Starting over has become routine for the Jets over the years. They know the drill. They get younger. They add some promising talent. They throw in a new coach and package it all as “hope.”
This time, they say, it’s different. And to be fair, it does feel different. They have a new energy with a coach, Robert Saleh, who is well-respected around the league, including by most of his former players. They have a young quarterback in Zach Wilson, who is highly regarded by most scouts and has made a strong impression on the organization in his first three months.
And they have a general manager in Joe Douglas, who has had money to spend, high picks to use, and an unwavering plan that has many around the league believing that he really does know what he’s doing. On paper at least, he’s beefed up the offensive line, improved the pass rush, and given his young quarterback some weapons.
All that is great. But will it work?
The Jets will start to find out for real when the players report to training camp on Tuesday and they start to really see how close they are to fixing the problems left by their 2-14 mess last year. They figure to be better, but how much better? Some of that depends on how much progress they make in the next few weeks.
Here’s a look at the five biggest issues facing the Jets this summer as training camp begins…
1. Is Zach Wilson for real? And is he ready?
Yes, the Jets were asking these same questions about Sam Darnold just three years ago, and what happens this summer doesn’t necessarily tell the tale of how Wilson’s career will go. But the Jets don’t have a backup quarterback at the moment, and they jettisoned the veteran Darnold to ride with Wilson this year. So they’re banking a lot on the answers to those two questions being “Yes.”
Look, there will be ups and downs in Wilson’s rookie season regardless. The good news is that scouts and executives around the league are nearly universal in their praise of the 21-year-old, so it’s pretty clear he has the tools to succeed. And the Jets seem to have surrounded him with better talent than Darnold ever had.
But whether he’s as good as they think and whether he’s ready to play well right out of the gate will determine just how successful this Jets’ season will be. The goal, of course, is that he’s peaking towards the end, setting the stage for a breakout in 2022. But we’ll start to see this summer if the Jets made the right decision and whether it should translate into a few more immediate wins.
2. Did Douglas get the offensive line right this time?
He completely rebuilt the line last offseason and the results, for a variety of reasons, just weren’t good. Injuries took their toll in some cases. But the overall talent and, more importantly, the chemistry just didn’t seem to be there.
This offseason, after Douglas swung and missed at free agent guard Joe Thuney, he ended up sticking with three-fifths of what he had (left tackle Mekhi Becton, center Connor McGovern and right guard Greg Van Roten). Then he bolstered that group by drafting highly-regarded guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, and made a bold move to jump when veteran right tackle Morgan Moses was cut by Washington.
Moses and Vera-Tucker are clear upgrades. Becton, if he stays healthy, is a monster in the making. No doubt, overall, the talent is better. But this summer will be about building the needed chemistry to make sure the line isn’t nearly as disappointing as it was last year.
3. Are the Jets’ young corners a liability or good enough?
It was shocking how the Jets basically ignored the corner market in free agency and then didn’t address the position until the fifth round of the draft. Saleh explained the inaction on the market by saying he wanted to give his young players more reps in the spring, and that the Jets still could address the position later. Of course, by now the free agent corner market has all but dried up.
The only answer to this is that the Jets clearly have faith in Bryce Hall and Bless Austin, plus their two fifth-rounders, Jason Pinnock and Michael Carter II. They all did look good this spring, but obviously they haven’t been tested yet. They should be helped by a much-improved pass rush and Saleh’s effective scheme.
But Hall and Austin need to show they’re really ready so they’re not a liability. Austin has looked solid at times in his first two seasons when healthy. The Jets always thought they had a steal in Hall, their fifth-round pick in 2020, if they could get him healthy and keep him on the field.
There’s no safety net for either of them, though, or anyone in this young corps, so the learning curve this summer will be steep.
4. How will the running back rotation shake out?
So much is expected of the Kyle Shanahan offense the Jets are installing, which puts a lot of expectations on their running back committee. That’s the real power of the scheme – and maybe even more so with a rookie quarterback at the helm, still finding his way.
But like the 49ers before them, the Jets didn’t spend big at this position. They did add the versatile Tevin Coleman, who is coming off an injury-ravaged season (knee, shoulder). And they have a lot of faith in young La’Mical Perine and Michael Carter, their fourth-round picks in each of the last two years.
At some point, one will emerge not only as the starter, but as the workhorse. Which one that will be is what this summer is about. They’ll all get work and they’ll all be needed. But their performances in camp will dictate the role each of them will have at the start.
5. Can Chris Herndon finally fulfill his potential and be the tight end this offense needs?
Another mystery of the Jets’ offseason was their inaction at tight end, both in free agency and the draft, with the lone exception being the signing of veteran backup Tyler Kroft. It was odd, given the importance of the tight end in the Shanahan offense (see: George Kittle), and odd given the disappointment that Herndon has been.
So consider this a last chance for the drop-prone, 25-year-old who is coming off his best season – albeit one that included only 39 catches for 502 yards and four touchdowns. He has been mostly unreliable in his two healthy seasons. But clearly the new Jets coaches saw something in him to not be more proactive in finding a replacement.
He’s always had potential to be a good receiver, but that hasn’t translated to his play. Maybe a new scheme, new coaches, and new quarterback will do it for him. This summer will be a big test of whether he deserves a shot, or whether the team should just move on.