Previewing The Jets: When Healthy, Offense Has Potential To Soar

Steve Lichtenstein
August 19, 2019 - 12:00 pm
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With only two weeks to go in the Jets’ preseason slate, including the utterly meaningless fourth game when no one of any value plays, this is a good time to take a look at where the club stands, starting with the offense.

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Gang Green faces an unusual circumstance. This promises to be a season when the offense is going to have to carry the team given the club’s deficiencies on the other side of the ball. Even more extraordinary — given this franchise’s recent history — if healthy, they have the pieces to do it.

Unfortunately, the “if healthy” part is a mighty big hurdle for any NFL team. The Jets, who played without four of their five starting offensive linemen in Thursday’s preseason victory over Atlanta, will not be able to sustain their attack if injuries mount at any offensive position aside from running back. Their depth is that bad, though it is not surprising for a team with such an ugly draft record.

Let’s review each position:

QUARTERBACK

Obviously, the basis for all the excitement over the Jets’ offense lies with sophomore Sam Darnold’s potential. The best news coming out of training camp has been Darnold’s competence in grasping new coach Adam Gase’s system. I’m not even talking about the results (two touchdown drives in four possessions) in the two preseason games. What matters is how Darnold has managed the quick pace that Gase has required and that he is seeing the field significantly better than he did as a rookie. I agree with Jets legend Joe Namath: Once the team surrounds Darnold with a better supporting cast, he will win plenty of games. 

Jets quarterback Sam Darnold passes against the Falcons on Aug. 15, 2019, at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Images

Backup Trevor Siemian is nothing more than a satisfactory game manager, the kind of QB who throws the ball 3 yards downfield on third-and-7. He posted a winning record as a starter in Denver in 2016-17, but this team will head south if he is forced into action for a significant duration. 

RUNNING BACK

We won’t see Le’Veon Bell, the club’s marquee free-agent acquisition this offseason, in any of these exhibitions, Gase announced following Sunday’s Green and White practice at MetLife Stadium. That makes Bell, who hasn’t played in 18 months due to his contract holdout in Pittsburgh last season, a huge variable. A lot has to go right for Bell to return to his form from Pittsburgh days, when he was a workhorse back who holds the league career record for yards from scrimmage per game. He can do it all -- run inside and outside, pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield. Can he replicate that, though, behind an inferior Jets line? Can he even survive?

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If not, as I noted above, the Jets are fortunate in that they have experienced backups at this spot. Ty Montgomery is a similarly versatile back who has looked terrific through training camp. The Jets even brought Bilal Powell back for another season. He’s always been underrated in my book. Trenton Cannon will make the squad for his special teams' skills as a kick returner and gunner on punts.

WIDE RECEIVER

Here’s where you can expect more diversity from Gase than what we saw last season under overmatched offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates. Robby Anderson, who has been nothing more than a deep threat in his three seasons in New York, has seen his route tree expanded. The open question is whether Anderson can hold up to the No. 1 role’s physical rigors — he had some issues in this regard last season with two lost fumbles in 14 games. 

Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson
Brad Penner/USA TODAY Images

On the other side, Quincy Enunwa will be asked to do more than catch quick passes at the line of scrimmage. To succeed, he will have to improve on his 13.6% drop rate, the sixth-worst mark in the league last season, per ProFootballFocus.com.

Last week, I wrote about the huge impact I expect from Jamison Crowder this season in the slot. His quickness and Darnold’s ability to extend plays are a perfect match.

There’s not much help behind the top three, with Josh Bellamy, Charone Peake and undrafted rookie Greg Dortch expected to make most of their impact on special teams. Bellamy had a total of 77 receptions in five seasons with Chicago. Dortch, who has the lead at the turn for landing the punt returner job, took his reps with the third team Sunday night. Maybe Gase keeps a seventh receiver like Darnold’s USC teammate Deontay Burnett, but it’s equally likely that he will instead opt to split Montgomery out wide in five-receiver formations. 

TIGHT ENDS

This section is divided into the Jets with Chris Herndon and the Jets without Chris Herndon, who is suspended for the season’s first four games due to a violation of the league’s substance-abuse policy. When he returns, the Jets will have a multidimensional player at their disposal, one who can get downfield to make big plays in the passing game. He’s the rare stud former general manager Mike Maccagnan found outside of the draft’s first round.

Until then, unfortunately, the Jets will be making do with a committee of substandard replacements. Veteran free-agent pickup Ryan Griffin seems to have the upper hand at the moment. As a Texan last season, he graded out ranked 36th of 46 tight ends with at least 200 snaps by PFF. By the way, Eric Tomlinson, who should be out of lives this year, was 44th. Trevon Wesco doesn’t appear to be ready for more than a short-yardage role in his rookie season.

OFFENSIVE LINE

While Darnold will be everyone’s focus when it comes to Jets analysis, this group’s performance just might be more telling in terms of how high the Jets will fly this season. Again, when at full strength, it’s not that bad on paper. Five-time Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil came out of retirement to shore up the unit’s weakest link. However, Kalil has a lot of catching up to do -- Sunday night was his first appearance on the field. At guard, both Brian Winters (shoulder), the second-longest tenured Jet behind Powell, and trade acquisition Kelechi Osemele (pec strain) are nursing injuries. Right tackle Brandon Shell, whose 2018 campaign was derailed by a left knee injury in Week 14, hurt his right leg during warmups in Atlanta on Thursday and did not play. Only left tackle Kelvin Beachum has gone through camp relatively unscathed. (He hurt his ankle Aug. 2, but only missed a few days of practice.)

In the wounded’s stead, the backups’ play Thursday was uneven, as expected. Darnold was pressured on four of nine dropbacks, and Montgomery averaged 5.1 yards on his seven carries. Rookie right tackle Chuma Edoga and veteran guard Tom Compton were the most overwhelmed, per PFF’s grades, while center Jonotthan Harrison and guard Alex Lewis fared better. 

There’s been some chatter that Douglas isn’t done tinkering with this area. However, I doubt he will find anything better than a marginally superior reserve caliber lineman on the waiver wire. This appears to be the group that will have to keep Darnold upright and hold their blocks while Bell patiently scans for creases to run through. If they’re at least moderately successful, this Jets offense has the potential to pile up points.

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