In OTAs (Offseason Talk & Analysis) all through June and July, the Sports on Earth NFL team will break down each team's offseason transactions, boldest moves and burning questions as they prepare for training camp. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
The Jets got Jetsier in the offseason. That may not be a bad thing.
The Jets could have played it safe in free agency and the draft. They could have signed Rashad Jennings instead of Chris Johnson, Josh McCown instead of Michael Vick, a cornerback in the first round and safety in the third round instead of vice-versa. The moves would have represented modest upgrades that caused no ripples in those bubbling beakers of team chemistry.
Instead, the Jets took risks, or at least made superficially risky moves. Has-been superstars! Controversial quarterbacks to spark quarterback controversies! A second-year prospect and a gaping void at the positions once manned by Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie! The return of the crazy, Rexy Jets would meet with a cool reception; this is a roster and clubhouse that still needs some tender loving care.
But as long as the team remains in New York, there will always be craziness in Jetsville. At least the newcomers have experience with media circuses; Vick brings his own tent spikes. And the teasingly-talented veterans are flanked by a hefty draft's worth of promising prospects, plus the trench toughness the Jets have been squandering for three years. The Jets have an intriguing roster and most of the building blocks or a genuine NFL offense. The test tubes may burst yet again, but careful Vick watchers now know he is more of a boiling chip than a catalyst, and the Jets added more by subtraction in the offseason than any team north of Florida.
Biggest Move: Acquiring hope
Hope does not mean a desperate wish that Vick will rediscover 2004 or 2010 form, or Johnson will time travel back to 2009 and relearn how to accelerate through holes and break arm tackles. It does not necessarily mean 87 catches for Eric Decker, or Dee Milliner suddenly becoming an island. It does not mean 12 wins, a sweep of the Patriots, and a coronation of Rex Ryan as America's next great maverick genius.
Hope in Jetsville is more subtle than that.
Thanksgiving Night of 2012 was a watershed moment in Jets history, if not human history. The 52 football seconds that encompassed the Butt Fumble and two other mind-altering bumbles revealed that the Jets as an organization had transcended dysfunction and self-parody. They were no longer lovable losers. They were more like a Real Housewives series than a sports team. They had reached rock bottom but could do nothing about it until the season ended.
General Manager John Idzik arrived from Seattle last year and was beset by crises before he even dropped off his luggage. He displayed a deft touch with some problems, like the Revis trade and a swift tidying of the quarterback depth chart, but the Jets had issues that couldn't be solved in a few months. They trudged into the season with Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes still on the roster, a pair of expensive reminders of the previous year's despair. Attempts to repair the skill positions were spackle jobs. The rookie quarterback was a good second-round value but a poor fit in a place with no weapons, no healthy veteran backup and oppressive media presence. The 2013 Jets were much better than the 2012 Jets, but after all that happened at the end of 2011 and though 2012, they were not a team to put faith in.
The current roster has no Sanchez, no Holmes, no Cromartie, and few reminders of the era when the Jets went out of their way to make us laugh at their expense. In their place are some allegedly high-risk players, but the Jets are not risking all that much. If the Jets expected 2,000 yards from Johnson and video game heroics from Vick, then the team simply traded slapstick for satire. But that's not what is going on.
Hope means that Vick can be both a failsafe and a mentor for Geno Smith, a young quarterback who could learn much from the dean of the College of Self-Inflicted Life Lessons. Hope means Johnson joins Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell in a running back committee and provides some big-play capability on both rushes and screen passes. Hope means Decker gives Smith a reliable source of seven-yard completions and three rookie wide receivers provide competition on a depth chart that has been tissue-thin since 2011. Hope means the defensive front seven, which may be better now than it was in the playoff years, can carry the team to some wins if Geno and the passing game don't squirm so much.
Hope means Jets games will be fun to watch for more than just the sideshow. The Jets don't resemble an AFC powerhouse just yet. But they once again resemble an NFL team.
Biggest Gamble: Milliner's #1. Who's Number 2?
There are names whose presence at the top of a depth chart provoke a feeling of hysterical nausea. Guard Chris Williams (now in Buffalo). Receiver Jerricho Cotchery (Panthers), since 2011 or so. Vince Young, who we don't have to kick around anymore. Add cornerback Dimitri Patterson to that list.
Patterson was a pretty terrible cornerback when he started for the 2010 Eagles. He has since bounced around from Miami to Cleveland as a nickel back and spot starter -- the Browns signed him to a silly post-lockout OMG Grab Warm Bodies contract in 2011, and the Dolphins absorbed the deal because Jeff Ireland -- battling knee and groin injuries and failing to somehow get younger. Now 31, Patterson is the favorite to start at cornerback opposite Milliner, and Rex Ryan seems strangely content about it.
Perhaps rookie Dexter McDougle's return from shoulder surgery is the reason Rex is so calm. McDougle appeared to be a reach in the third round, but that's only because the injury limited him in 2013. Russ Lande spooled some McDougle film and talked to some scouts, filing this report in May: "Perhaps most impressive athletically is McDougle's ability to adjust to a fake by a receiver, maintain proper positioning and stay with him stride for stride … There are many cornerbacks who possess the athleticism to cover NFL receivers, but few of those also show a willingness to support the run and play physically with the receiver using their strength and technique."
So McDougle is in position to overtake Patterson. There's also sixth-round pick Brandon Dixon, Darrin Walls, free agent acquisition Johnny Patrick and former first-round pick Kyle Wilson, who now appears to work in the team mailroom but could slide back to cornerback. That sounds like a bumper crop of nickel and dime cornerbacks with no starter, especially if McDougle struggles as much in his rookie year as Milliner did.
For now, parking Patterson at the top of the depth chart makes sense. The Jets are just hoping someone rises to overtake him.
Biggest Question: What will this offense look like?
After two years of asking "will there even be an offense?" this is a refreshing question. The Jets now have players who can do things with the ball in their hands, making us wonder just who will get the ball, how often, and in what way.
What will Johnson's workload really be? The team says it plans to be "strategic" with CJ2K, who himself sounds like he is on board with a committee system. Marty Mornhinweg has used all sorts of running back configurations in the past, from last year's Ivory-Powell rotation to various "protect Brian Westbrook" tactics in Philly to featuring a fullback (Leonard Weaver in 2009), so anything is possible.
How much read-option will there be? The Jets used read-option-like plays 87 times last year, averaging 4.8 yards per rush (passing plays that start out with read-option trappings are not counted). Mornhinweg tinkered with the package before arriving in New York, the Jets fiddled with it before Mornhinweg was hired, both Geno and Vick have learned variations on the scheme, and even CJ2K has experience and success in the package. So this is a tactic the Jets may continue to embrace. At the same time, they no longer have to use it as a crutch for their lack of skill position talent.
What roles will Jalen Saunders and Shaquille Evans play? Saunders has everything you can ask for in a wide receiver, minus five inches and 25 pounds. He's a threat to Jeremy Kerley's slot role, now that Kerley can be considered a slot receiver instead of the only guy on the corps who knows what he is doing and still wants to do it. Evans is more of a possession receiver and tough blocker. Players like Evans often take a year or two to ramp up to the NFL, but when all you have to do is outperform Stephen Hill, a rapid ascent is possible. And what about Quincy Enunwa and Jace Amaro? Are you genuinely curious about the Jets' sixth receiver and backup tight end? Does that leave you feeling disoriented?
Will Geno leave the field after two straight completions so Vick can run a Wildcat play or Powell can execute some direct-snap insanity, as often happened last year? If so, what's the telephone number for ticket refunds?
The Jets' best bet for 2014 will be an option-flavored offense with lots of short opportunities for Decker and wideout-screen stuff for Kerley and Saunders. Two-back and two-tight end packages should be a big part of the equation: Ivory and CJ2K in the same backfield can cause a defensive conundrum on options or screens. Such a system will make Geno comfortable, and he should get a long leash, but not an endless one. An offense full of option running and short passing will make Ryan happy by limiting turnovers, and if the Jets can start scoring over 20 points consistently, they can start talking about a wild card appearance.
The Jets will rush for 2,000 yards, even though Johnson provides less than half of them.