A Jan. 2 game between the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be remembered for Antonio Brown quitting mid-game and running triumphantly to the locker room without a shirt. That overshadowed the game itself, which might have been an important one for a struggling franchise.
The Jets should have beat the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has been one of the best teams in the NFL since Tom Brady came aboard and the Jets, who came into that game 4-11, blew a win. They failed to get a fourth-and-2 conversion just before the two-minute warning — a miscommunication led to quarterback Zach Wilson keeping the ball and getting stuffed when it was supposed to go to receiver Braxton Berrios on a reverse — that would have sealed the win. The Jets allowed Brady to throw a 33-yard touchdown with just 15 seconds left.
The loss stung, but in reality, it didn't matter if the 2021 Jets won four or five games. What mattered was they traded punches with one of the handful of elite teams in the NFL and should have won. That was a great sign at the end of a lost season. Maybe it was a sign that things were turning around.
The Jets were bad last season. The offense was inept and the defense was the worst in the NFL. Yet in the last four games, they almost beat the red-hot Miami Dolphins, did beat the Jacksonville Jaguars, hung tough with the Bucs and trailed by only three points at the Buffalo Bills in the finale. Then the Jets had a draft everyone loved.
When you draft a lot of players early, you'll get a good grade. That's how it goes. The cost of those picks is usually ignored. However, the Jets really did seem to make the most of their extra picks. They arguably got the best cornerback (Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner), receiver (Garrett Wilson) and running back (Breece Hall) in the draft, as well as first-round pass rusher Jermaine Johnson II after he slipped. It's hard to argue with that. They got a top-two consensus grade from draft analysts. The Jets had a good draft last season too, with players like guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and receiver Elijah Moore already showing they can play in the NFL.
There are finally reasons to be excited.
“We’re better,” Jets coach Robert Saleh said in May, according to he New York Post. “I know we’re going to be better. We’re young. We’re a year older. We brought in some really cool pieces, a lot of guys who stand for the right stuff, who live and breathe football.”
Of course, it means little if 2021 second overall pick Zach Wilson is a bust at quarterback, and there were some scary signs from his rookie season. The Jets have put a deep receiver group, better running game and hopefully improved offensive line around Wilson. Now it's on him to show results.
It has been a long time since the Jets had much to be optimistic about. They haven't been to the playoffs since the end of the 2010 season. They've had six regular starting quarterbacks and four coaches since then. The dry spell has been painful. Maybe things are changing.
It's tough to depend on rookies to come in and play well right away. But the Jets have four potential difference-makers from the first two rounds of the draft: cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, receiver Garrett Wilson, pass rusher Jermaine Johnson II and running back Breece Hall. It's easy to get excited about that class. Even the final three picks, Ohio State TE Jeremy Ruckert, Louisiana OT Max Mitchel, and Texas A&M edge defender Micheal Clemons — all top 117 picks — are intriguing. It's a potentially franchise-changing draft. The free agency additions weren't bad either. Guard Laken Tomlinson was a Pro Bowl player last season and cornerback D.J. Reed had a good season for the Seahawks. Tight ends Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah are a double-dip at a position that needed help. The Jets lost safety Marcus Maye but replaced him adequately with Jordan Whitehead. This was a heck of an offseason for general manager Joe Douglas.
The Jets had to play four quarterbacks last season. Joe Flacco and Josh Johnson are at the journeyman stages of their careers. Mike White sent people scrambling to look up who he was. All three played better than Zach Wilson, the second pick of last year's draft. Wilson's 69.7 passer rating was the worst of the four and the eye test wasn't kind to Wilson either. It was scary to see others in the same bad offensive situation look better than Wilson. Wilson was inaccurate and had struggles playing from the pocket. Wilson's physical talent is obvious and he was better late in his rookie season. An early-season knee injury that caused him to miss time didn't help. He'll be in a better environment this season. But he'll have to show strides playing within structure and with his accuracy. There's still plenty of time for him to become a franchise QB.
The win total on the Jets is 5.5 at BetMGM, and the over will be a popular play. A lot of that is due to the great draft class, and it can be a mistake to assume rookies will have a big impact right away. But the Jets have added a lot of talent over the last two drafts and in free agency too. The over might be a hot play, but it seems like the right bet. And while it seems crazy, long shot plays on the Jets to make the playoffs (+700) and to win the AFC East (+1800) are worth the odds.
From Yahoo's Scott Pianowski: "Breece Hall is often compared to David Montgomery; both backs attended Iowa State, and they have similar body compositions. But we need to acknowledge Hall was more productive than Montgomery in college — Hall posted better counting stats and more importantly, better efficiency stats. Hall also comes from good stock — his cousin, Roger Craig, was an NFL star in the 1980s, and Jeff Smith, Hall’s stepfather, was an NFL back in the same decade.
"The Jets offensive line struggled last year, but that’s been addressed in the draft and in free agency. And although the team isn’t sure what to make of oft-injured OT Mekhi Becton, there’s still plausible upside with him. Entering a fantasy season where the running back position is particularly muddy, Hall’s early Yahoo ADP of 47.9 looks appealing."
The Jets allowed 6,760 yards and 504 points last season. Even accounting for an expanded 17-game season, those are staggering numbers. The Jets' defense ranked last in the NFL in each category, and looked absolutely lost in some games. They gave up 551 yards and 54 points in a loss to a New England Patriots team led by a rookie quarterback, and were smashed for 532 yards and 45 points in a terrible effort against the Indianapolis Colts. Robert Saleh was a defensive wizard as coordinator with the San Francisco 49ers, but that didn't translate at all to his first season as Jets coach. Adding D.J. Reed and Ahmad Gardner at cornerback will help, as will getting pass rusher Carl Lawson back from an Achilles injury that wiped out his 2021 season after he signed a $45 million free agent deal. If the Jets' defense is miserable again, Saleh will be under a lot of heat.
Who is the most important non-QB on the Jets?
There are plenty of fine answers, but let's nominate Mekhi Becton. Becton was supposed to be the left tackle of the future when he was selected with the 11th pick of the 2020 draft, a 6-7, 363-pounder with surprising athleticism. So far, Becton has turned in two injury-filled seasons. In Week 1 last season, Becton dislocated his kneecap and missed the rest of the season. There were reports he weighed more than 400 pounds during his rehab, though the team said this offseason he's getting his weight down with the help of a nutritionist. Still, the Jets said Becton will have to compete with George Fant, who did a good job filling in at left tackle, for his old job. The message has been sent. Becton will either turn a corner and be a big part of an offensive line protecting Zach Wilson, or go down as a horrible pick in a talented draft.
The Jets have put Zach Wilson in a position to succeed. The offensive line looks better and there is depth at receiver, tight end and running back. Wilson is getting rave reviews this offseason for his work in the weight room, improved vocal leadership and his understanding of the offense. That's all positive. If Wilson hits big in year two, the Jets will follow. The defense can't be as bad as it was in 2021. The offense has some intriguing pieces. It's hard to figure the Jets can go from 4-13 last season to a playoff spot in a loaded AFC, but they can be in contention if everything goes right.
When you draft a quarterback in the top 10, you're married to him. The New York Giants are still trying to make it work with Daniel Jones, for one example. If Zach Wilson doesn't take a step forward from a bad rookie season, then what? The Jets won't just dump him right away. They'll follow the same path as most other teams — ones who drafted Josh Rosen excepted — and continue to hope that each successive year is the one in which he breaks through, until they look up and realize they've wasted a lot of time. Wilson didn't look good last season. That doesn't mean he can't play. But it means there has to be a bust alert if he doesn't look better this season. That would set the franchise way back.
The Jets are intriguing. It's always hard to project a team to double its win total, and the Jets might not get that far, but they should be better. They do have a very tough schedule and that's a problem, but getting to at least six wins shouldn't be too much to ask. Zach Wilson has the ability to do a 180 from his rookie season. The talent around him is pretty good, especially if some of the 2022 rookies hit. We could look back on this season as the one in which the Jets finally started making strides forward.
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