Players At Key Positions Must Elevate Their Games For 2015 Season To Be A Success

By Jeff Capellini

Raise your hand if you know what the Jets will do this season, because I have no idea.

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I guess if they had a franchise quarterback I’d have an inkling one way or the other, but since they don’t my guess is probably as good as yours.

The only thing I know for certain is that unlike in previous seasons, the Jets do have a lot of talent on both sides of the ball. The offseason roster overhaul by new general manager Mike Maccagnan netted players that should make this team better in spots where it struggled mightily during the Rex Ryan era.

Still, it’s one thing to put together a decent team on paper and another thing entirely to have that team execute in a manner that not only betters the previous season, but actually exceeds expectations.

Right now, considering all the upgrades and the fact that they are coming off four straight seasons of watching the postseason, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to ask the Jets for a playoff spot. However, with justifiable concerns at the most important position on the field and a first-year head coach in Todd Bowles that we really don’t know that much about, it might be asking a lot.

Maybe a .500 season is a more reasonable ask. Maybe this could be the most competitive 6-10 or 7-9 squad you’ll ever see. Then again, everything could go right and 10-6 becomes reality.

Regardless of where you stand, there are a bunch of players that have to raise their games in order for the Jets to take their play to the next level. My list might be different than yours, but I think we can all agree that a status quo performance from certain guys just isn’t going to cut it.

With that, here are five players that will play a big role in determining the fate of the Jets in 2015:

Ryan Fitzpatrick

You can file this one under the “Capt. Obvious” heading, but the truth is quarterback play cannot be stressed enough. With the exception of one brilliant season from Vinny Testaverde and some moments from Chad Pennington, the Jets haven’t had a reliable player at the position since the best years of the Ken O’Brien era. We’re talking the late 1980s, folks.

We know what Fitzpatrick is to a degree, a journeyman game manager who is really smart and capable, but just not an All-Pro-caliber player.

But no matter how you view him, Fitzpatrick is going to have to find a way to elevate his game if the Jets are going to be successful. It’s not like he was brought into a totally alien situation, either. He had the best years of his 11-year career in this very offensive system, under this very offensive coach. Fitzpatrick is still revered in Buffalo for what he did from 2010-12 when Chan Gailey, now the Jets’ offensive coordinator, was head coach.

And now he has a deeper wide receiver unit to work with and running backs that are in at least the same conversation as former Bills backs Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.

Is 3,000-plus yards, 22-25 touchdowns and solid leadership from Fitzpatrick too much to ask for? I don’t think so. But let’s face it, if Fitzpatrick fails to get it done, Geno Smith will be back under center before you know it. Then all bets will be off, and perhaps not in a good way, given the former starter’s well-documented problems.

D’Brickashaw Ferguson

Since making the Pro Bowl in 2009, ’10 and ’11, Ferguson’s game has dipped a bit over the last three seasons.

He was only ranked 35th among left tackles in 2014 and is currently listed as just “average” by leading analytics site Pro Football Focus. To put that into some perspective, the Jets have only one player on their offensive line rated higher than average and that’s perennial Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold.

As both a hole opener for running backs Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell and protector of Fitzpatrick’s blind side, Ferguson, soon to be 32, needs to re-establish himself while the Jets hope and pray that left guard James Carpenter, right guard Willie Colon and right tackle Breno Giacomini hold up their ends of the bargain.

If Ferguson is ineffective, Gailey’s offense will likely sputter. And the last thing Fitzpatrick needs is to be running for his life.

Ferguson will carry a cap hit in excess of $14 million in both 2016 and ’17 and that would be a tough number for the Jets to swallow should he continue to decline.

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Jeff Cumberland

Normally, I wouldn’t be asking a lot of Cumberland, but with the season-ending injury to Jace Amaro the weakest position on the Jets is easily tight end.

Cumberland, who signed a three-year, $5.7 million contract prior to last season, has to find a way to vastly improve on his 23 receptions, 247 yards and three TDs from 2014. If not, Fitzpatrick will be without a safety valve and a needed red zone target. Let’s not forget that the Jets’ other tight end, Kellen Davis, is only known for his exploits as a blocker.

Cumberland was a wide receiver in college and moves extremely well for someone 260 pounds, but his hands have always been a problem, though he did catch a touchdown in each of the Jets’ final two games last season.

But as far as 2015 goes, the Jets can ill afford to get little out of Cumberland, who could very well be playing for his future in green and white.

Demario Davis

He’s the player every Jets fan wants to see excel, because he’s a good guy and a team guy, but Davis, now in his fourth season, has yet to develop into the force his physical abilities suggest he should be.

That’s not to say he won’t, but the Jets need an impact player at linebacker sooner rather than later. Davis’ time needs to be now.

Davis had the quietest 116 tackles you’ll ever see last season and struggled a bit during the preseason, but all indications are he will be asked to play a prominent role in Bowles’ 3-4 scheme. The Jets, who were one of the worst teams in the NFL last season in turnover differential, need him to make plays, and big plays at that.

Davis has to take some of the pressure off fellow inside linebacker David Harris. The Jets were so concerned about their linebackers they gave Harris a three-year, $21.5 million contract with $15 million guaranteed this offseason, even though his best years are probably behind him.

Davis and Harris will be backed up by capable veterans Jamari Lattimore and Erin Henderson, but overall the unit is one big question mark.

Quinton Coples

Is he immensely talented and just not used properly? Or does he lack the requisite know-how to play the game the way the Jets need him to play it?

I say it’s definitely not the latter and Bowles will do what he can to rectify that which Rex Ryan couldn’t figure out.

It just makes little sense to me to have a 6-foot-6, 290-pound specimen like Coples dropping back in coverage. And while the Jets’ secondary was a mess last season and it was all hands on deck in an attempt to stop the pass, Coples should’ve been the exception. He should be spending his time chasing quarterbacks, not trying to pick them off.

Though listed as an outside linebacker, Coples is best suited as a defensive end and the hope is he’ll get a chance to stick his hand in the dirt a bit during the 2015 season. If not, he should be standing up on the end and fired out of a cannon, not backpedaling and running the risk of being exploited.

The reason why the Jets’ depth along the defensive line isn’t what it once was is not entirely because of Sheldon Richardson’s off-the-field problems. It also has a lot to do with Coples not yet being turned loose. Everything about him suggests he could be an absolute terror as a pass rusher.

Look for Bowles to give Coples that opportunity.

If each of these players find a new gear, the Jets should be a factor in the AFC. If not, we can all start playing the guessing game in anticipation of 2016.

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Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet