Listen, the New York Jets are not going to be good this year. Most of you know this and have accepted this. Many of you, smartly, are here for this. This is what you want, you want them to be bad, worst record in the league bad so they can draft a potential elite quarterback and add to the young pieces they have to build a team that can actually have sustained success. Some of you may still be holding out hope that they could at least be decent this season, let that hope go. Don’t watch this season pinning your hopes on the Jets winning games, watch this season looking for progress in some of the young players. Watch this season for hope, just accept that that hope is for the future.
So with all of that in mind, let’s focus on the top storylines to watch throughout training camp and the preseason with the caveat that what we are looking for is not can this roster with only four players over the age of 30 compete this year, but which players can establish themselves enough that Jets don’t have to worry about finding a replacement for them in 2018 and beyond.
1) Christian Hackenberg – Pardon me while I paraphrase KRS-ONE, “I’m not saying he’s the number one storyline, nope I’m sorry I lied. Hackenberg is number one, two, three, four and five.” Prepare yourself for Hackenberg to dominate the focus from all of us beat reporters, prepare for overanalyzing every practice and every throw. Prepare for his every pass to be charted and reported on with little to no context, prepare for it because not only will it happen, it has to happen. Whether Hackenberg is great, terrible or anywhere in between he will be the by far the biggest storyline of this camp and there’s simply no running from that reality.
So we will judge his performance every single practice, just remember reporters are at these training camp practices to report what we see, to you fans who are not there. So when we report on a great throw or practice or a horrific throw or practice it obviously doesn’t mean we are saying he will forever be great or forever be terrible, it simply means on that throw or that day he was what he was and we’re going to tell you about it. We will then use assess the totality of his performance and try and predict whether he will be good or whether Mike Maccagnan wasted a second-round pick on him. That is our job, you will undoubtedly find reporters opinions scattered all over the spectrum and it’s still entirely possible that every single reporter ultimately gets it wrong. But with so few established players, so many young rookies and such a high need and demand for a competent starting quarterback Hackenberg updates are going to dominate the headlines and they should, so just accept it now and make peace with it.
For those that know me, my reporting/writing, you know how I hate to chart practice passes (and I still won’t do that) and overanalyze the quarterbacks but the reality is regardless of how Hackenberg performs, he is the most intriguing storyline of camp. But I will make you this promise, while Hackenberg will get the most attention we at JetsInsider will make sure to pull back from focusing on him from time to time and place all our attention elsewhere.
2) Young receiving core – With both Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker gone Quincy Enunwa becomes the Jets number one receiver and the veteran of this core. Enunwa made defenses take notice of his ability last year as the third receiving option, but how will he fair against opposing teams’ top corner and possibly seeing double teams? I believe Enunwa is for real, but I’m not ready to declare him a true number one receiver, and then you factor in the quarterback issues so I’m not exactly sure how we can accurately assess his growth from last year to this year, but with his blend of size and speed he still presents a matchup problem for defenses.
While I have no idea what to expect, production wise, out of Enunwa this season I’m confident I know what he is. He’s a talented and versatile receiver and any team would benefit from having him on his roster, in fact the Jets should really lock him up now as this is the last year of his contract. It’s possible he exceeds my expectations, but even if he has a down year production wise I will still say he’s a damn good number two and an excellent number three. But what about the rest of these young receivers?
Enunwa is now the number one, you have to figure Robby Anderson will be the number two and from there it gets even dicier. The Jets have a lot of talent at receiver but it’s unproven talent and who knows how it will shake out. Jalin Marshall lit up the practice field in training camp last year and had some positive moments during the season, but for the most part he was a non-factor. He started lighting up the practice field again in the last couple of days of minicamp, can he step-up and become a consistent weapon in the slot? Can he cut out this mistakes and fumbles?
What about Charone Peake? Last year during OTAs Peake looked to be the best of last year’s rookies, but was surpassed by Anderson and Marshall. Peake doesn’t have their electric play-making ability, but he’s a similar receiver, style-wise, to Decker. Can Peake slide in to Decker’s role? Obviously I don’t expect him to match Decker’s production this year, but can he show enough that he could one day turn into a similar player? Then there’s the rookies, ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen. Where do they fit in? Can they contribute immediately this season? I actually think they can because of how they fit in a West Coast system. There’s a ton of question marks in this group, but what bodes well for Enunwa as the number one is with this system and this many potential options a true number one might not matter as much. The Jets are going to spread the ball around regardless so it may be counter-productive for defenses to roll coverage to Enunwa. Then there’s this next guy, the non-Jamal Adams guy who had the most impressive offseason.
3) Austin Seferian-Jenkins – With the focus mostly on Hackenberg and Adams stealing enough attention with his play and obvious leadership ability Seferian-Jenkins impressive performance in OTAs and minicamp feels like it flew under the radar. But it shouldn’t. If you ask me to pick a breakout player on offense for the Jets I’m going with the tight end and there isn’t even a close second. It seems like Seferian-Jenkins has his alcohol issues under control, but if you have any experience with friends or family battling addiction no one is ever completely clear of those issues, and maybe now that he’s focused, and has lost some weight, he will finally be able to put it all together and be the talented tight end many expected him to be when he got drafted out of the University of Washington. He has the size and speed, he caught damn near everything thrown his way and if he stays in this condition defenders will have a hard time stopping him. The Jets might actually have found not only a competent tight end but a damn good one which could only help the receivers and of course whoever the quarterback is.
4) Offensive line – Last season the Jets had to adjust to no D’Brickashaw Ferguson, this year it’s Nick Mangold’s absence that will take some getting used to. Wesley Johnson played well last season in replacing Mangold and even seemed to be a better player at this stage in their careers, can he keep that up? What about Brandon Shell? Shell played really well down the stretch last season, can he build on that and improve? Will Kelvin Beachum be a factor? Can he handle left tackle? Ben Ijalana and Brent Qvale were both adequate last season, can they be better? We know James Carpenter and Brian Winters will be solid at the guard spots, but who will win those right and left tackle spots?
5) Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye – These two are going to be a lot of fun to watch. They both stood out during OTAs and minicamp, but even more impressive is to see how their new teammates rallied around them and embraced them immediately. Adams wasted no time stepping in as a leader and his teammates not only have embraced it so far but really seem to enjoy following him. They’re both going to have their bumps in the road, but if you want to watch this season and cling to hope to the future I suggest keeping your focus solely on these two because they have the ability and the mindset to control the backend of the defense for years to come.
6) Morris Claiborne and Juston Burris – No more Darrelle Revis, but with the way he played last year that’s actually a good thing. The Cowboys traded up in the draft to take Claiborne with the sixth overall pick in the 2012 draft and he never lived up to expectations. Sure injuries were part of the problem, but even before the injuries his play was spotty. There’s no denying his physical talent though and he had a strong camp so far, he says he’s more focused than every, making his health a bigger priority and seems intent on taking advantage of this one-year contract to prove that he’s the talent most expected when he came out of LSU. Can he play well enough to help the Jets this season shouldn’t be as big of a concern as can he play well enough to earn a contract to help the Jets win in the future.
With Burris, both Todd Bowles and Kacy Rodgers admitted they erred in not getting him more reps last season, they seem determined to make up for that this offseason as he got the bulk of the first-team nickel reps on the outside. Claiborne and Buster Skrine will be the top two outside corners in a base 3-4 or 4-3 defense but when they slide Skrine inside in nickel or dime packages the Jets hope the lengthy, physical and aggressive corner can hold down the outside spot. Like with Claiborne if Burris can prove he’s up to the task the Jets can scratch the need to find another top-notch corner next offseason and focus on their numerous other needs.
7) Darron Lee and Demario Davis – David Harris is gone, now officially in New England which we all had to see coming, Harris is nowhere near the player he once was but he was still, by far, the Jets best run-stopping linebacker and that ability as well as his leadership will be missed. Demario Davis does seem to have grown in his year in Cleveland and seems ready to accept a leadership role and more responsibility, but can he make the plays necessary to anchor the middle of the defense?
Lee had his ups-and-downs last year and still has a lot of potential, especially in coverage, but he needs to be more disciplined and not over pursue so much. His skill set is exactly what NFL defenses need to cover talented passing attacks in today’s NFL, but can he put that skill set to good use and become an effective linebacker?
8) Edge rusher? – Will the Jets ever find a true edge rusher? They likely don’t have a game-changing one on their roster now. Lorenzo Mauldin said he’s more focused on his power, no more finesse from him. I’m not sure that’s a good thing. When Mauldin flashed in his rookie year it was his speed off the edge that did it, last year he put on weight and his play dropped off. Outside linebacker coach Kevin Greene said he wants all his players focused more of their power and he most certainly knows way more than I do so I’ll defer to him on this, but either way Mauldin will have a lot to prove this year.
Rookie Dylan Donahue has been impressive so far, he’s got a crazy motor and he exudes energy, but I’ve seen this movie before. To see that in practice is one thing, can he put that motor to use in game? No one should expect huge pass-rushing numbers from Donahue this season, but he’s a fun player to watch and I’ll be keeping a close eye on him to see if he can develop into a weapon for this defense down the road.
9) How will they maximize defensive line talent? – Last year Bowles and Rodgers had no idea how to maximize the talent of Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson together. They can’t bother trying to play Richardson at linebacker anymore, they never should have, so maybe the best move will be to formulate some sort of rotation. Maybe Wilkerson will get back to his old ways now that he’s had a year to recover from the broken leg. There’s no maybes surrounding Williams though, there’s no reason to think he will do anything but improve as a player and a leader. Best case scenario here is the Jets figure out how to get the most out of all three players, Williams continues to get better, Wilkerson gets back to his old self and Richardson becomes the dominate force that he was before the trade deadline and the Jets can flip him for draft picks.
10) College quarterbacks – We should all be able to agree that Josh McCown and Bryce Petty are not the future quarterbacks the Jets need. Reasonable people can disagree about Hackenberg’s potential, but fans continue to mistake my doubts about that potential as me burying the kid and thinking he has no shot. There’s a lot to like about Hackenberg from a personality/mental standpoint and he has the ability to wow you with throws but that ability to wow cuts both ways. H can wow you with spectacular throws and horrendous throws. Of course it’s possible he can put it all together and become a solid starting quarterback one day (I think solid starter is his ceiling), but right now it’s a guessing game and I’m putting my bet down that he won’t be that guy. We’ll see when he gets his shot, it really should be Week One as there’s really no need to play McCown, but the Jets will likely have one of the worst records in the league and my guess is at the end of the season they’ll be focusing on which top college quarterback to draft.
So if you’ve embraced the tank you should really hope the Jets end up with the first or second pick. Then do you want USC quarterback Sam Darnold or UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen? There’s some Josh Allen (Wyoming) fans out there among the scouting community but right now I believe he’s a full notch or three below Darnold and Rosen. So which one do you want? Obviously this season will give us a better idea but I will be studying their tapes over these next few weeks to give you a better idea of who I’d suggest. I know this, right now – and again this could certainly change – I’d feel far better about the Jets future with Darnold, Rosen or even Allen than I would with Hackenberg.
Chris Nimbley is the editor-in-chief of JetsInsider.com. He can be reached on Twitter (@cnimbley), or via email (email@example.com)