2016 NFL Preview: Jets' quarterback issue clouds everything else

Shutdown Corner

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order of our initial 2016 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 6, the day before the Hall of Fame Game kicks off the preseason.

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We started this series on July 6, counting down all the teams in reverse power rankings order. The rankings had to be finalized a little before that, for production reasons.

When these rankings were set, I had no idea what to do with the New York Jets. Almost a month later, I still don’t.

I assumed we’d know by now who the Jets’ quarterback will be this season. The Ryan Fitzpatrick standoff is one of the stranger ones I can remember. Ryan Fitzpatrick has no leverage. Even if another team suffers an injury before Fitzpatrick signs, it likely won’t be able or willing to put together the kind of contract Fitzpatrick wants. He wants to get paid, coming off a good 2015. But here’s a player who is sitting out, waiting for something to change when there is no impetus for anything to change. Why would the Jets significantly change their offer after months of playing the waiting game? If Fitzpatrick signs sometime during training camp, it’s probably going to be for roughly the same deal he could have gotten months ago.

Fitzpatrick isn’t an Aaron Rodgers-type quarterback who can change a franchise’s fortunes on his own, but the difference with him and without him is stark. The Jets don’t have any reliable option beyond Fitzpatrick. This ranking will change dramatically if Fitzpatrick doesn’t sign.

Last season the Jets got in a nice groove. Offensive coordinator Chan Gailey had a great year. Fitzpatrick had his best season at age 33, throwing to a stellar receiving duo in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Todd Bowles was a fine hire as head coach. The defense was very good. When the Jets beat the New England Patriots in Week 16 last week, they had an inside track to the playoffs. The scene at the end of that overtime win was a full-scale celebration.

Jets fans, who are used to suffering, know what happened next.

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

The Buffalo Bills and their coach Rex Ryan (where have Jets fans heard that name before?) pulled off a 22-17 upset and kept the Jets out of the playoffs. It was a heartbreaking finish, to reach 10 wins and miss the postseason because you lost in Week 17 to the coach you fired a year before. The positive momentum from last season was halted with the realization that their starting quarterback might pick retirement over playing for the team’s contract offer.

I assume Fitzpatrick will sign at some point. It’s hard to believe he’d hold out for more money and then turn down a reported $12 million for 2016, even if he’s angling for a reported $16 million a year. It’s a lot of cash to turn down. But I doubt there’s a resolution that makes everyone happy, and we’ve seen players struggle after long holdouts. Fitzpatrick might sign and not come anywhere near his 2015 form. He’s a career journeyman with an 80.8 career passer rating and he’ll turn 34 this season, after all.

This has to be frustrating for the Jets and their fans because so many pieces are in place. The defense is excellent up front and has star power in the secondary too. The Jets put together a good running game last year, and should again with Matt Forte replacing Chris Ivory. The receivers are back and not yet at an age in which they should have a steep decline.

Everything is in place for the Jets to be wild-card contenders again, except they don’t know who the quarterback will be. That’s a problem.

Ryan FItzpatrick and Eric Decker celebrate after an overtime win over the Patriots last season (AP)
Ryan FItzpatrick and Eric Decker celebrate after an overtime win over the Patriots last season (AP)

The Jets replaced three key players with similar veterans. At running back, Chris Ivory departed and Matt Forte was signed. At left tackle, D’Brickashaw Ferguson retired and the team traded Denver for oft-injured Ryan Clady. Nose tackle Damon Harrison got a big payday with the New York Giants, and the team signed former Steelers tackle Steve McLendon to replace him. All three moves are probably downgrades (though Forte could end up being better than Ivory), but the Jets don’t lose too much. That’s the bulk of the Jets’ offseason there. But since we don’t know if we can put their 3,905-yard quarterback in the “players lost” side … Grade: Incomplete (C- if Ryan Fitzpatrick comes back)

Coaching matters more in football than any other major sport, and the Jets got a good head coach. Todd Bowles was a fantastic defensive coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals, and he did a great job with the Jets last season. New York was good against the run and the pass last season, and with Muhammad Wilkerson back with a long-term deal, the defense should be very good again with Bowles’ fingerprints all over it.

I worry about older teams because there’s a reason NFL careers don’t last long. The Jets’ best offensive players (assuming Fitzpatrick returns) will all be 29 or older to start this season: Ryan Fitzpatrick (33), Matt Forte (30), Brandon Marshall (32), Eric Decker (29), Ryan Clady (29), Nick Mangold (32). That doesn’t mean the Jets’ offense will fall apart this season, but it’s something worth keeping an eye on.

Let’s look beyond Fitzpatrick, because even if he returns it might be for just one more year. The Jets still have former second-round pick Geno Smith around, though he hasn’t shown he can be an average NFL starter. The Jets gave up very quickly on 2015 fourth-round pick Bryce Petty (another example that mid-round quarterback picks are usually a waste) when they picked Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg in the second round this year. I didn’t like that pick. Inaccurate quarterbacks usually don’t become accurate in the NFL. Hackenberg’s draft value was mostly tied up in distant memories of how he looked as a freshman, and ignored the two years that followed. It’d be a surprise if he becomes a good NFL starter.

The Jets have spent valuable picks on Smith, Petty and Hackenberg in three of the past four drafts. And they still spent most of the offseason hoping a 33-year-old career journeyman returned to play quarterback for them.

Darrelle Revis was a massive free agent signing last year. He’s a Hall-of-Fame talent and the Jets snagged him from their division rival, New England. Revis wasn’t great in 2015. He wasn’t terrible but it wasn’t what we expect out of him, and wasn’t befitting of a cornerback who was given $39 million guaranteed. The Jets moved on from Antonio Cromartie at the other cornerback spot and there’s no obvious replacement (Buster Skrine could start there but then the Jets need someone to replace Skrine in the nickel defense). That puts more pressure on Revis to rebound in 2016. At age 31, that’s no sure thing.

Cosell: “Todd likes to play man-to-man coverage, and now with [Darrelle] Revis and we don’t know who that other corner will be — Buster Skrine played in the slot last year, and I personally don’t think you can line him up outside — they don’t have a whole lot more. … Their corner play is a bit of a question and it’s important to the way Todd Bowles builds his defense.”

[Click here for Greg Cosell’s podcast previewing the Jets and the rest of the AFC East.]

From Yahoo’s Scott Pianowski: “Matt Forte has been remarkably consistent and durable during his eight-year NFL career – a top-20 running back every year, including three top-eight finishes to wrap his time in Chicago. But fantasy owners might be unsure what Forte to pay for this August, given he’s with a new team, entering his age-30 season, and not making that much more than understudy Bilal Powell.

“Forte is still one of the best pass-catching backs around, that’s a major plus, especially in those PPR formats. He’s struggled mightily as a goal-line back, that’s a minus [Powell might not be a fit there either; keep an eye on Khiry Robinson]. I’m willing to sign off on Forte as a fourth-round fantasy pick if you’re fairly young with your earlier selections, but I’m leery on adding him to a veteran-heavy foundation. Powell [4.5 yards per carry, 47 catches last year] looms as an interesting lottery ticket, someone who might play enough to carry deep-flex value even alongside Forte, and a likely needle-mover if Forte finally has a breakdown season.”

[Yahoo Fantasy Football is open for the 2016 season. Sign up now]

In Pro Football Focus’ 2015 grades, Muhammad Wilkerson finished 11th among all interior defensive linemen. He’s considered one of the best linemen in football and just signed a five-year, $86 million deal. As a rookie, Leonard Williams barely finished behind Wilkerson in PFF’s grades, placing 12th. That says plenty about Williams’ ability. Add Sheldon Richardson to the equation, and the Jets have a special defensive line. Richardson’s future with the Jets is murky now, because New York can’t pay everyone and Richardson’s off-field issues are problematic (Richardson is suspended for the first game of this season), but as long as those three are on the roster, offensive lines will have a tough time dealing with the Jets’ front.

WHAT DOES MATT FORTE HAVE LEFT?

Forte had a great eight-year run with the Chicago Bears. He had at least 898 rushing yards every season and was a wonderful receiver out of the backfield, one of the best receiving backs in league history. But we all know running backs have an expiration date.

Forte turns 31 on Dec. 10. It’s not unprecedented for backs to remain effective into their 30s, but it’s rare. There are only 23 1,000-yard rushing seasons by backs who were 31 or older in NFL history, and only one this decade (Frank Gore in 2014). Chris Ivory was a big part of the Jets’ offense last year, gaining 1,070 yards with seven touchdowns. Forte has been a better back than Ivory, but the Jets aren’t getting vintage Forte. Forte was still effective in his 13 games last year, averaging 4.1 yards per carry and 8.8 yards per catch. Forte probably has another effective season left, but the Jets will probably have to watch his workload. Bilal Powell has shown to be a capable No. 2 running back.

Like every other non-Patriots AFC East team, the Jets’ ceiling is probably second place. That was almost enough to get into the playoffs last season. And the Jets would probably happily sign up for a wild-card spot right now, especially after getting painfully close last season. And they’re the type of physical, sound team that could do some damage in the playoffs.

Is “Geno Smith starting at quarterback” enough here? This Ryan Fitzpatrick issue has lingered so long that even if Fitzpatrick signs it might all turn sour. Not that a veteran like Fitzpatrick needs every OTA or training camp rep, but it doesn’t hurt. And it will be hard to flip a switch after the contract is signed and forget all those months of acrimony. The whole situation gives me a bad vibe. And if Fitzpatrick walks away, you’ll see the Jets a lot lower in my next power rankings before the regular season.

Fitzpatrick signs and plays OK. The defense is very good, Bowles might become one of the best coaches in the NFL and there are some good pieces on offense no matter who the quarterback is. I’m not picking the Jets for the playoffs though. The competition in the AFC is intense. I see more of the same for New York: A good team in 2016 that ultimately falls short of the playoffs.

32. Cleveland Browns
31. San Francisco 49ers
30. Tennessee Titans
29. San Diego Chargers
28. New Orleans Saints
27. Philadelphia Eagles
26. Atlanta Falcons
25. Miami Dolphins
24. Los Angeles Rams
23. Chicago Bears
22. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
21. Detroit Lions
20. Indianapolis Colts
19. Jacksonville Jaguars
18. Washington Redskins
17. Buffalo Bills
16. Baltimore Ravens
15. Oakland Raiders

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdown.corner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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