By Matt Bitonti
Seeing the country in a time of need, Woody Johnson has enacted his plan to save the nation. It’s a new stimulus package, in economic circles they call it “bringing the Wood.” Through a confluence of timing, common sense and good fortune, Woody Johnson approved the selection of quarterback Mark Sanchez in the 2009 NFL Draft. This one act could create green, white and red shoots of growth throughout the New York metropolitan area, and by extension, the world.
Imagine with me: as the Jets win games, their new star quarterback becomes a media sensation, raising the spirits of a region in need of good news, and a reason to spend some money. The pick of Sanchez causes merchandise sales to sharply rise, which prompts a wealthy corporation to sponsor the stadium for a respectable price. The flight crew get new, sassier outfits. Seat licenses are printed in two languages and fly off the shelves; tickets sell out, both home or away, wherever “the Sanchize” appears. The NFL’s global marketing strategy takes off, creating real opportunity across international lines.
Won’t it be nice? Yeah, I can’t wait either. But hey, no pressure Mark.
Draft Pick Analysis
1.5 QB Mark Sanchez, Southern California: Admittedly, it’s possible that the trade up and selection of Mark Sanchez may not be the utopia scenario described above. But regardless of how it turns out, the Jets front office deserves credit for at least trying to solve the worst problem any NFL franchise can have: a lack of a starting quarterback.
At the draft, St. Louis and Seattle (picking at two and four), hoped their veteran signal-callers would keep it going for years to come. But in an alternate scenario, either team could have taken Sanchez and no one would have called it foolish. Sanchez was clearly the fastest rising player in the draft and widely agreed to be the most pro-ready of the quarterbacks. At the risk of speculation, if this player is 6’5″ instead of 6’3″ he goes 1 overall, higher than Stafford, but out of the Jets’ trade-up reach. Although Brett Ratliff might force this writer to eat his words, the players traded to Cleveland for their pick weren’t that special. On the day of the draft the Jets avoided embarrassing themselves, got a possible star, and that’s about as close to optimal outcome anyone can expect.
This spring, Sanchez showed a marked rate of improvement through mini-camps and is one of only a handful of first round picks signed as of this writing. He has exceptional balance and mobility, to help him avoid the rush, and has displayed a work ethic and disposition that insures he will seriously compete for the starting position. His experience in Pete Carroll’s offense will help him pick up the Jets scheme, and the offense shouldn’t require him to throw all game long. Rex Ryan’s Jets (with offensive line coach Bill Callahan) should be a primarily running team who stops the run on defense, in that equation a quarterback need not be a savior, merely competent. In this situation, a rookie quarterback can succeed: both Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco enjoyed solid running games last year, and weren’t asked to do too much.
3.65 RB Shonn Greene, Iowa: Continuing a trend of quality over quantity, the Jets traded up again in the third round, this time for bruising Iowa tailback Shonn Greene. Although he had a monster year in 2008, Greene doesn’t have wear on his tires, as compared to other backs as they leave college. He has vision, explosion and north-south ability similar to current Jets starting tailback Thomas Jones. At Iowa he was often the beneficiary of excellent run-blocking and should enjoy the same behind his new offensive line. In terms of being able to move the pile, Greene may actually be superior than Jones, who can have a bad habit of dancing in the hole. Blitz pick-up and receiving skills will likely limit Greene’s snaps at first, but he is the Jets hope for tailback of the future. In the presesnt, he provides the team leverage should contract disputes or injuries strike.
6.193 OL Matt Slauson, Nebraska: Unless you’ve blocked it out, like me, Jets fans will remember late round lineman bombs with names such as Bender, Garner, Yovanovitz and Cavka. Statistics show only 15% of all sixth round picks make their teams. But, Matt Slauson coul d beat those odds. An obvious nod to Offensive Line coach Bill Callahan, who recruited Slauson in his previous employment, this is a player that the front office hopes doesn’t have to play in 2009. In a best case scenario all five starters survive the season and Slauson is a game day inactive for his rookie year. However the depth behind the starters is suspect and the Jets hope to groom Slauson to eventually replace one of the guards or the right tackle. This player is by no means a lock to make the opening day roster, but he’s got a strong shot.
The Open Jobs and Candidates
As preseason begins there are eighty players on the Jets roster, which will eventually be cut down to fifty three before week one. For contractual reasons, there are a great deal of players whose roster spots are virtually assured. While injuries and spotty play can certainly dislodge these “locks” pretty quickly, at this time about half of these eighty players are pretty good chances to make the team. For full roster projection, please see Appendix below.
Assuming there are roughly ten open jobs on the fifty three man roster, the following are the openings, the candidates for the position, and my personal “just for fun” projections. The disclaimers here are that my Ouija board is broken and we are still before August preseason, when the hot full contact practices will sort out the wheat from the chaff.
Candidates: #19 Chris Pizzotti, #10 Erik Ainge.
The public never really got a straight answer as to why Erik Ainge missed mini-camps earlier in the year. It was probably a legitimate personal emergency, and none of our business. But this recalls a story about a young man named Adrian Peterson. Peterson, upon learning that his brother was shot, determined to run a 4.3 second electronically timed forty-yard dash at the combine. Did his heart hurt personally? We can be sure it did. Could he have left and tended to his family? Sure, it was a possible choice he could make. But the NFL is often about performing under duress, and Ainge, who was not given the Rex Ryan Seal of approval, could have questions about his commitment. Pizzotti is tall, smart, tough and has a live arm. More importantly he was there when Ainge wasn’t.
Fifth Running Back
Candidates: #39 Jehuu Caulcrick, #22 Danny Woodhead, #32 Brock Christopher.
If the Jets plan on running heavy this year, they are going to need bodies at the position. This spot on the roster would also be expected to contribute on special teams.. In such a role, a player such as Danny Woodhead, who has real burst, becomes a player to watch. Christopher is a hard hitting linebacker convert from Missouri, shades of Boomer Grigsby, but might be too much of a project for 2009. Caulcrick is probably not the safest projection to make but Rex Ryan might look at this player and see another LeRon McClain. Caulcrick learning to block and play specials would greatly help his cause.
Sixth Wide Receiver
Candidates: #14 Marcus Henry, #18 Huey Whittaker, #7 Mario Urrutia, #17 Britt Davis, #2 Paul Raymond, Other.
There is no tougher horse race to handicap on the 2009 Jets than the Wide Receivers. It’s possible the team only carries five players, and it’s very possible that they are not done adding players to the mix. If no one from this corp steps up, the Jets will have to go to the open market and bring in help. Several of the other wide receiver “locks” at the position are so for special team reasons. Still, the Jets have a need for tall, sure handed targets to compliment Jerricho Cotchery, and there are several interesting names in camp. Rex Ryan has been hinting around at sleepers he believes will be contributors on the team, and he might be thinking of more than one. Britt Davis and Huey Whittaker are also hard working players with size, but the nod goes to the former draft pick.
Eighth Offensive Lineman
Candidates: #68 Matt Slauson, #76 Michael Kracalik, #62 Tavita Thompson, #69 Ryan McKee, #72 Nevin McCaskill, #64 Stanley Daniels, #56 Matt Parenton.
Strictly speaking, an eighth offensive lineman is a luxury most teams don’t need on game-day. These players are usually inactive. We remember that the 2008 Jets only carried seven linemen for most of the year. However, the Jets will want insurance this year, especially if Robert Turner is called upon for blocking tight end duty again. The draft pick usually has the advantage in these situations, but the tackles Kracalik, McCaskill, McKee and Thompson could challenge for roster spots with an outstanding summer. Kacalik especially bears watching as he has been a Jet before and has starting experience since that time. Despite the salary that Alan Faneca receives from the team, overall tackles more valuable than guards, but are tougher players to find among undrafted athletes.
Third Tight End
Candidates: #84 Kareem Brown, #46 Jack Simmons, #48 J’Nathan Bullock.
We should talk about second tight end, before we get to this projection. Although out of football for the past year, Richard Owens finds himself in an ideal situation for 2009. The Jets need an experienced blocker to replace Chris Baker, and most recently, Bubba Franks. At twenty-eight years old and two hundred and seventy four pounds, Owens fits the bill on paper. On the field, his experience is mostly on special teams but he is an underrated athlete that will get every opportunity to win the second tight end position behind Dustin Keller.
Assuming that Owens takes advantage of his opportunity, that leaves three players for the final tight end spot. Bullock is a rare athlete (former basketball player at Cleveland State) who could, in theory, make so many big plays that the coaching staff simply cannot risk exposing him on the practice squad. Jack Simmons’ technique as a blocker that impressed Rex Ryan in mini camp, and the Jets will make their money this year as a run-first team. Simmons was an undrafted free agent, but comes from a school with a great recent history at the position (Matt Spaeth, Ben Utecht). Brown is an excellent athlete, the highest draft pick of the lot, has real NFL experience, and offers versatility on offense, defense and special teams. Whoever pushes the pile in pads will win the job.
Fourth Defensive End
Candidates: #79 Ropati Pitoitua, #98 Zach Potter, #61 Ty Steinkuhler, #63 Matt Kroul.
It is possible that the Jets decide they can use the other nose tackles as defensive ends (for example Kris Jenkins could play anywhere) and use the spot on another defensive back. However the organization has been holding on to Pitoitua for a couple of seasons, and many within the organization feel the strong and lanky native Samoan could be a player. He was raw but powerful at Washington State, having only played the game since his junior season of high school. He has had time to learn the game and if it’s gonna happen, now is his time. Potter is an interesting sleeper who also is familiar to Callahan. Along with Steinkuhler and Kroul, these players could be competing for spots on the taxi squad; all are a little light for the position and could benefit from a year in the strength program.
Seventh, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth* Linebacker
Candidates: #55 Jamaal Westerman, #94 Marques Murrell, #96 Jason Trusnik, #54 Kenwin Cummings, #47 Brandon Renkart, #51 Craig Kobel.
Jets get an extra roster spot while Calvin Pace is serving his four game suspension. As a result, there is actually a tenth* linebacker spot, but only for four weeks. The Jets would carry ten backers and cut one when Pace can return in week five. Meanwhile, there are some in the fan base who believe Larry Izzo is done as a player and might be better served starting a coaching career. I will grant that he has seen a lot of football and counting him as a lock might be wishful thinking. But at this point he is being counted as a lock because of his tremendous production in the division, the timing of his signing (relatively early in the free agent period), and the departure of reliable special teamer David Bowens. Izzo is going to get the benefit of the doubt and that’s really all a lock is in this exercise. Westerman was the darling of mini-camps and could be a natural fit in Rex Ryan’s attacking defense. Murrell has pass-rush ability, bloodlines and special-teams experience, while Trusnik flashed in the Jets final 2008 game against Miami. Cummings is a firey but borderline player, along with Renkart and it will come down to preseason game performances to decide who makes the team. Interesting side note, if a player is on the roster week 1, his salary is guaranteed for the entire year. Could the Jets “go light” if no one impresses? It’s possible, but several these players could have value beyond this year..
Projections: Murrell, Trusnik, Westerman, Cummings*.
Ninth Defensive Back
Candidates: #44 James Ihedigbo, #30 Drew Coleman, #35 Rashad Barksdale, #34 Marquise Cole, #37 Keith Fitzhugh, #38 Emanuel Cook.
The defensive back corp has been revamped this year, with Sheppard, Leonard and Strickland as new locks to make the team. The coaches could select either a safety or corner back for this final defensive back slot, as this player will most likely be asked to contribute primarily on special teams. Ihedigbo is a rough and ready hitter and has experience with special teams coach Mike Westoff as a gunner on special teams. Coleman is undersized but has proven to be a tough cut every summer. Barksdale has talent and experience, while Cook was viewed by many as a steal free agent after the draft. The good news is that there will be room on the practice squad for one or more of these players.
Candidates: #9 T.J. Conley, #5 Reggie Hodges, Other.
Having bested fellow undrafted free agent Erik Wilbur (released after mini-camp), Conley must now defeat last year’s incumbent punter Reggie Hodges, brought back for camp. Conley is actually wearing Hodges’ number from last year, as Hodges wasn’t on the team when Conley was signed. Interesting stuff, right? Not really. Hey, what do you want from me, these are punters! Seriously though the punter is a key part of any ball-control offense and the Jets are not sitting idle at the position. This job appears to be Conley’s to lose but don’t be surprised if there are more candidates brought in as camp progresses.