This could be Rex Ryan’s last stand.
Ryan survived a purge this offseason that claimed a general manager, both coordinators and several veteran players, including cornerback Darrelle Revis, but there’s not much strength to his position. General Manager John Idzik will surely be using this year to evaluate whether or not he can or wants to work with Ryan in the future. Ryan hasn’t been given a cupboard stocked with talent to use to make his case, which doesn’t do much to build confidence that he’ll be back in 2014.
One of the biggest questions the Jets need to answer is whether Mark Sanchez will get one more chance as the starting quarterback or if Geno Smith will grab the job without looking back. Self-preservation normally means going with the vet, but Ryan may be able to build a better argument for himself if Smith plays well enough to give hope that he’s the long-term answer at the position.
Even if that happens, a winning record might be a stretch for a team that hasn’t replaced enough of the talent that helped them to consecutive AFC Championship Games in 2009 and 2010.
Revis is gone, but the Jets still have a very good cornerback at their disposal in Antonio Cromartie. He sometimes gained more notice for his progeny and his run support allergy early in his career, but Cromartie was excellent in 2012 as the top corner after Revis fore his ACL even as the team crumbled around him. He’ll be back in that role this year and there’s no reason to think he won’t thrive once again.
Muhammad Wilkerson isn’t the flashiest player in the league. He’s awfully effective, though, and stood out as one of the top three or four 3-4 defensive ends in the NFL last season. More growth will give the Jets defense an anchor that they hope to mirror on the other side of the line with 2013 first-rounder Sheldon Richardson.
Jeremy Kerley set an NFL record with 36 fair catches as a punt returner last year, so you can definitely count fair catches in the strength column.
Too backhanded? Fair enough. For all his foibles, Ryan has always been able to put together competitive defenses and he’ll likely be able to do the same with this year’s group. As for the other side of the ball…
You can choose the epithet you like, but we’ll go with horror show for the 2012 offense. They scored 281 points all year and turned the ball over 37 times, which is why Marty Mornhinweg is now the coordinator and why Smith was taken in the second round. They made changes at running back and on the offensive line, but the receiver group is heavily reliant on Santonio Holmes getting healthy, Stephen Hill improving rapidly and Kellen Winslow Jr. rebounding. None is a bet you’d want to make with the mortgage payment.
Of course, it wouldn’t help all that much if Calvin Johnson and Jimmy Graham were running patterns as long as the Jets don’t get at least average play from their quarterback. There are no guarantees that either Sanchez or Smith will provide it.
In Ryan’s first couple of years, the Jets were able to disguise their lack of an elite pass rusher with a variety of packages and blitzes that relied on having a shutdown corner on one side to confound offenses. That wasn’t the case last year and the lack of Revis means it may not be the case this year, which is troubling because they are still missing that special player off the edge. They signed Antwan Barnes in hopes he’s over last year’s hamstring issues and moved Quinton Coples from defensive end in hopes of finding something close to one.
Mike Tannenbaum is gone from the front office, but the roster continues to bear his thumbprints. Developing players was put on the back burner in favor of going with expensive vets. Clearing out those older players this offseason has left them without players who may not be ready to step into bigger roles and short on cap space to bring in quality replacements.
We’ve already mentioned Tannenbaum’s ouster, Idzik’s hiring, Smith’s arrival and the Revis trade. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though.
Shonn Greene was bid a less-than-fond farewell and replaced at running back by Chris Ivory and Mike Goodson, who at least assured the Jets some more unsavory headlines thanks to his offseason arrest. Dustin Keller signed with the Dolphins, giving Winslow a chance to resume his career after playing just one game in 2012.
Braylon Edwards remains unsigned, although there are intermittent indications that the Jets would be up for a third go-round with the wide receiver. The Jets will have two new starting guards, with Brandon Moore and Matthew Slauson leaving and Willie Colon, Stephen Peterman and rookie Brian Winters arriving.
On defense, the Jets said goodbye to defensive end Mike DeVito, defensive tackle Sione Pouha and linebackers Bryan Thomas and Bart Scott, leaving them with several holes to fill. Demario Davis will be expected to step in for Scott, which could wind up as an upgrade given the step that Scott clearly lost in recent years.
Safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell played well last season. Eric Smith didn’t, but he’s gone too and the Jets are left with Dawan Landry and untested Josh Bush as their prospective starters at safety.
Some fellow named Tim Tebow, who saw most of his action on the punt team, was also released this offseason. Smaller story, but we’re sure you’ve been following it.
The Sanchez/Smith competition will be the headline grabber, but there are plenty of other things to watch when the Jets gather this summer. Colon is ticketed for one guard spot, but Peterman, Winters and Vladimir Ducasse will compete for snaps at guard with Ducasse a strong candidate for release if he can’t show more than he has through his first three seasons.
Ninth overall pick Dee Milliner and Kyle Wilson are both options to start across from Cromartie. Wilson is better suited for nickel work, so the rookie should get the job if he’s healthy.
Calvin Pace was re-signed after being released and could wind up starting at outside linebacker if Coples can’t handle the transition or if Barnes is a better fit in a situational role. 2011 third-round pick Kenrick Ellis will battle Damon Harrison and veteran Antonio Garay to replace Pouha on the nose.
There’s a fair chance that the Jets won’t be as bad as most people think.
Unfortunately for the Jets, not being as bad as conventional wisdom isn’t the same thing as being good. When you look at the talent on the roster, predicting much more than last year’s 6-10 finish is very difficult and a drop to the bottom of the barrel is hardly unthinkable.
If that happens, Ryan and Sanchez will almost certainly be gone and the Jets will turn the page on an era that started with a lot of sound and fury before ultimately adding up to nothing all that different than the other seasons that have followed Joe Namath’s guarantee made good.