Friday Insider Report: Rookies Kick Off 2010

Big man Rex Ryan welcomes even bigger man, rookie G Vlad Ducasse to the NFL as the Jets kicked off Rookie Minicamp on Friday. (JetsInsider.com Photo)

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FLORHAM PARK, NJ – The sun was shining, and a positively peaceful breeze flowed with ease at Florham Park, on the first day of rookie minicamp. Orange rays splintered off the white helmets, and the scat rhythmic sound of amplified coach barking filtered seamlessly into the morning ether. Football had returned, and though most of the significant characters were absent from this particular stage, a commendable level of energy was apparent among the coaches and players participating in this late April gridiron excursion.

With the quarterback’s rookie tenure in the rearview mirror, all signs pointed toward a static news day, a return to normalcy after Sanchez dominated coverage last season. Real stories don’t happen yet.

Incorrect.

Before the morning session was through, vomit, fatigue, and an I-Pod would demand immediate attention. And while the ramifications will not be long lasting, they served as a reminder that in New York, something is always happening. Even when it’s not…

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Joe McKnight puked. Whether it was nerves, cramps, or a combination of both, the upchucking occurred during morning practice, encapsulating an uneven debut for the rookie running back. Hardly anything of substance could be gleaned from this incident, or today’s output, but it does serve as a reminder that even in rookie camp, the first year player is feeling a different kind of pressure. McKnight flashed a few impressive juke moves during practice, absolutely toasting linebacker Erza Butler when singled up against the linebacker in a drill. But he also dropped a couple of passes, and experienced that unfortunate bout of nausea. “I was a little dehydrated…. A little nervous at first,” admitted McKnight afterward, though, to his credit, he was in good spirits and smiling. Hey, what’s a little barf to ruin an otherwise exciting occasion? Chimed in Head Coach Rex Ryan, “I thought Joe McKnight looked good, when he wasn’t throwing up. He did look good running the football.”

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Recently acquired receiver Santonio Holmes, plagued by misconduct off the field while a member of the Steelers, was reportedly escorted off an airplane in Pittsburgh Thursday night, stemming from a dispute regarding his I-Pod. Holmes allegedly refused to turn off the electrical device while preparing for landing. A team spokesperson for the Jets said that Holmes has not been charged with any crime, and that he left the plane without an escort. “Let’s face it, he should turn off his I-Pod,” said Coach Ryan. “That’s what he should do…. I haven’t had a chance to talk to Santonio, but he certainly should do that.” Ryan did try to temper a potential media maelstrom to the incident. “To me… it kind of got blown out of proportion… it sounds like.”

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When analyzing the roster of a football team, the collection of individuals forming a whole may closely resemble a chain. A solitary weak link could be responsible for adversely affecting, or even destroying, the entire enterprise. Certainly, it doesn’t take a genius like Norman Einstein, or even a game analyst like Joe Theismann, to find a correlation between incompetence at left guard and failure at quarterback, ineffective wide receivers and a tired defense forced constantly off the sideline. All the puzzle pieces are connected. And if not… well, jumbled puzzles won’t make the grade in the National Football League. [Always wanted to say it. Just like that, in that kind of semi-threatening context. NATIONAL FOOTBALL LEAGUE! If I can work in the phrase “this guy’s a football player” at some point, we will really be off to a flying start this season]

Truly, every player is important. This is why potential variables in performance must be acknowledged. In a sport where seasons can change in seconds, the franchise that can unequivocally bank on a player possesses a rare gift. The quality assurance accounts for the massive contracts and signing bonuses. This athlete is a rare bird, and is treated with lavish accordance.

The wild cards separate solid outfits from machines. Who can better beat back aging, a lingering injury, or inexperience? The roster able to overcome the inescapable pitfalls of pro football will succeed. Never will there be entire rosters comprised of guarantees.

Which brings us to today. The Jets will walk into 2010 as a consensus playoff team. Yet, the front office has refused to narrow their long-term focus in the name of an immediate prize. Cutting Alan Faneca, and planning to start rookie Vlad Ducasse at left guard on a loaded offensive line, is a move best typifying New York’s commitment to youth. Sensible management to be sure, but it leaves a potential Super Bowl contender open to risk liability at a key position.

Until they have proven otherwise on a consistent basis, freshmen are question marks. Properly balancing the young and grizzled is a delicate act. One couldn’t blame a Jets fan for flashing back to the Pete Kendall fiasco, though Ducasse, a highly touted second round pick, is a far more qualified replacement for a dependable, departing veteran.

While other members of this Jets draft class may provoke more intrigue, Ducasse is by far the most pivotal. Should Joe McKnight falter, the Jets have plenty of depth at running back, Chauncey Washington and even converted receiver Danny Woodhead capable third string options. Draftee John Connor, a bulldozing fullback, can also handle carrying the ball at this level, at least on a sporadic basis. The same applies to the secondary, where the corners run four deep, a safe haven for promising Kyle Wilson. It’s an ideal scenario.  While Ducasse will be flanked by Pro Bowl caliber teammates on the line, the drop-off from starter to backup is far more pronounced at this particular position.

This Jet decision may have revealed a conflict between perception and reality concerning the value of Faneca. The former Steeler star has an impressive resume, rivaling any contemporary lineman. He was a true leader in the trenches, not to mention a positive force in the locker-room. Acquiescing to the terms of his contract was construed by many an easy decision, especially within the current economic conditions of the league. But the Jets may have perceived his worth in a different light, gambling that the hulking Ducasse could provide similar, or even better blocking, at a far cheaper price. It was the final machination of a tumultuous offseason, and all the wheeling and dealing may have left some with a sense of disoriented whiplash. Was it one move too many? Faneca’s pass blocking capabilities had undeniably declined. Opponents of the move argue that Faneca’s run blocking prowess remained stout, and, combined with his commanding influence among a still maturing group of lineman, necessitated a return. The truth? Faneca was still being paid like one of those aforementioned guarantees, though aspects of his game were veering toward liability. Bring age into play, and the Jets’ reasoning becomes crystal clear. The switch is still a risk, but perhaps not a significant step downward.

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The standout performer of the day was, without a doubt, tight end Jeff Cumberland. A 6-4, 249 pounder, Cumberland is attempting to make the Jets as a free agent. Cumberland was moved from tight end to receiver at Illinois midway through the 2007 season, and is now attempting to transition back to his initial position with New York. Cumberland features a notable burst of acceleration, usually missing among tight ends.

Cumberland could possibly be a red-zone weapon, should he battle his way onto the squad.

When asked whether he felt his speed an asset at tight end, Cumberland replied succinctly. “Speed gives you an advantage. Linebacker’s and safety’s aren’t used to it.” Cumberland was satisfied with his initial pro experience. “It felt real good. I went out there and executed.” He also seems unfazed by the transition from receiver to tight end. “It’s all pretty much the same.” Cumberland’s strong showing certainly caught the eye of Rex Ryan. “He clocked at 4.4,” Ryan said, referring to Cumberland’s forty time. “Maybe he can’t block. He looked good receiving the ball.”

Mike Westhoff appeared in midseason form as he directed special team drills, advising his gunners to, “Find it! Find it! Find it!” as they attempted to navigate past their own blockers and defenders brandishing large pillow-shaped pads, like a swat team shields for kids.

Here’s something you never see in a regular season session: Non-roster Wide Receiver Britt Davis journeyed out to the road beyond the practice field to recover a football. With a car slowly approaching in the close distance, all the aesthetics were in place for an abstract photo. These guys are going all out.

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