The New York Jets will have a new head coach, new defensive schemes, at least three new defensive starters, a no-hype receiving corps, and a new starting quarterback in 2009. Facts like these often indicate a team will be labeled "rebuilding," but expectations in New York are high.
The team is coming off of a season in which their talent on both sides of the ball was able to come together and post a 8-3 record, a team that looked like one of the best in the league—before soft defenses, a crippled throwing arm, an inactive head coach yielded four losses in the last five games, a non-playoff finish, and the organizational turnover noted above.
Rex Ryan is expected to immediately improve a defense loaded with acclaimed talent by implementing aggressive schemes and attitudes.
A well paid offensive line that dominated run defenses in 2008 is also expected to improve in a second year as a cohesive unit, and a running game—headlined by two running backs that are not yet promising to be on the field Week One—expected to benefit and spearhead offensive production.
All of this really can happen, but there are vital football decisions looming that will be made between now and the start of the season.
All of the choices Tannenbaum, Ryan, and Co. will be making through the offseason will be critical to the team's playoff aspirations, but there are a four glaring gaps in the Jets starting roster that may determine whether this supposedly high potential team will be a legitimate contender in the stout AFC East or a plain disappointment.
Since Rex Ryan was announced as the new head coach of the New York Jets he has promised to bring a 'ground-and-pound,' 'all-weather offense' to the forefront of the gang green attack. That sounds like a good idea.
One problem: neither the AFC's leading rusher nor the dynamic yardage machine that alternated at running back last year have shown the will to play under their current contracts.
Despite reports that the Jets won the standoff with Thomas Jones because of his appearance at OTA's, I highly doubt the veteran will settle for the $900,000 he is slated to earn this year.
Best decision: Re-sign them both.
While Thomas Jones is looking to cash in on a Pro Bowl campaign and offset the scheduled pay decrease that was written into a $20 million contract he signed two years ago, Leon Washington is looking to cash in on a Pro Bowl campaign as a drastically undersized and underpaid performer, strapped to a rookie contract that has not come close to compensating his on-field production.
Washington is bound to garner more empathy from fans and the front office, but this offense cannot afford to sign one at the expense of the other.
Although there is a plethora of veteran free agent running backs available, including Warrick Dunn, Edgerrin James, Deuce McAllister, DeShaun Foster, and Ahman Green, the Jets will be better off with a tandem of running backs that has experience in this system behind this line and appears ready to handle the workload.
This issue is complicated by the Jets current salary cap number. Right now, it looks like the Jets have only about $13 million available to spend.
Of course, that number will be bumped around through the rest of the offseason by cutting overpaid players and perhaps restructuring some of the more expensive deals to lighten their load on the 2009 cap number, but there does not appear to be much fat to trim from this team without dropping key components of the defense.
Assuming that Mr. Tannenbaum could maneuver the roster to free up $20 million (a very generous assumption, granted only because of cap-prowess displayed by Mr. T. over the first three years of his tenure) and the assumed cap prices of approximately $5 million each, a slight compromise from the $6 million that Jones roughly earned over each of the last two seasons and the $6 million Washington is reportedly asking for, the Jets will have at most $10 million available to address their remaining needs.
These numbers may lead to an eventual trade of Thomas Jones, but the Jets will be best prepared to win games this season with both backs on the roster.
Despite the rhetoric coming out of Rex Ryan and Mike Tannenbaum, no one really believes the Jets receiving corps will look as-is for the season opener.
While Jerricho Cotchery and Dustin Keller are presumably locked in as two of the four starters and Chansi Stuckey seems to have enough experience/talent to perform in the slot with an occasional big impact, there is legitimate though limited excitement about the physical abilities of both Brad Smith and David Clowney as receivers on the depth chart, but not as starting wideouts.
A general consensus amongst fans says that the Jets should be targeting a tall receiver with speed.
There has been plenty of speculation that Plaxico Burress and Braylon Edwards (the former only available via some trade with Cleveland) have passed through the Jets sights over the last few months, but the high price tags and significant character risks associated with both of these highly talented receivers make them less than likely answers.
Another available receiver that fit this description is Matt Jones, a 6'6" player with special athleticism including a 4.3s 40-yard dash.
Jones is a former college quarterback that appeared to be turning a learning curve last season, having posted 65 catches over 12 games before being sidelined by injury and a cocaine-related suspension.
Jones could be acquired at a discount, but Rex Ryan has supposedly passed judgment on the players talents as insufficient.
This appears both unfortunate and peculiar, considering that in his only game against a Rex Ryan defense Matt Jones caught five balls for 117 yards and a touchdown.
Assuming existing opinions on Burress and Jones hold and no Thomas Jones/Braylon Edwards trade is in the future, the Jets have one of two strategic options to choose.
They can sign a veteran receiver past his prime that will not likely dominate any opposing defensive gameplan but will reliably absorb a real portion of the receiving workload from the high-expectations on Cotchery and Keller.
Available receivers of this sort include Amani Toomer, Marvin Harrison, and Joe Jurevicius.
Or the Jets could instead take a gamble on someone with less experience, less success, and more development potential that has so far disappointed, but could have a greater impact if they could finally package ability and maturity.
Players like Brandon Lloyd, Reggie Williams, and Ashley Lelie are available and fit this bill, but unless the Jets see something extraordinary in some X-factor like these, expect this team to play it safe and bring in the character veteran.
A significant portion of Jets fans and media is already expecting Matt Sanchez to start Week One.
This may turn out to be the case, and it may even be the Jets best chance to win now.
But unless Sanchez can prove without a doubt that he will immediately make the offense more efficient and more dynamic than with Kellen Clemens, this should not happen.
As lackluster as Clemens' reputation is among fans, there are good reasons to believe that he will be more capable of making the Jets winners now.
First, Clemens had all eight of his career starts with the Jets in 2007. That was a bad team that did not run the ball or protect the quarterback well.
Though Clemens did complete only 52 percent of his passes and threw for only five touchdowns against 10 interceptions, he also showed an ability to lead his team on important drives against top-flight defenses, particularly in a close loss to Baltimore and a shocking win over Pittsburgh.
Second, Clemens has an absolute cannon of an arm.
While he has occasionally displayed devastating inaccuracy, if the running game can shape up to be what it is expected to be and Brian Schottenheimer's offense continues to produce from its arsenal of short yardage passing plays/weapons as it has over the last three years, Kellen Clemens' pure arm strength may prove to be an invaluable asset now that Sanchez cannot replace.
It will not matter how much he misses by if defenses are spread thin defending the trenches and worrying about the home run throws he could make.
Third, every rookie quarterback has a learning curve, while Kellen Clemens has four years of experience with this offensive playbook.
Despite the successes last year in Baltimore and Atlanta, where rookie quarterbacks were carefully weaned as starters from game managers into reliable passers on playoff teams, Sanchez cannot be expected to yield that kind of success this year.
He does not have the raw tools that helped Joe Flacco spread defenses or the experience of Ryan (two-and-a-half years as a starter, whose talents carried his team's successes to one year on the most complete offense in college football).
I will not be surprised if Matt Sanchez starts Week One (ownership has repeatedly shown over the last full year that PR will trump sound football sense), but it seems unlikely that he can really help this team more than Clemens can now.
The lack of depth in the Jets defensive line has received far less attention than any other problem the team is bound to confront this year, but it is a hole that needs attention before the start of the season if the Jets defense wants to reach the bar set by rhetoric coming from Ryan and his players.
While casual fans might be content knowing that Shaun Ellis and Kris Jenkins are still going to be starting this season, not much has been made of the departure of the line's leading tackler in 2008, Kenyon Coleman.
Marques Douglas was presumably brought in to start as he had in Baltimore and San Francisco for five seasons before returning to Baltimore as a backup last year, and he seems to have the physical tools to fit in as a third lineman in a 3-4 system.
But, three players are not enough to make up a three man defensive line. Injuries happen, but they happen much more often to older players.
The Jets starting three have combined for 28 years of NFL experience.
While Sione Pouha did play well last year as he rotated in for Jenkins' off plays (he rarely stays on the field for more than two plays in a row), the Jets have next to nothing in proven talent after that.
With Kareem Brown moving to TE for blocking needs left in Chris Baker's wake, the Jets have Mike DeVito (who in his third year appears to be a career stop-gap) and six undrafted players in camp that are competing to back up this D-line.
This is a dangerously thin margin for the Jets' season to hinge on, and failure to address the issue before someone gets hurt will likely result in a disappointing season.
Without forgetting that the Jets have serious cap restraints, there are several capable veterans available that this team needs to seriously consider as a potential vital part of their success this year.
For the sake of mentioning some options rather than being prescriptive, Vonnie Holliday and Greg Ellis are two available veteran players that have continued to produce in the later years of their careers.
The 2009 New York Jets have an obligation to honestly try to compete for the Super Bowl this year. They may or may not, depending on many issues in and out of their control.
The roster decisions pending are plainly in their control, and the team must be proactive now, settle all issues, and be ready to start this year as honestly confident as their swagger is making them out to be.
Hopefully, Woody Johnson is done selling PSL's through the roster and Mr. T. has the autonomy he needs to make the football decisions he has appeared adept at in the past.