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Every NY Jets storyline to watch in HOF Game

Zach Wilson, NY Jets, Preseason
Zach Wilson, New York Jets, Getty Images

New York Jets football is back. Here is every on-field storyline you could choose to focus on in tonight’s game.

Football is back!

Well, a version of it, at least.

Preseason always goes the same way for fans and media. After six months with no football, everyone circles the first preseason game on their calendar and eagerly awaits the return of real, live football, complete with full-on contact, fans in the stands, terrible officiating, and all the other great stuff we love about the sport.

Then, the game actually starts, and reality sets in.

Give it a quarter or two and the excitement quickly dissolves into “Can we just get this over with?”.

That’s preseason football for you. The majority of it will be a discombobulated, grueling mess featuring few players who will be starting in Week 1 of the NFL season.

And that is why the preseason is so darn fun.

Some consider the preseason to be meaningless and boring. But for the diehards out there (which you probably are if you’re reading Jets X-Factor), the preseason is an absolute thrill. We finally get the chance to evaluate so many players who we’ve been itching to watch play – unheralded guys who are young, hungry, and have everything to prove.

Each preseason game presents a myriad of opportunities to analyze players. It’s a gift for the football nerds out there who love to overanalyze, such as myself.

There are so many on-field storylines I will be focusing on in tonight’s game. It’s impossible to simultaneously give each and every one of them the attention they deserve while watching live, but after the clock strikes triple zeros, I will surely be reviewing each of these on the game film.

It’s time to dive into our full menu of available options to choose from. Here is every single on-field storyline you could choose to focus on while watching the game tonight. We’ll start with some of the obvious ones and progressively get deeper into the weeds as we progress.

Zach Wilson’s development in the mental facets of the QB position

When it comes to Zach Wilson, I’ll be focusing on the little things. It doesn’t matter to me whether he makes any highlight-reel plays or records gaudy stats. What I will be watching is his process.

Is he checking the ball down when it’s the right play? Is he stepping up in the pocket when it’s available instead of running backward? Is he throwing the ball away instead of forcing things? Is he calmly continuing through his progressions when the first read isn’t open?

The answers to those questions are what will dictate whether Wilson performed well. We know Wilson has upper-echelon physical traits and is capable of doing amazing things. But can he master the mental aspects of the position? That’s what the Jets need to figure out.

We can only learn so much about Wilson’s development from the preseason – remember, he looked outstanding in his rookie-year preseason. Still, it would be much more comforting to see Aaron Rodgers’ backup perform well against second-stringers than to see him struggle against them. While Wilson cannot prove he has taken a legitimate step forward by playing well in these games, he can cause great unease by struggling in these games. Avoiding the latter is crucial.

Mekhi Becton’s on-field development

It’s been a tough road for him to get here, but for the first time in 690 days, Mekhi Becton is about to play in a real football game.

By all accounts, Becton seems to be in fantastic shape and is in the right headspace. Hopefully, those things can allow him to stay healthy throughout the season. That alone would be a massive victory for the 24-year-old.

My question is this: Where is Becton in his on-field development?

Becton is an extremely talented player, but when we last saw him, he still wasn’t close to a finished product. While he had moments of brilliance thanks to his sheer physical gifts alone, he still needed more refinement to the technical aspects of his game to maximize his consistency and become the most productive version of himself that he could be.

I’m confident in Becton’s outlook as a run-blocker. Pass protection is where I will be watching Becton the most closely. Becton’s pass protection was inconsistent in his rookie year. Has he been able to sharpen his technique over the past two years?

Specifically, I’m curious to watch Becton’s hand placement and footwork in his pass sets.

Becton often missed high with his punch as a rookie, allowing rushers to get underneath him. This allowed them to get into his chest and bull rush him or get underneath him and win around the corner. If Becton can sharpen his punch accuracy, he can be a devastating pass blocker, because when he does get his hands in the defender’s chest, it’s over. His initial shock power is devastating and he also shows flashes of outstanding grip strength.

I am also curious to watch Becton’s footwork as he gets into his pass sets. Becton has struggled to match speed rushers in the past. Now that he is coming off two consecutive season-ending knee injuries, how will he fare in this area? Is he able to get into his sets with enough quickness and smoothness to match rushers around the corner?

I think Becton will play well in tonight’s game and throughout the preseason. If you remember, Becton dominated in the 2021 preseason against the backups of Green Bay and the Giants. His sheer physical superiority should allow him to thrive against second and third-stringers.

Even if Becton records some eye-popping pancakes against his inferior competition, I would try to look deeper and see how he is faring in the areas that will translate to the regular season. His punch accuracy and pass-set footwork are what I will be fixating on.

The fringe wide receivers will get plenty of chances to make their case for WR6

We should be getting a heavy dosage of snaps from wide receivers who are competing to make the roster. In all likelihood, we will not see any action from the Jets’ five roster locks at wide receiver: Garrett Wilson, Corey Davis, Allen Lazard, Mecole Hardman, and Randall Cobb. That would mean every player who takes a snap at wide receiver is someone trying to compete for the sixth spot.

Southern Miss UDFA Jason Brownlee has been the breakout offensive star of training camp and will draw the spotlight tonight. Can he live up to the hype? The Jets’ staff members have been raving about Brownlee, so if he can back up his training camp performance with a strong preseason, his odds of making the roster will be quite high.

Irvin Charles, Malik Taylor, Xavier Gipson, and Jerome Kapp are among the other youngsters to keep your eye on.

Who opens the game at RB?

Michael Carter and Zonovan Knight are in an interesting quandary. As of right now, they are the top two running backs on the depth chart. Breece Hall is still sidelined and Dalvin Cook is yet to sign. But if Cook signs and Hall returns in time for the season opener, Carter and Knight could be competing for one roster spot.

That is if we assume fifth-round pick Israel Abanikanda is a roster lock. Perhaps Abanikanda is not a lock. If so, that means Abanikanda, Carter, and Knight are competing for the two final RB spots behind Hall and Cook. I think it’s very unlikely the Jets waive Abanikanda this early, but if the Jets are fond enough of both Carter and Knight, they could try to sneak Abanikanda on the practice squad.

How these guys perform in the preseason will be crucial in determining how all of this plays out.

I’m curious to see who opens the game at RB with the Zach Wilson-Mekhi Becton first-string unit: Carter or Knight? Carter was listed as the top running back on the team’s unofficial depth chart, but Knight has seemingly generated more buzz in training camp this year, and the Jets also benched Carter for Knight at the end of 2022.

My prediction is that Carter and Knight will split the reps 50-50 while Wilson is in the game. Both players need to perform as well as possible to solidify their spots on the depth chart prior to the return of Hall and the possible signing of Cook. As for Abanikanda, he’ll have a chance to receive a heavy dosage of reps after Wilson’s unit sits down.

I have gone on record as a huge fan of Knight’s potential. Tonight, I hope he can build on the promise he showed as a rookie in the following areas: elusiveness, pass-blocking, hands, and after-the-catch skills.

Jeremy Ruckert aims to show progress, Zack Kuntz fights for a roster spot

Hometown hero Jeremy Ruckert is heading into tonight with a lot of momentum. Ruckert has been receiving praise for his development ever since OTAs and is backing it up in training camp.

Ruckert’s blocking is what I will be watching in Canton. His season-finale blocking performance against Miami was a sight to behold – suggesting he has the potential to be a significant upgrade over the underperforming C.J. Uzomah in that area. If Ruckert can shred his second-string opposition in the preseason, he will put some pressure on Uzomah. I’m not sure Ruckert will overtake Uzomah as the TE2 prior to the season, though Uzomah could start the year with a short rope if Ruckert continues applying the heat.

Rookie seventh-round pick Zack Kuntz will be anything but boring to watch tonight, for better or worse. While Kuntz is one of the most athletic tight ends to ever grace an NFL field, he is incredibly raw. The fact that he lasted until the seventh round despite a perfect 10.00 Relative Athletic Score tells you everything you need to know about his actual football skills.

With Nick Bawden likely to make the roster as a fullback, the Jets will have to cut themselves one player short at another position. The tight end unit is the most likely victim considering Bawden fulfills some of the same responsibilities and has a frame that is similar to that of your typical tight end.

The win-now Jets likely are not dedicating a roster spot to a developmental TE4. For Kuntz to make the roster, he needs to show the Jets he can contribute immediately in some way. Most likely, that will come on special teams. Keep an eye out for No. 81 on special teams.

Kenny Yeboah will also try to make his case for a roster spot. Yeboah’s special teams ability has allowed him to play 19 games for the Jets over the past two seasons despite catching only two passes.

Max Mitchell’s strength at RT

We already talked about Mekhi Becton’s development. He is not the only Jets draft pick who will likely be suiting up with the first-team offensive line tonight.

Max Mitchell is in line to start at right tackle against Cleveland. Not only that, but based on training camp reps thus far, Mitchell appears to be in the driver’s seat for the starting right tackle spot. Unless Becton moves to right tackle when Duane Brown returns – which is possible, although seemingly unlikely since Becton has not been playing any reps at right tackle in camp so far – Mitchell is your starting right tackle for the New York Jets.

The fourth-round rookie from Louisiana was tossed into the fire much earlier than intended due to an onslaught of injuries at the tackle position. While Mitchell was less disastrous than many fourth-round rookies may have been in that situation, he still looked like a rookie fourth-rounder. It was clear he needed plenty of development until he could be considered a legitimate starter.

Whereas I will be focusing on pass protection with Becton, I will be focusing on run blocking with Mitchell. He struggled mightily as a run blocker in his rookie year, and it was largely due to his lack of strength. Bigger edge defenders were able to consistently move Mitchell off his spot and he allowed too many run-stuffs because of it.

Tonight, I will be watching Mitchell closely to see if he has gotten noticeably stronger since last season. This can apply in pass protection, too. Can Mitchell handle bull rushes better?

Where is Joe Tippmann in his development?

The Jets seem to be bringing Joe Tippmann along slowly. The second-round pick is running with the third-string offensive line. Connor McGovern is sitting out of tonight’s game, suggesting he is viewed as a likely starter. Most signs point to Tippmann beginning his career as a backup.

It will be fun to watch Tippmann tonight and see where he is in his development. Physically, Tippmann has a lot of gifts at his disposal, and it’s not as if training camp practices test an offensive lineman’s physical talents too much anyway, so it’s likely that Tippmann’s slow start has to do with the mental aspects of the position. Setting protections, making line calls, pointing out the mike, handling stunts or blitzes, understanding the snap count, and other things of this nature could be the areas of concern for Tippmann right now.

That’s nothing unusual. Center is one of the most cerebral positions in the sport – arguably second behind only quarterback. It is common for young centers to need some to develop.

It’s starting to appear likely that New York chooses the veteran McGovern to start in front of Rodgers rather than the rookie Tippmann. However, with four preseason games still to come, I wonder if Tippmann still has an opportunity to make his case for the job. If Tippmann shines over the next four games, perhaps he can work his way up.

The underrated Trystan Colon

Trystan Colon is an interesting cog in the competition for the Jets’ backup offensive line spots. The former Raven has only four career starts in three seasons but looked surprisingly good in those, and his career pass-blocking stats are quite good. Joe Blewett and I both think he would be a solid backup.

Colon has experience at center and guard. I am curious to see how he performs tonight.

Will McDonald in the wide-nine

It’s not often you see a top-15 pick overshadowed to the degree that McDonald is being overshadowed with this Jets team. Tonight will be the rare instance where McDonald takes the limelight. When the Jets’ defense is on the field, No. 99 will be the player that most people are focusing on.

I am looking forward to seeing what the Jets’ defensive scheme can do for McDonald. At Iowa State, he did not pop off the screen as much as he could have since the Cyclones were using him in a role that did not suit his skill set. In New York, McDonald will get the chance to get in a wide-nine stance, pin his ears back, and fly around the edge. Robert Saleh promised it during his very first phone call with McDonald after he was drafted.

Watching McDonald stockpile reps in the wide-nine against backup tackles should provide a glimpse of his ceiling.

A plethora of reps for the fringe defensive tackles: Can they use the opportunity to surpass Solomon Thomas?

The Jets’ defensive tackle group is mostly made up of veterans, so most of those guys will be sitting tonight. We will probably not see any snaps from the combination of Quinnen Williams, Quinton Jefferson, and Al Woods. Solomon Thomas may also sit, although it’s fair to wonder whether his roster spot is secure after his highly unproductive 2022 season.

That will leave a ton of available reps for the fringe defensive tackles: Tanzel Smart, Isaiah Mack, and Marquiss Spencer. These three may end up playing the entire game.

It’s unclear whether any of these players have an actual chance at cracking the roster. But, again, Thomas struggled mightily in 2022. The bar for clearing Thomas is low.

If one of the fringe defensive tackles can string together a stupendous preseason run, I wonder if the Jets consider keeping them over Thomas. I don’t think it’s likely, as the team seems fond of Thomas and views him as a key locker-room presence, but strictly looking at on-field performance, the Jets should be seeking an upgrade at the DT4 spot.

At worst, one of these players could land on the practice squad and be called up later to replace Thomas if the veteran gets off to a poor start.

More of Micheal Clemons inside

Speaking of the interior defensive line, I’m looking forward to seeing the bulked-up Micheal Clemons getting some reps in there. Clemons has added weight and is expected to play on the inside more frequently this year.

With the Jets’ expected thinness on the inside tonight, perhaps Clemons could eat up some of the reps, especially early in the game.

Clemons, who was listed at 272 pounds last season, recently told the media he “probably weighs about 285, 286, that’s before breakfast.” The Texas A&M product was already intimidating enough. With nearly 15 pounds of added muscle, it’s scary to think about what he will do to ball carriers this year.

Of course, playing on the inside is an entirely different animal compared to the edge. As a 272-pound edge defender, Clemons was massive for his position. That made him a mismatch against tight ends. But as a 285-pound defensive tackle, Clemons is relatively small for the position. There, he won’t be able to feast on his size advantage against tight ends. He will have to hold his ground against double teams from players who have at least 15 pounds on him. Does he have enough sheer strength to make up for his lighter weight?

Clemons frequently played on the interior in the 2022 preseason and looked dominant.

I expect the same from him throughout the 2023 preseason based solely on the physical advantages he will likely have against the soft competition. But time will tell if Clemons can perform consistently well as a defensive tackle in the regular season. I have faith he can do it thanks to his impressive explosiveness off the line of scrimmage – I think he will have a significant athletic advantage on the inside that he did not have on the edge, making up for the loss of his size advantage.

Will Jamien Sherwood play?

It will be interesting to see if Jamien Sherwood gets any run tonight.

On one hand, Sherwood is currently penciled-in as Kwon Alexander’s replacement, which means he is a starter and it’s probably not worth taking the risk of playing him. On the other hand, Sherwood is a young player who has gotten few reps in his NFL career and could benefit from the opportunity to sharpen his skills.

We will certainly see Sherwood at some point this preseason. Whether he plays tonight remains unclear. If he does play, though, he will be one of the primary defensive players to watch. Sherwood has big shoes to fill. Alexander was an important cog for the defense last season. Can Sherwood replicate Alexander’s impact?

The mystery man Zaire Barnes is sneakily intriguing

It seems like nobody talks about Zaire Barnes. And how can you blame them? He is a sixth-round rookie who comes from a Group of 5 school, is a backup linebacker, and doesn’t even have a highlight video on YouTube.

Which makes him the epitome of why the preseason is so fascinating.

To this point, Barnes is hardly more than a name on a screen to most Jets fans. They don’t have any visuals to associate with him. Now, we finally get to see him play some football.

If you watched Joe Blewett’s film review on Barnes, you know that he is a far more intriguing prospect than many people realize. Of course, he’s raw as can be, but his athleticism really pops. He fits the Jets’ archetype at linebacker: fast, explosive, and aggressive.

Hamsah Nasirildeen hasn’t done anything to impress over his three years in the league so far. He’s left the door open for Barnes to win the Jets’ fourth linebacker spot – which would put him one play away from starting.

Barnes’ uber athleticism also makes him a tantalizing special teams prospect. The Jets need help in punt coverage after allowing two of the NFL’s three punt return touchdowns last season. Barnes could be part of the solution.

For many reasons, Barnes is a more important piece of the Jets’ 2023 outlook than he’s perceived as. Watch No. 53 closely when he takes the field – although I’m not sure you’ll even have to make an effort to do so. Whether it’s for good reasons or for bad reasons, the energetic Barnes will be hard to miss tonight.

The 2021 starting CB duo is now starting the Hall of Fame game

Two years ago, Bryce Hall and Brandin Echols were the Jets’ opening-day starting cornerbacks against the Panthers. Tonight, they will likely start together in the Hall of Fame game.

To boot, Javelin Guidry will likely get the start in the slot. Guidry played 41% of the Jets’ defensive snaps in 2021.

The Jets were lucky enough to never have to call upon their backup cornerbacks in 2022, save for an occasional handful of snaps if a starter left the game for a few plays. All three of their starting cornerbacks played 17 games. In all likelihood, that will not happen again this year. The cornerback depth will be tested.

Tonight, we will get an extended look at the players who will have to step up if and when the Jets lose one of their three excellent starting cornerbacks. This game and the upcoming three preseason games will determine the level of faith that Jets fans are going to have if a backup cornerback has to come in during a regular season game.

I believe that Hall, Echols, and Guidry have the potential to be one of the more reliable backup CB units in the league. They were each generally viewed as decent/below-average starters at one point, which is about as good as you can realistically hope for from your backups. That was during their first or second seasons, too, so they could have developed further over the past couple of years.

Trey Dean shoots for a roster spot at safety, Ashtyn Davis looks to hold him off

Florida safety Trey Dean is easily the most intriguing UDFA for the Jets’ defense. Dean racked up extensive experience against high-quality SEC competition and developed into a productive playmaker over his final two college seasons.

From 2021 to 2022, Dean made 169 tackles in 25 games while allowing only two touchdown passes to be thrown into his coverage across 807 coverage snaps. That includes a 2022 season with zero touchdowns over 382 coverage snaps.

Dean had draftable talent – multiple outlets pegged him as a fifth-round prospect – but he battled injuries during the pre-draft process and posted poor testing numbers as a result, which caused him to drop out of the draft. Now, Dean has the inside track to a roster spot in New York considering the Jets’ lack of safety depth.

It looks like Tony Adams, Jordan Whitehead, and Adrian Amos are locks for the Jets’ safety unit. Past that, though, the door is open for Dean to make his case. Ashtyn Davis is the only other safety on the roster who was on the team last year.

At this point, Davis has seemed to establish himself as a special teams-only player with little defensive value, which presents Dean a golden opportunity to make the roster by proving he can provide better two-way value than Davis. Plus, Davis is set to have a $3.027 million cap hit this season, of which the Jets can clear $2.743 million by cutting him, so there are financial incentives for cutting Davis as well.

I look forward to watching No. 38 fly around the field tonight. Starting tonight, if he can play even just solid football in the preseason, he should make the team. As an undrafted free agent, Dean’s potential cap hit this year will be $753K if he makes the team. Can Davis prove he is approximately $2 million better than Dean? That’s a tall order.

Who’s returning kicks?

With two-way return man Braxton Berrios now donning aqua and orange, the Jets have two returner spots open.

This is one area where the Jets could benefit from having the extra preseason game. It will help to get as many reps as possible to figure out who deserves the returner roles.

Mecole Hardman is a prime candidate for both roles, but it’s unclear if he will play tonight, so it could be an opportunity for some of the other candidates to shine.

Zonovan Knight is an intriguing option for the kickoff role. In college, Knight returned 30 kickoffs for a 30.8-yard average with three touchdowns. Israel Abanikanda had one kickoff return touchdown in college, although his overall 22.8-yard average is uninspiring.

Who’s throwing the key blocks on returns?

It can be hard to analyze while watching a live broadcast, but one of the most overlooked facets of the sport is the blocking of the kickoff and punt return units. Returning is not a one-man game, even if only one man receives all of the statistical credit for the result. Blocking is just as essential as the return man himself, if not more so.

Being able to make tackles on kickoffs and punts is not the only way to shine on special teams. You can also add value by making key blocks to create space for your own team’s returns. This is a sneaky way for some of the Jets’ fringe players to show the coaches they deserve to be on the team.

When the Jets return kickoffs and punts, don’t just fixate on the player returning the ball. Try to watch the blocks develop. See if you can pinpoint who is and isn’t executing their blocking assignments.

On kickoffs, you see a lot of the bigger-bodied players tasked with making key blocks up front, namely tight ends and linebackers. It’s here where players like Zack Kuntz, Kenny Yeboah, and Zaire Barnes must stand out to win their respective roster battles. On punts, the speed players are key in the blocking scheme, namely cornerbacks and safeties. This is where players like Javelin Guidry and Trey Dean can stand out.

Which storylines will you be watching the most closely tonight?

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9 months ago

Ok, so a long list of questions that won’t be answered tonight…haha. I think we will see signs tonight but these questions will be answered in the 3rd pre season game, when everybody has the opportunity to get some experience in the new offense, shake off some rust from the off-season, and get into “football shape.” Good or bad, I don’t think the “signs” from this game will be definitive. And, I promise to use the same logic when Hall gets beat for a TD but is close enough to the play for everyone to say, “it was good coverage just a better throw and catch.” BTW Hall can be cut for the same cap savings as Ashtyn Davis.