By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns
The Jets signed kick returner Lucky Whitehead after the Cowboys cut him loose. They visited with San Diego guard Orlando Franklin. And a week ago they finally signed their first-round safety, Jamal Adams, one of the few prospects said to have true leadership ability.
If this sounds like a team preparing to “Suck for Sam” Darnold, the USC quarterback who right now looks like the headliner of the 2018 draft, the Jets have put up a mighty good front heading into Friday’s report date for training camp.
Still, these are the Jets. Even the departure of clueless owner Woody Johnson for a new role as Ambassador to the United Kingdom can’t mask their true nature. So, given a roster riddled with holes, a quarterback competition that will yield not the best, but the lesser of three evils, and a coach on the hot seat, the possibility of the Jets hitting their Sept. 10 opener in Buffalo primed for winning is slight.
The issues they face are just too serious.
Suck for Sam, indeed.
But the Jets will go through training camp as any other NFL team, working hard with, in their case, an eye toward breaking a six-year postseason drought.
Running back Matt Forte, one of the few effective veterans left on an under-talented offense, scoffed off notions of another failed season. But the fact is, coach Todd Bowles really won’t have much to work with in this camp, at least offensively.
The backfield of Forte and Bilal Powell is pretty much set. But the rest of the group? Oy.
Bowles will spend the camp figuring out who among journeyman Josh McCown, second-year thrower Christian Hackenberg, and third-year veteran Bryce Petty offers the best chance at winning. In the end, it may well be Hackenberg, whose faulty mechanics were a big reason that he played nary a down in 2016. But the reason will involve more exploration than achievement. The Jets need to find out what Hackenberg can do before they start over at quarterback again, even if that start means landing Darnold next April.
Whoever wins the quarterback competition will face a formidable challenge in finding a decent receiver. Now that general manager Mike Maccagnan stripped that unit of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, Quincy Enunwa stands as the No. 1 receiver, with other sub-luminaries like Jalin Marshall, Charone Peake, Robby Anderson, and ArDarius Stewart manning the routes.
And that’s if the ball comes out at all. The offensive line is a wreck, With Brian Winters as the lone holdover from the Nick Mangold era, one can only imagine the challenge Bowles and new offensive coordinator John Morton will face in developing a unit that can open holes for Forte and Powell and keep Hackenberg, Petty, or the 38-year-old McCown off their backs.
For all the problems the offense faces, the defense enters camp in relatively good shape.
If Bowles can re-ignite Muhammad Wilkerson’s engine, the defensive end could resume his former role as a leader up front. Between Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams, the Jets could feature one of the league’s most ferocious pass rushes. Nose tackle presents the biggest competition, with Steve McClendon being pushed by Deon Simon and Mike Pennel.
The linebackers have little experience now that inside star David Harris has become a Patriot. But Darron Lee showed signs last year, and Lorenzo Mauldin could add to the pass rush.
Bowles has a solid secondary, though it may endure some growing pains in the middle as the Jets will pair first-round safety Adams with second-rounder Marcus Maye.
The defense is probably good enough now to keep the Jets in games. The real challenge for Bowles and his staff will come in creating an effective offense.
Even that may not be enough to make Darnold’s availability a non-issue at season’s end. The Super Bowl champion Pats are showing no signs of slowing down, while the Dolphins and Bills should present their usual challenges.
The Jets could conceivably leave training camp as potential doormats, perhaps even bad enough to vie for Darnold.
But Friday marks a beginning, not an end. And heaven only knows where the road will take Bowles and his team over the next few weeks.
Please follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino