Big Issues Addressed, Still Some Question Marks

Brian KebelContributor IMay 12, 2009

FLORHAM PARK, NJ - MAY 02:  Quarterback Mark Sanchez #6 of the New York Jets throws a pass during minicamp on May 2, 2009 at the Atlantic Health Jets Training Center in Florham Park, New Jersey.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

After last year's monumental collapse, the New York Jets knew that changes had to be made. The first came shortly after the season ended with the firing of head coach Eric Mangini. His team got off to an 8-3 start, capped by back-to-back wins against their division rival, the New England Patriots, and the undefeated Tennessee Titans.

At that point, analysts across the nation were touting the Jets as the best team in the AFC. But in the final weeks of the season, the Jets lost four of five games, pushing the mid-season Superbowl favorite out of the playoffs.  

Although the Jets organization made Mangini the scapegoat, many fans, and even some teammates, blamed the collapse on the poor play of quarterback Brett Favre. As a result, Favre decided to retire, again.

This left the Jets with two glaring holes, a head coach and a quarterback, but also some less obvious ones. One of these holes was filled when the Jets hired Rex Ryan as their new head coach.

As Defensive Coordinator for the Baltimore Ravens the past four seasons, Ryan led one of the most feared defenses in the league. His aggressive play-calling and schemes turned in tremendous results, as the Ravens were consistently ranked in the top ten in total defense, including second last year.

Ryan's influence should improve the Jets' defense, which was ranked 16th overall in yards allowed per game. This ranking was a bit skewed, however, as their rushing defense was ranked seventh, while their passing defense was ranked 29th.

It should be a smooth transition for Jets players because Ryan uses the same 3-4 defense that the Jets installed last year.

Another factor that will smooth the transition is the free agent signing of linebacker Bart Scott, who played under Ryan in Baltimore. Scott was overshadowed by Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs, but is widely thought of as one of the most underrated linebackers in the NFL.

With Scott and David Harris roaming the middle, and Calvin Pace occupying one of the outside linebacker positions, the only question is who will play on the other side? Bryan Thomas is more than capable, but Ryan may be intrigued by last years first round pick, Vernon Gholston, who reminds many people of the Ravens' Suggs.

At Arizona State, Suggs was exclusively a defense end, much like Gholston was at Ohio State. However, when he was drafted by the Ravens in 2003, they turned him into an outside linebacker.

Many analysts were skeptical about whether Suggs could make this transition, but he proved them all wrong. In his rookie season he recorded twelve sacks on his way to being named Defensive Rookie of the Year.

The Jets attempted to do the same thing with Gholston last year, but he looked lost on the field. If Ryan can work the same magic that he did with Suggs, Gholston could live up to his sixth overall draft status, and, more importantly, the Jets could have one of the best linebacking corps in the league.

Ryan's influence should also help the secondary, which, despite the strong play of Pro Bolwer Darrelle Revis and standout safety Kerry Rhodes, was one of the worst pass defenses in the league last year.

In 2008, the Ravens, led by ball-hawking safety Ed Reed, picked off twenty six passes, tops in the league. The Jets only had fourteen interceptions.

The off-season trade for cornerback Lito Sheppard should also help the Jets secondary. Sheppard was selected to the Pro Bowl in 2004, but then had three injury-plagued seasons.

Last year, Sheppard lost much of his playing time to Asante Samuels and Sheldon Brown. If Sheppard can recapture his Pro Bowl form, the Jets would have two lockdown corners, which is a rarity in the NFL.

But all these improvements on defense could not overshadow the biggest offseason question of who would be the starting quarterback?

Leading up to the draft, the only quarterback on the roster with significant playing experience was Kellen Clemens. But many Jets fans were less than thrilled at the prospect of Clemens running the offense.

In 2007, Clemens played the last half of the season after the team gave up on Chad Pennington. In ten games, Clemens threw five touchdowns, along with ten interceptions, for a quarterback rating of 60.9. 

To Clemens' credit, he did not have much help around him. Still, the thought of having an unproven starting quarterback made Jets fans cynical about the possibility of a championship contending team in 2009.

Because of this uncertainty, the Jets made the biggest move of the NFL Draft by trading up to the fifth spot and picking USC quarterback Matt Sanchez.  

Although he has not been named the starting quarterback, and rightfully so considering rookie mini-camps just began, many people believe Sanchez will emerge to fill that role before the season starts. If this occurs, it would be eerily similar to the Ravens' situation last year.

In 2008, the Ravens drafted Joe Flacco with the 18th overall pick. Shortly thereafter, Flacco was named the starter due to a season-ending injury to Kyle Boller. Flacco then went on to start every game in the regular season, and became the first rookie quarterback to win two playoff games.

Although his numbers weren't great, Flacco did just enough to keep defenses from keying in on the run. And with a defense like the Ravens had, that's all Flacco had to do.

Coach Ryan may try to employ the same formula with his starting quarterback, either Sanchez or Clemens. Given the make-up of the team, it would probably be a wise decision.

With a very strong offensive line, led by Pro Bowlers Alan Faneca and Nick Mangold, the Jets will be able to control the trenches and create holes for Pro Bowl running back Thomas Jones. They can also send in the elusive and speedy Leon Washington to change up the pace now and then, or rookie Shonn Greene to pound it up the middle.

If the Jets stick to this run-first style of play, the only real question mark on offense is the wide receiver position. After letting Laverneus Coles sign with the Cincinnati Bengals, the Jets are left without a proven receiving unit.

The most established player on the roster is Jerricho Cotchery. In 2008, he led the Jets with 71 receptions and 858 receiving yards, and was second with five touchdowns. However, after Cotchery, the next leading receiver on the roster is Chansi Stuckey who had 32 receptions for 359 yards.

Fortunately, the Jets have a very good tight end in second year player Dustin Keller. As a rookie last year, he had 48 receptions for 535 yards, and emerged as a favorite target for Favre. His route-running ability, along with his size and quickness, should help take the pressure off the thin receiving group.

On paper, the Jets look to have a very solid team. The challenge for Ryan will be instilling the physical and aggressive smashmouth attitude he demanded of his players in Baltimore.

In the news conference where Ryan was introduced as the Jets new head coach, he described this mindset.

"We want to be known as the most physical football team in the NFL. The player's will have each other's backs, and if you take a swipe at one of ours, we'll take a swipe at two of yours."


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