The Jets hit the reset button yet again this offseason and are entering the 2021 season with a lot of new faces.
The most notable of those are head coach Robert Saleh and quarterback Zach Wilson. The new coach and quarterback have given fans hope, but that hope should be long-term hope that the Jets might have gotten it right this time. In the short term, there will be growing pains.
Saleh recently described his team as “ridiculously young,” and it is true. The Jets could have as many as six rookie starters. That is going to lead to some rough moments this season.
“We’re going to have a lot of ebbs and flows,” Saleh said. “There’s going to be a lot of great moments, there’s going to be a lot of hair-pulling moments. At the end of the day, that’s what’s going to shape this football team.”
The key for the Jets in 2021 is how they look in December, not September. The win-loss record is not going to be as important as whether the hope that exists now with Saleh and Wilson grows by then. Does Wilson look like he can be the answer to the quarterback riddle the Jets have been searching for since Joe Namath exited? Are the Jets competitive or are they still getting blown out like in recent years? Is the young core around Wilson clear?
All of those answers will let us know whether the Jets are finally on the right path after a decade of poor results. The Jets enter this season with the longest playoff drought in the NFL — 10 seasons. It will be a miracle if that does not reach 11 this year. The Jets’ last winning season is now six years ago when they went 10-6 in 2015 under Todd Bowles.
The Jets have spent this offseason trying to build a foundation for the future. General manager Joe Douglas hired Saleh and made the decision to trade Sam Darnold and draft Wilson. The Jets feel good about what they achieved in free agency and the draft, although the loss of edge-rusher Carl Lawson to a season-ending Achilles injury in August was a tough blow for the team.
Douglas and Saleh enter this season with plenty of job security and time to build their program the way they want and to change the losing culture the Jets have had for too long.
“I believe the culture is basically created by the people that are brought into it,” Saleh said. “That goes back to all the discussions in this offseason, everything Joe [Douglas] and his staff have done, the collaboration that has happened throughout the year, with regards to bringing in men of tremendous character, men who want to play football, love football, want to get better every single day, and just have that mindset.”
The Jets had some monumental decisions to make this offseason but none was bigger than what to do at quarterback. GM Joe Douglas made the call in April to trade Sam Darnold to the Panthers after three years with the team and then draft Zach Wilson with the No. 2-overall pick. The decision is going to color at least the next few years for the Jets and maybe more.
Wilson passed every test this summer that was thrown at him. After some early struggles, he settled in and looked comfortable in his two preseason games. Wilson’s talent is obvious and his coaches have raved about his commitment off the field. There are a million variables that factor into how a quarterback plays, and now Wilson must perform against defenses scheming to stop him.
Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur brings Kyle Shanahan’s offense with him from the 49ers. LaFleur is a first-time play-caller but has been surrounded by good mentors in Shanahan and his brother, Packers coach Matt LaFleur.
The hallmark of the Shanahan offense is the outside zone running game and building the play-action pass off of it. The Jets have four running backs who will all see time early in the season — Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, rookie Michael Carter and La’Mical Perine. Expect a committee approach to start the season or until someone emerges as a lead back. Trevon Wesco will be the fullback.
Douglas did his best to give Wilson better weapons at wide receiver than Darnold had in his time with the Jets. He signed Corey Davis to a three-year, $37.5 million deal in March and then drafted Elijah Moore out of Mississippi in the second round. Both had strong showings in training camp.
The tight ends remain a question mark. The Jets traded Chris Herndon last week and now Tyler Kroft is the clear No. 1 at the position, but there should not be high expectations for production from this position.
The offensive line will have a few new faces with rookie Alijah Vera-Tucker at left guard and Morgan Moses at right tackle. The line had some major struggles in camp, particularly in joint practices with the Packers and Eagles. The Jets desperately need this group to improve.
Robert Saleh made his reputation on defense, but the Jets hired him to be a CEO-type head coach, so he has entrusted the defense to coordinator Jeff Ulbrich with plenty of input from Saleh, of course.
Ulbrich has a big challenge ahead of him. The Jets’ defensive personnel are weak. They are very young at linebacker and cornerback and unproven at edge rusher.
The strength of the defense is the interior line. Quinnen Williams blossomed last season in his second year and should be even more disruptive in the Saleh scheme. Sheldon Rankins comes over from the Saints and could prove to be a sneaky good signing if he can stay healthy.
The Jets signed Carl Lawson to a three-year, $45 million contract in March to improve the pass rush, but Lawson tore his left Achilles tendon on Aug. 19 and is out for the season. The Jets traded for Shaq Lawson at the end of training camp, hoping to fill some of the void left by the loss of Carl Lawson. John Franklin-Myers should start on the other side and has shown some promise.
C.J. Mosley returns at inside linebacker after opting out of last season due to COVID-19 concerns. Mosley has played in only two games since signing a massive free-agent deal with the Jets in 2019. He looks motivated to reestablish himself as one of the best linebackers in the NFL after reporting 15-20 pounds lighter than he has played at. Jarrad Davis was supposed to be next to Mosley, but an ankle injury will keep him out until at least mid-October. The Jets are hoping two rookies can contribute at linebacker, with Jamien Sherwood and Hamsah Nasirildeen both expected to get major playing time.
The Jets have no experienced cornerbacks. The team surprisingly cut Bless Austin last week. Bryce Hall (second year) and either Brandin Echols (rookie) or Isaiah Dunn (rookie) are the expected starters on the outside with Javelin Guidry (second year) or Michael Carter II (rookie) at the slot corner. Corner remains the biggest weakness on the team.
Marcus Maye is back at safety, although unhappy after not getting a long-term contract this offseason. He will team with Lamarcus Joyner on the back end, a duo the Jets are excited about. There is little depth behind them, though.
The Jets have a new kicker … again. Matt Ammendola beat out the other kickers in camp to win the starting job. He has never kicked in an NFL game after going undrafted in 2020. He has a big leg and the Jets feel he has improved his accuracy.
Punter Braden Mann returns for his second season after showing he may be the best tackler on the team last year.
Rookie Michael Carter (the running back) and Braxton Berrios will get the first crack at being the team’s returners. Keep an eye on the rookie Moore, though, whose explosiveness could be a nice addition to the return game.
The Jets’ lack of depth on the roster will make things tough on coordinator Brant Boyer, the longest-tenured coach on the staff. He is going to be searching for core special teams players early.
Saleh has been impressive this offseason. He has brought energy and hope back to a Jets organization that desperately needed it after last year’s 2-14 debacle.
Saleh has shown he is a good motivator and communicator this spring and summer. Now, we’ll see how it translates to game day.
The Jets staff is quite inexperienced. They have a first-time head coach, offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator (although Ulbrich did serve as interim DC for three months last season in Atlanta). They also have a number of first-time position coaches. This is going to lead to some rocky moments this season as they learn on the job.
The Jets have traditionally done well under first-year head coaches. They went to the playoffs in the first year of Herm Edwards, Eric Mangini and Rex Ryan. They went 10-6 in Todd Bowles’ first year and even Adam Gase’s 7-9 campaign in 2019 was better than the second year.
For Saleh to get a similar boost, he is going to need a young team to come together quickly. The Jets fell in love with Saleh during the head-coaching hiring process. Now, he has to deliver on the faith that Joe Douglas and Christopher Johnson had in him.
Most important offensive player: The Jets will go as Zach Wilson goes this season. The rookie quarterback has a lot of pressure on him to deliver. The Jets did not bring in a veteran quarterback to compete with him or back him up. The job is his. We’ll see how the 22-year-old handles the spotlight.
Most important defensive player: The Jets gave C.J. Mosley a five-year, $85 million deal in 2019. He has played two games since. The Jets need Mosley to recapture the form that he showed in Baltimore before 2019 and lead a very young defense.
Rookie to watch: Elijah Moore was the best player in the spring program and the best on offense early in training camp. A quad injury kept him out of the middle of camp and the preseason games, but he looks like he will be fun to watch. Moore can be the explosive playmaker the Jets have lacked in recent years.
Star on the rise: Quinnen Williams could have a monster year. Williams had seven sacks last year, and this defense will free him up to rush the passer more. Williams missed time this offseason after breaking his foot, so he may need time to find his groove, but expect big things from him once he does.
Biggest coaching decision: Robert Saleh must decide how much to put on Wilson’s plate. Ideally, the Jets can run the ball and not make him have to win them games as a rookie. But if the defense struggles and they are trailing, Wilson may be asked to do too much.
Don’t be surprised if: The Jets start the season 0-6. Their first six games are tough — at Carolina, Patriots, at Broncos, Titans, Falcons (in London), at Patriots. The Jets may have to wait until Halloween, when the Bengals visit, for their first win.
Sure to make fans grumble: The Jets cornerbacks are going to have some rough days. When they face good quarterbacks, watch out. The Jets are going to give up some big passing days.
Can’t miss ’em
Sept. 12: at Panthers: The Jets get to see former quarterback Sam Darnold in Week 1. The Darnold storyline will overshadow everything, but this is also the first time we will see Zach Wilson play and Robert Saleh coach in a game that counts.
Sept. 19: vs. Patriots: The home opener should be electric. Jets fans will be back in the building for a regular-season game for the first time since December 2019 and it is against the rival Patriots.
Dec. 26: vs. Jaguars: Jets fans spent most of last season dreaming of drafting Trevor Lawrence, and then the team won two games. Jacksonville ended up with the No. 1 pick and Lawrence and now the top two picks in the draft will square off at MetLife Stadium.
This is going to be another rough season for the Jets. They are very, very young as Joe Douglas and Robert Saleh are in the early stages of rebuilding. The hope has to be that the young players show promise and they are at least competitive in their losses.