Outlook for the 2013 Jets: Part II (The offense)


by Chase Stuart on January 16, 2013

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Yesterday, I reviewed how the Jets defense performed in 2012 and previewed the team’s outlook for 2013. Today, the heavy lifting begins, by looking at the offense. If you didn’t feel bad for Tony Sparano before this post, I can guarantee you will by the end of it.

Quarterback

There is no point in ignoring the elephant in the room, so let’s just get it out of the way: Mark Sanchez is a below-average starting quarterback and not the answer for the Jets. After committing 26 turnovers in 2011, Sanchez laughed in the face of regression to the mean and matched that number on fewer plays in 2012. Sanchez also turned the ball over 23 times in his rookie season, leaving 2010 (14 turnovers) as his only season with fewer than 20 turnovers. To be fair, every hand that touched the 2012 Jets passing game deserved criticism, as Sanchez received almost no support from his teammates or coaches.

The past, not the future.

Still, the quarterback gets the credit and the blame, and there’s no escaping the fact that Sanchez ranked 30th in Net Yards per Attempt over the last two seasons, a disproportionate performance compared to his bloated salary.1 There are some creative things the Jets could do to lessen his salary cap hit in 2013, but that just delays the bill to 2014. Currently, Sanchez will count for $12.9M against the cap next season, and would count for $17.2M (yes, that means $4.3M of dead money) if released. While it’s not impossible that the Jets could trade him, I’m going to ignore that option for this post. The other problem? His cap hits are $13.1M and $15.6M in 2014 and 2015. You probably didn’t know that — heck you probably thought he was a free agent after 2013 — because it’s so far out of the realm of possibility that Sanchez would be on the team in 2014 that no one mentions it. But as a technical matter, Sanchez is signed through 2016 at superstar quarterback money, and the most likely scenario is the Jets cut him after 2014 (leaving $4.8M in dead money but still saving $8.3M on the cap).

The fact that his contract runs through 2016 is more important than you might think. Even under the best case possible, pigs flying 2013 scenarios, Sanchez still won’t be worth $29M in 2014 and 2015. Sanchez would have to turn in a season like Aaron Rodgers in 2013 to make the Jets want to keep him at his current contract (which, if he played at such a level, he’d have no incentive to restructure) after this season.

In other words, getting limited improvement from Sanchez in 2013 should not be the goal of the team, because it gets them nowhere (unless that limited improvement results in a Super Bowl – commence laughing, now). Presumably, the new general manager will recognizes this, and will consider Sanchez a sunk cost. It’s possible that he will remain on the roster — he’d be a good backup — but it makes no sense for New York to start him at quarterback by design in 2013. Which probably ensures that it will happen.

I think we can assume that Tim Tebow won’t be the starting quarterback, at least as long as Rex Ryan remains the head coach. Greg McElroy is on a cheap contract for the next two years, but he’s shown little to make the Jets think he can be anything more than the backup of the future.

So the Jets will have to go outside the roster to find their 2013 starting quarterback. The Jets don’t have the cap space for a Michael Vick or Alex Smith (blessing in disguise, in my view), so the guess is a high pick is spent on a quarterback or a cheap veteran (Jason Campbell, Matt Moore, or Kyle Orton, for example) is acquired. That will be left up to the new GM, who will have to decide if he really likes any of the quarterbacks in the 2013 draft or if he’d prefer a stopgap measure before going all-in on a first round quarterback in 2014.

Running backs

Shonn Greene has put together back-to-back seasons of roughly 1,050 yards at four yards per clip. He’s done this at ages 26 and 27, putting him in the same company as Mike Rozier and Curt Warner, who both produced little the rest of their careers. Most people would be surprised to know that Greene, who is now an unrestricted free agent, will be 28 by the start of the 2013 season. While that might hurt his marketability, Greene should be able to get a decent deal since he was actually pretty good the last three months of the year. If the Jets were a team trying to make one last Super Bowl push, you could advocate resigning Greene, but I see no reason for New York to pay market value for him in 2014. Running back is the easiest position to fill, and the Jets could get most of the production (with more upside) at a fraction of the price with a late round draft pick.

The other option would be giving the lion’s share of the carries to Bilal Powell, the Jets fourth round pick in 2011. He averaged 4.0 yards per carry in limited time last season, but is a better receiver than Greene and could improve with more playing time. In Rex Ryan’s ideal world, the Jets would have an elite running game, so don’t rule out the Jets spending a second or third round pick on a runner. Eddie Lacy (Alabama), Montee Ball (Wisconsin), Stepfan Taylor (Stanford), Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State) or Mike Gillislee (Florida) fit the ground-and-pound mold, while Giovani Bernard (North Carolina), Andre Ellington (Clemson), Joseph Randle (Oklahoma State) or Kenjon Barner (Oregon) could add some much-needed explosiveness to the team.

Joe McKnight is on the team for one more season, although the coaching staff has little faith in him as anything but a special teams player, while fullback Lex Hilliard is a free agent. New York ranked 12th in rushing yards last season, but only 23rd in yards per carry. The Jets rnaked 14th in Pro-Football-Reference’s Expected Points Added metric, signaling that they were an average running team. The Jets will likely add two or three running backs to the roster in the next few months. And while I generally think selecting running backs high in the draft is a poor move, adding a star running back is the Jets quickest (and perhaps only) way to field a respectable offense in 2013.

Wide Receiver

One of the most complex situations to analyze. This group was a train wreck in 2012 but actually looks promising in 2013, with one large caveat. Incredibly, only one Jets wide receiver gained even 300 yards last year. Chaz Schilens (289) and Clyde Gates (224) received significant playing time out of necessity as Santonio Holmes (4 games) and Stephen Hill (11 games, 8 starts) were limited by injuries. That left Jeremy Kerley as the only reliable receiver on the roster most weeks, and he ended up recording 26% of the team’s receiving yards. There’s no point dwelling on the past — the wide receiver position was every bit as terrible as the quarterback in 2012.

In 2013, however, things look a little different. Kerley, best left as a slot receiver, can return to that role next year. Stephen Hill was an extremely raw receiver out of Georgia Tech, but his size and speed combination made him an attractive prospect. He has the potential to be a future number one, and wide receivers typically make big strides between their first and second seasons. Santonio Holmes — at least as an on-the-field player — can be a number one wide receiver for a Super Bowl champion, as he was in Pittsburgh. All three players have complementary skills, and the combination of a healthy Holmes, a developed Hill, and Kerley in the slot would actually give the Jets three pretty good receivers.

Note the caveat above. Forgive me forgoing to go on a bit of a rant here, but Holmes is easily my least favorite player to ever wear a Jets uniform. I don’t think non-Jets fans realize exactly how toxic Holmes has been. Let’s start with the bad news: he has a cap value of $12.5M next year and the Jets would only save $1.25M by cutting him, so that’s not an option; on the bright side, they can cut him after the season and he’ll only count for $2.5M in dead money against the cap (as opposed to $10.8M if he’s on the roster). And while I would love for the Jets to trade him, I don’t think there will be much of a market.

As a reminder, Holmes excelled in 2010, proving Mike Tannenbaum to be a genius by acquiring him for just a fifth round pick. He was on his best behavior then, however, and parlayed that season into a five-year, $45M deal. After the 2011 season, when asked about how bad Holmes was in the locker room, one Jets veteran said “I don’t see how he can come back.” Here is what Gary Myers wrote after week 17 of the 2011 season, a loss in Miami:

Holmes’ antics have been going on all year but exploded in Miami when he pouted during the game, ignored Sanchez in the huddle and infuriated his teammates.

“Go home. Go to the sidelines,” one player yelled at him.

Holmes and the player began screaming at each other in the huddle. On the next series, tackle Wayne Hunter and Holmes got into it in the huddle. Soon after, Holmes was benched by Schottenheimer. Holmes then sulked on the bench. He alienated so many players in the locker room that the Jets have to get rid of him.

“He’s a cancer. It’s like dealing with a 10-year-old,” a Jets source said Monday.

One Jets source described how Holmes undermined Sanchez last week. The struggling quarterback called a meeting Wednesday with his wide receivers. Holmes showed up but gave Sanchez a hard time.

“He went back and forth with Mark at the meeting,” the source said. “He was saying stuff like, “What am I even here for?’”

Sanchez called another meeting for Thursday. Holmes disrespected his quarterback. “He blew off Mark by not even showing up,” the source said.

After Sanchez met the media Monday, the Daily News attempted to ask him about last week’s meetings. He refused to even let the question be asked. “No,” he said. “I’m done.”
…..
There are going to be some unhappy players if he’s back. “His practice habits were terrible,” the source said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

That veteran might have been LaDainian Tomlinson, who added this nugget in a few weeks later when talking about the Jets locker room:

It got out-of-hand toward the end of the season. That is why it got out in the media. This is something that happened (in the) third or fourth week of the season, that was going on, and nobody knew about it because the players kept it under wraps. Until we went on that losing streak and guys started to speak up and speak out about certain things…It is as bad as I’ve ever been around, honestly. And I’ve been around some locker rooms and quarterback-receiver situations and what-not. But it was as bad as I’ve been around. You know it was at the point where I think the players could no longer do anything about it. There was nothing that the players could do.

Holmes got paid.

Just a reminder, this is Tomlinson talking about the 2011 season, not the media circus that was 2012. In September, Tomlinson added one final gem: Holmes and Sanchez did not speak to each other the final 13 games of the 2011 season. For all the criticism Mark Sanchez received, being a bad teammate isn’t one of them, and you don’t need to be a detective to figure out why the two weren’t speaking.

All of that is just background to say… had Holmes stayed healthy in 2012 (instead of missing most of the year with a Lisfranc foot injury), the locker room and Jets circus could have been much worse. Holmes received his big pay day and has been acting like it ever since. Maybe the injury and missing three months of football will help the light go on in his head, but I doubt it. I would be thrilled if the Jets traded him for anything at this point, even if the passing offense desperately needs a player of his talent level. But the Holmes of 2011 brings nothing to the table of 2013, and I hope the Jets move on from him.

Tight End

Let’s move on to the Shonn Greene of tight ends, Dustin Keller! Keller has been neither a bust nor a star for the Jets. If you wanted to play with arbitrary numbers, you could develop this stat: Keller is one of only two tight ends in NFL history to catch at least 45 passes, gain at least 500 yards, and average at least 11 yards per reception in each of his first four years; the other is Mike Ditka. On the other hand, Keller has just three 100-yard games in five years with the Jets, which would be a good month for Jimmy Graham. Keller was sidelined most of 2012 with injuries, and his 28 catches for 317 yards and 2 touchdowns came at a bad time: Keller is now an unrestricted free agent.

It’s possible the Jets franchise him, and given the amount of time that must be spent trying to fix well, just about every other position on the team, perhaps that is the prudent move. However, franchising Keller will cost the team $6M in 2013, and I don’t think Keller is worth that. Tennessee is likely to make a similar move with Jared Cook, a similar player who has also yet to realize his full potential.

Jeff Cumberland, Konrad Reuland, and Hayden Smith are just depth options at this point. If the Jets want to have a two-tight end offense, any of them would suffice as the #3. On a team with questionable receivers, the Jets could use more out of their tight ends, which makes me think the team will simply franchise Keller and deal with the tight end position in 2014. Expect two of Cumberland/Reuland/Smith to make the team, with Cumberland having the most potential as a receiver and Smith being the rawest of the three (he’s a former Australian rugby player). The Jets may address tight end in the draft, and will certainly do so if they do not bring back Keller.

The other variable: Keller has been Sanchez’ security blanket when plays break down, and if Sanchez comes back as the starter, it is very likely the Jets choose to bring back Keller. I would probably prefer to blow the whole thing up, but overpaying for Keller for one year to focus on other problems is not a terrible plan. If not, the hope is the Jets acquire a dual-threat tight end. While none of the current tight ends are good (or even capable) blockers, in past years, the Jets have tried to address this by acquiring solely blocking tight ends (Matthew Mulligan, Ben Hartsock).

Offensive Line

Let’s start with the good. D’Brickashaw Ferguson was excellent from 2008 to 2010, but had a rough 2011 season, allowing 8 sacks and 22 quarterback hurries according to Pro Football Focus. He rebounded in 2012, and has established himself as a top-ten (if not top-three) left tackle in the NFL. At center, Nick Mangold had his second straight very-good-but-disappointing-for-Nick Mangold-season in a row; in 2011, an ankle injury caused him to miss two games and parts of others, while in 2012, a variety of injuries kept him on the injury report (although he played in 16 games). But he’s the Jets best offensive player, and if healthy in 2013, should give the Jets no concern.

At guard, Brandon Moore had another strong season. He’s known mostly as a run blocker but he held up fine in pass blocking in 2012. Matt Slauson manned the left guard spot (when he wasn’t, for no legitimate reason, being benched for Vlad Ducasse), and he was solid as a pass-blocker even if he is a little light in the run game. At right tackle, Austin Howard proved to be an upgrade over Wayne Hunter. While Howard is a liability as a pass blocker, considering his salary and his run-blocking prowess, you could do a lot worse at right tackle.

Austin Howard is a restricted free agent, but there’s no reason not to bring him back on a cheap deal. Howard was a disaster against Cameron Wake in week 3, but after that, played pretty well the rest of the year. There were certainly enough positive signs to make the Jets slot him in at right tackle, hope he improves in year two as a starter, and focus on the rest of the team.

While Ferguson and Mangold are locked up through 2017, both Slauson and Moore are free agents. Ducasse (a free agent after 2013) looks like a total bust, and it’s hard to imagine the Jets starting him in 2013. You got the sense that the Jets rotated him with Slauson again and again in an attempt to justify the second round pick used to acquire him and/or to see if Ducasse could man either guard spot in 2013. Unfortunately, he’s a nightmare as a pass blocker and has not developed into a mauler in the run game; if he is a starter next season, the offense could look even worse next year.

While guard may be the least important position on the offense, this is a possible trapdoor for the offense in 2013. My guess is a team trying to make a Super Bowl push overpays for Brandon Moore, while Matt Slauson (who was angry with the organization for cramming a pay-cut down his throat in August and later ripped Tim Tebow) chooses to move on, too. It’s simply too early to say what the market will be for either Moore or Slauson, but don’t expect the cap-strapped Jets to receive any hometown discounts. My hunch is that Moore, who has also been outspoken about the locker room problems, would be happy to put the Jets in his rearview mirror. That leaves the team with no experience at either guard spot (or worse, Ducasse), little cap room, and a bunch of more pressing problems.

Review

No matter what, this is going to be a bad offense in 2013. In 2012, they ranked 30th in yards/drive, 30th in points/drive, and 27th in drive success rate, and ranked 30th in Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt. Let’s take a second and envision what the 2014 offense might look like:

QB:
RB1:
RB2: Bilal Powell
WR1:
WR2: Stephen Hill
WR3: Jeremy Kerley
TE1:
TE2:
LT: D’Brickashaw Ferguson
LG:
C: Nick Mangold
RG:
RT: (maybe) Austin Howard

That’s a pretty scary skeleton of what your 2014 Jets offense will look like. There are only four players you can envision the team building around, and two of them are currently role players. Perhaps the 2014 offense will feature Aaron Murray and Eddie Lacy, but if I was the Jets GM, my number one goal on offense would be to try to build a competitive offense in 2014. 2013 is a lost cause, in my view, so the two-year rebuilding project should begin now.

Santonio Holmes is not going to be on the team in 2014, so why (a) take valuable reps away from Hill and Kerley and (b) allow Hill and Kerley to be in the same locker room as him? Keller might be on the team next year, and as a transition player, that makes some sense, but I would say it is unlikely he’s on the team in 2014 and extremely unlikely he’s a Jet in 2015.

The Jets have too many holes to fill (QB, RB, WR, TE, G, NT, OLB, ILB, S) to worry about right tackle, so they need to cross their fingers and hope Howard can man that position at his reduced salary. The guard spot looks like the real danger, and expect New York to spend at least two draft picks in the next two years to fix it. The other issue is at wide receiver, where the hope is that Stephen Hill becomes a WR1 but the reality is the team needs to have a contingency plan in place.

That leaves just one position left, and brings this long post full circle. I see no reason for optimism on offense in 2013, so the Jets are left with two options. Option one would be to draft a quarterback this year and let him go through the growing pains ala Ryan Tannehill or Brandon Weeden. This, again, simply comes down to prospect evaluation. There isn’t a new GM in place, so it’s hard to say what the team thinks of Geno Smith (West Virginia), Matt Barkley (Mark Sanchez’ alma mater), Tyler Wilson (Arkansas), Ryan Nassib (Syracuse), Mike Glennon (North Carolina State), or any of the other quarterbacks in the draft. The other option would be to grab a veteran placeholder for 2013 (or, gasp, play Mark Sanchez or Greg McElroy) and hope the team is in position to draft the franchise quarterback in 2014. Either way, 2013 looks to be a long year for Rex Ryan and the Jets. Good luck to whomever the Jets ultimately hire as offensive coordinator, because he is going to need it.