TE Anthony Becht is one of several players that may be in their last year of tenure with the Jets. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
Greetings fellow Jets fans! Don’t look now but it getting to be that time of year again, time to hose off the cooler and the lawn chair, dust off the beer can hat and head on down to Hempstead to watch your beloved Jets prepare for the season ahead.
Although there are no big-time positional battles that will affect your fantasy football team, this year’s version of Gang Green is one with many interesting roster possibilities and the depth chart at several positions will need to be resolved prior to the home opener on September 12th vs. the Cincinnati Bengals. Since this isn’t a small job, we will start with the offense. Next week we will break down the defensive side of the ball and special teams.
QUARTERBACK: This is the position that many two-bit writers like to harp on as a weakness of the 2004 Jets. The incumbent starter Chad Pennington has unfairly earned the “injury-prone” label and the theory goes that should he go down, they have no reliable name to replace him. This is debatable due to the fact that last year in Vinny Testaverde they had about as good of a veteran replacement possible and how did that turn out? We can talk forever about how the coaches didn’t use Testaverde correctly but the fact remains the Jets are essentially Chad’s team and the team is built around his strengths. Should he go down, there is no guaranteed manager-type QB out there that can just step in and pick up the slack. Pennington makes the players around him better while big names veterans such as Rich Gannon or Testaverde require high quality talent around them to be effective. What would Testaverde’s 1998 be without Keyshawn and CuMart? What would Gannon’s 2002 be without Rice, Brown and Porter? Similar to Tom Brady on the AFC-east rival Patriots, Chad Pennington is the catalyst that makes this team competitive, and to lose the team leader would be a serious blow to the team regardless of who the backup is. If it were Brady who broke his wrist in the preseason last season, even miracle worker Bellichick would have been hard pressed to make that team win like it did.
With that being said, the backup QB situation in this writer’s opinion is not a bleak as some may think. CFL transfer Ricky Ray was a highly sought-after free agent, mostly due to his Pennington-like intangibles of accuracy and leadership. As many as ten NFL clubs were seriously interested in the 24 year old and the Jets got their first good news of the offseason when he chose to sign here in New York. Contrary to what the depth chart says, the Jets did not sign this guy to a seven-figure deal so that he could sit behind the ultimate “last-man-standing” Brooks Bollinger. Once Ray gets a handle on Hackett’s complex playbook (which could take some time), he should move up the chart, and provide capable backup for years to come.
Off the field, there were two positive developments that affected the QB position, both of which concern young Chadwick. First was the re-signing of controversial offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, who reportedly was brought back under the condition that Penny would be able to audible out of bad plays, and even call his own plays at the line. This is a very good thing, as Hackett is actually one of the brightest X and O minds in the game - how many other teams in the NFL ran a true double reverse last year for positive yards? However, when it comes to crunch time he often cracks like a ripe walnut and point-blank needs help calling plays.
The second positive development is the on-going negotiations to extend Pennington’s contract to a long-term deal. As of press time no deal was inked but reportedly talks are heating up and it don’t be surprised to see Penny receive his blockbuster deal prior to the preseason. Should it happen, this would solidify the Jets QB position for years to come.
Numbers floating around is a contract in the $100MM range with a bonus in the neighborhood of $15-20MM. This would make Pennington the second-highest paid QB in league history (far behind Manning’s 35 million, also negotiated by Chad’s agents, IMG) but such a number would be considered a bargain if they don’t get the deal done before the season and Penny has a Pro-Bowl caliber year. Let’s not forget that in their 2002 head-to-head playoff battle, it was first-year starter Pennington who topped the veteran wonderboy Manning.
RUNNING BACK: In a trend that started back two or three seasons ago, the media will say Jets workhorse RB Curtis Martin is old and broken down. But likely, as he always has in the past, this freak of nature will prove his critics dead wrong. Known for his tireless work ethic, this year Martin went to strength and conditioning coach John Lott and asked for a more challenging off-season workout program. It seems that the grueling one given out to the rest of the team just wasn’t enough. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t bet against this man continuing to be a superstar in 2004.
Despite Lamont Jordan’s complaints, and the coaching staff’s assurance that the two backs will share carries, make no mistake that Martin is still the top dog in the Jets’ backfield and it will likely stay that way for a few more years to come. Barring a career ending injury to #28 (at which point an insurance policy kicks in where the Jets are the beneficiaries), Lamont Jordan will be wearing a different uniform next season. He’s a great player but this is just not the right situation for him. Should 7th round RB sleeper pick Derrick Ward prove capable (and based on the pre-draft and mini-camp hype there’s no reason why he shouldn’t), Jordan could even be traded before the deadline this year, to ensure the team gets some value for his talent. In such a situation, Baltimore and San Francisco are possible destinations for Jordan.
Due to the unstable future RB situation, and also because of his raw talent, Ward has a better than average chance to make this team. It is the opinion of this writer that he probably would not be safe if they placed him on the practice squad. As we will see, there are situations similar to this throughout the roster, where Bradway’s excellent second-day picks will figure into the team’s future but could be too valuable to place on the practice-squad at present.
FULLBACK: Jerald Sowell had a pro-bowl caliber year last season and should again flourish in Hackett’s FB-friendly West Coast Offense. Some fans call BJ Askew a waste of a pick. However, do these same fans realize that Sowell is 31 going on 32?
Askew should prove his worth over time. He will also get more playing time in 2004. A true key for the success of the New York Jets will be to find a reliable short yardage back. Lamont Jordan is actually more of a finesse back in a power back’s body (i.e. he can’t push the pile at the line for that tough yard). The team will likely try to wean Askew into this role as he gets more playing time and gains more confidence.
WIDE RECIEVER: With the savvy off-season acquisition of Justin McCareins, this position went from being a position of weakness in 2003 to a possible position of strength in 2004. Santana Moss is the #1 WR, while ex-Titan McCareins actually has the upside to surpass Santana in that role as the year progresses. Think of them as a very solid #1 and #1a for now. In the #3 role Wayne Chrebet is ignoring the advice of some doctors and former Jets great Al Toon and will return to the Jets as the slot receiver and third-down specialist. Hopefully he will remain healthy and end his Jets career the way he started it.
Behind the top three wideouts there should be a fight between 4th round draft pick Jerricho Cotchery and 4th year pro Jonathan Carter for the number 4 spot. While the rookie has been showing serious skills, and will be the slot guy for years to come, Jonathan Carter has veteran experience and serious speed. Carter should lock down the 4 WR position if he is fully recovered from the knee injury that ended his season last year and takes over kick return duties. Cotchery was a fantastic pick and will likely be Chrebet’s replacement when that time comes.
While a lot has been made of Ken-Yon Rambo’s positive spring I won’t be convinced until this guy shows it on the field. The best chance he has is to prove his worth on kick returns. If Carter is tentative in that role, Rambo could sneak onto the roster due to his special team versatility. This team needs a kick returner that can take advantage of Assistant Head Coach Mike Westoff’s blocking schemes more than it needs a gamebreaking 4th WR.
No one is talking about him but Lawrence Hamilton is a serious dark horse at the WR position and could distinguish himself this preseason. At 6-3 and a slightly sub 4.4 pre-draft 40-yard dash he has the measurables that coaches crave and has been digesting Hackett’s playbook for a full year. With a August, he could make it very hard for the team to cut him. Although the team could be tempted place him on the practice squad, he is talented enough to get sniped, just as the Jets sniped him from the Bengals at the end of last season. However it will be a tough question exactly how many WR’s the Jets keep in light of the relative crowds at other positions.
TIGHT END: This is definitely a spot to watch, as the Jets recently inked journeyman Mikhael Ricks, most recently with the Lions. This 2002 NFC Pro Bowl alternate is a serious receiving threat, and could factor into the team’s usage of more 2 TE sets. While current personnel Anthony Becht and Chris Baker have no receptions over 40 yards in their career, Ricks has 4. That being said, on the downside his blocking skills are questionable. With James Dearth a pretty sure bet to make the squad due to his long-snapping role, the question is will the team retain 4 TE’s on the roster? If Ricks has a great preseason, they might have to. On thing to watch is that the team signed DL/LS roster-longshot Randy Chevrier. If he excels in the pre-season there is a chance that Dearth may be the odd man out.
Becht is a free agent at the end of the year, and while Jets fans like to bemoan Becht every chance they get, he actually is an under-rated part of the team that has improved over time. He is their best blocking TE, their best red zone target and although no one is ever going to mistake him for Tony Gonzalez, last year Becht came to camp in fantastic shape and on occasion even got some yards after a catch. In short, Becht has had the type of career production that will attract suitors on the open market when his contract expires. When you think about all of the other big name players on the team coming up for free agency in the next two seasons, Becht is likely the low man on the totem pole. 2002.
Third round selection Chris Baker is still believed to be Becht’s likely replacement. However, as the team put more faith in him last season, he dropped several catchable balls down the stretch. Still, the team seems to have at least some faith in Baker as the tight end of the future. As for now, Becht is top Jets TE of present and in the end, the production of this group could very well be split between three players. This situation is definitely something to keep a close eye on as it develops during the season.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The Jets have the same starting 5 returning from the end of last season. While continuity is often seen as a benefit, in light of the big days opposing team’s pass rushes often had against the Jets, this is not necessarily a good thing. When examining the OL there are two areas of concern, controlling the blind-side pass rush and push in short yardage situations.
While the safety of Chad Pennington is obviously of utmost concern the fact of the matter is by the end of last year, there weren’t really enough weapons to help Chad get rid of the ball quickly. The addition of McCareins and getting Chrebet and Carter back from injury should free up the passing game a little, and thus allow Pennington to make the decision to throw rather then just take the sack. However not all of the passing game’s woes can be attributed to lack of weapons. In terms of pass protection the weak links were really G Dave Szott (who retired) and T Jason Fabini (who didn’t).
While most fans seem to be obsessed with left guard position currently inhabited by Brent Smith (and not without reason, as we will get to later), the real cause for concern is Jason Fabini at LT. Serviceable in 2002 Fabini signed a monster long term contract then proceeded to have a god-awful year in 2003. This year, should Fabini be as bad as he was last year, it wouldn’t be crazy to conclude that his contract extension could be the absolute worst move of Terry Bradway’s tenure as General Manager. The fact that that team really doesn’t have the money to re-sign very good right tackle Kareem McKenzie is attributed to the huge deal that Fabini got two years ago.
If Fabini can return to his 2002 form, the team could make it through the year without Pennington getting killed. However should continue on his downslide, the only hope for the Jets would be that one of the team’s developmental players such as NFL Europe alum Lance Nimmo, or draft picks Adrian Jones and Marko Cavka step up. Although there is potential in all of those players, it is highly unlikely that any beat out Fabini in pre-season due to inexperience and the big cash Fabini is getting paid. While no one can argue that McKenzie is very talented, he lacks the foot speed for left tackle. McKenzie’s Agents, the Ponsons, believe he can do it all, and should be paid as such. They may be right. However, as with Becht, with all the team’s big names coming up for contract renewals in the near future, McKenzie will likely be elsewhere in 2005. The fans are praying that that Fabini just had an off year and will get his act together fast. Bill Muir, where are you when we need you most?
As for left guard, while it is possible a long-shot such as Jonathan Goodwin (2002 5th round pick from Michigan), Dave “Knish” Yovanovitz (2003 7th round pick out of Temple), Sean Young (UDFA out of Tennessee, I loved him in Ace Ventura) or Jason Nerys (UDFA out of Delaware) come out of nowhere to steal the spot, it is most likely that the 2004 opening-day starter at left guard will be Brent Smith. Also, don’t be surprised if the team snags a veteran guard or two off the waiver wire after training camp cuts.
Despite his knees being held together with silly putty and duct tape, Brent Smith actually is surprisingly solid. He is very good in pass protection, however based on his play last year his game has two glaring weaknesses: he wears down over the course of the game, and he cannot get the tough yard in short yardage situation. Both of these weaknesses can be addressed by rotating Brent Smith out of the game at key points.
Looking at the tapes of last year, in games where the team did not rotate Smith he played with less fire and had stamina issues (see road game at Indy, 4th quarter). In games where Jonathan Goodwin or Brandon Moore (who is currently the capable starting right guard) got just a series or two, Smith came back into the game playing as if a man possessed. He feared for his job, and played that way. That is what the Jets need at the position. The team could work up a “jumbo” set where someone like promising LT prospect Adrian Jones comes into the game with the sole job of cracking some heads and moving the chains. While none of the team’s offensive linemen are true road graders, many of these guys probably have more straight-ahead pop than Smith.
Although many within the organization believe that Adrian Jones is the team’s LT of the future, the team should consider getting him some experience this season as a guard. Since team scout Jesse Kaye mentioned Jones’ versatility on draft day, there has been no further talk about it from the club, and he is being viewed as purely a tackle prospect. There is no more demanding position than left tackle position, and if a player is good enough to be trusted with the health of the QB on the blind side then he can by definition play any position on the line besides center. Great players move around all the time. If Adrian Jones as a rookie is in the top five of the Jets’ offensive linemen, then he should be playing regardless. If he is not, then so be it, but you are asking a lot to plug this kid in at opening day 2005 left tackle, without any real game experience.
When we talk about the OL it would be a foolish to omit the contribution of All-Pro C Kevin Mawae. Although he is not as dominant as he was early in his career, without this man the unit would be in absolute shambles. He holds his teammates accountable and leads on the field with ferocity, guile and courage. Early in the off-season, he requested via his page on the NFL players web site a real guard to work with, and not another project. It is a shame that Bradway ignored his request but at the same time he is good enough to make those who play with him better than they actually are.
One other note, it is with no great sadness that we note the absence of JP Machado, a.k.a. “The Manatee” (called such as he’s fat, worthless and often appears to be floating on his back). If “reverse pancakes” were a stat, JP Machado would lead the league. Machado’s two most memorable acts of futility are for sure the 2002 Oakland playoff loss (in which he was rag-dolled on several occasions) and his stint at center during last season’s Giant’s preseason game where Pennington’s non-throwing wrist was destroyed. Good riddance, Manatee! Goodwin will likely take over as backup center, although the roster currently only lists him as a Guard.
All in all the offensive line is a unit with many questions and the answers will come soon enough as a great offensive line is rarely spoken about and a horrible offensive line is the topic of every conversation, lets hope that this is the last time we talk about the offensive line in 2004.
That just about sums up the Jets 2004 offense. Be sure to check back next week for a breakdown of Jets defense and special teams.