Breaking Down the New York Jets' Likely Opening-Game Starting Lineup
Two preseason games are in the books, and the New York Jets are now just a few weeks away from kicking off the 2014 regular season.
With meaningful contests seemingly right around the corner, it's a good time to break down New York's starting lineup on both sides of the ball.
Some of the starters will be obvious choices, while others will be a tad surprising.
Although it's impossible to project injuries or other factors that may alter the final starting lineup, I'm confident all of these picks will come to fruition when the Jets hit the field to play the Oakland Raiders in Week 1.
Starter: Geno Smith
Barring injury, there's simply no way Geno Smith doesn't start for Gang Green in Week 1.
Michael Vick has been impressive in the preseason, but Smith's the future of this franchise and has shown signs of development early in his second year.
Yes, Smith really struggled in his first season, as he threw 21 picks to just 12 touchdowns and posted one of the worst passer ratings in football.
However, the former second-round pick didn't have any consistent receiving threats, and his offensive line was shaky at times.
Now, with an improved receiving corps and a full offseason to mature, Smith could be in line for a great season. He has the arm and even the legs to be a solid starting quarterback, and he's been solid so far in the preseason.
Smith needs to continue to perform at that level if the Jets are to sneak into the playoffs for the first time in four seasons.
Starter: Chris Johnson
Chris Johnson isn't the same player who rushed for 2,000 yards in 2009, but he's still one of the most dangerous backfield threats in the league.
Now, New York will definitely have a running back by committee, as Johnson, Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell are all listed as starters on the team's official website.
However, Johnson will be the main man, at least in the season's early going. Ivory's been dealing with a rib injury and will probably get a light workload when he returns, and Johnson received 10 carries with the first-team offense in Saturday's game, while Powell only got four.
The former first-round selection has also been terrific so far in the preseason, which has instilled the coaching staff's trust in him as the team's primary ball-carrier.
Don't get me wrong—Ivory and Powell will get their share of carries and will be vital in New York's rushing success. However, Johnson will see the field the majority of snaps.
Starters: Eric Decker, Stephen Hill, Jeremy Kerley
Decker sat out of the Jets' second preseason contest with a quadriceps injury on Saturday, but it would be shocking if the big free-agent acquisition missed the regular-season opener.
Decker is expected to lead New York's receiving corps this season after signing a massive contract, and if he can put up stats similar to the ones he put up in Denver with Peyton Manning, he'll be well-worth the investment.
The 27-year-old has good size and great hands, and his speed is underrated. Expect him to immediately become Geno Smith's favorite target when the regular season kicks off and to lead the Jets in every receiving category.
Stephen Hill has been a massive bust through two years, but New York's still relying upon him to be the team's No. 2 wideout opposite Decker.
Hill has the size and speed to be a dangerous receiving threat, but he's been hampered by drops, route running and nagging injuries.
The Georgia Tech product is a massive question mark, but the Jets don't have any other receivers with his kind of potential. The success of Gang Green's offense could depend on how Hill produces.
Jeremy Kerley was plagued by injuries a season ago, but he still managed to lead the team in receiving yards. The 25-year-old is a speedy and elusive pass-catcher, and he has the ability to be one of the league's best slot receivers if he manages to stay healthy for a full season.
Kerley, who is entering a contract year, will be determined to do so.
Starter: Jeff Cumberland
Many expected Jace Amaro to win the starting job in his rookie campaign, but the second-round selection has struggled mightily this offseason.
Amaro's poor play leaves the starting spot to Jeff Cumberland, who was re-signed to a multiyear deal this offseason.
Cumberland has excellent speed for a man his size, but he's yet to translate his physical gifts into much production. He's fallen short of 400 yards each of the last two seasons.
However, the Illinois product is still miles ahead of Amaro in terms of development, and he's much more likely to contribute early on in the season than the rookie.
Starters: D'Brickashaw Ferguson, Willie Colon, Nick Mangold, Brian Winters, Breno Giacomini
New York's offensive line will look a heck of a lot like it did a season ago, with one major exception.
Breno Giacomini will replace Austin Howard at right tackle. Howard was solid last year, but Giacomini brings a more physical, if undisciplined, presence to the offensive line.
The Jets offensive line was inconsistent throughout 2013, and that may be the case again this season. Ferguson and Mangold are Pro Bowl-caliber players, but they're getting up their in age and aren't as reliable as they once were.
If Colon is healthy, he should give Gang Green a tough presence on the interior. The former Pittsburgh Steeler can sometimes struggle in pass protection, but he thrives in run-blocking situations.
Winters is the X-factor for the offensive line. He was downright awful in his rookie year, as he allowed 10 sacks, the most for a guard in the entire NFL.
After a solid preseason opener, Winters started off on the bench in favor of Oday Aboushi on Saturday. When he did hit the field, he was terrible, as he committed four penalties.
Winters will still probably start Week 1, but he needs to perform much better if he's going to keep that job. New York's line also depends upon that improvement.
Starters: Muhammad Wilkerson, Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson
The Jets defensive line will look exactly the same as it did last year, and that's a beautiful thing.
Gang Green possessed arguably the best defensive front in football in 2013, and there's no reason why it shouldn't be as good, if not better, this season.
Wilkerson, Harrison and Richardson are all under 25 years old, and each should improve with another season lined up next to each other.
Wilkerson is the best pass-rusher of the group. He recorded 10.5 sacks last year, although his sack pace fell off late in the season as teams began to double-team him. However, Wilkerson should only improve in that regard this year.
Harrison and Richardson are two of the best run-stuffers in the NFL. They helped the Jets become one of the top run defenses in football in 2013, and they should do so again.
Jets fans should be incredibly excited about what this unit can do, both in the present and in the future.
Starters: Quinton Coples, Demario Davis, David Harris, Calvin Pace
The linebacker corps has always been outshined by the defensive line, but it's still among the team's strongest positional units.
David Harris is the leader of the group. The veteran has been one of the most productive and complete inside linebackers in football in recent seasons. He can drop back in coverage, stuff the run and even rush the passer in certain situations.
His running mate, Demario Davis, is undersized, but he's one of the speediest linebackers in the NFL. After a productive yet bumpy first season in the starting role, Davis is ready to break out in a major way. He was terrific against the Bengals, recording a strip sack and showcasing great skills in coverage.
New York's outside linebackers are a bit more of a question mark.
Calvin Pace had a career resurgence in 2013, as he recorded double-digit sacks for the first time. However, most of Pace's sacks were a direct result of offenses giving more attention to the defensive linemen.
It'll be interesting to see if Pace can repeat his gaudy sack total, but it would help the defense considerably if he could improve in pass coverage.
Quinton Coples has yet to live up to his potential, as injuries and inconsistencies have slowed him. New York went out and signed Jason Babin this offseason to split time with Coples, and Babin even got the start on Saturday.
Coples is a more complete player than Babin, but the latter is a dangerous pass-rusher. If the North Carolina product struggles early in the season to make an impact, the Jets could switch him out in favor of Babin in a moment's notice.
Starters: Dimitri Patterson, Antonio Allen, Calvin Pryor, Darrin Walls
The secondary looked like a complete mess against the Bengals, as Andy Dalton completed every pass he attempted and shredded the unit at will.
Granted, the Jets were without their projected starting cornerbacks, Dee Milliner and Dimitri Patterson.
While Patterson is looking good to start Week 1, Dee Milliner probably won't, as he suffered a high-ankle sprain early last week, per Seth Walder of the New York Daily News.
Darrin Walls, who was surprisingly decent when given a chance last year, is his likely replacement.
Regardless, Patterson is just a journeyman who has struggled with injuries throughout his career, and Milliner was subpar for most of his rookie season.
Even when New York's corners are fully healthy, they may be a liability.
The outlook at safety is looking much better, though. Calvin Pryor was dominant against Cincinnati, recording several big hits and making plays all over the field. He already looks ready to lead the secondary in his rookie season.
The conversion to cornerback was not a positive one for Antonio Allen, but he has the size and toughness to be a solid free safety. He was inconsistent in his first year in the starting role, but he did a nice job defending bigger slot receivers and tight ends.
Starters: Nick Folk, Ryan Quigley, Tanner Purdum, Jacoby Ford
Nick Folk, coming off a career year, will be the team's kicker once again in 2014. Folk has made a boatload of clutch kicks in recent seasons, and he is capable of nailing field goals from beyond 50 yards.
Gang Green supporters should be confident with Folk as their kicker.
Ryan Quigley was solid if unspectacular in his first year with the Jets. He did a great job backing teams up into their own 20, although his punts often lacked distance.
New York's return game has lacked explosiveness since Joe McKnight was cut last offseason. The team's hoping Jacoby Ford can fix that, as Ford has emerged as one of football's most dangerous returners since being drafted in the fourth round in 2010.