. Rex Ryan named Gates the first practice's MVP.
It was a great start to training camp that augurs well for the Jets' wide receiving corps in 2013.
The quarterback who made the best case for himself during the annual Green & White scrimmage wasn't named Sanchez or Smith. He isn't considered a contender for the starting job. However, Greg McElroy's performance combined with Matt Simms' mediocrity established a clear leader in the competitions for the No. 3 quarterback role.
McElroy was 5-for-5 with two touchdowns. Those strikes, 48 yards to Ryan Spadola and 70 yards to Vidal Hazelton, comprised the bulk of his 129 passing yards. They demonstrated a big-play capability McElroy did not show during his two regular-season appearances in 2012 against Arizona and San Diego.
In contrast, Matt Simms was 3-for-9 for 19 yards and an interception. One of Simms' incompletions was a deflected touchdown pass intended for Zach Rogers.
Simms has to put his big arm to better use to avoid being cut for the second consecutive year. McElroy came through in the Jets' biggest camp showcase of the year.
Bilal Powell had gotten little respect in 2013, until his performance in the Jets' annual Green & White scrimmage. Now he might start Week 1 as the Jets' feature running back.
The Jets tried to remake their running game by signing free-agent back Mike Goodson and trading their fourth-round draft pick to New Orleans for Chris Ivory. Powell was considered a competitor for the No. 3 spot on the depth chart. He supposedly lacked the speed and elusiveness to place higher.
Then Ivory pulled a hamstring and has yet to practice. Goodson has yet to report. Now the Jets' official depth chart has Powell in the No. 1 slot. Powell is out to prove that it's where he should have been all along.
Powell had a 24-yard run during the scrimmage's opening drive. A penalty subsequently nullified what would have been a three-yard touchdown run off a direct snap.
Later, Powell had another long gain on a screen pass. That's a staple of Marty Mornhinweg's offense. Unofficially, Powell tallied 41 yards on six carries.
On August 5, the first practice after the scrimmage, Powell broke another 20-yard run. Clearly, he's not resting on his laurels.
If Powell keeps this up, Ivory might have to settle for the No. 2 job.
Mark Sanchez was having a miserable Green & White scrimmage until its final play.
He had gone 5-for-10 for 36 yards, an interception and a sack. Embarrassingly, Sanchez enabled the sack by falling backwards during a pass attempt--a move dubbed the "Butt Stumble."
Then came the final play. Sanchez uncorked a deep ball that hit paydirt in the form of a 57-yard touchdown pass. The receiver was Stephen Hill.
That's the same Stephen Hill who was better-known for dropping passes than for catching them in 2012, before a knee injury ended his season. However, this year's model is showing signs of fulfilling the potential the Jets saw when they drafted him in 2012's second round.
Hill has been catching deep balls since camp opened. He helped Geno Smith get to a fast start in the early practices by grabbing a 40-yard bomb in the Jets' first practice on July 26 and a 50-yard bomb in the rain-delayed practice on July 28.
Hill even demonstrated the ability to adjust to slightly off-target balls, as he did with the 40-yard Smith pass. It's a sign that he's adjusting to the pace of the NFL game. Things are slowing down for him.
ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini called Hill camp's most improved player after the August 7 practice.
Sanchez had two solid practices since that scrimmage and won the starting assignment against Detroit. If this is the beginning of his renaissance, he may have Stephen Hill to thank.
All Hill has to do now is keep up the good work.
Should Santonio Holmes not be ready by Week 1, Jets' opponents might be in for a surprise. The Jets' receiving corps may be deeper than expected, thanks to players like Ryan Spadola.
The draft might have bypassed Spadola, but his NFL Scouting Combine numbers suggest that teams may live to regret it. Spadola's number suggest he has decent speed and above-average agility.
Spadola's 40-yard dash time at the combine was 4.48, 0.21 seconds behind leader Marquise Goodwin and 0.14 seconds behind eighth-overall draft pick Tavon Austin. His three-cone drill time of 6.72 seconds was eighth-best among wide receivers, 0.19 seconds behind leader T.J. Moe.
At training camp, Spadola has demonstrated the ability to go deep with either Mark Sanchez or Geno Smith. His biggest play was a diving, 50-yard reception from Smith. Spadola followed that up at the Green & White scrimmage with a leaping grab of a Greg McElroy pass for a 48-yard touchdown.
That was one of three pass plays of 48 yards or more during the scrimmage. Vidal Hazelton and Stephen Hill caught the others. The Jets might have a deep game after all.
Spadola's reward was getting some repetitions with the first team following the scrimmage. He has a good shot at making the 53-man roster and being 2013's UDFA success story.
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