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2021 Jets: Three Training Camp Questions

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Now that training camp is underway in the National Football League, roster battles, as well as intra-team rumors, are bound to be aplenty. Unsurprisingly, the New York Jets will be amongst the clubs to most frequently make the headlines. With the calendar turning to August, there is a little more than a month remaining for the 32 teams to narrow their rosters down to 53 men. For the Jets, this is set to be quite the task.

Last year, New York suffered one of the most disappointing campaigns in franchise history. The Jets started the 2020 NFL season with thirteen losses on the spin. Eventually, the team finished with a 2-14 record, better only compared to the 1996 New York Jets. This set 1 Jets Drive on fire, showing that the club was more than one or two pieces away from competing. Their unpleasant position in the AFC East, which seems to gather more strong teams by the year, has not helped them either.

The Jets’ offseason work started earlier for the usual NFL standards but not for NY itself. In January, the team hired its 20th head coach, former 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh. Moreover, the offensive coordinator job saw Dowell Loggains get replaced by Mike LeFleur, who had worked and came to the team with Saleh.

The transaction season that followed was not perfect by any means. However, general manager Joe Douglas addressed most of the team’s shortcomings both on the free-agent market and in the 2021 NFL Draft. Players like Corey Davis, Morgan Moses, and Alijah Vera-Tucker were a seemingly adequate response to the Jets’ weakest posts across the 2020 campaign. Furthermore, first-round pick Zach Wilson took the “franchise quarterback hopeful” title away from Sam Darnold in a polarizing move.

After a busy offseason, the most difficult part seems to have passed. Yet, the Jets will have to make numerous tough choices as regards who will stay employed come September 12th, when NY opens the season against Carolina. Even more importantly, there is still more than one starting job-seeking outcome. Here are the roster-related questions the New York Jets will have to find the answers to during training camp.

FLORHAM PARK, NJ – JULY 28: Michael Carter #32 of the New York Jets during morning practice at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center on July 28, 2021 in Florham Park, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

The Outlook of the Running Faction

It might have remained in the air raid’s shadow when it comes to mediocrity. Despite that, the Jets’ running game experienced an absolute nightmare in 2020.

New York’s ground-game unit entered its latest campaign with high hopes. Yet worse – those translated into high expectations. The pressure on Le’Veon Bell to bounce back from a weak debut year in East Rutherford was enormous. As a result, many considered the Jets’ stable reliable, not only for the offense but also in comparison to most others around the league. Needless to say, they could not have been more wrong.

During the 2020 NFL season, New York produced an average of 4.1 yards per attempt on the ground. That was the sixth-worst mark in the entire National Football League. However, to put all the blame on Bell would be misleading. The former Pittsburgh Steeler was in charge of the group for just two games before his injury and subsequent release from the team. Over 19 carries across NY’s losses to Buffalo and San Francisco, Le’Veon only turned in 3.9 yards per rush.

The Michigan State alum continued the downfall that has spanned the second half of his career thus far in 2020. That was further confirmed by his unsatisfying display for the Chiefs later that season, in addition to the low demand that the market expressed towards the 29-year-old.

However, the depths of the hierarchy at the position did not offer anything more promising. Veteran Frank Gore and 2020 draft pick La’Mical Perine combined for over half of the unit’s workload. And they put on a depressingly unproductive performance, each averaging around 3.5 yards per run. Unfortunately, this year’s ground-game faction is not composed of much bigger running-game maestros.

With about forty days to go until Kickoff Weekend, the word ‘known’ describes neither the leader of the group nor the distribution of the workload. The rushing stable will include the returning La’Mical Perine and Ty Johnson. The latter was amongst the rare bright spots in the unit’s resume last winter.

The 2019 undrafted free agent posted a per-carry figure of 4.7 yards across the last few games of the campaign, even starting one in the backfield. However, this value was accomplished in too small of a sample – just 54 carries. Therefore, he is not much more reliable than Perine heading into 2021 – a characteristic that sounds close to offensive as of now. However, it is realistic until he has been assigned a larger role.

FLORHAM PARK, NJ – JULY 29: Head coach Robert Saleh of the New York Jets talks with Tevin Coleman #23 during a morning practice at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center on July 29, 2021 in Florham Park, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Yet, the Jets’ two incoming assets in this field are likely to be more widely utilized. The current top candidate for the leading spot in the faction could very well be former Falcons and ‘Niners running back Tevin Coleman. Unlike his three colleagues, Coleman has a history of headlining or at least being a significant part of, NFL running units. The seventh-year player has recorded more than 150 carries twice and more than 100 carries five times. Out of these five campaigns, he has posted more than 4.5 yards per run just once – 4.8 in 2018.

However, he failed to turn this number into a trend. Coleman followed that up with a 4.0 figure in his first season in California and barely saw the field the following year. It is apparent that his productivity, on average, is of a runner with a turnout south of 4.5 Y/C even in split duties. Therefore, he is unqualified to lead any stable, let alone one with as little talent as the Jets’.

The depth chart at RB is rounded off by fourth-round selection Michael Carter II. The North Carolina alum had a very solid collegiate stint, seeing around or more than 100 rushing attempts in each of his four seasons. In 2019, he put on a steady 5.7 yards per run on 177 carries. The next season, he improved that to 8.0 Y/C on 156 runs.

However, he split the backfield with Javonte Williams in both years. This meant a sample that would be one of a by-committee running back even in the NFL. Yet, the solid production over a credible workload provides high promises for his future. The transition to the professional game is bound to initially curb his productivity though.

Out of the four, Tevin Coleman perhaps enters training camp as the favorite to be atop the depth chart. However, he might not get a number of carries that drastically dominates that of his fellow backs. The rest of the unit is fully open to competition. Nonetheless, no combination seems to bring positive projections for its outlook come September.

BALTIMORE, MD – NOVEMBER 22: Tennessee Titans wide receiver Corey Davis (84) catches a long pass during game between the Tennessee Titans and the Baltimore Ravens on November 22, 2020 at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland (Photo by Nicole Fridling/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Wide Receiver: Depth Hierarchy

With the staff concluding that QB Sam Darnold was the weak link of the 2020 Jets air raid, the season leaves a legacy that puts the former USC prospect at fault. However, his numbers do not look nearly as bad when the state of his receiving corps is considered.

During the 2020 offseason, New York suffered the disbandment of their star duo at WR of Jamison Crowder and Robby Anderson. Anderson became a free agent and ultimately signed a two-year deal with the Carolina Panthers. That left the Jets with no reliable weapons beyond the former Washington pass-catcher. New York would try to fill the void by drafting Baylor youngster Denzel Mims in the second round while incorporating such receivers as Braxton Berrios and Vyncint Smith.

This experiment was to no success. New York’s air attack was close to the bottom of the pack in nearly all measurements. The unit finished the year with the third-worst completion percentage, the third-worst collective passer rating, and the second-fewest yards through the air. The biggest change that followed is well-known.

Sam Darnold was traded to Carolina a few weeks before the April draft. Replacing him, Zach Wilson was added with the second overall pick after a campaign with BYU that saw him as one of the best passers in Division I of the NCAA. However, the pass-catching core itself, and its woes, did not go unnoticed either.

Firstly, Joe Douglas signed Corey Davis to a three-year deal. Davis has been spectacular over his last two seasons with the Titans. Last season, the fifth-year Western Michigan alum had 92 targets, ranking second for Tennessee after A.J. Brown and within the top 50 in the league. However, Davis’s catch percentage of 70.7% was dramatically better than both Brown’s (45%) and his own in his previous campaign with over 90 targets (58% in 2018). Corey Davis had cemented his reputation as an efficient weapon in the intermediate game, alongside Crowder. Their position at the top of the chain is currently the only guarantee regarding the Jets air raid.

Yet, Douglas did not stop there. Shortly after bringing in Davis, NY signed former Jaguar Keelan Cole to a one-year contract. This low-risk move brought across a receiver who has struggled when utilized more actively. However, it did provide the unit the depth that it seems to always desperately need this year.

FLORHAM PARK, NEW JERSEY – JULY 30: Elijah Moore #8 of the New York Jets speaks with the media at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center on July 30, 2021 in Florham Park, New Jersey. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

Perhaps more notable was the drafting of Elijah Moore in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The Ole Miss WR finished second in receptions in 2020, after Heisman Trophy winner DaVonta Smith, after posting 67 catches the previous year. Along with this core and Crowder, returning are the likes of Mims, Berrios, and Smith.

There is little question as regards the roles of both Crowder and Davis. They are most likely set to be the two most targeted pass-catchers by Zach Wilson. Moreover, both promise to be used on intermediate-distance throws, as has been the case with both for at least the past three campaigns. Therefore, the biggest question is who will take over the deep threat role – an opening left after the departure of Breshad Perriman.

Since Berrios was a part of the short game last year, averaging 10.6 yards per reception, he is naturally not a member of that group. Perhaps the same goes for Moore, whose career-high in the aforementioned department was 13.9 Y/R. Cole is not in a different boat – 11.7 Y/R in Jacksonville last winter. This means that coach Saleh will have to find unexposed downfield proficiency in a receiver who has made a living catching throws closer to the line of scrimmage.

Still, that will be dependent on another burning question. With their two most dangerous weapons participants in the intermediate game, and in the absence of a clear deep threat, to what extent could the coaching staff be willing to move to a more short game-focused air plan? The answer to that, as well as to the hierarchy behind the leading pass-catchers, remains the utmost priority as regards the air raid in the early stages of training camp.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NEW JERSEY – NOVEMBER 29: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT) Ryan Fitzpatrick #14 of the Miami Dolphins in action against Ashtyn Davis #32 of the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium on November 29, 2020 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Dolphins defeated the Jets 20-3. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

The Starting Strong Safety

A few weeks after the 2020 NFL Draft, the New York Jets traded safety Jamal Adams to the Seattle Seahawks. That move gave New York tons of draft capital. Not only did Seattle send across two first-round picks but the Jets used one of them on new starting guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. However, the hole his absence left at the strong safety post is difficult to fill to this day.

The aforementioned deal was supposed to also address Adams‘s replacement in the short run. But, as it turned out, Bradley McDougald could not perform up to the desired level. The 30-year-old allowed a passer rating of 102.3 in coverage. Moreover, his campaign came to an end after just seven games due to an injury. Eventually, he was not amongst the priority players Joe Douglas was looking to re-sign.

Therefore, a spot at strong safety had once again opened up heading into the 2021 offseason. The lower floors of the depth chart naturally established an already signed player as the successor at SS. However, New York certainly would not want Ashtyn Davis to be unchallenged at that post. The California alum had an abysmal rookie year in 2020, conceding a 142.5 rating on 26 targets in pass defense.

That was precisely the reason why Douglas took to the market to at least ensure competition to Davis. Soon after free agency got underway in mid-March, he seemed to have made the decision. On March 22nd, the Jets acquired former Rams and Raiders safety Lamarcus Joyner on a one-year contract.

FLORHAM PARK, NJ – JULY 29: Lamarcus Joyner #29 and Sharrod Neasman #35 of the New York Jets work out during a morning practice at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center on July 29, 2021 in Florham Park, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

Joyner has played in no less than 60 percent of his team’s snap in each of his last six seasons. Moreover, he had a solid 2018 season with Oakland, starting sixteen matchups and surrendering a rating of merely 87.7. He struggled to turn that success into a tendency throughout a difficult 2019 which witnessed a rating north of 100.0. Yet, he managed to bounce back last winter, showing that his stability is closer to a constant than to a one-off occurrence. In 2020, Joyner allowed a passer rating of just 91.6 on 66 targets – a figure comparable to 2018 but over double the workload.

Joyner went through a terrific 2020 campaign. Furthermore, he has been fairly solid during the past three years and promises to remain consistent during the late stages of his statistical prime. He enters the competition with a much stronger reputation than Davis. Nevertheless, the outcome of that battle remains to be seen.

Thanks for reading my article on the Jets’ questions during NFL Training Camp. Follow me on Twitter @TeodorTsenov for more of my content and follow @OT_Heroics!

Main Image Credit

FLORHAM PARK, NEW JERSEY – JULY 30: head coach Robert Saleh of the New York Jets looks on during practice at Atlantic Health Jets Training Center on July 30, 2021 in Florham Park, New Jersey. (Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images)

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Teodor Tsenov is the Jets and Marlins writer for Overtime Heroics, as well as an NFL and MLB writer for Franchise Sports UK. From Bulgaria.