StrategyJuly 23, 2009

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Daily Preview: New York Jets

By Shea Colandri

The J-E-T-S Jets Jets Jets, until last season, had been a rather bland and uninteresting also-ran in the AFC East for several years. Then, suddenly, all hell broke loose in 2008. In a surprising whirlwind of activity, the team drafted much-ballyhooed Big Ten Lineman-of-the-Year Vernon Gholston, acquired sure Hall-of-Fame quarterback Brett Favre, and released the steady but unspectacular Chad Pennington. Over the course of a cruel season, however, it was offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and head coach Eric Mangini, their playbooks severely limited by Favre’s late arrival, who ultimately ended up windblown. After stirring the passions of the Jets faithful with a heart-pounding 8-3 start, the Jets twister evaporated, leaving the team crawling to a 1-4 finish. Fans and management were devastated by the 9-7 final record (inadequate to reach the playoffs), and heads rolled — namely, Mangini and his staff.

With fans now hooked on excitement, and ownership determined to find a winning formula, more shake-ups were inevitable for 2009. Thus, as tends to happen when impatience takes over, the Jets are going from one extreme to another. Out with the offensive Man-genius, in with defensive whiz Rex Ryan as the new head coach (although Schottenheimer managed to survive the transition). Out with the ancient field-marshal, in with the callow one. While it may seem knee-jerk to jump to these bipolar opposites, first-year coaches and quarterbacks enjoyed astounding success in the NFL last season — so this topsy-turvy reload may just work.

QB: Mark Sanchez, Kellen Clemens
RB: Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, Shonn Greene
WR: Jerricho Cotchery, Chansi Stuckey, Brad Smith
TE: Dustin Keller
PK: Jay Feely

Quarterback: They’re calling it a quarterback competition because they must. No team simply hands over the huddle to an untested rookie — that’s how locker rooms become divided. However, money talks (the rookie from USC just signed the richest contract in team history), so make no mistake: Mark Sanchez is the QB of this team. Word among football dilettantes is that, though Sanchez only started 16 games at Southern Cal, it was a “pro-style” offense. I remind the faithful reader, though, that at USC (given the elite talent level of almost all his teammates there) Sanchez rarely had to throw from a dirty pocket, or work through four or five progressions. Still, the kid utterly killed at the NFL Combine. During individual team workouts he repeatedly wowed onlookers with his phenomenal precision — and he was reportedly tested with every route the staffs could dream up. I acknowledge that Sanchez’s arm strength is somewhere below legendary, but, with the Jets, this shouldn’t hamper him in the least — their receiving corps (now sans Laveranues Coles) isn’t famed for leaving fiery footprints in the turf anyway.

If Sanchez can adjust successfully to NFL speed and complexity, poor Kellen Clemens (at age 26) will be doomed to clipboard duty for the foreseeable future with the Jets. Yes, he has a purported advantage in understanding the Schottenheimer offense better than the rookie, but he also understood the offense better than Brett Favre last August. The hard fact is the Jets correctly see Clemens as a good athlete with a bright future as a backup.

Running Back: Even the most dull-witted pundits can see the reasons why the Jets will be a run-first team in 2009. Thomas Jones led the AFC with 1,312 rushing yards last season, but he’s also been notably absent from preseason OTAs this year. Typical for a Drew Rosenhaus client, he avoided virtually all off-season activities in hopes of negotiating an update to the final two years of his contract. Thomas turns 31 in August, so it’s hard to blame the guy for wanting to capitalize while still highly productive. Not to worry — in my judgment, this is a bluff which will fail. He’s already been paid a tidy $13 million over the past two years, and he’ll return to the fold healthy and in shape to play. Now, at the risk of sounding condescending, Jones doesn’t fit the mold that typically defines conference rushing leaders. He’s a technically sound finesse-type runner (a well-chiseled one, granted) who benefits from the occasional services of veteran fullback Tony Richardson and the full-time services of one of the game’s best offensive lines. The Jets’ mobility-based run-blocking system on the left side is ideal for TJ’s patient, slashing style. Barring a major money standoff, I expect him to thrill his fantasy owners again this season.

Leon Washington — far and away New York’s most lethal playmaker (running, receiving, or returning) — is also angling for a new deal. He’s earning just $535,000 in the final year of his rookie contract, which is often the year players knuckle down and post career numbers. Working with about the same number of touches in 2008 as in the previous season, Leon found ways to improve on his production, bumping up his yards-per-carry from 5.0 to 5.9, and nearly doubling his receiving yards. Many fantasy owners remember him as a red-zone beast, since he posted six TDs by land and two by air. I’ll counsel you to contain your exuberance about the latter in 2009, for a couple of reasons. First, coach Ryan intends to use Washington less on kickoff returns (of note to leagues where players, not the D/ST slot, are credited here) to keep his legs fresher for scrimmage work. Second, rookie bulldozer Shonn Greene will siphon off most of the short-yardage red-zone carries across the chalk. On the brighter side, look for a healthy increase in his receptions — his excellent hands will be in high demand by a newbie QB checking down to short routes much of the time.

Shonn Greene was reportedly the Jets’ highest-rated RB in the entire 2009 draft, and the team traded to the top of the third round to grab him. At a bruising 235 pounds, he’ll add slugging power to the New York ground attack, complimenting Jones’ skills (think LenDale White in terms of Greene’s red zone potential). Don’t worry about him swiping aerial targets from anyone else, though, given his hands of stone.

Wide Receiver: Jerricho Cotchery’s consistent track-record proves he belongs in the ranks of the NFL’s more reliable possession receivers. While new-puppy QB Mark Sanchez gets his professional bearings, Cotchery will be his best friend — remember that he was Favre’s favorite target early on last year in a similar cold-start QB situation. While not likely to magically develop great speed in his sixth season, he’ll continue to run the inside routes in a highly reliable and precise fashion. His outstanding hands have reeled in at least 65 percent of all passes thrown his way for three straight seasons. Cotchery won’t give you pie-in-the-sky upside or astonishing yardage totals, but he also won’t usually scare defenses into double-covering him either — one reason he’s often capable of great yardage after the catch. In sum, he’s definitely the stuff solid fantasy rosters are made of.

The remaining Jets receivers can be likened to items in the bargain bin at your local hardware store — a mishmash ranging from pretty good to cheap-o. Chansi Stuckey raised eyebrows last year by scoring three times in the first three games, but faded to gray as Favre finally noticed Laveranues Coles’ superior skills and a trustworthy TE. Quick rather than fast out of the slot, his acceleration still makes him fantasy-intriguing but not a deep threat. Second-year man David Clowney is that threat — Clowney is extremely fast. The Jets’ only speed-burner, he set fans’ hearts pitter-pattering by catching TD passes of 70 and 71 yards in a single preseason game last August. Alas, his regular season abilities remain a mystery, since he broke his collarbone soon after that spectacular performance. He’s worth keeping an eye on, raw as he is, to see if he rivals Stuckey or Brad Smith for the number two starting spot. Smith, formerly a college QB who was targeted only 21 times in all of 2008 for zero TDs, would have to break out of the crafty gadget player cubbyhole to become a fantasy factor — entering his fourth pro year, such a metamorphosis is highly unlikely. He, too, lacks straight-line speed. Finally, for the sake of thoroughness if nothing else, there’s Wallace Wright, who was impressive in off-season camps.

Tight End: 2009 will see an inexperienced Jets play-caller working with (excepting Cotchery) a grab-bag of unproven receivers, yielding, yet again, a plink-and-plunk passing attack. Dustin Keller’s role, therefore, becomes even more important. Fantasy owners, prick up your ears, because Keller is one of those lucrative WR-in-a-TE’s-body kind of player. The second-year former college H-back is rarely asked to block; he has the quick hands, large frame and concentration ability to operate in traffic. Veteran Chris Baker, who inspired skepticism about Keller’s share of playing time in many fantasy drafters last year, has been kicked free, leaving the plodding burnout Bubba Franks as Keller’s backup.

IDP: Sixth overall pick a year ago, NCAA standout linebacker Vernon Gholston appeared flummoxed by Mangini’s playbook when dropped into the reality of NFL regular season games, and was generally a flop as a rookie. However, the shrewd fantasy owner will note that these things happen, and realize that Vernon Gholston is still loaded with talent; indeed, he’s in a position to be the most critical Jets defender of 2009. Rex Ryan’s schemes are certainly no simpler that Mangini’s were, but the new head coach has no choice but to tailor his defense somewhat to this second-year LB. (Is it just me, or does the Jets roster seem awfully young?) The team desperately needs a pass-rusher — the reason they spent a high draft pick on him — and Gholston’s position-mates at ‘backer are all clearly B-grade talents. I expect the rattled young phenom to experience one of those “Oh, I get it now” moments, by the end of the preseason at the latest, and I recommend him as the best of the New York individual defensive players — surely his upside is stratospheric.

The Jets’ 2008 pass-defense rank of 29th is a little misleading, as their schedule included some run-challenged opponents who, perforce, flung the ball about with abandon — the New York secondary’s ranking withered under sheer volume of attack. This scenario isn’t all that rare; in a similar situation (under Rex Ryan’s guidance), the ‘08 Ravens made lemons into lemonade by filching a league-best 26 interceptions. Heading into 2009, free safety Kerry Rhodes (now also under Ryan’s tutelage) is the likely INT machine. Rhodes is a hardcore film-study fanatic who’s always super-prepared for his matchups. His speed translates into a surprisingly huge range, and he’s also adept at nailing the run, which keeps opposing play-callers guessing about his assignments. Rhodes’ upside is sunny, but pales in comparison to Gholston — not recommended for your draft, just keep an eye on his performance and his waiver status.

At the moment, I’d rate the 2009 New York Jets season as a cliffhanger. Can Mark Sanchez repeat the Matt Ryan phenomenon of last season? Can the higgledy-piggledy receiving corps solidify into a potent weapon in spite of itself? Can green head coach Ryan generate pressure on opposing passers with a player who’s confidence is badly shaken? Will the steel backbone of the ground attack bear up for 16 games under the sagging weight of the team’s weaknesses? Will Brian Schottenheimer experience terrible flashbacks to last year, with yet another unschooled quarterback? Stay tuned for answers to these questions, faithful reader — same Jets time, same Jets channel!

Shea Colandri: Architect, musician, and Fantasy Football Fanatic
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