Our 2018 Regular Season Preview rounds out the AFC East with the New York Jets, who are continuing their arduous rebuilding project as they look to put back-to-back 5-11 Campaigns behind them. Very little went according to plan for the Jets in 2017, for despite getting off to a surprising 3-2 start, Todd Bowles’ charges ended up dropping Nine out of their final Eleven Outings. As a result, Bowles position as Head Coach is under fire, leading them to finally make the bold move of selecting a (potential) Franchise Quarterback, which was a move that many in the Big Apple had been calling for for years. So with that said, Gang Green selected Sam Darnold after trading up in the First Round of the NFL Draft, with the hopes that former USC Star can eventually shepherd in a new era of success for a team that hasn’t made the Playoffs since 2010. With that said, the Jets are experiencing a proverbial Youth Movement in a multitude of other areas, particularly on Defense, where they have been patiently building through the Draft, while adding some intriguing talents via Free Agency. However, while there appears to be a very concrete plan in place, it remains to be seen whether or not Bowles will be around to see it through, for he will be entering his fourth season in New York and has yet to garner much success. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at three key storylines that will ultimately decide whether or not this project will take the requisite steps forward in 2018.
Some may argue that they did so a year too late (Deshaun Watson, anyone?), but the Jets finally buckled down and made a move for a young Quarterback in the NFL Draft, trading up to select Sam Darnold with the No. 3 Overall Pick last May. In the former Trojan, this long QB-Starved Franchise hopes that they have finally found their conclusion to a long line of Journeymen that they’ve employed at the game’s most important position. Upon watching this kid’s tape at Southern California, there is plenty to like, given his athleticism, ability to make plays on the move, and cool, level-headed demeanor, which should serve him well in New York. However, there were also plenty of wrinkles that definitely need to be ironed out, particularly his mechanics and decision-making, which was at times baffling in his final season at USC. With that said, the plan is for him to basically Red Shirt this Season, with Josh McCown (67.3%, 2,926 YDS, 18 TD, 9 INT, 56.3 QBR in 2017) returning to keep the ship afloat, while his young understudy learns the nuances of the Offense. Keep in mind, that the Jets performed better than expected (especially early in the term) with McCown under Center, or at least before the Fifteen-Year Vet suffered a broken Left Hand. Management also acquired Teddy Bridgewater in the Offseason, after the former Vikings’ Quarterback was allowed to leave in Free Agency after missing the entirety of 2017 due to tearing multiple ligaments in his Knee during Training Camp. Both McCown and Bridgewater have been lauded for their professionalism and positive attitude in the Lockerroom, so both should be tremendous influences on the young Darnold, who for all intents and purposes will be shelved until 2019. However, don’t be surprised if he does end up taking the field later in the season, as the pressure to keep his job may force Bowles to unveil the Franchise’s potential savior earlier than he would prefer. Ironically, the last time that this team drafted a Quarterback highly in the First Round, it was another Quarterback out of USC, Mark Sanchez, who led the Jets to back-to-back AFC Championship Games in 2009 and 2010 before ultimately fading away into obscurity and notoriously fumbling into the backsides of rather large Linemen.
Building a Monster
While they were criticized for doing so, a big reason that New York passed on selecting a Quarterback in last year’s NFL Draft was due to their need to rebuild their aging Defense. Bowles’ pedigree has long been steeped in the defensive side of the football, and given his background in Player Personnel and Scouting, it made plenty of sense that he would take the opportunity to rebuild this unit in his image. The Secondary in particular needed plenty of attention after consecutive abysmal campaigns, but looks to be vastly improved heading into 2018. The Jets landed arguably the top Cornerback in Free Agency in the form of Trumaine Johnson (65 TKL, 2 INT, 13 PD, 1 TD, 1 FF, 1 FR in 2017), whose size and length should pair well with the similar features of fellow Cornerback Morris Claiborne (43 TKL, 1 INT, 8 PD in 2017), while moving Buster Skrine (63 TKL, 1INT, 9 PD, 2 FF, 2 FR in 2017) down the pecking order to Nickle Packages, creating some solid depth and options for a Position Group that was rarely afforded such a luxury over the past few years. Expect more freedom for Safeties Jamal Adams (82 TKL, 2.0 SK, 6 PD, 1 FF, 2 FR in 2017) and Marcus Maye (78 TKL, 2 INT, 2 PD, 1 FF in 2017), who impressed as Rookies in 2017, particularly Adams, who looks like a future All-Pro. This improvement in Coverage should have a huge effect on the rest of the Defense, allowing Bowles, who is basically the unit’s Co-Coordinator, to Blitz far more frequently than they have in the past. This is needed because the Jets still don’t have a threatening Edge-Rusher, no matter how much they like to hype up Lorenzo Mauldin (wo missed all of 2017 with a Back Injury). Veteran Defensive Lineman Muhammad Wilkerson (46 TKL, 3.5 SK, 1 INT, 4 PD in 2017) left in Free Agency, leaving the void to be filled by 2015 First Round Pick Leonard Williams (47 TKL, 2.0 SK, 1 INT, 1 PD in 2017), who despite possessing a wealth of talent, needs to start displaying it on a more regular basis. If this unit can continue to develop, than the Jets will find themselves in plenty of games, but you can still expect them to experience some growing pains on this side of the football, particularly given their need to continue manufacturing pressure.
Bowles on the Clock
When he was hired Four Years ago, Todd Bowles signified a departure from the bombastic, boisterous personality of his predecessor Rex Ryan, ending years of empty annual boasts of guaranteed Super Bowl Glory. However, if the soft-spoken, easy-going Bowles can’t get this ship turned around in 2018, then it’s highly likely that he’ll meet the same fate as the man that he replaced. New York overachieved in his first season in the Big Apple, going 10-6 with a largely veteran team that failed to make the Playoffs despite their strong record. They followed that up with consecutive 5-11 showings, which has prompted this long-delayed Rebuilding Project, that in all honesty should have taken place Two Years ago. So the question remains just how much time does Bowles really have left with Gang Green, you ask? Well, everything that he’s done in this Offseason lends towards the longtime Defensive Assistant being keenly aware of that metaphorical clock ticking away. For the third year in a row, he hired a new Offensive Coordinator to improve upon a bland Offense, settling on Jeremy Bates, who had spent the previous Two Years coaching up the team’s Quarterbacks after Four Years out of the league altogether. Ironically, the man he replaced, John Morton, was released due to his reluctance to run the football, so elevating the Quarterbacks Coach is a curious play to say the least. And then there is the selection of Darnold, which could very well grant Bowles a longer leash, or rather a stay of execution. In most cases, when a team drafts a Quarterback as highly as they did here (Trading up to Third Overall), the Head Coach is given a realistic amount of time to see the kid’s development through. Granted, a “realistic” amount of time is going to vary from Owner to Owner across the league, with Jets’ Patriarch Woody Johnson not always proving to be the most patient of individuals. Simply put, Bowles needs a win, and he needs it now, so the plan to shelve Darnold for this season, while hoping that the 38-Year Old McCown can remain healthy and keep the Offense afloat appears to be a case of a Head Coach trying to succeed in the present while preserving the future. That’s a tight-rope act that is definitely easier said than done, so we’ll have to wait and see if this guy does indeed have the tools to pull it off.
2018 Outlook: 6-10
We’ve said it time and time again, but this Rebuilding Project that the Jets are embarking on should have taken place immediately after the 2015 Season. They went 10-6, and given the ageing talent on hand, it should have been regarded as mere Fool’s Gold. In 2016, they went back to the proverbial well and suffered for it, plain and simple. They also should have drafted a Quarterback early in last year’s Draft (again, DeShaun Watson, anyone???), but chose to begin rebuilding the Defense first. As a result, they’re likely still at least a year (possibly two) away from taking that next step in their overall development, which doesn’t bode well for Todd Bowles, who for all intents and purposes will be coaching for his job in 2018. Fortunately, the rest of the AFC East (sans the New England Patriots) is anything but intimidating, and the beginning of their schedule isn’t overly difficult either, so earning some early victories and building up a head of steam is a distinct possibility. However, the second half of the schedule is downright brutal so they had better get as many early wins as they can. That, coupled with McCown’s age (38) and recent injury history, and the potential for Darnold being thrust into action prematurely makes us think that the Jets won’t be much better this season, which is a shame, because well, really like Todd Bowles.