The Jets always had hope that the third year of the Sam Darnold Era would be when they arrived, finally emerging as a real contender behind the franchise quarterback they had been dreaming about for 50 years. Yet here they are, entering Year 3 and they are … rebuilding again?
Well, they’re not completely rebuilding, though it feels a little like they are as new GM Joe Douglas reshapes the roster he inherited 15 months ago. They’re certainly not on the brink of contention with so many holes at key positions like receiver, edge rusher and cornerback.
What they have is a franchise quarterback who should take a big step forward this season, surrounded by a group of unheralded players including a few with breakout potential. Or, to put it another way as Douglas did earlier this week: “I know that there’s a lot of hungry guys that want to go out there and prove a lot of people wrong, frankly.”
Proving the doubters wrong shouldn’t be that hard, really, since expectations are incredibly low – lower than usual, in fact, for a franchise that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2010. Even after the Jets salvaged something out of a lost season last year, turning a 1-7 start into a 6-2 finish, they have very few people on the bandwagon believing whatever momentum they had then will carry over to now.
With the expanded postseason, though, it’s not a big leap from the Jets’ 7-9 record last year to a playoff berth this year. It may not be as easy as it seems, but here’s what has to happen for them to make that elusive playoff run:
Sam Darnold needs to become “The Franchise”
He is “The Franchise,” of course. Now he needs to play like it. And just not every once in a while, either. This is the year he’s supposed to do it every week.
Really, that was supposed to be last year, but his summer bout with mono took care of that, and then a disastrous offensive line ruined the rest. But everything the Jets hope to do this year and in the future centers around the idea that Darnold can be an elite quarterback and will take a huge step in that direction now.
If he doesn’t, they are in deep trouble. They could be searching for another coach next offseason. They’ll have to push off any talk of extending Darnold’s contract and at least entertain the idea that maybe they were wrong about him. There’s absolutely no indication they were wrong, of course, and they still strongly believe in him and his future. But the stakes are undoubtedly high.
And with an already depleted receiving corps and a Jamal Adams-less defense, it really is on Darnold’s shoulders to turn this season into anything positive at all.
The complete overhaul of the offensive line needs to actually work
Douglas promised that fixing the line would be his first and most important job, and he followed through. It’s a completely different line than the one that started last season, and it looks like a better one, too. Rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton looks like a keeper, and Douglas seemingly did well in free agency with the additions of guard Greg Van Roten, center Connor McGovern and even right tackle George Fant, their newly minted co-captain.
Of course, they haven’t actually played together in a game yet and an offensive line needs to build chemistry to work. They’ll need to build that quickly so Adam Gase’s offense doesn’t struggle at the start. Because if Darnold’s play is the key to the season, then keeping him upright and in the pocket is of primary importance.
If the line can give Darnold a chance to work, maybe Gase really can get his offense on track. It’s the only way the Jets have any hope of making any kind of run at the playoffs at all.
Adam Gase has to figure out how to really use Le’Veon Bell effectively
They certainly have become The Odd Couple. It appears from the outside that they’re a bad fit, and sometimes it seems like they don’t really like each other, even though they insist that they do. But they’re stuck with each other regardless and now it’s up to Gase to make it work.
Bell may not be what he used to be, but he’s still a good player. Forget last year. Gase is right that Bell got beat up and there wasn’t much the Jets could do about it. The offensive line in front of him was terrible and with their early season quarterback issues, everyone knew Bell had to get the ball. Things should be different this year. Darnold is healthy. The line is better. Now Gase just has to get creative.
That means not abusing Bell early, maybe sprinkling in a little Frank Gore or rookie La’Michal Perine from time to time. It means using Bell more in the passing game, especially with such a depleted receiving corps. It means maybe even using Bell and Gore on the field at the same time.
Bell can be a weapon. If Gase can use him effectively, the Jets offense can be effective, even if the receiving corps is what it currently is. If Gase can’t get Bell going, though, the offense will be one dimensional. And that will be a problem, no matter how good Darnold is.
Chris Herndon must have the breakout year everyone is expecting
Gase has been dreaming of how he could use his big, athletic tight end since the day he got the job, but injuries and a suspension ruined those plans last season. Now Herndon is healthy, and given the cast around him, he’s more important than ever.
Everyone saw a glimpse of how Gase would like to use his tight end last season with the way he used Ryan Griffin for a while. But the belief is that Herndon is much more of a passing-game threat. He was probably going to be a centerpiece of the passing game anyway, but with receiver Breshad Perriman nursing knee issues and rookie Denzel Mims missing the entire summer with a hamstring pull, there is no other choice now.
If Herndon can prove to be an 80-catch, 1,000-yard tight end – or anything close -- that will be a heck of a weapon for Darnold. And it’ll give Mims time to grow into the threat he’s supposed to be. With Herndon, slot receiver Jamison Crowder and Bell, that’s an impressive threesome. And if Herndon draws the attention of defenses, there’ll be a lot of room for the other two to work.
That could spark the Jets’ offense and keep the pressure off their defense. If Herndon is a bust, it will be just that much harder for the Jets to move the ball.
Gregg Williams has to work another miracle on defense
The talent level on the Jets’ defense last season was not impressive, yet somehow Williams coached them into the seventh-ranked defense in the entire league. And that was with Jamal Adams for a full season and Leonard Williams for a half season. Now both of them are gone. And it’s not like the talent level got much better during free agency or the draft.
So can Williams work his magic again? It’s not a stretch to say that everything about this season hinges on that answer being yes.
The Jets’ offense could be better, but that’s going to take time. Darnold is just getting his weapons back, and they weren’t plentiful to begin with. The line is going to take some time to gel. And Gase is going to need some time to make it all work. So, especially in the early going against a very tough schedule, Williams and the defense have to lead the way.
If they do, if this is somehow a Top 10 defense again, the Jets absolutely have a chance at a playoff berth. That’s a lot to hope for, of course, given that the pass rush looks weak the cornerbacks corps looks questionable and the linebacker corps looks very shaky with CJ Mosley having opted out. It’s hard to see how it will all work out. Then again, it’s hard to see how Williams made it work last season.
But he did. Now he just needs to do it again.