Lichtenstein: A Look Inside Jets' Non-QB Position Battles

Rush Linebacker, Tight End And Featured RB Among Open Competitions

Steve Lichtenstein
August 08, 2018 - 4:57 pm
New York Jets head coach Todd Bowles during New York Jets rookie mini camp at Atlantic Health Training Center on May 4, 2018.

USA TODAY Images

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As the Jets prepare for their preseason opener on Friday against Atlanta at MetLife Stadium, the starting quarterback battle has sucked up almost all of the media’s oxygen.

Yes, coach Todd Bowles’ decision between Josh McCown, Teddy Bridgewater and rookie Sam Darnold will have the most impact on Gang Green’s 2018 season, but it’s far from the only one of consequence.

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The Jets, coming off consecutive 5-11 campaigns, have many holes.  In addition, injuries are starting to accumulate, leaving several positions open to competition.

So, though I’ve never placed any importance on the results from the NFL’s meaningless exhibitions, they might provide a window as to how Bowles sees these competitions unfolding.

Here’s my take on three lesser-heralded position battles:

 

1) Rush Linebacker

Besides quarterback, this might be the franchise’s most glaring oversight in the Mike Maccagnan/Bowles era.  Josh Martin is currently listed as the starter on the Jets’ “unofficial depth chart” on their website.  Written in pencil.  That Bowles has been giving undrafted rookie Frankie Luvu a long look with the first team, including during Friday’s Green/White practice at Rutgers, must be taken as an indication of Bowles’ dissatisfaction with his incumbent.  Martin produced just 28 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 14 games, nine of which he started, last season.  That’s unacceptable.  Lorenzo Mauldin, a third-round draft pick in 2015, was once groomed for the edge rush role, but he hasn’t played since Thanksgiving weekend in 2016 due to injuries. He’s now considered by some experts to be on the bubble to even make the final roster.  Sophomore Dylan Donahue, another potential candidate, is expected to be suspended for the first few games after two drunk driving guilty pleas.  My guess: If the Jets aren’t able to get help outside the organization—Maccagnan told ESPN’s Rich Cimini on Wednesday that edge rusher “is an area we’re focused on”--Bowles will go with veteran David Bass, who recorded the highest sack total (3.5) among returning players (linebacker Demario Davis, now with the Saints, led the team with a mere 5 sacks).  That is, assuming Bass’ current undisclosed injury isn’t a long-term issue.

 

2) Tight End

Good riddance to bumbling Austin Seferian-Jenkins (and, by the way, thanks to referee Tony Corrente for reportedly telling the Jets assembled media on Tuesday that his ridiculous ruling on Sefarian-Jenkins’ fumble last season versus New England would definitely be called a touchdown under the new rules—much appreciated).  Unfortunately, tight end is another position the Jets did not address in free agency, outside of former Raider Clive Walford, who would have to stand out in the preseason games to even make the team.  Bowles is left with a group with a combined 23 NFL receptions last season.  Eric Tomlinson is nothing more than a sixth lineman.  Local product Neal Sterling had one catch until the season finale.  Jordan Leggett, a potentially dangerous receiver, just can’t stay on the field—he’s been in and out at training camp after missing all last season with a knee injury.  That means we should pay close attention to rookie Chris Herndon, a fourth-round pick who had his 2017 season at Miami shortened by an MCL injury.  Herndon has turned some heads at camp.  However, he is also facing a DWI charge that would accompany a league suspension if it is adjudicated this season.  Still, some type of a Tomlinson/Herndon combo seems to be the way I think Bowles will go.

 

3) Featured Running Back

For some reason, this regime has never been enamored with Bilal Powell.  After Powell’s fabulous finish to the 2016 season, the Jets still wouldn’t commit to him, giving a fair share of last season’s load to Matt Forte, who was almost completely out of fumes.  So, don’t be surprised if you see a lot of Isaiah Crowell this year.  Maybe not so much in the preseason games--there’s too much risk--but the 25-year old has reportedly even been featured in the passing game at camp, despite limited success during his four seasons in Cleveland.  With sophomore Elijah McGuire out up to five more weeks following foot surgery, you should get an extended look in the preseason at a 2.0 version in sixth-round pick Trenton Cannon.  On this team of relative lead-foots, you will notice Cannon’s speed.  In practices, he reportedly explodes out of the backfield like he was shot out of…you know.  I believe Powell should be the featured back, with Crowell and Cannon spotting him, but I’ve been saying this for several years.

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OK, I can’t resist.  Even though Bowles has stated that he might take all preseason to name his starting QB, I’m going to predict right now that it will be McCown in Week 1.

Darnold, the 2018 Draft’s third overall selection, will receive every opportunity to prove he deserves the job.  Same with Bridgewater, who seems to be over his devastating knee injury from August 2016.

Or at least it will appear that way.

McCown just seems like a pre-determined Bowles favorite—a terrific mentor for Darnold who will manage games by doing things like throwing for four yards on third-and-eight.  He’ll limit mistakes and even make a big play every so often.  At least until the fourth quarter.

The Bridgewater free agent signing has all the appearances of an insurance play.  He’ll stick around until Darnold proves he’s not a Christian Hackenberg-like project.  If Darnold is close but could use a few weeks holding a clipboard as an observer, then it would still make no sense for Maccagnan to pay Bridgewater an additional $5.5 million to be QB3.  I believe he will be dealt.

“As The Quarterbacks Turn” will generate the most interest among the media and fans throughout this preseason, but let’s not forget about the other positions that still need to be filled by competent players.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.