By Steve Silverman
You have heard this before, and multiple times. If the New York Jets can develop their young quarterback, the team has a chance to surprise in the AFC East.
Sam Darnold was selected with the third pick in the NFL Draft in April, and while the Jets are not putting a lot of public pressure on him to jump into the fight and become the starting quarterback early in his rookie season, that’s just what they would like to happen.
Barring that, Josh McCown, or possibly newcomer Teddy Bridgewater, will have the inside track on starting the season under center. While both of those alternatives are fairly decent, the ideal scenario involves their rookie quarterback from USC with the big arm and high talent level.
The first thing the Jets need to see is that he’s not Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith or Christian Hackenberg. All Jets fans know that the team has a succession of busts at quarterback and that can’t continue. The team’s loyal fans have seen too much misery over the years.
If Darnold can play well enough this summer and is in a position to wrestle the job away from McCown by Week Four or Five, he should find some decent targets. Jermaine Kearse makes the most out of his ability and he’s very difficult for opposing cornerbacks to cover one-on-one.
Quincy Enunwa missed all of last season after suffering a preseason neck injury. If he can return to the starting lineup and stay there, Enunwa will prove to be a huge target. He caught 58-857-4 in 2016, and he can use those numbers as a jumping off point for 2018.
Terrelle Pryor at the other receiving spot is another threat, and if he could ever play to his size-speed ratio – he’s 6-4, 228 pounds and runs a 4.4. 40 – the Jets would have a real contributor.
One thing the Jets need to have this year is a solid running game. That’s important for McCown or Bridgewater, and it is even more vital when Darnold comes on the scene. The diversity that a strong ground attack will bring is invaluable for a young quarterback.
While the Jets appear to have several capable backs in ex-Brown Isaiah Crowell, Bilal Powell, Eljah McGuire and Thomas Rawls, they don’t have a superstar – or even a star – at the position. It’s hard to make an offense go that doesn’t have a bread-and-butter back, especially when the team is waiting for its young quarterback to grow into his skin.
The offensive line was a problem a year ago in giving up 47 sacks, and while the signing of former Redskin center Spencer Long is a positive development, there’s no reason to think there will be a complete turnaround. Making sure the offensive line is professional and competent on an every-week basis has to be one of offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates’ top priorities.
If the Jets can retool in all of these areas, they could have a better-than-decent offense. However, when you have that many question marks, it’s tough to think that passing grades will be on the report card at the end of the day.
Head coach Todd Bowles is under no illusions when it comes to defensive play. Former star Muhammad Wilkerson is lining for the Packers, and the Jets are counting on rookie third-rounder Nathan Shepherd to make the step up from Fort Hays State to playing regularly in the NFL.
The team brought in Avery Williamson from the Titans to anchor the linebacking crew. The rest of the linebackers are largely unproven, but if Williams plays at a high level, his mates should be able to follow his lead and step up.
The secondary looks quite a bit better than it has in previous years, as Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye are big hitters at strong safety and free safety, respectively. Maye has the kind of instincts and intelligence needed for his position, while Adams is capable of putting his imprint on any game.
But the key will come down to the combination of Bowles and Darnold. The coach-quarterback situation does not exactly sound like Bill Walsh-Joe Montana, but then again, it doesn’t have to.
Bowles is not a quarterback whisperer, but he needs to set the tone with his young signal caller right away. He has to make his expectations clear and he cannot baby his rookie signal caller.
The tough approach should work best, and Bowles should be capable of looking at his young signal caller in the eye and letting him know exactly what must be done.
If he can’t, the Jets will be looking for another head coach fairly quickly.