When the 2013 season opened, it seemed likely that it would be Rex Ryan’s final year as the Jets’ head coach.
The team had hired a new general manager after missing the playoffs for two straight years and many felt Ryan had worn out his welcome as a result. Things didn’t play out that way, though.
Despite a bumbling offense, Ryan was able to lead the Jets to an 8-8 finish that was far better than many predicted and it may have been the best head coaching job of Ryan’s tenure. That earned him an extension and a bit of security, but it didn’t set the Jets up for surefire success in 2014.
They still need to get that offense in order, starting at the quarterback position where Geno Smith is expected to start ahead of Michael Vick when the regular season opens. Whether it stays that way or not, the Jets have upgraded the talent around them on offense and there will be great pressure to see progress if Ryan is going to be around for many more years.
That’s the big question for a Jets team that lands at No. 19 in PFT’s preseason power rankings.
The Jets may not have had luck finding their franchise quarterback, but they’ve shown a knack for identifying talent on the defensive line. Defensive ends Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson are two of the league’s best young players at the position and defensive tackle Damon Harrison has been steadily productive.
Chris Johnson may not be CJ2K any longer, but his presence adds another piece to a deep running back group. Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell both had some good moments last year and former Ram Daryl Richardson is also around to help take some of the pressure off the quarterbacks.
David Harris rebounded from a couple of down seasons to turn in a strong campaign at inside linebacker for the Jets last season. The unit wasn’t particularly impressive otherwise, but Harris gives them a player to build around inside.
The rest of the group isn’t as good as it was in his earlier days, but center Nick Mangold continues to be a reliable blocker in the middle of the offensive line.
The changes at the skill positions should make life easier for any quarterback, but the Smith/Vick duo is less than ideal for a team that continues to look for a long-term answer at quarterback. It’s too early to write Smith off, but he’ll need to be much better this season.
Losing Antonio Cromartie smarts even with the veteran turning in a mediocre season in 2013. Dee Milliner came on strong in the second half of his rookie season, but more adjustments will likely be needed as he moves up a rung on the depth chart, and Dimitri Patterson’s injury history doesn’t do much to inspire hope that the Jets will have him for all 16 games this year.
The Jets got 10 sacks from Calvin Pace last year, a career-high for the 11-year veteran who re-signed this offseason. Some slippage is likely for Pace and Quinton Coples hasn’t developed into an effective pass rusher at this point in his career. The Jets defense is at its best when it is attacking, which means they could use a bit more bite at outside linebacker.
It’s a big year for wide receiver Stephen Hill, who has not lived up to his status as a 2012 second-round pick. Hill has speed, but he struggles catching the ball and is hurt far too often. With improved options around him, Hill’s stay might not extend much longer if he doesn’t take big steps forward in camp.
The Jets signed Eric Decker early in free agency, giving them a receiving threat they’ve needed since Santonio Holmes’ career went south after the 2010 season. There is debate about whether Decker’s a “true” No. 1, but he produced with Tim Tebow at quarterback in Denver so he should be effective with this group as well.
That group got a bit deeper in the second round of the draft when the team tabbed tight end Jace Amaro. The Texas Tech product was purely a pass catcher at Texas Tech, but the Jets have a bigger need for a receiver than a blocker with Jeff Cumberland back.
Breno Giacomini was signed to replace Austin Howard at right tackle, a move that may well turn out to be a lateral one. Giacomini was part of a Super Bowl winner last year, though, and that’s never a bad thing to have in your recent past.
The Jets have struggled with safety play quite often during Ryan’s run as head coach, but they hope they solved some of the problems by drafting Calvin Pryor in the first round. Pryor should start from the outset and a quick transisition to the NFL would solidify a persistent Jets weakness.
Depending on who you asked, you got a different answer about the Jets’ quarterback competition. The team insisted there was a real one, while Vick maintains the job is Smith’s to lose heading into the season. That doesn’t mean he won’t lose it, so it’s incumbent that Vick bring his best stuff.
The Jets took cornerback Dexter McDougle in the third round in May, creating a potential competitor for Kyle Wilson as the third cornerback. Wilson’s been largely ineffective since the Jets selected him in the first round in 2010 and finding a better option would go a long way toward shoring up the weakness at corner.
Decker and Jeremy Kerley appear set as the top two wideouts, leaving a clutch of players to compete for spots behind them. Hill, David Nelson, Jacoby Ford, Greg Salas and three third-day draft picks will be in the mix. It’s not the most exciting group, but the competition should produce a better group than last year.
We opened with the need for the Jets to get more out of the quarterback position and that’s where we will close as well.
There are questions about the secondary, but the Jets defense should be strong again in 2014. If they are going to return to the playoffs, they will need a massive improvement on offense and that’s only likely to come if they have a quarterback who is able to avoid the kinds of turnovers and mental mistakes that have plagued them for the last three years.
Smith showed some signs of growth as the 2013 season concluded and more of the same will put the Jets in position to challenge for a postseason berth. A reversion to the worst of his rookie season will thrust Vick into the limelight and start the search for a franchise quarterback all over again.
If it turns out to be the latter, that probably won’t be the only change looming for the Jets just a few years after consecutive trips to the AFC Championship Game.