Which Areas Have New York Jets Strengthened Most This Offseason?

Philip Schawillie@@digitaltechguidContributor IIIJuly 5, 2014

The day of reckoning draws near for John Idzik and Rex Ryan as training camp and Week 1 approach.
The day of reckoning draws near for John Idzik and Rex Ryan as training camp and Week 1 approach.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

On paper, the New York Jets have strengthened themselves significantly this offseason. They added free-agent help at quarterback, offensive line, cornerback and wide receiver. Their draft brought exciting prospects at safety, tight end, wide receiver and cornerback. Rookie camp, OTAs and minicamp have both displayed the newcomers' promise and offered hope of returning players' improvement.

It all sounds exciting. Just remember that it's early. We'll get a better idea of the areas the Jets have strengthened starting July 23, when training camp opens.

That's when we'll see something closer to real football. We'll see how the players who looked good in shorts look in full-contact drills, scrimmages and games. Until then, reviewing reports from offseason events will have to do. We'll start in areas where perceived improvement comes more from speculation than established performance and work our way up from there. 


6. Tight End

Tight end is a position that looks stronger on paper, but on the field, it shows signs of rookie growing pains.

The Jets have Jeff Cumberland, who is capable of making highlight-reel plays, but who has yet to produce high-octane results. They drafted Jace Amaro, whose 106 catches for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns in his final collegiate season resemble the performance of what Howard Cosell used to call an "All-World" tight end. 

Amaro breathes confidence, as he did during this Jets Nation interview. He needs it. Adjusting from Texas Tech's spread offense to Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast system is proving to be a challenge, as ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini describes:

Amaro described the Tech offense as "simple," -- a no-huddle, spread attack that doesn't have a high volume of plays. Using a math analogy, it was on the level of addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. The Jets are using calculus.

Which explains why Amaro struggled in last week's minicamp. He got some work with the first team, mostly in the three-receiver package, but he looked lost at times. Simply put, he needs to clean up all aspects of his game.

That probably means that Amaro won't catch 100 passes or gain 1,300 yards in 2014. He can still strengthen tight end productivity by approaching 2013's combined performance of Cumberland, Kellen Winslow, Zach Sudfeld and Konrad Reuland. The closer Amaro comes to that quartet's production of 63 catches, 856 yards and six touchdowns, the brighter the Jets' future at tight end will be.


5. Guard

Oday Aboushi's success playing guard this offseason could mean good things for years to come.
Oday Aboushi's success playing guard this offseason could mean good things for years to come.USA TODAY Sports

If Oday Aboushi builds on the success he had playing guard this offseason, Willie Colon's biceps and knee injuries may strengthen the guard position. The Star-Ledger's Ed Murray wrote of Aboushi, "Last year's fifth-round pick filled in with the first team at both guard spots and acquitted himself well. Could he wind up replacing the injured Willie Colon?"

ESPNNewYork.com's Cimini ranked Aboushi as his top offseason "riser," writing:

The former fifth-round pick, coming off what amounted to a 'redshirt' rookie year, played his way into the conversation as a possible starter. He finished minicamp as the starting left guard, replacing Brian Winters, who moved to right guard to replace the injured Willie Colon. Aboushi, who struggled last year at tackle, may benefit from the move inside because it could hide his shortcomings in pass protection. Colon expects to be ready for training camp, so there will be three players vying for two starting jobs. We'll see how Aboushi responds when the pads go on.

Aboushi's ability to crack the Week 1 starting lineup may depend on the extent of Colon's recovery.

Either Colon will or he will not. If he does, he'll have to compete for his starting job against Brian Winters, who moved to right guard as part of the Aboushi experiment. Suppose Colon wins. Winters would compete with Aboushi for the starting left guard job.

If Winters wins, the starting guards remain the same as in 2013. If Aboushi wins, he has beaten out a guard with 11 games of NFL experience. That improves the depth at the position. 

If Winters beats out Colon or Colon does not recover, the line becomes younger. The Jets get a pair of starting guards who could hold down the fort for the next 10 years. That's a giant step toward building the next great Jets offensive line.

All of these good things depend on how well Aboushi responds, once the pads go on and the hitting begins. 


4. Kickoff and Punt Returns

Both Jacoby Ford and Jalen Saunders bring prospects of a more explosive return game to the Jets special teams. Ford brings more established credentials. The accompanying video shows one of two 101-yard kickoff returns he ran as a member of the Oakland Raiders. In three years with them, Ford returned 75 kickoffs for 1,875 yards and four touchdowns, averaging 25.0 yards per return. That represents nearly two-thirds of his 3,000 all-purpose yards. 

Saunders' potential as a punt returner reflects his college achievements. He averaged 15.4 yards per return 

Others have entered the NFL with similar credentials only to fail. Check out ESPNNewYork.com blogger Cimini's response to a reader tweet:

Their hope is that Jalen Saunders emerges as the primary punt returner. He did it last season for Oklahoma, and did it quite well -- a 15.4 average and two touchdowns. This doesn't mean he will be an automatic hit on the pro level. I remember when Aaron Glenn came out in 1994 and everybody was raving about his punt-returning prowess in college. Well, he was a bust as a returner. As for Saunders, he has the quickness and courage you want in a punt returner. Jacoby Ford and Clyde Gates are the leading candidates at kickoff returner. Frankly, I'm tired of hearing about Gates' amazing speed. When has it ever shown up on the field? I'm interested to see Ford in that role; he had big success with the Oakland Raiders before the injuries started to mount.

Isn't that always the way for the Jets? The player with the best upside for a role has an injury-ridden past. Still the return game boasts one player with highlight-reel credentials and a second who could lead the NFL in punt returns if he approaches his college productivity.

It's an exciting area to watch in training camp and preseason games. 


3. Secondary

Two high draft picks and two veterans are making statements in their bids for key roles in the 2014 Jets secondary. 

Coaches have raved about top draft pick Calvin Pryor since rookie camp. Ryan compared him to former Raiders great Jack Tatum because of Pryor's reputation for hard hitting. He has yet to test that reputation in the NFL as full-contact drills have not begun. Nevertheless, Pryor is the projected starter at safety ahead of 2013's incumbent, Dawan Landry

Cornerback Dexter McDougle, the other rookie, isn't starting yet. He's working to change that. According to The Star-Ledger's John Munson, "The third-round pick was aggressive in press coverage and earned plenty of praise from both head coach Rex Ryan and defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman."

Cimini quotes Thurman directly in his post, "Jets' rebuilt secondary goes green": 

"I think he is everything we thought he was going to be. He's a young, talented kid, he is very serious (and) he loves football. There are some guys that you look at them and you say, 'All right, he was built to play this position.' He was built to play corner."

Dimitri Patterson brings a veteran presence to the secondary, which is an essential trait in the think-on-your-feet Ryan defense. In the same post, Cimini quotes Thurman on Patterson: "A guy who knows how to play. (He) brings knowledge and depth to our secondary. He can play nickel as well, so right now we are very pleased with Dimitri."

Check out Cimini's description of an interception Patterson made in a seven-on-seven drill:

Vick was intercepted in 7-on-7 drills, when he threw for Decker on a post route. Cornerback Dimitri Patterson made a great read and jumped the route. He's a cagey vet. Patterson figured out the route combination on that side of the field and knew Decker was going to break to the inside.

That's what the Jets hope a man who produced two four-interception seasons can do to opponents. 

Ras-I Dowling is the last major addition to the 2014 Jets secondary. He may be ready to realize the potential that made him the 33rd overall draft pick in 2011. Cimini is short on details but long on enthusiasm in his "Jets offseason recap: Risers and fallers" post

When the Jets were striking out in free agency, failing to land a big-time corner, Ryan kept insisting he was happy with his current personnel. He named names, always mentioning Dowling. Cynics (including me) wondered the same thing: Ras-I Dowling? He spent last season on the Jets' practice squad after being dumped by the New England Patriots, but the talent is there. He was the 33rd pick in the 2011 draft, only three spots behind Muhammad Wilkerson. It was an impressive spring for Dowling, who now has a legitimate chance to make the team.

If Pryor, McDougle, Patterson and Dowling live up to the promise they've shown while Dee Milliner and Antonio Allen continue to progress, the Jets secondary will be stronger and a bigger takeaway threat than it was in 2013. Don't forget that Landry should still be around to lend as much of a hand as necessary.


2. Quarterback

In 2013, the Jets had no veteran quarterback capable of seeing action. David Garrard was on the roster, and his accurate (61.6 completion percentage), mobile (380 carries for 1,746 yards) style made him a fitting mentor for Geno Smith. He just never played, even when Smith was at his worst.

Things will be different in 2014, as the Jets have legitimate quarterback insurance in Michael Vick. He's not the same Vick that thrilled us during his Atlanta days, maybe not the same Vick who Mornhinweg steered to the Pro Bowl in 2010. He still, according to Cimini, throws an "effortless deep ball."

He'll be ready for action if necessary.

More importantly, Vick is even a better mentor for Smith than Garrard. Maybe he didn't invent mobile quarterbacking, but he is one of the style's most successful practitioners. The things he has learned about decision-making on the run should be of immense value to Smith.

Vick's presence in itself strengthens the quarterback position, providing veteran insurance. Smith's improvement this offseason may make this policy seem unnecessary. Just read how Mornhinweg described Smith's progress to NJ.com's Dom Cosentino:

"Last year at this time, it was 24/7 coaching footwork, where his eyes are, what his progression is, who his initial read is, all of the different looks he could see. This year, we call a play, and—boom, he’s sprinting in and he’s got it. Quite different than last year."

If Smith continues to show improvement, the Jets may not have to make a claim on their quarterback policy by letting Vick play. His impact will be on the sidelines, helping Smith develop. That would be the best indication that the Jets quarterbacking has strengthened. 


1. Wide Receiver

Let's not get too optimistic. Saying that the Jets' wide receiving corps has strengthened the most of any unit on the team this offseason doesn't mean that it's great. It means that in relative terms the unit appears to be leaps and bounds ahead of 2013. 

Sports on Earth's Mike Tanier puts the receiving corps' improvement in perspective in his piece, "Mandatory Monday: Top Receivers." Tanier classifies the Jets wide receivers "From the Ashes." He concludes his comments with this warning: 

These 'from the ashes' segments appear to have confused some readers. They do not represent a team suddenly lurching into the top 10, but a team going from disaster to a place somewhere in the middle of the pack. This is not a great receiving corps, but it no longer consists of players who seem to have been selected to make the offense worse, or who clearly did not want to be on the field.

Despite this bit of reality, Tanier has positive points:

Remember that Decker is not just a Peyton Manning creation: He looked like a rising star in 2011 when catching passes from Kyle Orton in Denver. Kerley is a good slot target, and Nelson is a long-and-lean possession guy who makes the most of the opportunities the Jets grant him when not fiddling with Holmes and Hill. The rookie crop is headed by Jalen Saunders, whose screen-and-burn game could make him Geno's best friend, and also features Shaquelle Evans and tight end Jace Amaro, who will be a speedy complement/potential replacement for talented-but-inconsistent Jeff Cumberland.

NJ.com reporter Cosentino's analysis of Tanier's piece reaches a similar conclusion:

They released the perpetually pouty Santonio Holmes, they signed Eric Decker and Jacoby Ford in free agency, they drafted three more receivers, plus tight end Jace Amaro. The Jets seem to be better-equipped to catch passes than they were in 2013, though that wasn't exactly a high bar to clear, considering Jeremy Kerley led the way in catches with 43 and tight end Jeff Cumberland's four (four!) receiving TDs were tops on the team.

There's a lot of discussion about the importance of Peyton Manning to Eric Decker's game. Manning's arrival brought a revamped offensive philosophy to Denver that increased the wide receiver's touches and made his 1,000-yard seasons possible.

More significant than the quarterback to Decker's success in New York will be the receivers who line up with him. He had Demaryius Thomas during all four years of his Denver career. The Jets may not have a Thomas, but their ability to supply threats from other parts of the field may be what makes or breaks Decker's year.

Whoever wins the No. 2 receiving job had better catch opponents' attention.

It's great that the offseason moves the Jets have made appear to be strengthening the team. Remember, though, that 31 other teams think their offseason moves have made them stronger too.

In July, every NFL team is undefeated and tied for first place. In January, more than half the league will go home. If John Idzik's efforts to strengthen the team this offseason work, the Jets will not join them. 

Follow Philip Schawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid.


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