NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) — You’ve heard it all before: Rex Ryan is fired up about his Jets.
But on Thursday the head coach was really fired up.
Ryan presided over the team’s first practice of training camp and came away very impressed, telling reporters in Cortland that the Jets are “a zillion miles” ahead of where they were last season, when they came into camp a long shot to do anything of note once the 2013 season got underway.
That team, however, basically shocked the media and the rest of the league by going 8-8, including registering three wins in December.
General manager John Idzik then went to work, acquiring depth pieces and players that would help provide an intense atmosphere of competition this summer. Some of those players, along with returning veterans, got off to good starts on Thursday.
Ryan said on several occasions during the offseason program that he expected quarterback Geno Smith to take the next step during his sophomore season in the NFL. Smith had an up-and-down rookie campaign, throwing for 3,000-plus yards, but only 12 touchdowns, while turning the ball over 25 times. Smith showed up at OTAs and minicamp a more mature quarterback, impressing Ryan and the coaching staff, even if some NFL insiders and a good number of media members are still skeptical that he is starting over veteran Michael Vick, who was signed to a one-year deal during free agency.
Smith was sharp on Thursday, going 7-for-10 with no turnovers and a sack during an 11-on-11 drill.
“He knows this offense, and you see it,” Ryan said.
Vick, who went 2-for-5 with an interception and a sack during the same drill, said he thinks his mentoring of Smith during the offseason showed on Thursday.
“It’s very important that Geno understands what it takes to be successful in this league,” Vick said. “I’ve been there before.”
Smith told reporters he’s fortunate to have this particular veteran teaching him the ropes.
“Every conversation we have, I’m looking up to this guy, I’m learning from this guy,” Smith said. “He’s an 11-year vet in this NFL, and that’s something I can only hope to be, a position I hope to be in one day. A guy like that, you can only learn from. He’s willing to help and it speaks volumes about his character.”
Two newcomers who looked comfortable on Thursday included veteran running back Chris Johnson and high-priced wide receiver Eric Decker.
Johnson, who signed a two-year, $8 million contract, is eager to show that at 29 he can still be the player that has run for at least 1,000 yards in every season of his career, even if the days of running for 2,000 yards, as he did in 2009, are probably behind him.
Johnson showed elusiveness and quickness in drills on Thursday, prompting Ryan to take notice.
“Having that type of game-breaker in your backfield will certainly get your attention,” Ryan said.
Decker, who had 172 catches, more than 2,300 yards and 24 touchdowns over the previous two seasons with the Denver Broncos, signed a five-year, $36.25 million contract on the second day of free agency, instantly becoming the Jets’ No. 1 receiver. The 27-year-old wideout’s chemistry with Smith started to develop during the offseason workouts and he made an impression on Thursday.
“You can tell that working with Peyton (Manning) the last few years has helped him blossom,” Vick said of Decker.
The Jets’ defense is expected to be one of the better units in the NFL this season. Ryan said he expected veteran defensive end Jason Babin to join the team at some point Thursday, a day after agreeing to a two-year deal.
The Jets did a lot of things to revamp their secondary during the offseason, including drafting hard-hitting safety Calvin Pryor. The club’s first-round pick rotated with veterans Antonio Allen and Dawan Landry on Thursday. Rookie corner Dexter McDougle, who is battling second-year man Dee Milliner and veteran Dimitri Patterson for a starting job, picked off Vick during one drill.
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