A few X-factors could determine the Jets’ 2023 success
At Jet X, we endeavor to find hidden factors that fans might not have noticed. Besides that, though, we also try to synthesize ideas in a logical and useful manner that can be referenced later.
I recently went through the best-case, worst-case, and most realistic scenarios for the Jets in 2023. However, I wanted to revisit the specific factors that can decide whether the team realizes its potential or stumbles once more.
Pointing to Aaron Rodgers would be way too obvious, so we’re going to avoid reference to the quarterback. Every team’s signal-caller is its biggest X-factor; if the quarterback falls flat, so will the team. The last time a defense carried its quarterback to the Super Bowl was the Broncos in 2015, and it doesn’t occur too often.
Let’s try to go with a few less obvious X-factors. It’s hard to find new ones when we’ve sliced and diced every aspect of the Jets’ offseason, but let’s try.
Michael Nania has explained that the Jets’ defense enjoyed an inordinate amount of health in 2023. The Jets are unusually reliant on defensive talent, as they play a vanilla defense that does not attempt to confuse the opponent that often. The goal is simply to outexecute them. With players like Quinnen Williams, John Franklin-Myers, Sauce Gardner, and D.J. Reed, that plan was highly successful in 2022.
However, that means that the Jets’ success is almost completely contingent on the health of those players. When Rex Ryan called the Jets’ defenses, he relied on confusing the opponent with exotic blitzes and rotations, which compensated for talent deficiencies in certain areas. The 2023 Jets don’t have that luxury. A significant injury to Williams, Gardner, Reed, or even C.J. Mosley would be absolutely crippling.
Even players like Quincy Williams, Jamien Sherwood, Al Woods, Jordan Whitehead, and Adrian Amos don’t have clear replacements. While no team has excellent backups at every position, that’s an awful lot of positions with essentially waiver-wire or late-round draft picks as backups.
While Brandin Echols is a decent backup cornerback, he would be a tremendous downgrade from either Gardner or Reed. The Jets’ defense was so reliant on the excellence of their cornerbacks last season that such a drop could be catastrophic.
The one position where the Jets can possibly sustain some injuries is edge defender. They have six capable players at the position with varying skill sets. Even if Carl Lawson is not back to his Cincinnati form, Micheal Clemons and Will McDonald can split the run/pass responsibilities along the edge and potentially do an admirable job. Franklin-Myers, Jermaine Johnson, and Bryce Huff form an excellent trio on the left side.
Still, there are too many backup spots that have zero NFL track record.
The Jets had a litany of underachievers in 2022, several of whom were free-agent signees. Laken Tomlinson was the most obvious one, as his poor play was perhaps the biggest X-factor besides the quarterback position. Brought in to shore up the guard position, Tomlinson instead became a constant liability.
Furthermore, Tyler Conklin was the quarterbacks’ favorite target in training camp. We at Jet X had high hopes for Conklin. Instead, he put up a mediocre season with decent counting stats (58 receptions, 552 yards) but failed to make a significant impact on the games. Many of his receptions were dump-offs in the flat.
Corey Davis has underachieved with the Jets, although fans tend to blame him more than he deserves. Many of his drops were the result of poor ball placement, and although he should have caught at least some of them, many were tough catches. Davis had a number of clutch receptions in 2023 and is likely the Jets’ best mid-range threat. The film also indicates that he is more reliable than Allen Lazard.
Carl Lawson was average in 2022 on an elite player’s salary. Though his role may diminish somewhat in 2023 due to the selection of Will McDonald, he will still likely get the largest snap share at right defensive end. The Jets need a bigger impact from Lawson.
Two veterans who don’t belong in this category are C.J. Uzomah and Jordan Whitehead. Their 2022 performance was not that different from their previous track records. They were simply previously overrated.
If Tomlinson, Conklin, Davis, and Lawson simply play as they did for the few years prior to joining the Jets, the second tier of the team will be greatly strengthened.
This one is very obvious but cannot be skipped. The Jets may be able to survive if one of Duane Brown or Mekhi Becton struggles or gets injured in 2023, but they definitely cannot manage without either one having a strong season. The problem is that both have significant questions of both health and performance.
Did Brown struggle in 2022 purely because of his injury, or is his age catching up to him? Can Becton keep his weight down? What’s his technique like after two years away from the game? Where is his mindset considering that he is all but assured to play right tackle despite his desire to play on the left?
This is another topic we’ve covered extensively on this site. Right now, the Jets still have two starting strong safeties and no true deep safety. It was a problem in 2022 when Lamarcus Joyner roamed the middle of the field doing nothing (except, perhaps, running into opposing receivers), and it remains an issue.
The only player on the Jets’ roster who could potentially be a solution is Tony Adams. The 2022 undrafted free agent flashed potential in brief appearances, but it’s tough to trust him on a team with Super Bowl aspirations. Furthermore, prior to Chuck Clark’s season-ending injury, Clark and Whitehead were splitting safety reps in OTAs. Adrian Amos became Clark’s direct replacement.
What the team’s plan is at safety remains to be seen. It’s clear that the Jets don’t value the position, as Joe Douglas traded Jamal Adams, let Marcus Maye walk, and never endeavored to replace either of them with a top-tier free agent or draft pick.
For a defense that plays a bend-but-don’t-break style, not having a definitive answer at free safety is dangerous. This could be a make-or-break for the Jets’ defense.
I am on the record for criticizing Robert Saleh in multiple respects. For one thing, I disagree with the team’s overall defensive philosophy of relying on talent over scheme; I believe that you need a combination of both to sustain success. Teams know what the Jets are going to do, and good coaches can scheme to beat their defense.
Facing coaches like Andy Reid, Nick Sirianni, Mike McDaniel, Brian Daboll, and Sean Payton, the Jets’ defense could be exposed. This is particularly true when you consider how the Jets constructed their roster, with big question marks at both linebacker and safety. Teams simply hammer the middle of the field in both the run and passing games as Seattle did last season.
Furthermore, Saleh’s run-first mindset offensively is not responsive to today’s NFL. Although the league-average running game was more effective in 2022 than it had been in years, passing the ball still has far more Expected Points Added (EPA) than running it. The “run to set up the pass,” even play action, is a debunked myth—except where Saleh is concerned, apparently.
When it comes to fourth-down decision-making, Saleh is too conservative. Football Outsiders ranked him as the least aggressive coach in the NFL, tied with Bill Belichick. He simply goes by the traditional NFL wisdom rather than the analytics that show how to gain an edge by going for it on fourth down.
In 2023, Saleh must play like a coach who is seeking to win rather than one who is trying not to lose. That means changing tendencies more often and generally looking to be more creative and cutting-edge rather than stale.
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