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These Jets are young – really, really young. Dangerously young. They have loaded up on young, promising players and they have no intention to shy away from them this season. That’s the right thing to do for a rebuilding franchise. It’s good for their future.
It’s just not very good for now.
And while no one in the Jets organization will concede the "now," they all know that everything they do this season is really about next season and beyond. They want to win. They know their fans are starved for winning, especially after last year’s miserable 2-14 mess of a season. A decade of mostly losing has worn on everyone, even those who have just gotten to Florham Park.
But if you’re looking for urgency or for a quick turnaround, for everything to magically come together in new head coach Robert Saleh’s first year … well, believing is nice, but that’s just not what the 2021 season is about.
"It’s really my job to stay out in front and see a big picture," Jets GM Joe Douglas said recently. "This staff is focused on 'win now'. We’re all focused on win now. But we’re all focused on doing what’s best for this organization this year and in the future. I know Coach, and what I’ve been preaching really since I’ve been here: We want to do this the right way. We want to build this foundation the right way so that it’s a long-term success and not just a flash in the pan."
What that has meant for the Jets is basically starting over. They brought in a new head coach, drafted a new franchise quarterback in Zach Wilson, and surrounded him with a ton of talent. But it’s young and inexperienced talent. The Jets will likely have five rookies in the starting lineup on opening day, and nine rookies could be key players this season.
Nearly a third of the team is either first- or second-year players, and almost all of them are going to play.
That’s good – again, for the future. But it could make a bumpy road for now.
"I can’t wait to see these young guys play," Douglas said, "I really can’t wait."
He said he expects them to play "with a lot of intent, with a lot of passion, with a lot of explosiveness, a lot of violence" and he is excited to "watch us develop as the year goes."
He didn’t mention wins, though, and there’s a reason for that. This young team might win a few more games than expected just based on energy and talent alone. But the wins the Jets are shooting for are the ones a lot further down this rocky road.
So how good can the 2021 Baby Jets be? Here’s a look …
I mean, what’s not new? They’ve overhauled everything, starting with new coaches and new systems and their second franchise quarterback in three years. And they drafted Wilson a new guard (Alijah Vera-Tucker), an explosive receiver (Elijah Moore) and a talented running back (Michael Carter). They also made sure he had some veteran weapons around him, signing receivers Corey Davis and Keelan Cole.
Meanwhile, on defense, get used to the names of linebackers Hamsah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood and cornerbacks Isaiah Dunn, Brandin Echols, and Jason Pinnock. They’ll all be starters or fixtures in a rotation. And those guys will get a huge boost from the return of a healthy and slimmed down C.J. Mosley at middle linebacker, and the disruptive Lamarcus Joyner at safety.
They would’ve gotten a bigger boost from Carl Lawson, the pass-rusher who spent the summer wreaking havoc until he tore his Achilles. Without him, the pass rush may need help from Shaq Lawson, who was acquired just a week ago.
Aside from the usual angst fans experience when the Jets embark on yet another rebuilding project? Don’t call these the “Same Old Jets,” because there’s not much that’s “same” or “old” about them.
They are still wearing green (mostly) and most of their offensive line is intact, including LT Mekhi Becton, C Connor McGovern, and RG Greg Van Roten. On defense, Quinnen Williams is the alpha dog with Lawson out, and Bryce Hall -- in his second season -- is the old man of the cornerback corps.
And then there’s Marcus Maye, the safety who didn’t get his big contract, didn’t seem too thrilled about being slapped with the franchise tag, and wasn’t even named a captain after holding that title last year. He joins Mosley as a likely leader of this defense and really is the biggest link to the franchise’s recent, ugly past. The Jets hope his contract situation will motivate him to have a very big year.
There are so many unknowns with this young group that it’s hard to find one strength with any certainty. It would’ve been the defensive line until Lawson got hurt. And given how much they’re going to rely on the running game this season, the Jets might argue it’s their deep, versatile running back group.
But really, it’s their receivers. Granted, it’s up to Wilson to find a way to make this a strength, but he certainly has a lot of targets to help him out. Davis, a big-ticket free agent who got a three-year, $37.5 million deal, looks like the best receiver the Jets have had since Brandon Marshall. The Jets think Keelan Cole will be an under-the-radar surprise. Jamison Crowder is still a dangerous slot receiver, and he might not even be the Jets’ best slot receiver. That title might go to Moore.
And all that is without mentioning Denzel Mims, a second-round pick from a year ago who had a shaky summer, but is still very much in the Jets’ plans. They are five deep with good ones, and even behind them there are some sneaky good receivers like Braxton Berrios, too.
Don’t tell them they’re a weakness because they won’t agree, but the Jets’ six cornerbacks include four rookies and two second-year players. Hall is the oldest at 24, but the most experienced is Javelin Guidry, who has played all of 11 NFL games.
In other words, opposing quarterbacks are going to have a lot of options to choose when they’re deciding whom to pick on.
That’s not to say they won’t all be good (or at least some of them). It’s just a huge risk to have a secondary that young, especially now that the loss of Lawson depletes their pass rush. This is such a passing league now, they’re basically handing teams a weakness to exploit. But they knew that when they chose not to bring in a veteran corner this offseason. For the sake of the long-term development, it was a risk they were willing to take.
What can put them over the top?
There’s a lot riding on all the young Jets this season, but no one will be under more pressure than Wilson. The Jets are bracing for growing pains, because most young quarterbacks have them. But if he doesn’t? Well, things could get interesting very quickly because the Jets really are loaded with weapons.
And Wilson doesn’t even have to live up to the ridiculous comparisons with Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. Think more of Justin Herbert’s rookie season with the Los Angeles Chargers last year as the bar. If he’s that good, the Jets’ offense is going to score.
And if the Jets can score and take pressure off their young defense, they’re going to win a few more games than anyone expected. And yes, if Wilson is everything everyone hopes right out of the gate, a spot in the expanded playoff field could be in reach late in the year.
What would bury them early?
The Jets know what their flaws are and know where they’re taking risks with youth. But they are absolutely convinced they will be able to run the ball and protect Wilson behind a powerful offensive line.
The only problem with that is it hasn’t looked so powerful this summer. It struggled in practices against their own defense, in practices against the Green Bay Packers, and in sporadic action in preseason games.
Injuries have been part of the summer problem and it appears they’ll head into the season healthy. They are sure they’ve got a young, dominant left side with Becton and Vera-Tucker, and Morgan Moses – assuming he wins the job – is an upgrade at right tackle.
Of course, they thought they had upgraded the line last year and it turned out to be an injury-plagued mess. If the line is a problem again, it’s going to hurt Wilson’s development, cause the running game to struggle, and kill any real hope of surprise wins.
What’s at stake?
This year? Not much. It’s a honeymoon period for Saleh and Wilson and, to an extent, Douglas. The expectations are low and everyone inside and outside the organization seems to understand that they’ll experience short-term pain now for the sake of long-term gain.
What’s most important is growth and finding out which young players can really be a part of their future. What they want is to have their arrow pointing up towards the end of the season so they can go into 2022 feeling like they’re ready to compete for a playoff spot.
Yes, there will be short-term pain and lots of losing. This is not a playoff team and they’re probably a year or two away from being one. They have gutted the roster over the past two seasons and loaded up on young, inexperienced players, knowing that mistakes will be made and winnable games will be lost.
Here’s the thing, though: They are so young and seemingly immune to the "Same old Jets" thing, and so energetic, that if they’re well-coached and if they’re even half as talented as the coaching staff thinks they will be, they’re going to be a pretty competitive team. Yes, rookie mistakes are going to lead to some difficult, painful losses.
But they’re also likely to surprise everyone with an unexpected win or two. Just how many will depend on the quarterback and how quickly he gets past his growing pains. He might surprise everyone with how quickly he does.
Final record: 6-11, fourth place in the AFC East, no playoffs