A little over a week ago, I asked the members of JetNation, as well as some Jets fans I know personally, what they thought were the biggest holes left to fill on the Jets’ roster as it currently stands. With just about three weeks until training camp, let’s take a look at what Jets fans think are the team’s most vulnerable positions, starting with the most obvious.
Quarterback: As expected, this was one of the first positions mentioned by fans. Though Mark Sanchez’s numbers say he improved last season, watching him week in and week out left most fans with a negative impression of his progress. They don’t think he can read defenses well and he goes through his progressions too slowly, leading to sacks and fumbles. Other teams have figured him out and know he’ll check down at the drop of a hat. Sanchez’s improvement is the key to everything moving forward – the running game, the passing game, the team’s overall success. In spite of the fact that the Jets brought in a high profile backup in Tim Tebow, Tebow’s technique leaves a lot to be desired, and many Jets fans don’t feel good about the situation at QB going into the season.
Right Tackle: Wayne Hunter was a target for ridicule all last season. He was a viable backup in 2010, but as a starter in 2011, he was beaten frequently by opposing defenses, allowing 8.5 sacks and committing 11 penalties. The Jets have stated over and over that Hunter is the starter going into this season, and that’s probably true because Vlad Ducasse couldn’t even take over the starting position from Hunter when Hunter wasn’t doing his job well. Shifting protection to the weak right side hampered D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who was often left to cover more than his share of defenders and ended up allowing 9.5 sacks. Add that to an offensive line that wasn’t as good in 2011 as it was the previous two seasons, partially due to injury, and the whole group has been negatively impacted by Hunter’s ineptness. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Hunter could play better, but until he does, Hunter having the starting position going into 2012 doesn’t sit well with Jets fans. With Ducasse as the backup, fans are even less confident. Ducasse is actually indicative of bigger offensive line problem: lack of depth. For example, behind Nick Mangold, center is a black hole.
Running Back: Shonn Greene took over the role as the starting RB last year, with LaDainian Tomlinson taking a smaller role due to age and injury. The problem Jets fans seem to have with the running back position isn’t Greene per se. It’s more that Greene is a serviceable RB who has nobody to share the load with him, has been affected by injury, and lacks some of the skill required to make him a real feature running back. He’s a good #2 RB, and it should be noted that Greene did rush for over 1000 yards last season. Still, Greene doesn’t inspire confidence in fans because he doesn’t break a lot of tackles and doesn’t move the pile. He lacks the explosiveness and moves of a guy like LaDainian Tomlinson in his prime. On other teams, this isn’t as big of an issue, but the Jets have said they want to be a ground and pound team, but have no feature back. Whether or not ground and pound is a good strategy in a league that’s becoming increasingly pass oriented is a debate for another time, but this is what the Jets have said they want to be (it’s what they’ve said publicly, anyway). The Jets ranked 22nd in team rushing yards last season, averaging 105.8 rushing yards per game. Denver led in team rushing yards in 2011, averaging 164.5 rushing yards per game and finishing with 2632 total rushing yards. The Jets have to up their average rushing yardage by nearly 40 yards a game just to be in the top 5 rushing teams from 2011. Fans don’t think Joe McKnight has the chops to be the feature back, Terrance Ganaway is a rookie, and it’s still not entirely clear exactly how Tim Tebow is going to be used. Fans don’t know where these extra rushing yards are going to come from if the Jets are going to dominate the league as a rushing team.
Tight End: The Jets have a collection of decent tight ends, but as with running back, fans are concerned that they’re missing a crucial piece of the ground and pound philosophy: the blocking tight end. For those who don’t know, because it’s less obvious, in a ground and pound system tight ends are used as blockers more than receivers to help create holes for the rushers to get through. No tight end on the current roster really fits this role, meaning fewer holes, meaning less yards on the ground. A couple of fans have expressed confidence that new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano will get the tight ends the Jets currently have to do a better job blocking.
Wide Receiver: Fans seem to be fairly optimistic about wide receiver, but there’s a catch. Santonio Holmes is the only proven wideout on the roster. Behind him are a bunch of players who have the potential to be good but, for the most part, are unproven. A guy like Chaz Schilens has been pretty good, but his playing time has been extremely limited due to injury. Jeremy Kerley showed real potential last season, but was a rookie and was targeted only a limited number of times. The guy most fans seem especially excited about is rookie Stephen Hill, who is being predicted to have 30-45 receptions, with 4-7 touchdowns, and between 500 and 600 receiving yards. Like with other guys on the roster, Hill has a lot of promise, but there is very little proven talent behind Holmes. It makes some fans a little nervous.
Safety: This was the only defensive position to come up as a monster question mark. As most fans know, last year was something of a disaster for covering tight ends, especially big guys like Patriot tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Jim Leonhard was a good field general but was arguably too small to play strong safety, and aside from the regular mismatch of playing against someone much bigger than he is, it forced Eric Smith (a natural strong safety) to free safety. At the rate people got by him, Smith looked like a double agent out there. That’s how unsuited he is for the FS role. The Jets have attempted to remedy this in the offseason, signing two safeties in Yeremiah Bell and LaRon Landry, as well as drafting Antonio Allen and Josh Bush. Bush is something of a hybrid, converting to safety from corner back in his senior season at Wake Forrest. Tracy Wilson is also a safety currently on the roster. Smith is still under contract with the team, and Leonhard hasn’t been resigned at this point. Although the Jets brought in a bunch of safeties this off season, fans are still concerned about the safety position. Bell is older (34), Landry has been injured, and Allen and Bush are rookies who may or may not make the team. Nothing about these additions automatically says, “Problem solved.”
Punter: Only two fans mentioned punter as a potential problem this season, but there is some cause for concern with T.J. Conley. There was enough negative going on with other aspects of the Jets’ game last season that the punter was largely overlooked, but Conley wasn’t very good. He ranked tenth in the league in total punting yards, but only because the Jets punted so often. He ranked 30th in average yards per punt with a 42.7 yard average, ahead of only Matt Turk on the Jaguars and Texans (40.8 average yards per punt), and Brad Maynard on the Browns (40.5 average yards per punt). In comparison to that, the punter with the longest average, Andy Lee of the 49ers, averaged 50.9 yards per attempt. Steve Weatherford, Conley’s predecessor now with the Giants, was ranked 14th averaging 45.7 yards per punt. With field position such an important part of the game, it would be nice if the Jets had someone who could kick the ball further down the field on a consistent basis.
Kicker: It’s surprising that place kicker didn’t get more attention considering the heartburn Nick Folk has given Jets fans these past two seasons. Folk made only 19 of 25 attempted field goals in 2011, meaning he made 76.0% of his field goals. This put him in a tie for 26th place (out of 31 places) in percentage of field goals made. Matt Bryant of the Falcons, who ranked first in percentage of field goals made, put the ball between the uprights 93.1% of the time (27 field goals of 29 attempted). Even David Akers of the 49ers, who attempted a league high 52 field goals last season, had higher percentage of field goals made, putting the ball through 44 times for 84.6% and ranking 14th in the league. 2010 wasn’t much better for Folk, who tied for 24th in the league in percentage of field goals made with 76.9% (33 of 39). And one last stat that really sticks out is that Folk has made only 13 of 24 field goals longer than 40 yards in the last two years, which is 54.2% of field goals made of 40+ yards. Not great. If Jets fans weren’t thrilled that Nick Folk signed a new contract this past March, it wouldn’t be surprising.