2020 NY Jets Preview
The 2019 Jets were largely a disappointment.
In the offseason, the Jets got it half right in pulling the plug on the Todd Bowles Experience, but failed to clean the slate, retaining GM Mike Maccagnan and allowing him to lead a Head Coach hiring process. That lead to the laughable hiring of Adam Gase, friend of Peyton Manning, and generally mediocre former Head Coach of the mediocre Miami Dolphins
That turned out well.
Ultimately, even as poor as Gase's reputation is (and justifiably so), he's still better at his job than Maccagnan, and made it abundantly obvious the Jets ownership need to rectify that wrong, cutting him loose after allowing him to hire a coach, spend over $100 million in free agency, and run a draft (including picking at number 3 overall in the first round). And while Gase seems a poor fit, he ushered in the hiring of highly coveted GM candidate, Joe Douglas, as the new leader of the Jets front office.
There wasn't much time for Douglas to affect the Jets roster for 2019, but he has now had his own free agency and draft class to begin molding it in his image. While there were some tacit nods to Gase as coach (queue Frank "The Ageless One" Gore's entry music), he began to show his philosophy to team building: standing fast on contract value for free agents, a premium on building the offensive line (signing Conner McGovern and George Fant, trading for Greg Van Roten, drafting Mekhi Becton and Cam Clark), and adding value and flexibility in the draft (trading down in the second round and moving Leo Williams and Jamal Adams for surplus picks).
On the field, the Jets—who finished 32nd of 32 teams in offensive DVOA (explained here on Football Outsiders site)—were bottom 3 in almost every statistical measure of offense, despite being stewarded by offensive "savant" Adam Gase and his personal lap dog (and Patton Oswalt doppelganger) Dowell Loggains.
Of course, it's not fair to put much blame on Loggains, because I'm not sure exactly what he does for the Jets (other than throw the challenge flag).
But all that's in the past. What can we look forward to in 2020?
More pessimism on the offense to come later, but let's start with a unit that was actually good for the Jets in 2019. While I chafed at the Jets decision to hire a defensive coordinator and foist him upon an incoming head coach (seriously who comes up with this insanity), Gregg Williams is a proven defensive coordinator who did a masterful job, coaching the Jets to the 11th best DVOA on defense in 2019, despite having a underwhelming collection of players. He returns, along with his core coaching staff, to try to pull the same trick twice; while CJ Mosley will miss the entire year again in 2020 (a COVID opt out before the season), this season the Jets are without Safety Jamal Adams, an All-Pro, after shipping him to Seattle for 2 first round picks (and more), in addition to new starting Safety Bradly McDougald. Look for McDougald, plus soon to be unleashed Marcus Maye (an underrated player league wide) and freshly drafted Ashtyn Davis, to be deployed creatively around the defense. Williams like exotic blitzes and disguising coverages pre-snap; these 3 players can play all over the formation, and be used as matchup weapons, deep zone defenders, and blitzers interchangeably.
The safeties will need to be on top of their game, and actively hunting turnovers, to mask the potential coverage inadequacies of the corners and line backers, as well as the anemic pass rush the Jets are likely to feature, for about the 10th season in a row.
While the corners are improved this season—how could they not be an improvement over the disinterested Trumaine Johnson and the wildly inconsistent Darryl Roberts—they aren't exactly the Legion of Boom. Returning is slot corner Brian Poole, a very good player last season, and late season revelation Blessuan Austin, who flashed in December after returning from a knee injury, before being benched the last 2 games of the year. Newcomers include, well, the rest of the CB room, as the Jets acquired Pierre Desir, Quincy Wilson, and 5th round rookie Bryce Hall. Desir figures to be the starter at one outside spot (health permitting) with Austin (again, health permitting) seemingly locking down the other spot with a strong camp. Hall is likely to take a medical redshirt, much like most of Austin's rookie year, and Wilson will to try to prove he can turn around his career; his fit with Williams press-man heavy coverages is better than Matt Eberflus's predominantly zone based scheme, making him a decent lottery ticket, at the low cost of a 2020 7th round pick.
The linebackers return largely intact as the group from last year, again without Mosley, who was dominant for 3 quarters of week 1 last year, before missing all but one misguided return to a game late in the year. In his place returns Avery Williamson, a surprise solid player in 2018, who missed the entirety of 2019 after a preseason knee injury, in a game he had no business being in, against backups. Second year LB Blake Cashman—their most athletic and best in pass coverage—returns from yet another season ending shoulder injury. His fragile health is the only thing holding him back from becoming the Jets version of Cory Littleton, a little known but outstanding coverage backer who got paid in free agency this winter. Rounding out the game are surprise fan favorite Neville Hewitt, professional replacer of CJ Mosley, Patrick Onwuasor, and other spare parts to be named later.
The Edge position continues to underwhelm, as pro's pro Jordan Jenkins is the only above replacement level player in the group; he is truly Calvin Pace 2.0, setting the edge against the run with aplomb and providing 6-8 hustle sacks annually. The rest are, again, the below average group of Luvu, Langi, Basham, and Willis. Look out for UDFA Bryce Huff to stick, though, as the undersized Memphis alum has an unstoppable motor and just enough skill to get the job done. He could be a diamond in the rough, and any form of contributor is a plus.
The defensive line is the strength of this defense. It ought to be, when you consider the insane amount of investment at the position the past decade. Consider: first round picks Muhammad Wilkerson (2011), Quinton Coples (2012), Sheldon Richardson (2013), Leonard Williams (2015), & Quinnen Williams (2019). Not to mention continued investment in later rounds (Nathan Shepherd, Foley Fatukasi, et. al) and Steve McLendon in free agency. Now, the majority of those firsts aren't with the team any more (ugh), but still, the collection of McLendon, Quinnen, Shepherd, Fatukasi, Henry Anderson, and Kyle Phillips is more than enough to get the job done. Quinnen had a disappointing rookie year—it's important to acknowledge he suffered a brutal ankle sprain early in the year and played through—following the footsteps of Shepherd and Fatukasi the year prior. Now, those 2 turned things around last year, with Fatukasi eating up blocks like he was at the buffet line, and Shepherd finally showing some of the interior pass rush the team desperately needs. If Quinnen can take the same type of leap, and those guys continue to progress, the Jets might finally have something for all that investment.
On offense, the Jets really will live or die by one factor:
That's it, that's the story.
In all seriousness, this year is—or at least should be—make or break for Sam Darnold's career as a Jet. Darnold has absolutely shown flashes of excellence; the type of throws and games you need to see from your franchise QB have been sprinkled healthily throughout his young career.
And make no mistake, Sam Darnold is very young. At only 23 years old, the third year signal caller is actually slightly younger than rookie #1 overall pick Joe Burrow. There's still time for more development from Darnold. But he needs to get that process going in earnest, as the good he has shown has probably been slightly overshadowed by the bad.
Inconsistent accuracy on deep throws, bone headed interceptions, seeing ghosts. There have been games that Darnold has won for the Jets, but also games that he has lost for them. He needs to make the bad/inconsistent the minority of his games, nowhere near 50/50.
Some of these issues can be alleviated by improving the pass blocking in front of him. The aforementioned additions on the OL—a unit that sees 4 new starters (Becton, McGovern, Van Roten, Fant) joining holdover LG Alex Lewis—should dramatically improve the wall in front of Sam. While it's too early to declare it a "good" line, especially with an abbreviated training camp for the unit to gel, they should absolutely be an improved unit over last year's bottom 3 OL.
Ideally, the OL improvements should also pave the way for a better run game, as Le'Veon Bell's first season with the team was a major disappointment. There are a number reasons why that was so (a rusty Bell, poor playcalling, opposing defenses not respecting the passing game), but poor blocking is probably chief among them. Becton in particular should be a boon to Bell's production; a mammoth 6'7" and 370 lbs., Becton is a true road grader. Rounding out the backfield are the incomparable Gore (one of 4 confirmed players in the world that can tolerate Gase) and rookie Lamical Perine, who will both see more carries than you'd like with a talent like Bell on the team.
In addition to last year's woeful OL, the receiving options were mediocre too. Jamison Crowder returns; the perpetually underrated slot WR lead the team in targets and catches last year. Expect him to do so again in 2020. Gone are Robby Anderson and all the other spare parts. In come his hopeful replacement Breshad Perriman (if he can stay on the field) and rookie Denzel Mims (if he...ugh...can stay on the field). Both can get the job done when they're active participants. Perriman exploded in the final five weeks of 2019 and has the size and speed to stretch the field like Anderson. Mims is the hopeful running mate to Darnold for the next decade. His acrobatic highlights from Baylor offer a tantalizing look at what could be a star WR, as Mims can win at all levels of the field with some time.
With the uncertainty at WR, it's imperative the Jets—and Darnold— get a full season from Chris Herndon. The 3rd year TE had a total lost season in 2019 (between suspension and injury), but he seems to be all the way back to health, for now. Darnold and Herndon showed instant chemistry as rookies in 2018 once Herndon made it into the starting lineup. Thankfully, reports out of camp indicate they've rekindled their on field bromance.
Expect heavy doses of "12" personnel (1 RB, 2 TE) from the Jets, as a surprise breakout by Ryan Griffin last year, in Herndon's absence, lead to a contract extension. Both players can block and catch, which allows a lot of flexibility with both on the field. The roster includes warm body Trevon Wesco (essentially a full back/H back when desired) and core special teamer Daniel Brown.
All of the potential positives to the offensive unit may be lost of Gase and Loggains don't shape up. The Jets game plan and playcalling consistently came up short last year. While there were real personnel deficiencies last season, they did nothing to buoy the undermanned offense with any consistent creativity. They consistently put players in positions that didn't accentuate the positives they actually had at their disposal, and called plays that had a very low likelihood for success.
Take Darnold, for instance. A mobile Quarterback who excels outside of structure was forced to drop straight back 30x a game. Rollouts and play action (a passing game's best friend) were few and far between.
Consider Bell: a patient runner who thrives on seeing creases and cutbacks before getting upfield. A talented receiver who needs to get the ball in space. Bell was slammed into the back of the guards and center on repeated half back dives with no misdirection or window dressing. The Jets were among the most predictable in running out of heavy packages. And Bell was never featured as a receiver, beyond a few screens, nor split wide to confuse or stress defenses.
Finally, look at the OL. Constantly overwhelmed by pressure and confused by exotic formations, too many free rushers were allowed after Darnold, Luke Falk (gags), and Trevor Siemian; Myles Garrett knocked Siemian out for the year on a rush in which he was untouched off the edge at the snap. OL coach Frank Pollack, Gase, and Loggains need to more effectively prepare and adjust to looks they don't expect.
In order for the offense, and by extension Darnold, to succeed, Gase will have to do something he's never done before: admit his mistakes and course correct. The Jets were top 3 in percentage of runs on 2nd and long last season; this is the least effficient/succesful play that a team can run. Consistent failures on first and second down lead to impossible third down situations. That's as clear an indicator of offensive futility as you'll find.
Further, Gases philosophy shows other places it lags behind the current cutting edge. There's a consistent lack of pre-snap motion and creative deployment of targets; the best offenses in the league create matchup problems by forcing defenses to simplify before the snap, as well as potentially tipping what sort of coverage they're in by shadowing a motion man. There's a general lack of featuring play action passes; statistical analysis shows play action passing is more efficient than straight drop backs, and observational analysis shows it can help simplify some of the reads a young QB can use to ease the burden on him.
Gase needs to show he isn't the same play caller he was a decade ago. Otherwise the game has clearly passed him by.
Finally, on Special Teams, expect the Jets to once again have a top unit in the league. The Jets were top 5 in ST DVOA last season under Brant Boyer, and return kicker Sam Ficken this year. Ficken was shaky early but settled down to be adequate most of the season. The Jets strong rating was due more to strong coverage and excellent returns (including a few TDs); special teams is all about field position. New contributors this season include rookie punting sensation Braden Mann—he of the incredibly powerful leg—and Safety Ashtyn Davis, a former track star who may return some kicks, alongside Braxton Berrios and Jamison Crowder.
With what we know and what we think we know, in a year where no one seems to know anything, I can't see how this is a successful season for the Jets. While I think that GM Joe Douglas made some real strides in building the foundation of this recently decrepit team, there was just too much to be done for one offseason. Pair the flawed roster with questionable coaching and a brutal schedule, and I think the Jets can't possibly improve on last season's 7-9 record.
Final Verdict: 6-10
The Jets will have a losing record and be searching for a new Head Coach, with whom Joe Douglas will seek his final answer whether Sam Darnold is the QB for this team's future.