There will be plenty of heated roster battles in Cortland, New York, in New York Jets training camp, but no position will see competition as fierce and cutthroat as the wide receiver position.
After adding two key free agents and three draft picks to beef up the receiving corps, players will not just be competing for roster spots—nearly all of them have a chance at taking home the grand prize of a starting job opposite newly acquired Eric Decker.
The Jets did not add a top-flight receiver in free agency to fill this need area directly. Instead, they took the "volume" approach to this position. By their logic, if they add enough players to the pot, competition will force at least one of them to emerge as a viable starter.
This is a cheaper way to go about filling the position and goes a long way in terms of developing young players, but it is hardly efficient in the short term. The Jets have a lot of work to do in terms of figuring out the type and quality of player who will best fit in the starting group next to Decker and slot receiver Jeremy Kerley.
A good portion of the receiver depth chart will be in competition for the final spot in the starting lineup, but which player will come out victorious?
The Incumbent: David Nelson
Pros: Highly competitive, reliable, good size
Cons: Limited upside, average speed
Despite not joining the team until the middle of the 2013 season, David Nelson played well enough to steal Stephen Hill's starting job (although Hill's lack of production certainly expedited the process). He finished with a respectable 423 yards and two touchdowns in 12 games.
If the Jets were to play a game tomorrow, Nelson would be their best option as a veteran who can be relied on to know the playbook and be in the right spot at the right time. He offers even more value as a red-zone threat given his height (6'5").
Unfortunately for Nelson, the Jets have a good three months to let their young receivers develop and catch up to the more veteran players in terms of knowing the playbook. If the rookies are impressive enough in training camp, Nelson will be more concerned with keeping his roster spot than staying in the starting lineup.
The Speedster: Jacoby Ford
Cons: Size, durability
The speedster from Clemson has flashed potential in the NFL, but health concerns (26 missed games in the past three seasons) left him in the bargain bin during free agency for the Jets to scoop up.
Ford is also very limited in terms of his size. At just 5'9", Ford is much better-suited to play in the slot, which is one of the few positions on offense where the Jets have more than enough talent to work with.
More than anything else, the Jets brought in Ford to help revive their mediocre return game. However, if he is the best player in training camp for the job (hardly a good sign for the Jets), he should be given a chance to start.
The Project: Stephen Hill
Pros: Unique combination of size and speed, age (23)
Cons: Unreliable hands, rough route-runner, lack of competitiveness and usefulness on special teams
There is no question that Stephen Hill has been a massive disappointment as a former second-round pick (who the Jets traded up for), but it is still too early to count him out of the starting lineup entirely.
As bad as Hill was in the second half of the 2013 season, losing his job to newcomer David Nelson, he flashed a lot of potential as a big-play receiver in the early quarter of the season. He remains unreliable with his hands and very rough as a route-runner, but his unique combination of size and speed cannot be ignored.
One of Hill's biggest issues is how he does not take full advantage of his height. Instead of reaching up to high-point jump balls, he relies too much on his body to reel in catches, making him much easier to defend.
He does not yet know how to maximize the potential of his physical gifts, but he has made enough big plays, such as his game-saving 51-yard touchdown against the Buffalo Bills in Week 3, that give the Jets hope Hill may be useful after all.
At the raw age of 23, Hill has plenty of room for development, which he is beginning to show off already in spring practices.
Hill needs to continue to show development to save his roster spot, but he could potentially surprise everyone in Florham Park by stealing his old job back outright if he continues this rate of development.
The Underdog: Jalen Saunders
Pros: Quickness, speed, toughness
Cons: Experience, size
Among the most impressive players in rookie minicamp, rookie Jalen Saunders has given the Jets a lot of reason to get him on the field early and often.
Boasting elite quickness in and out of his breaks with the toughness of a middle linebacker, Saunders plays like a player twice his height. Unfortunately for Sanders, his 5'9" frame makes him a difficult fit in a Jets offense that already has an established player at the slot position in Jeremy Kerley.
Saunders is essentially the opposite player of Stephen Hill. Tough and efficient in everything he does, the Jets will have to be creative to get him on the field. The odds of him being a full-time starter as a rookie are slim, but he can at least eat into snaps of whomever the Jets decide to start in the No. 2 spot.
The Big Rookie: Shaq Evans
Pros: Size, strength
Cons: Speed, acceleration, experience
Just a few selections after the Jets took Jalen Saunders in the fourth round, the Jets added a prospect with contrasting styles in UCLA product Shaq Evans.
Evans was built like a No. 2 "possession" receiver who could move the chains and use his big frame to bail out his quarterback in tough spots. However, his average speed and lack of burst limits his potential as a No. 1.
Because of his physical tools, Evans can be considered to be "pro-ready," but he is already at a disadvantage. Because of UCLA's academic schedule, he has missed a significant amount of spring practices (h/t Darryl Slater of the Star-Ledger), giving his competition a leg-up.
Evans can still get used to the playbook in time for the season to save a roster spot, but he faces long odds to be the starter on opening day.
A logical argument can be made for every one of the Jets receivers (not named Eric Decker or Jeremy Kerley) to start on opening day. Ultimately, the Jets' decision will come down to what occurs in training camp, especially in regard to the rookies and Stephen Hill given their greater potential.
Ultimately, the player with the best chance to come out of the rubble with the starting job to his name is Stephen Hill.
Even without putting much stock into his supposedly impressive spring showing, Hill's skill set perfectly complements Decker and Kerley. As good as those players are, neither of them has the size or speed to strike true fear into opposing defenses—which is exactly where Hill comes in.
That said, Hill has a lot of work to do to improve upon his dismal 2013 season. If he is the same player he was a year ago, there is a good chance that he might not even have a spot on the roster.
There is not much middle ground for Hill—either he makes the team as a valuable player on offense or the Jets part ways with him entirely with their patience with him already wearing thin:
Either way, the Jets will need at least one of their receivers to play beyond his expected potential this season if they are to fill their No. 2 receiver spot adequately. If not, the Jets passing game will be in for another roller-coaster season in 2014.
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