New York Jets: Grading the Strength of Every Position Unit at the Start of Camp
Coming off an 8-8 season, a lot is expected of a young Gang Green squad in 2014, despite question marks surrounding several of the team's positional units.
John Idzik and New York's front office spent most of the offseason upgrading the roster's weakest points, and they brought in several high-profile free agents and buzzed-about draft picks.
But did they turn the Jets into a serious postseason contender?
Let's take a look at each of the team's positional units and grade them on a scale from A (outstanding) to F (awful) ahead of the 2014 season.
It's difficult to envision what the Jets will get out of football's most important position in 2014.
Geno Smith enters his second year in the pros still needing to address a lot of concerns if the franchise is to continue believing that he is the future at the position.
Smith is coming off a rocky first season in which he tossed just 12 touchdowns to 21 interceptions and ranked among the league's worst passers. However, he did showcase flashes of brilliance.
The West Virginia product has the physical attributes to take a major step forward in his sophomore year, as he can beat defenses with both his arm and his legs.
The Jets still have faith in the youngster, but the team took out an insurance policy by signing veteran Michael Vick in free agency.
Vick is coming off a couple injury-plagued, turnover-heavy seasons, but he's still one of the most dynamic passers in the league. He could easily lead the offense if Smith continues to struggle tremendously, or is hit by the injury bug.
Matt Simms and sixth-round selection Tajh Boyd will compete for the No. 3 and final quarterback spot on the regular season depth chart.
Simms has been decent in limited playing time over the course of his career, but Boyd has the higher upside and is a similar type of player as Smith and Vick. Expect the rookie to win the job to round up the position.
This grade can be anywhere from an A to an F depending on how Smith performs, and he's fully capable of being on either end of the spectrum.
For now, though, we'll split the difference and give the unit a mediocre C.
The Jets have upgraded their backfield each of the last two offseasons with the additions of Chris Ivory and Chris Johnson, respectively.
Now, the team has three solid runners in Ivory, Johnson, and Bilal Powell, and many expect the trio to form one of the league's most dangerous rushing threesomes.
Last year, Ivory and Powell put up good numbers despite inconsistent production from their offensive line. Ivory was one of the game's best running backs in the latter half of the season, as his ferocious rushing style paid dividends against tired defenses.
Johnson's explosiveness and blazing speed make him the perfect complement to Ivory and Powell, who run hard but lack home run ability.
If New York is to make the postseason for the first time in four years in 2014, the team needs the running game to live up to its potential.
Right now, however, Rex Ryan and Co. have to be confident with what they have.
The Jets have had one of the worst receiving corps in the NFL in recent seasons, but thankfully for Gang Green supporters, that's likely to change in 2014.
New York brought in four wide receivers through free agency and the draft—Eric Decker, Jacoby Ford, Jalen Saunders, and Shaq Evans—and now believes it has the receiving talent to help Geno Smith carry the offense.
Decker is the only one of those signings who is likely to play a significant role this season, though. The former Bronco will be the team's No. 1 target, and after putting up back-to-back 1,000-yard, double-digit touchdown seasons, a lot is expected of him in green and white.
Ford hasn't really contributed much on the offensive end in his professional career, and he will likely be utilized mainly on special teams.
Saunders and Evans, on the other hand, need some time to adjust to the NFL game and learn the playbook, so they will be toward the bottom of the depth chart in their rookie years.
New York's hoping for a big season from slot weapon Jeremy Kerley. Kerley's been the team's best receiver the last couple of years, but injuries have limited his production. If he can stay healthy for 16 games (and he'll want to, as he's in his contract year), he has a good chance of emerging as one of the game's best slot receivers.
Stephen Hill and David Nelson are the other two receivers expected to contribute heavily in 2014. Hill's been a huge disappointment so far through his two-year career, but he possesses outstanding physical traits and has had a terrific offseason. He will likely be the team's No. 2 receiver opposite Decker.
There are still a lot of questions regarding Gang Green's receiving corps. Can Decker thrive as the No. 1 receiver? Can Hill finally turn physical ability into production? Can Kerley stay healthy throughout the season?
It's hard to answer these questions at the given moment, but the receiving corps is undoubtedly more talented than it has previously been.
The Jets had stability at tight end for years, but following the departure of Dustin Keller last offseason, they had a lot of question marks at the position.
New York got some decent production out of the tight end spot in the first few games of the 2013 season, but that faded quickly down the stretch.
This offseason, John Idzik and Co. remodeled the unit. Kellen Winslow was let go, while Jeff Cumberland was re-signed and Jace Amaro was taken in the second round of the draft.
While the team's long-term prospects at the position have improved significantly, there are still issues to be addressed in the short term.
Amaro isn't ready to slide into the starting lineup, as he needs to adjust to the complex NFL game and improve his route running and blocking.
Cumberland hasn't been that productive in the last few years, but with other weapons around him drawing defenses' attention, he could have a breakout season in 2014.
The Illinois product certainly has the talent, as he possesses good size and outstanding speed for a tight end.
Don't expect huge production out of this unit this season, but bank on it improving significantly from a season ago.
It wasn't too long ago when Gang Green boasted one of the best offensive lines in recent memory.
However, the unit is one of the team's weakest heading into 2014.
Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson are getting up there in age, and they seem to regress with each passing season.
Breno Giacomini is an inferior player to the departed Austin Howard, as he can often commit dumbfounded penalties and get beaten by opposing pass-rushers.
Second-year man Brian Winters was awful when forced into the starting job last season, as he allowed 10 sacks and ranked among the league's worst guards.
Willie Colon is coming off a major surgery and is a question mark for Week 1, and the team doesn't have any players capable of immediately stepping in and replacing him.
Don't get me wrong. This is the worst-case scenario for the offensive line in 2014. Mangold and Ferguson are still talented players who could put together one last great season. Giacomini is a tough mauler who could excel in run blocking. Winters could make strides with a full offseason to adjust to the NFL game, and Colon could beat his injury and be ready to play by the time the season rolls around.
However, this unit wasn't great last year. It allowed 47 sacks and was inconsistent at opening up holes for the running game, so my confidence in it is low.
Right now, you have to say the offensive line is an average to below-average unit that needs to outperform itself in order for the Jets offense to be successful.
There's one unit in which every Jets fan should have the utmost confidence, and it's the defensive line.
Muhammad Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Damon Harrison form one of the best and most feared fronts in the league, and there's only room for them to grow.
Wilkerson is the premier pass-rusher of the group, as he recorded 10.5 sacks a year ago and emerged as a contender for the Defensive Player of the Year.
Richardson and Harrison are always threats to get to the opposing quarterback, but their ability against the run is phenomenal and is a major reason why the Jets possessed one of the league's best rushing defenses in 2013.
All under 25, the "Sons of Anarchy" should continue to torment opposing offenses for years to come.
The only question about New York's defensive line is its depth, but as long as the core trio stay healthy, the defense should rank among the NFL's best.
While nowhere close to the level of the defensive line, the linebacker corps still played very well in 2013.
David Harris bounced back from a bad 2012 to put up superb numbers and lead the unit, Demario Davis performed well in his first season in the starting role, Calvin Pace came out of nowhere to record double-digit sacks, and Quinton Coples made up for a slow start to the season with a terrific final few games.
The unit will have the same exact makeup in 2014, so similar production should be expected.
Harris is still in his prime and is one of the most complete, if not underrated, linebackers in the league, and Davis should make fewer mistakes with another offseason to prepare for the starting job.
And while Pace is unlikely to repeat his unbelievable pass-rushing production from a year ago, Coples should more than make up for the slack.
Coples finally felt comfortable at outside linebacker as the season wound down, as he recorded 3.5 sacks in the final five games and was better against the running game.
If the North Carolina product can produce like that over a full season, he could emerge as the team's next defensive star.
The linebacker unit won't blow anyone away, but it should be a solid unit once again in 2014.
The Jets no longer have Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie leading the secondary, so there are many more questions about the unit than Gang Green fans would usually expect.
Second-year man Dee Milliner will be looked upon to lead the unit in 2014. Milliner struggled at the beginning of his rookie season, but he really came on toward the end.
With a full, injury-free offseason to develop, Milliner should live up to his potential and put together a strong campaign in 2014.
The other cornerback position is something to be concerned about, though. Recent addition Dimitri Patterson, rookie Dexter McDougle and Darrin Walls are expected to compete for the No. 2 corner job.
Patterson hasn't been great over the course of his career, as he's dealt with constant injuries and inconsistencies, while McDougle and Walls are relatively inexperienced.
Safety is a bit more set in stone. Rookie Calvin Pryor and third-year man Antonio Allen will in all likelihood start, while Dawan Landry will see his share of playing time.
Pryor is a hard-hitting playmaker who can make an immediate impact, and Allen is a big, lean player who was solid, if inconsistent, last year.
The secondary is full of potential, but with so many moving pieces and inexperienced starters, it's tough having a great deal of confidence in the unit.
The Jets special teams should be very strong in 2014.
Nick Folk was phenomenal last year, nailing 33 of 36 field goals, including three game-winners and three from beyond 50 yards.
With a fresh, long-term contract under his belt, expect Folk to build off his spectacular 2013 and perform admirably this upcoming season.
Punter Ryan Quigley was solid, if unspectacular, last year. He's great at pinning teams inside their own 20-yard line, although his boot isn't as strong as some would like.
New York's return game was abysmal a season ago, but it should improve substantially in 2014 with the addition of explosive returners Jacoby Ford and Jalen Saunders.