This is Year 2 of the current rebuild from a quarterback perspective
New York Jets fans are tired.
It’s hard to be a fan of a losing team.
When you ask fans what they want to see from the 2022 season, many will tell you, “Can we just have the season not be over in September?”
It’s difficult to be looking ahead to next year’s draft when the season hasn’t even hit the quarter-way point.
However, 2022 feels different. There is more optimism surrounding this team than there has been since Mark Sanchez was the quarterback. Though the Jets have been given little to no respect in the national media, the local beat knows that this season can be a stepping stone.
What must happen in 2022 for that excitement to translate meaningfully on the field? What will make this year a success for the Green and White?
It’s not playoffs or bust
Despite the imperative from two Jets captains (C.J. Mosley and Braxton Berrios), to say that this team is playoffs or bust is overshooting. A team coming off the No. 4 overall pick rarely has the luxury of using the postseason as a barometer of success.
That being said, general manager Joe Douglas told the media at a March press conference, “We need to be playing meaningful games in December.” That is absolutely where the Jets must be thinking. Even in a very competitive division and a loaded conference, fighting for that last wild card spot is completely within reasonable expectations.
Yes, the Jets have some bad matchups on the slate in the early going. Even though looking at strength of schedule prior to the season is faulty, it’s undeniable that the schedule-makers did New York no favors by throwing out the gap-blocking rushing juggernaut Baltimore Ravens in Week 1.
But just looking at the Jets’ roster coupled with some lighter games on the backend make the goal of competitive December football realistic.
The quarterback is the key
This can almost go without saying in the NFL. Most teams will go only as far as their quarterback carries them. However, the Jets are not built quite that way. They constructed this roster to need a game-managing quarterback who will make a few splash plays. Although that’s far from Zach Wilson‘s ceiling, it must become his floor.
Only highly optimistic Jets fans foresee a Joe Burrow-like performance in Year 2. But a more exciting form of Jimmy Garoppolo would give the team a decent shot this season. Protecting the ball, making the easy throws, and continuing his growth over the middle would make the Wilson expectations soar heading into Year 3.
The Jets drafted Wilson largely because of his high-end arm talent and ability to throw from awkward angles. But they also took him for his accuracy, which needs to leap in 2022.
I’m not going to pinpoint specific statistical markers that Wilson needs to hit. It’s not really about the numbers, but about how he looks on the field. Is he commanding the offense? Does he read the defense, or is he still forgetting that linebackers exist (as Robby Sabo has seen happen even in training camp this year)? Is the thunderbolt striking and causing those short throws to hit the dirt? Or is Wilson hitting Elijah Moore and Tyler Conklin routinely?
Obviously, Jets fans still dream of the next Joe Namath. But taking it one step at a time is more reasonable.
Pressure, pressure, pressure
If the quarterback is the most important position in all of sports, then disrupting that quarterback is the key on the other side of the ball. The Jets have routinely ranked in the bottom quarter of the league in pass rush metrics over the past eight-plus years. That needs to change.
Robert Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich have gone all-in on this philosophy. They have assembled a group of defensive linemen that basically have the same skillsets, one through 12: all of them are pass rushers first. So far in training camp, the high-end potential of this unit has shone. Quinnen Williams and Carl Lawson are in the quarterback’s grill constantly. Jermaine Johnson is getting after it.
It’s time for that potential to be actualized. Although sacks hit the official box scores, quarterback hits and hurries are equally if not more important. The Jets need to hit opposing quarterbacks mercilessly and make offensive lines pay. Lawson has been a master of that in his career, and John Franklin-Myers moves back to the interior, where he was previously elite in quarterback disruption.
I predicted 45 sacks for this unit in my article yesterday. Top 10 in the league in pass rush metrics is going to be key for the team’s defensive success. With opposing quarterbacks like Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Russell Wilson, and Aaron Rodgers on the slate, this may determine the team’s season.
A top cornerback trio in football
This may seem like an exaggeration, and maybe it is. But it’s rare for a team to have this level of confidence in its top three guys. It brings up dreams of the Denver Broncos No-Fly Zone. That’s how hyped the Jets are for their cornerback unit. You know you’re in good shape when your backup outside corner would be most teams’ No. 2 starter.
So far in training camp, these corners have been every bit as good as advertised. The frenzy around No. 4 overall pick Sauce Gardner grows by the day. Sauce has been step-for-step with Elijah Moore and Corey Davis, not giving them an inch.
The rookie learning curve in the NFL is tough. But Sauce’s man coverage skills are second-to-none. A guy who’s 6’3″ and 200 pounds should not be able to move the way he does. Even if he has adjustments to make in zone coverage and gets too handsy, he should still be able to slide right into the lineup as a promising young corner.
No, Sauce is not Darrelle Revis. No one is Revis. But he has the chance to be the best Jets corner since No. 24.
Meanwhile, we can’t overlook D.J. Reed. The former Seahawks cornerback is only 5’9″, but he has more than held his own on the outside. In fact, Reed was correct when he said that he had played every bit as well as the All-Pro corners last season. Although it was a breakout year, Reed has also been right on receivers in training camp.
Meanwhile, Michael Carter II may be one of the most underrated cornerbacks in football. The fifth-round rookie did an admirable job in the slot last season and was superb at avoiding mistakes. He, too, has given the Jets receivers nightmares in camp.
There are questions about Bryce Hall‘s role on this team, but the Jets’ No. 1 corner from last season did an admirable job. It’s always possible that the Jets will trade him, but I think it’s more likely that they keep him around as a backup and injury insurance.
Ground and pound
The Jets ran the ball only 36% of the time last season. That was not a philosophical choice, but a reality check: they had to throw when they were down.
This will change in 2022. Drafting a running back high in the second round demands that. Breece Hall and Michael Carter form a potentially lethal one-two combination in the backfield. Hall is a big-play machine. Both guys make people miss at an elite level. Two guys who lead the NFL in forced missed tackles will wear out opposing defenses. What Derrick Henry does with power, these two will do with elusiveness.
Whatever the breakdown of their snap counts, Hall and Carter could provide combined Pro Bowl numbers. Hall is the preseason Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite.
The Jets’ offensive line is also set up for run-blocking. Their three interior offensive linemen excel in zone blocking. Incoming left tackle Duane Brown is incredibly steady in both zone and gap blocking. Although Mekhi Becton‘s mauling in the run game will be missed, the line as a whole should not miss a beat.
Near or above .500
I have mostly avoided specific numbers in this article. It’s about the direction of the team, not hitting specific statistical marks. However, I believe there is a hard win total that the Jets need to reach to make this season successful.
The Jets could win seven games and reasonably engender optimism heading into 2023. However, I think that eight victories are the floor of what would make Year 2 of the rebuild a success. Eight wins would mean that they beat at least one or two teams when they were underdogs. Eight victories in the loaded AFC would mean that they’re almost ready to hang with the big boys.
Obviously, it’s not just about the wins, but how they get there. If the Jets eke out defensive victories while Zach Wilson continues to struggle, that would be a big win for the defense, but it certainly wouldn’t make anyone happy.
It’s also about not getting blown out. The Jets have some games on their schedule that will invite national media predictions of a blowout, starting with Week 1 vs. Baltimore. If the team can hang with the Bills twice, Packers, and Broncos, that will show that they’re ready to take the next step.
To me, in order for this season to be truly successful, the Jets must win at least eight games.