Where These 5 New York Jets Stars Must Improve in 2014-15

Philip Schawillie@@digitaltechguidContributor IIIJanuary 14, 2014

Where These 5 New York Jets Stars Must Improve in 2014-15

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    For a dodgeball reject like me to suggest improvements to NFL stars' play sounds ludicrous. I am going to attempt it anyway.

    As fans and observers of the New York Jets, we all see things we think could and should improve. From the vantage points of our armchairs, we imagine ourselves as coaches or players and ask ourselves, "Isn't this, that or the other thing obvious? Why doesn't he see it?"

    They probably do, but as happens often in life, it's much easier to know what to do than to know how to do it.

    As observers and fans, however, we don't have to worry about the hows. We can discuss the whats to our hearts' content for our own amusement while we wait for next season's opening kickoff.

    After reviewing some statistics, news stories and memories of the 2013 season, here are my suggestions to five New York Jets about improvements they should focus on this offseason.

    Player statistics and play-by-play logs are from NFL.com.

WR Stephen Hill

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    Stephen Hill is probably not a "star." He may not even wear green and white next year. But if he wants a future in a precision offense like Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast system, he's going to have to become more than just a deep threat.

    In 2012, Hill dropped so many passes that the rest of his game received little attention. In 2013, however, Hill got a better start.

    His improvement became a frequent theme during training camp. Hill was learning the subtleties of the wide receiver position to which his collegiate career had not exposed him. The lessons seemed to pay off. By the end of Week 3, Hill was on pace to top 1,200 receiving yards, with 13 catches for 233 yards and a touchdown. It seemed that the controversial second-round draft pick would make cynics eat their words.

    However, Hill only caught 11 more passes for 109 yards.

    He played 12 games and finished 2013 with 24 catches, 342 yards and one touchdown. Despite the slow finish, 2013 represented an improvement over his rookie year in which he played 11 games and caught 21 passes for 252 yards and three touchdowns.

    To become a bigger offensive factor, Hill must become more of a short-range and medium-range threat. While Marty Mornhinweg uses the long pass more than most West Coast offense coordinators, his system still relies on short, precision patterns in which the receiver's ability to gain yards after the catch is key.

    Hill needs to focus on route running over a variety of distances. If he sticks to being a deep threat and ignores the short-range and medium-range games, he will continue to play a peripheral role in the Jets' offense.

    In the end, becoming a more complete receiver can only help Hill's deep game.

K Nick Folk

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    When it comes to kicking field goals, there's not much to ask the Jets' "Folk Hero" to improve on. He missed three of 36 attempts. That was a great year, his best ever.

    However, kickoffs are another story.

    It's not that Folk is bad, but kickoffs are a part of his game that Folk must improve to join the ranks of elite kickers.

    Since the kickoff line moved to the 35-yard line in 2011, the number of returned kickoffs has dropped significantly. In 2010, teams returned 80.1 percent of kickoffs. That percentage dropped to 53.4 in 2011 after the rule change. In a related statistic, the percentage of touchbacks jumped from 16.4 percent to 43.5 percent.

    Two years later, Folk's touchback percentage was 41.1 percent. That was in a year when 13 kickers with at least 63 kickoffs had touchback percentages of 50 percent or more. Another four such kickers had touchback percentages between 41.1 and 50 percent.

    Folk's average kickoff distance was 62.4 yards, less than the 65 yards from the 35-yard line to the end zone. It would seem that kickoff distance is what he must improve. However, two kickers with 63 or more kickoffs and better touchback percentages have shorter average kickoffs than Folk.

    Still, a longer kickoff stroke wouldn't hurt.

    If Folk could top 65 yards consistently with his kickoffs without somehow compromising his field-goal accuracy, he could rightfully assume his place with the elite kickers of the NFL.

RB Chris Ivory

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    Durability has always been the biggest issue with Chris Ivory. He has been a bruising runner when healthy, able to play smashmouth football with the best of them. That same aspect of his game is what makes injuries more likely.

    Here is a way to lessen the pounding Ivory takes each time he touches the ball: improve his receiving skills.

    In 39 games over four years, Ivory has made five catches for 42 yards. If he were able to do that each game, he would get the ball in space more often, free of collisions with defensive linemen. He would shed linebackers and defensive backs with relative ease, making more big plays with less risk of injury.

    He would not need to run deep patterns for this to happen. He could be a checkdown receiver, even catch the ball behind the line of scrimmage and convert it to a big gain.

    In 2013, Ivory had a career-best year of 833 rushing yards in 15 games. If he could get defenses to respect him has a receiving threat as well as a power runner, those yards would come more easily. Defenses could not focus on the run when he took the field. He could surpass 1,200 yards of total offense if he adds 20 receiving yards per game to the 55.5 rushing yards he contributed in 2013.

    That is only the beginning of what Ivory might achieve.

DE Muhammad Wilkerson

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    What is there left for the Jets' best defensive player to improve? Check out 2013's penalty statistics.

    It was no surprise to find Willie Colon leading the Jets in penalties. It was a big surprise to find that Wilkerson came in second. Even more surprising was that Wilkerson led the team in pre-snap penalties with six: five for defensive offsides and one neutral-zone infraction.

    According to play-by-play logs, these penalties cost Wilkerson two sacks and one assist. But in those same games, he recorded six sacks and the Jets' record was 5-1. It seems like in balance, Wilkerson's penalties were not game-changing moments.

    Perhaps not, but the issue may be more subtle. Wilkerson recorded only a half-sack in his last five games. Is it a coincidence that he only recorded two penalties (one pre-snap) over that span?

    Maybe it is. Wilkerson only recorded one pre-snap penalty, a defensive offsides, in his last five games. Perhaps, however, the price of playing cleanly was the loss of acceleration at the snap. Maybe that split-second of hesitation to avoid penalties gave Wilkerson's blockers all the advantage they needed.

    It will take some offseason film study by Wilkerson, head coach Rex Ryan, defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman and defensive line coach Kyle Dunbar (assuming Thurman and Dunbar return) to determine if this idea has merit. If so, this group must find ways for Wilkerson to get a jump on his blockers without drawing flags.

    Wilkerson's penalties weren't very costly in 2013, but giving extra snaps to the opponent's offense is bound to cost the Jets eventually.

QB Geno Smith

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    Reducing turnovers is the easy suggestion to make in the case of Geno Smith. Suggesting how to achieve that reduction takes more thought.

    Smith has already improved in that regard. He lost three fumbles in the first four weeks of the season, then did not lose his fourth until Week 11. That was the last game in which he fumbled.

    In his last two games, Smith neither gave up a sack nor threw an interception. That is more impressive because in Week 17 he faced the Miami team that in Week 13 had both a sack and an interception against him in only a single half of play.

    To keep up the good work, Smith must address the following issues:

    • Speed up decisions. Smith must get through his post-snap reads more quickly and make a play. He is learning to use his mobility when the opportunity presents itself. Until he improves his ability to recognize post-snap coverage changes, Smith should take off at the first sign of confusion instead of trying to force a pass.
    • Deceive with eye movement. Smith should take a page out of Drew Brees' book and learn to use his eyes to deceive defenders instead of leading them straight to the primary receiver.
    • Use checkdowns. As Smith learns to recognize coverage changes more quickly, he will improve his ability to locate and hit secondary receivers instead of forcing the ball to the primary target.

    These steps are interrelated. Faster coverage recognition will enable faster decisions and wider use of secondary receivers. The offensive line will not have to hold protection as long and will not concede as many sacks. Eventually, Smith's ability to hit secondary receivers will help receivers all over the field, as defenses will have to devote coverage resources to both short and long routes.

    The deep passing game that so suits Smith's arm may finally come to reality.

    Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid.