Top 5 New York Jets Players with Something to Prove This Season
The New York Jets made headlines this offseason, adding some high-profile assets on offense and cutting a pair of established players.
The two most significant cuts from the Jets’ roster—WR Stephen Hill and CB Dimitri Patterson—were competing for starting positions this offseason.
These departures set a stern tone, indicating underachievers and disruptive behavior will not be tolerated.
The Jets also have notable offseason additions to their roster.
Newcomers Chris Johnson and Eric Decker are starting their first year in New York with high expectations. Second-year players Geno Smith and Dee Milliner aren’t exempt from the pressure. With playoff aspirations for 2014, both players are looking to bounce back after struggling last season.
Gang Green starts this season with lingering questions on both sides of the ball. How long will it take before the upgrades on offense build continuity? Are inexperienced players with potential ready for expanded roles? The evaluation of weaker positions will continue throughout the season. Head coach Rex Ryan plans to experiment with an uncharacteristically short-handed, untested pass defense.
The top five players facing the most scrutiny are ranked based on statistical expectations, depth at the position and potential to fulfill a roster need.
All statistics are provided via profootball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.
This is the first year Vick will not push the starter in a heated QB competition since returning to the league in 2009. Instead, his transition as mentor will be critical for maintaining a roster spot.
Vick struggled in back-to-back seasons with the Philadelphia Eagles—posting a 5-11 record in his last 16 games. At the age of 34, playing with the Jets, his expectations are limited to spot duty as a high-profile backup. If he refuses or is unable to help Geno along, expect his playing career to end shortly after being released.
Nelson is in position to benefit most at WR as a result of Hill’s exit. In 12 games last season, he became a prominent target for a team struggling without a No. 1 receiver. Decker will be the go-to guy, but Nelson’s 6’5” stature makes him a conspicuous option in the red zone and on third-down pass plays.
Fellow wide receiver Jeremy Kerley proved his worth leading the team in yards and receptions for the past two seasons. Nelson needs to cement his role within the offense or find a roster spot elsewhere as a free agent in the offseason.
Wilkerson led the defense with 10.5 sacks in 2013—giving a much needed boost to the Jets’ sluggish pass rush. His breakout performance last year heightens the expectations on his production this year.
The Jets have struggled in generating sacks in recent years. John Abraham was the last Jets player to accumulate 10 or more sacks within a single season in 2005. Defensive coordinator Dennis Thurman is tasked with designing a defensive front that will continue last year’s trend of pressuring opposing quarterbacks.
Wilkerson has shown the potential to develop into a sack specialist going forward in his career.
New York’s pass defense ranked 22nd last year. Without veteran cornerback Antonio Cromartie, the remaining defensive backs are inexperienced and unproven.
Landry is the only defensive back with extensive experience on the roster after Patterson’s release. He’ll be responsible for setting up pass coverage as a veteran leader. Dawan’s guidance is exceptionally valuable to second-year corner Milliner and third-year defensive back Antonio Allen—both expected to start this upcoming season.
5. Antonio Allen
A former seventh-round pick drafted as a safety makes the transition to cornerback. As a third-year player lacking on-field experience, shifting positions midway through preseason comes with a high level of difficulty.
The spotlight on Allen continues to shine brighter as the season approaches. Keep in mind Milliner isn’t a lock to play opening night against the Oakland Raiders.
Aside from Coach Ryan, the expectations are low. However, if the experiment at cornerback fails, the weakness in the Jets’ defense will be exposed to heavy criticism.
Allen’s vault to potential starter gives credence to the notion nickelback Kyle Wilson simply isn’t capable of managing the starting job, or is Ryan’s seventh-round steal of the 2012 draft just that talented?
4. Chris Johnson
According to Brian Costello via The New York Post, Johnson is out to prove the Tennessee Titans let him walk away prematurely. He’s adding pressure to the expectations he’ll inherit as the No. 1 RB on Gang Green’s depth chart.
What’s at stake in terms of the Jets’ investment?
The franchise hopes Johnson continues his trend of 1,000 yard rushing seasons. He has accomplished this feat in all six years of his NFL career with the Titans. The idea is to help Geno as much as possible. The acquisition of a former 2,000 yard single-season rusher with the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield adds another dimension to the offense.
In 2013, Johnson ranked sixth in rushing attempts. The workload is an indication he’s still a workhorse running back able to manage the bulk of the carries with sustained durability. New York established an effective dual-threat running back system—accumulating 134.9 yards per game on the ground.
If Johnson is unable to fit the billing of a true primary back, he’ll lose significant carries to Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory as the season progresses. The Jets anticipate CJ elevating the rushing attack rather than simply blending in with the committee.
3. Eric Decker
The Jets struggled tremendously at wide receiver, which didn’t bode well for their rookie signal-caller.
Finally, it seems the Jets have a No. 1 receiver capable of making plays against double coverage as a reliable target for a developing quarterback.
There’s one caveat.
Decker must prove he’s a prolific receiver apart from Peyton Manning. The Jets are hoping to provide Geno with a consistent receiver who can stretch the field vertically. Decker fit the description in his last two years with the Denver Broncos. Nonetheless, his new quarterback in New York is far behind the play-caller he left behind in Manning.
Scrutiny will derive from Decker’s ability to adjust to Smith’s playing style as a mobile quarterback. The receiver will be expected to catch passes on extended plays, rollouts and less than accurate throws.
2. Dee Milliner
The Jets are atypically thin at cornerback. One year ago, Milliner was the ninth overall pick in the draft, and now he’s expected to cover the NFL’s top receivers.
Ironically, the most concerning questions about Milliner don’t pertain to on-field production, it’s his availability.
As the 2013 draft approached, questions about his medical history surfaced. Despite only missing one game in his college career, according to Adam Schefter (via profootballtalk.nbcsports.com), Milliner had endured five surgeries.
The former first-round draft pick could miss the home opener against the Raiders with a high ankle sprain to start the most crucial season of his football career.
Unlike fellow defensive back Allen, the former Alabama standout excelled in his position dating back to his college career. He was a staple within the Crimson Tide’s stingy defense en route to multiple BCS National Titles.
Milliner struggled in 2013 and was benched repeatedly for poor play. He can ill-afford to miss time due to injury with the burden of proving himself as the Jets top defender. If he struggles to stay on the field for any reason, coach Ryan could opt to sign a veteran corner to patch up deficiencies in the pass defense.
1. Geno Smith
Mark Sanchez is Smith’s reminder that he must prove himself year after year to remain under center as the Jets’ quarterback. Sanchez led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championships games in his first two seasons, but after struggling in consecutive years, the organization decided to move forward in a new direction.
College quarterbacks—the likes of Jameis Winston of Florida State, Marcus Mariota of Oregon and Brett Hundley of UCLA—could declare for the 2015 NFL Draft. The Jets have shown they’re willing to trade up for a desirable signal-caller. New York swapped picks with the Cleveland Browns to draft Sanchez as the fifth overall pick in 2009.
In Geno’s first year, he exhibited signs of potential mixed with causes for concern. He was able to make plays using his mobility, but also threw with poor accuracy—a completion percentage of 55 percent along with 21 interceptions.
It’s expected that rookie quarterbacks will struggle with similar statistics, but the Jets are diligently looking for a solution to their offensive woes with limited patience. Sanchez’s prior successes didn’t pardon him from demotion and his eventually release. Smith enters his second year with an upgraded offense capable of substantial improvement.
The onus falls on the Jets’ quarterback to make strides—failure to do so could end Geno’s stint in New York in favor of rookie potential.
It’s highly unlikely the Jets pass up on an opportunity to draft Winston, Mariota or Hundley if the team struggles on offense and these top prospects are available.