2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Kevin Fishbain
New York is known as the city that never sleeps. In 2010, that nickname could have applied to one of the Big Apple's football teams as well.
The Jets were in the headlines more than any other team last year, both for their actions on the field and off. Starting with their performance on HBO's "Hard Knocks" and going all the way to the AFC championship game, Rex Ryan's team found scandal and attention every place it turned, even when it wasn't looking for it.
For most teams, that would be a problem. It wasn't for the Jets, and that's because of their head coach. Ryan welcomes the football world watching his team under a microscope, even sometimes going out of his way to ensure that takes place. His players seem to embrace the pressure, a reason they've performed better the past two seasons in bigger, high-profile games. The Jets are 4-2 in the playoffs since Ryan took over in 2009, with all six games being played on the road.
Entering this season, Ryan wants to do better than conference runners-up. Already he has declared that it's Super Bowl XLVI or bust for his team and has admitted that in order to get to Indianapolis at season's end, the team needs to improve its play at home. With a promising young QB in Mark Sanchez, a strong offensive line, a young running back ready to burst onto the scene and one of the league's best CB duos, there are few reasons for the Jets to come up short. And if they do make the Super Bowl, Ryan will make sure the world hears about it.
There were several new faces on offense in 2010, but the most important player was QB Mark Sanchez, who improved in his second season in coordinator Brian Schottenheimer's scheme. Sanchez cut down on his turnovers and increased his touchdowns and passing yards compared to his rookie season, all while absorbing more of the team's playbook. He was aided by a couple of those new faces, most importantly by RB LaDainian Tomlinson and WR Santonio Holmes. Playing with one of the NFL's top offensive lines, this run-first offense should continue to improve as Sanchez becomes even more comfortable with his supporting cast.
Quarterbacks: Mark Sanchez thrives in late-game situations, when the speed of the game picks up. He orchestrated six game-winning drives in 2010, highlighted by the playoff victory over the Colts. Moving outside of the pocket on play-action and throwing on the run also have proven to be strengths. A lot of the success with the clock winding down can be attributed to Sanchez's increased leadership, as he commands and receives respect in the locker room even at his young age. Decision making in the first 58 minutes of the game still is an issue, however, as he occasionally forces throws into crowded areas of the field, a major reason for his 13 regular-season interceptions in '10. Accuracy also has been a problem, as Sanchez's 54.8 completion percentage was third-worst among the league's qualifying QBs. Backup Mark Brunell is serviceable and still can move a bit in his 19th season, but he will be 41 in September and lacks the arm strength to make big plays downfield. He will continue to mentor Sanchez and rookie Greg McElroy, who was considered the smartest QB in the draft and could challenge to be the backup of the future.
Running backs: Thomas Jones departed and LaDainian Tomlinson entered, but not much changed for the running game in 2010. The team ranked fourth in rushing yards, as the duo of L.T. and Shonn Greene combined for 1,680 yards and eight TDs. Tomlinson doesn't have the speed or agility he did a decade ago when he entered the league, yet he still can make defenders look foolish in the open field. His ability to make an impact in the passing game hasn't diminished, as his 52 receptions tied for third on the team. Greene is a physical runner who is more comfortable going through a defender than around him. Trouble holding on to the ball made him a reserve early in the season, but as the temperature dropped and opponents tired, the former third-round pick saw his role increase. He will be the first-string back at the start of '11, with Tomlinson shifting to a more complementary role, though concerns about Greene's blocking and receiving still linger. Joe McKnight, a rookie in '10, didn't see the field much. Ryan says he is intrigued by McKnight's versatile skill set and could put him in the RB rotation. With not many years left for Tomlinson, the Jets drafted Bilal Powell, who has raw talent and can develop behind L.T. and Greene. At fullback, another '10 rookie, John Conner, will see a major spike in playing time, as "The Terminator" impressed coaches blocking on special teams.
Receivers: The Jets' No. 1 priority in the offseason was re-signing Santonio Holmes, even if it meant parting ways with Braylon Edwards. Holmes is a dynamic playmaker who thrives outside the numbers and after the catch. He broke out in his first season with the Jets and was rewarded with a major contract this offseason. Mark Sanchez will be working with some new targets, starting with Edwards' replacement, Plaxico Burress. Burress hasn't played since 2008 and is just re-entering the league after serving a prison sentence. He was one of the league's most dangerous receivers, especially near the goal line, but at 34 and having not played football in almost three years, it's not yet clear what he'll be able to provide, although Burress quelled some fears with a solid preseason debut. The Jets parted ways with Jerricho Cotchery and replaced him with veteran Derrick Mason. At the age of 37, Mason is still productive, as he had eight touchdown catches last season. A great route runner, Mason will give Sanchez a reliable target on short-to-intermediate routes. The Jets traded up in the draft to get slot WR Jeremy Kerley, a quick underneath target who also has return skills. They also drafted Sanchez's childhood friend, Scotty McKnight, who was very productive as a slot receiver in college. Dustin Keller is one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the league and can attack the seam. The Jets utilize TE Matt Mulligan as a power-running blocker.
Offensive linemen: C Nick Mangold, OLT D'Brickashaw Ferguson and ORG Brandon Moore are all among the most durable and most talented players at their positions in the NFL. Neither Mangold nor Ferguson has missed a game since coming into the league in 2006, and Moore has been a starter in all but three weeks since the beginning of the '04 season. The three help provide open lanes for the running backs and a safe pocket for Mark Sanchez, pushing to the second level and clearing out defenders. OLG Matt Slauson doesn't have the pedigree of some of his linemates and occasionally was pushed around in '10. However, he gained confidence as the season progressed, and playing between Ferguson and Mangold helped. Slauson still needs to add strength. With Damien Woody retired, Wayne Hunter, last year's top reserve, has assumed the starting ORT job. Second-year man Vladimir Ducasse, the team's top O-line backup, has struggled this preseason. Ducasse didn't see the field much as a rookie and is still raw, which is a concern for the team. His strength is power-run blocking, which fits the Jets' offense well, but he will need to improve in pass protection. Versatile backup Rob Turner broke his leg, and the depth behind the starters is thin, with Robby Felix and converted DL Matt Kroul.
When it comes to Rex Ryan's and Mike Pettine's 3-4 defense, one word stands out: pressure. Just like his father Buddy did while coaching the Bears and Eagles, Rex loves to attack offenses with stunts, blitzes and general havoc. With top-flight corners locking down receivers in one-on-one coverage on the outside and run-stuffing linebackers patrolling the middle of the field, the Jets look to swarm quarterbacks and ballcarriers. The unit was not at its best in 2010, despite finishing third in yards allowed per game. Too often it lost focus and allowed opponents to drive down the field with ease. Don't tell that to Patriots QB Tom Brady, however. Of the five interceptions the league's MVP threw last season, three were to the Jets, including one in the Jets' stunning playoff victory.
Defensive linemen: They don't have impressive résumés and are not household names, but no two linemen were more important to the Jets last year than NT Sione Pouha and DT Mike DeVito. Both are large, run-stuffing space eaters who can take on blockers and fill gaps along the line. Neither rushes the quarterback particularly well, but they are not expected to in this scheme. The Jets drafted their five-technique of the future, first-rounder Muhammad Wilkerson, who they hope can pressure the quarterback with Shaun Ellis signing with the Patriots. Wilkerson is big and powerful with upside, and he can get after the quarterback. DE Ropati Pitoitua, who missed all of 2010, also will factor in and rotate with Wilkerson as Ellis' replacement. The Jets also drafted a backup for Pouha, Kenrick Ellis. He has the size to occupy space like Kris Jenkins did, but character concerns dropped him to the third round. DLs Marcus Dixon and Jarron Gilbert, both of whom spent most of '10 on the practice squad, each will be given the opportunity to contribute this season. Dixon has the ability to shed blocks and penetrate into the backfield, though he needs to add strength. Gilbert's problem is inconsistency.
Linebackers: Baltimore's Ray Lewis has locked down his spot as the AFC's Pro Bowl middle linebacker for as long as he's active, but whenever he decides to hang up his cleats, David Harris is set to take his place. Harris led the Jets in tackles in 2010, the third time he has done that in his four-year career. He received the franchise tag before the lockout and then signed a long-term deal in training camp, proving how much he means to the defense. With fantastic instincts and the aggressiveness to lead a Rex Ryan-coached defense, Harris is the key to the entire unit. Though he occasionally can be hung up while changing direction, he often is found around the ball, as is fellow ILB Bart Scott, a seasoned veteran in the Ryan scheme. Scott is the vocal leader of the defense and backs up his talking with consistent play on the field. The team had a three-man rotation last season at outside 'backer. Bryan Thomas can be a game-changing player when he shows up. Inconsistency hurt him, though he did lead the team in sacks last season. Calvin Pace recovered nicely from a broken foot last preseason to put together a strong season. With a quick first step, Pace can be a force rushing the quarterback but often is exposed when dropping into coverage. With Jason Taylor gone, there is even more pressure on Pace to generate a pass rush. Although the Jets boast one of the league's top linebacking corps, there is not a whole lot of proven depth behind the starters. Jamaal Westerman is a converted defensive lineman who has good quickness. Garrett McIntyre, who recorded eight sacks in the CFL last season, will see if he can bring those pass-rushing skills to the Jets as a high-motor reserve. The Jets also added former first-round OLB Aaron Maybin, who will try to shed the "bust" label as a situational pass rusher. Josh Mauga looks the part but is still raw.
Defensive backs: With respect to the Eagles' new CB tandem, the Jets still might have the most talented duo in the league. Darrelle Revis is one of the smartest players in the sport and is constantly aware of what offenses are doing, to the extent that many QBs avoid throwing his direction altogether because he can read their plays. Even without recording an interception in 2010, Revis takes over games with superb ball skills and is a physical tackler in run support. In his first season with the team, Antonio Cromartie was the impact player the team was hoping for when it traded for him. He's big, physical and very fast, although his risky approach can lead to as many highlight plays for opponents as it does for the Jets. Reserve CB Kyle Wilson is quick and strong but often appeared lost as a rookie. He will be used in the nickel after Drew Coleman departed via free agency. Donald Strickland, who played for the Jets in '09, adds to the depth at corner. At safety, Jim Leonhard is expected to return fully from a broken foot that cost him the end of the season. Leonhard is the coach on the field for the secondary, always knowing where his teammates should line up. Hard-hitting Eric Smith will start alongside Leonhard, with Brodney Pool as the No. 3.
This unit felt the biggest free-agency impact, as gunner and KR Brad Smith and P Steve Weatherford left town. Former Australian Football Leaguer Chris Bryan will compete with T.J. Conley for the punting job. Nick Folk likely remains the placekicker after an improved 2010 campaign, but Nick Novak is right on his heels. Replacing Smith on returns will be the job of the youngsters. Jeremy Kerley could factor in on returns, along with Joe McKnight and Kyle Wilson. Antonio Cromartie is an option, too.
The duo of Rex Ryan and Mark Sanchez has led the Jets to the AFC championship game each season they have been in New York, and 2011 is the time to take the next step. With a host of free agents to make decisions on, the Jets lost some key parts from last season's team and will have new faces, especially at wide receiver and on special teams. But the core remains the same, especially on defense where the team returns most of its starters. It's important for Sanchez and Shonn Greene to come into their own and complement the defense in getting the Jets over the hump and into the Super Bowl.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.