By Steve Lichtenstein
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As awful as the Jets have been for most of my 45 years of fandom, I’ve rarely dreaded an impending season as much as this one.
Gang Green reports to training camp Friday with about as much hope of contending in the AFC playoff race as the mice who were dumped in my college housemate’s snake cage had of living another day.
Make no mistake, the organization has totally committed to the tank. The offseason purge of all but a handful of veterans who were slated to earn big money sent a signal to the fans that securing a higher 2018 draft choice usurped winning as this campaign’s mission.
But you know we are going to watch this all play out. Maybe not every down of every game, but enough to make us frustrated. We can’t help ourselves. Jets fans have a disease that keeps us invested no matter how dire the expectations.
So with that in mind, I wanted to take a momentary break from all the negativity surrounding this franchise and focus on some areas in which Jets fans might find a sense of hope for the future. After all, there are 21 other starting positions besides quarterback:
1. The Vaunted Defensive Line Living Up To Its Hype
Leonard Williams, Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson all suited up for at least 15 of the 16 games last season. They should have combined for way more than 13 sacks, especially after accumulating four in the first week against the Bengals.
The three have similar talents, which could be why, per ESPN.com, the Jets allowed more yards per play than the team average (5.7 vs 5.48) when they shared the field. Coach Todd Bowles was committed to a 3-4 front, so Richardson was often miscast as a linebacker. Bowles revamped much of his defensive staff (though Kacy Rodgers was inexplicably retained as coordinator), giving fans hope that the organization can scheme ways to maximize the production from its top players.
In addition, Richardson, assuming general manager Mike Maccagnan won’t find a trade fit and he sticks around, and Wilkerson have huge incentives to play up to their potential this season. Richardson will be a free agent next spring, and the five year, $86 million contract Wilkerson signed a year ago isn’t guaranteed after this season.
Meanwhile, Williams, a first-round pick in the 2015 draft, just keeps getting better. Steve McLendon, if the 31-year-old can survive the final cut, and Deon Simon give the Jets solid depth in the middle.
The line wasn’t an area of strength for much of last season. There’s no excuse for a repeat.
2. Playing It Safe At Safety
The Jets were bombarded over the top last season so often that Maccagnan selected safeties with his first two picks in April’s draft. Jamal Adams (LSU) and Marcus Maye (Florida) will be given every opportunity to replace the departed Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor as starters in the back.
Like Williams two years ago, Adams dropped to the sixth overall selection, where Maccagnan had to be giddy to see such a pro-ready talent with natural leadership qualities still on the board. Maye’s versatility and athleticism could be the antidote to the Jets’ second-round curse.
They’re rookies, of course, so don’t think they’ll play mistake-free. However, it will be interesting to watch their improvement over the course of the season.
3. Rediscovering The Tight End
Remember that offensive position where a player lines up adjacent to the tackle but can also head downfield to catch passes?
It’s been a few years since the Jets utilized such a weapon, so you’re forgiven if “tight end” didn’t immediately spring to mind.
With John Morton taking over as offensive coordinator for Chan Gailey, we can expect the Jets to join the NFL community in integrating a tight end into the game plan.
Media reports from offseason workouts indicated that Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who will be suspended for the first game, was impressive after three underachieving seasons in the league. Fifth-round selection Jordan Leggett is the anti-Jace Amaro — a prospect with huge hands who won’t drop too many passes.
It might take a while to get used to, but Jets fans should be happy with the production from this long-lost role.
4. Bilal’s Breakout
Bilal Powell might have been the Jets’ best player last season. Too bad it took Bowles three-quarters of the season to figure that out.
Powell had just 86 touches (49 rushes, 37 receptions) in the first 12 games of the season while Bowles rode 31-year-old Matt Forte into the ground. In the last four games, however, Powell rushed for 411 yards at over 5 yards per pop. He was also as big a threat catching the ball out of the backfield as the more heralded Forte, with 58 receptions on the season.
Powell may be deemed too slight and injury-prone for a full-time workload, but his edge in dynamism over the plodding Forte should at least be cause for a role reversal as he enters his seventh season with Gang Green.
And now, after that brief interlude, we go back to our regularly scheduled programming of bashing the Jets.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1