BERGEN COUNTY, NEW JERSEY- The New York Jets still own 100-1 odds to win Super Bowl LIV (Sunday, February 2 in Miami, Florida), but don’t tell them that. There is a tangible air of optimism surrounding the Jets. In fact in recent months, there are a lot of pieces that have come together for them.
The Jets find themselves: with a veteran offensive line (especially in coaxing Ryan Kalil out of a short-lived retirement), with a loaded defensive unit, winners of the Le’Veon Bell free agency sweepstakes, and with a second-year quarterback on-the-rise in Sam Darnold. Gang Green has even unveiled new uniforms to welcome in its new era. Said CEO Christopher Johnson: “We are now as a team on the cusp of what I think is a new era. And it’s most appropriate that we’re going to start that era with a new uniform, a new look. I’m really excited about it.” Not for nothing, but the 1998 Jets (coached by Bill Parcells), wearing their brand-new uniforms, led the Denver Broncos through halftime of the AFC Championship game.
— New York Jets (@nyjets) April 4, 2019
So, with all this optimism, what are the top three areas of concern for this Jets squad?
1. Cornerback: Jets fans, for a long time, had the luxury of Revis Island- defensed by one of the greatest to ever play the cornerback position: Darrelle Revis. Since then, the Jets have been looking for someone to step up in a big way to fill Revis’ void. In 2018, they had a very middle-of-the-pack defense that posted only 14 interceptions- good for fifteenth (tie) in the league. That unit was led by Trumaine Johnson, who inked a five-year, $72.5 million contract (second highest-paid cornerback in the entire NFL) with Gang Green prior to last season. He, who played in only 10 games last season, posted 4 interceptions, 40 combined tackles, and 35 solo tackles. Most concerning was the fact that he missed significant game time due to a quadriceps injury and had to be held out of practice in late December due to an “in-house matter” which, eventually lead him to be a healthy scratch in the Jets’ week 17 action. He allegedly skipped a team meeting and practice time throughout that week.
— Trumaine Johnson (@Trujohnson2) December 31, 2018
Can the Jets really depend on him to play to the level they expected him to when they awarded him that gigantic contract? Well, if there is any hope, the Jets’ defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, coached Johnson in his time with the Rams to great years. Johnson was the number one press-man cornerback in the NFL in 2017 (a year after Williams departed for Cleveland). Coach Gase told gathered members of the media: “Our goal is to get him back to that level when he was in L.A. or St. Louis, and we would go out there and be scared to throw to his side.” The Jets need him and the other cornerbacks to be able to step up in a major way: to strike fear in opposing quarterbacks. If not, they are hoping their unit can put enough pressure on the quarterback to not allow him enough time to be able to even look downfield. That isn’t sustainable, possible, or realistic on every, single play. By the way: free agent Morris Claiborne, a Jets cornerback from last year, was just served a four-game suspension for PED usage.
2. Wide Receiver: The Jets top three wide receivers listed on the Jets’ depth chart are Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, and Jamison Crowder. A clear-cut, star power number one receiver isn’t apparent, to me:
Robby Anderson: Anderson’s draft profile graded him a 5.08, in the range of: “Back end of the roster”. We all know that draft profiles are just that: projections. Of course, he has speed to burn (4.34 second 40-yard dash) and can easily slip behind an opposing defense on vertical routes. Bottom line: What’s the most important characteristic needed from a wide receiver? The answer to this question: can they catch the ball?
What’s concerning to me about Anderson, in terms of offensive efficiency, is his catch rate (receptions per target). This is displayed in terms of percentage. So, in 2018, Michael Thomas posted the league’s best catch rate; when Drew Brees threw the ball to Thomas, he caught it 85% of the time. One has to scroll a long way down the list (sorted high catch rate to low catch rat) to find Anderson’s name. In fact, Crowder, Enunwa, and Anderson are ranked in the same tier, with Anderson posting the worst catch rate for the Jets’ big three in 2018: Crowder: 59% (ranked 58th among all eligible WR), Enunwa 56% (64th), and Anderson 53% (74th). So, theoretically, when Darnold puts the ball in the air to any of the Jets’ top three wide receivers, there is only a 56% chance they’ll catch it in game situations, at game speed. Even with his speed, he also, head-scratchingly, ranks in the bottom forty-five percent in average yards after the catch (3.7).
Quincy Enunwa: Enunwa is a physical receiver that ranks near the top in the league in yards after catch (7.4), yet has a lower-than-average catch rate (as defined above). He, too, has a Draft Day profile that ranks him as: “Should be in an NFL training camp” (4.8). How Enunwa has been used in the Jets offense is intriguing: targeted on average 7.1 yards from the line of scrimmage. He’s got decent speed- a 4.45 second 40-yard dash. I’d be interested to see more short, quick patterns drawn up for Enunwa, then allow him to get his YAC. Enunwa has only caught 4 touchdown passes in his NFL career (40 games). Obviously, the largest knock on Enunwa is that he has only played one full NFL season (2016) due to injury. It would be intriguing to see how he could excel under the new Jets offensive scheme because Enunwa’s potential has not been totally realized. The Jets seem to be on the same page- they just awarded him a four-year, $36 million contract.
Next up: Training Camp 😎 pic.twitter.com/jIoX8FH31k
— Quincy Enunwa (@QuincyEnunwa) June 15, 2019
Jamison Crowder: Entering his fifth season in the NFL, Crowder signed a three-year, $28.5 million contract with the Jets after missing seven games with the Washington Redskins due to a right ankle injury. In that season, he posted a career-low 29 passes for 388 yards and only two touchdowns. The lure to the Meadowlands for the veteran receiver? To be part of first-year coach Gase’s offensive schemes. “As long as we’re reading the defense correctly, it’s an attack-style offense. I like that”, said Crowder. He also said: “I just want to be a weapon…Somebody that’s reliable, somebody that’s consistent. I just want to gain that trust with [Darnold] that when he wants to go my way that he has that trust and that confidence that I’m going to make the play.” At first glance, Crowder looks to be a good addition to bolster the Jets’ wide receiving corps.
3. Darnold’s progression: Everyone around the Jets organization raves about Darnold’s football IQ and playmaking ability. The fact is that he has played in three different systems in three years: USC’s as a senior, Bowles’ as a rookie, Gase’s as a second-year professional. Eli Manning, a surefire Pro Football Hall of Famer, is entering his second season under head coach Pat Shurmur’s offense and, as late as Saturday on ESPN, was talking about becoming ‘more comfortable’ in his new offense. Darnold has not had that time to ‘settle in’.
The good news is that he is surrounded by a cast of characters that will contribute to and accelerate his development. Even the mere presence of the multi-faceted Bell, who can change the complexion of a game with one touch, on the field will draw attention from defenders. That, in turn, will open a few things up for Darnold. Most importantly, however, is the Jets’ signing of veteran center Ryan Kalil, who GM Joe Douglas coaxed out of a very short retirement. In fact, in a way, Kalil was waiting for his phone to ring, telling reporters that he had a ‘hard time moving on’ from his playing days. He told reporters: “I want to apologize to anybody publicly or behind closed doors that I criticized for retiring and then coming back… I totally understand it now. I totally get it.” In his twelve seasons, all with the Carolina Panthers, and twice was named as a first team all-pro and was a five-time Pro Bowl selection. Darnold understands the immediate impact Kalil’s signing will have on his career: “[Kalil’s] seen a lot of football. To have a guy out there that you’ll be able to watch tape with him, he’ll be able to know when something’s coming just by watching tape. On the field, he’ll be able to recognize something and fix the protection himself. There’s so many things that such a vet center can bring to the team. We’re excited to have him.”
All in all, the optimism surrounding the Jets his warranted. In 2019, they have a solid mix of players (veterans and young talent, alike), a new uniform, and have ushered in an entirely new regime of New York Jets Football.