There has to be some trepidation on Long Island as Season 2 of the Eric Mangini era approaches. The club's only major offseason acquisition, running back Thomas Jones, is trying to heal a lower leg injury that he suffered in camp. The run defense, 24th in the league last season, needs to improve, especially with the personnel being more familiar with Mangini's 3-4 scheme.
There also are questions about quarterback Chad Pennington. He got a bit of a push early in the preseason from backup Kellen Clemens, and he'll be attempting to get through another season unscathed. Before last year, he hadn't had much luck doing that.
And the element of surprise is gone; opponents know this team is a legit playoff contender and will treat it as such. Speaking of the opponents, the degree of difficulty in that area is a lot higher than it was in 2006. The Jets have to negotiate the NFC East and the AFC North in addition to the Patriots, Dolphins and Bills. There are precious few highly advantageous matchups.
All of that points, potentially, to a slight drop in fantasy value for the team's main offensive options -- Jones, Pennington and receivers Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery.
Projected draft round Player Round Chad Pennington, QB 16 Thomas Jones, RB 2-3 Leon Washington, RB 9 Laveranues Coles, WR 6 Jerricho Cotchery, WR 7 Chris Baker, TE DND Mike Nugent, K 17 Defense/special teams 14 Draft position based on a standard 12-team combined scoring and yardage league with a 17-round draft. DND: Do not draft.
Key additions: RB Thomas Jones, FB Darian Barnes. Key losses: G Pete Kendall.
Kerry Rhodes, FS. "Hollywood" has a budding acting career; he has had bit parts in two flicks. But he's really good at his day job -- stuffing ballcarriers and creating takeaways. Rhodes was fourth among free safeties with 98 tackles (75 solo) last season, although that was a slight decline from his 105-tackle production as a rookie in 2005. He increased his interceptions from one to four and his passes defensed from five to nine. He also was a threat on blitzes, collecting five sacks, and he forced three fumbles. The Jets' front seven still is considered a bit of a liability, so Rhodes figures to be busy again.
Thomas Jones, RB. He was a borderline No. 1 back before suffering that calf/ankle/Achilles' injury (thanks, coach, for those highly informative updates) in camp. Now, he's merely a solid No. 2 as owners are forced to consider more reliable options in the top spot. Jones still figures to get the bulk of the carries as the Jets' feature back, but between the injury, the resulting lack of continuity with the offensive line and a tough early season schedule (Patriots, Ravens and Dolphins out of the box), Jones may not provide maximum value until midseason. It would be a terrific feat if he can exceed the 1,210 yards and six rushing TDs he compiled with the Bears last season.
Bryan Thomas, LB. Thomas struggled initially to make the transition from 4-3 end to 3-4 outside linebacker last season, but he got better as the season progressed. He certainly became adept at getting to the quarterback, as evidenced by his team-high 8.5 sacks. With a full offseason to hone his game in the 3-4, it's reasonable to expect double digits in 2007. And that promise of improvement is what makes Thomas an attractive IDP option. He can be a fine complement to the elite producers.
Laveranues Coles, WR. Coles was Chad Pennington's go-to guy before last season, but with the emergence of Jerricho Cotchery, that might no longer be the case. Coles did catch a team-high (and career-high) 91 balls in 2006, and he had more yards than Cotchery, but both had six TDs and were almost dead even in first downs. (Cotchery came out ahead, 53-52.) The one thing in Coles' favor is the team's lack of quality depth at receiver; Justin McCareins has been a disappointment as a No. 3 wideout, and rookie seventh-round pick Chansi Stuckey is listed as Coles' backup on one unofficial depth chart. Continue to value Coles as a high No. 2 fantasy receiver, but also keep in mind that Cotchery could possibly take away more touches.
Jerricho Cotchery, WR. This guy was a Year 3 revelation in 2006, breaking out for 82 catches, 961 yards and six scores. He became the No. 1A wideout alongside Coles, and he figures to only get better in Year 2 of running coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's offense. Cotchery's 11.7-yard average speaks more to the Jets' emphasis on short, quick throws; he can get downfield at least as well as Coles can (both had 12 catches of 20 yards or more last season). Consider Cotchery a lower-end No. 2 fantasy option with major upside.
Mike Nugent, K. There isn't a Year 3 threshold for kickers the way there is for wide receivers, but in Nugent's case, his Year 3 could be a breakout season. Nugent added 8-10 pounds in the offseason to give himself extra power to bang home longer attempts. He's coming off a terrific final month, when he went 12-for-12 in five December games, and is on a streak of 18 consecutive makes. He knows the ever-changing Giants Stadium wind patterns well, too.
Jets defense/special teams. Based on second-half performance, this ought to be a defense on the rise. It held opponents to 14 points or fewer in all but one of the final eight games. But it wasn't dominant; teams moved the ball, especially on the ground. It was just good at preventing big plays and stiffening when it needed to. The main playmakers -- S Kerry Rhodes, OLB Bryan Thomas and ILB Jonathan Vilma -- are back, and rookie CB Darrelle Revis is expected to become one as soon as he's up to speed. Rookie ILB David Harris could firm up the run defense once he replaces Eric Barton. The pass rush (35 sacks) doesn't figure to be much better, although Thomas should improve. Revis, on punts, and CB Justin Miller (two TDs in '06), on kickoffs, could form a dynamic return duo. You can do better than this group over a full season, but there will be spots to play it -- the Dolphins in Week 3, the Redskins in Week 9 and the Browns in Week 14.
Chad Pennington, QB. Here's a neat tidbit: Pennington had nine completions of 40 or more yards last season; Peyton Manning only had seven. Of course, that's the only statistical category where Pennington was better than Manning. Shoulder surgeries have robbed Pennington of whatever arm strength he had, so he has to get it done with accuracy -- he was fourth in the league in 2006 with a 64.5 completion percentage. But he dinked and dunked for the most part, as evidenced by his 6.9-yard average, which was 16th overall. He also had just 17 TDs to go with 16 INTs. Any reasons for encouragement? Well, the offense returns nine of 11 starters, so the unit should be more comfortable with Schottenheimer's complex system. And one of the newcomers, RB Jones, should help Pennington be more effective in play-action. Pennington is strictly a No. 2 fantasy QB; if he manages to land on the waiver wire, he can be an effective bye-week replacement in the right matchup.
Leon Washington, RB. As handcuffs go, Washington is one of the better ones, especially as the Jones injury saga continues. Washington proved last season he'll stick his 5-8 body into the pile; he led the team with 650 yards and had four rushing TDs as a rookie. He also caught 25 balls, though he failed to get into the end zone. He even contributed on punt returns, although he averaged just 7.5 yards. Washington has third-down back skills, so it would not be a surprise to see him split wide or in the slot in the Jets' smorgasbord of an offense. He's an intriguing flex option in leagues that include the position.
Jonathan Vilma, LB. Drafted as a 4-3 middle linebacker, he now is a 3-4 inside 'backer, and his playmaking has suffered. He was in the top 20 in the NFL with 113 tackles last season, but he had no sacks and just one interception. That lack of balance hurts Vilma's IDP value.
Chris Baker, TE. He hauled in a career-high 31 passes last season, but that had more to do with playing a full season than showing any real receiving ability. He doesn't have great hands or speed. It's telling that he wasn't involved much in the Jets' short passing game.
Kellen Clemens, QB. The second-year pro gained on Pennington with a strong camp, but given his lack of experience, he can't be looked upon as a fantasy starter if he does wind up playing. It would be dicey to even consider him as a platoon option.
Ultimate Fantasy Football Tip: This column already pointed out how similar WRs Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery were, in role and production, last season. And both are in the same neighborhood in terms of Salary Cap value: Coles at $6.15M, Cotchery at $5.85M. But Cotchery is younger and more capable of big plays. By season's end, there's a good chance Cotchery will have overtaken Coles atop the pecking order -- and surpassed Coles in cap value. Buy low now and watch your investment in Cotchery appreciate.
TO KNOW LIST
Coaching: The three main men -- Mangenius, er, Mangini; offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton -- are back. Schottenheimer's no-huddle system, which is loaded with formations, motion and shifts to confuse defenses, takes full advantage of Pennington's football savvy and short-range accuracy. Mangini/Sutton's 3-4 defense still is developing; most of the personnel are holdovers from Herm Edwards' 4-3, and as such they struggle against the run and to get to the passer.
Offensive line: The left side is very young after last week's trade of LG Pete Kendall to the Redskins. Third-year pro Adrien Clarke and rookie Jacob Bender, a converted tackle who still is learning how to pass block, are competing for the spot between LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson and C Nick Mangold, both second-year players. One advantage for Clarke: He and Mangold played alongside each other in 2003 at Ohio State. Veteran holdovers Brandon Moore (guard) and Anthony Clement (tackle) hold down the right side. Ferguson added bulk in the offseason to hold up better at the point of attack.
Schedule analysis: The first three opponents -- Patriots, Ravens and Dolphins -- promise to make things very difficult for Jones. Week 4, at the Bills, begins a stretch of six favorable matchups for him leading into the bye week. A run of four road games in five weeks, starting with a Thanksgiving Day visit to Dallas, will be a severe test for the offense. If you wind up in your league's playoffs, note that Gang Green gets the Browns in Week 14 but the Patriots in Foxborough in Week 15. Fantasy Strength of Schedule: 12th toughest (or 21st easiest).