Head coach Robert Saleh may have an interesting decision to make heading into the preseason
Update: The Jets have activated Mekhi Becton, C.J. Uzomah, and Carl Lawson from the PUP list.
The New York Jets might be facing a quarterback conundrum. In other words, it’s officially football season.
Rest assured, there’s no issue with Zach Wilson continuing to man the franchise quarterback slot, as he has earned the team’s trust for now.
The new issue is exactly how much – or how little – the Jets should showcase him in the upcoming preseason.
The NFL preseason is another example of the NFL’s stranglehold on American viewership. Its summer showcases often generate ratings that other major sports leagues envy.
From a practical, on-field standpoint, though, the preseason has long outgrown its usefulness. Both the NFL and its teams have taken notice. When adding a 17th game to the regular season slate, the fourth preseason game was an easy sacrifice. As the league tried to remain business as usual during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, few had any qualms with the loss of August football.
From a team standpoint, more and more coaches are opting to hold their starters out of these meaningless games. Sean McVay of the Rams, for example, has popularized a full-on shutdown of starters. Several squads have copied the Rams’ example. Some have even eschewed the unspoken tradition of treating the middle game(s) as a de facto dress rehearsal.
It’s easy to see why: advances in technology and development have made it easier than ever for players to get their work in and build chemistry, camaraderie, and familiarity with a new system. Why build all that on a muggy August night in front of a half-filled stadium when your players can do it on their own?
A simple situation for many teams becomes a conundrum for a rebuilding group like the Jets. The preseason has a lingering purpose for a team whose star-crossed fortunes have been defined by constant roster turnover. Nothing could have prevented the disaster of the Sam Darnold era at QB. Still, Darnold could have benefited from a few snaps with an almost entirely new lineup just two seasons into his NFL career.
This offseason, the Jets maintained a stronger sense of continuity for Zach Wilson. The team re-upped with his close friend Braxton Berrios and hopes that Elijah Moore and Corey Davis will be available for a full season. Sure, there are some newcomers that could benefit from live reps against other jerseys (namely first-round pick Garrett Wilson and the revamped tight end room), but there are many more returning faces than new ones.
Still, the Jets’ first transactions this offseason create a preseason conundrum. As the team reports to training camp, six notable players will not be suiting up from the outset. Five were placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, while another is on the Non-Football Injury (NFI) ledger.
It’s bad enough that the Jets will still be missing edge rusher Carl Lawson, the current poster child for medical calamities of the summer (though his early exit came through a joint practice rather than a game). But the team will start camp without both starting offensive tackles (Mekhi Becton and George Fant) and its top tight end (C.J. Uzomah). Two more linemen, Greg Senat and Dru Samia, are also on the PUP list.
You wonder just how much Wilson will truly benefit from preseason play with his top guys limited. The blocking absences are particularly noticeable. The last thing the Jets need is an injured franchise QB. Clarity is of the utmost importance this season, which could determine the franchise’s path going forward. Not much of it is going to come from facing practice squad level players.
Resting starters during the summer is often a luxury afforded only to championship-caliber teams. However, the Jets’ intriguing offseason has had a sense of healthy reckless abandon. It hints that they’re getting tired of the not-so-lovable losers routine that has haunted the franchise over the last decade-plus.
To be clear, Wilson will undoubtedly take a few preseason snaps, barring an absolute medical disaster. The exact number, though, must be considered. The Jets were confident enough to hold a rookie Wilson out of their preseason finale against Philadelphia last year. They turned the passing work over to Josh Johnson and James Morgan.
Frankly, the team would perhaps be better off using the preseason to officially settle the debate about Wilson’s backup. There is perhaps no better available mentor in the league than Joe Flacco, while Mike White proved last fall that he can be serviceable in a pinch. Giving the two the lion’s share of the snaps in the preseason would settle the position battle.
The Jets could also take the time to solve their rushing battle. The search for either the balance or preference between Breece Hall and Michael Carter will be one of the top headlines of the Jets preseason. Tevin Coleman should be safe behind them, but it’ll be interesting to see if Ty Johnson and/or La’Mical Perine can eke out one more year in green.
Still, perhaps it is best to keep Wilson’s preseason snaps at a minimum. Sure, the QB knows that he’s not “good” enough to fully skip the preseason. But the work that Wilson has put in this offseason will probably prove to be more valuable than any exhibition snaps. This represents the perfect counterclaim for anyone still claiming the preseason is necessary.
The football satirists want to do nothing more than to label Wilson the Paul Finch of the NFL. This masks the fact that he did the utmost to bond with his receivers and make up for the development time lost to injuries last year. That work is going to do more for his development than any snaps against roster-bubble players ever could.
Summer vacation is a concept that famously avoids the NFL. But Wilson has earned a little extra. The developments in front of him, in fact, may well necessitate that extension.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags