The New York Jets will face a unique challenge in Charlotte
As the New York Jets get set for a preseason matchup with the Carolina Panthers this afternoon (4 p.m. ET), here are three important storylines to watch closely if you’re a Jets fan.
1. Can anyone on the second-string units stand out against Carolina’s starters?
According to Panthers head coach Frank Reich, we will likely see most, if not all of Carolina’s starters in today’s game. Meanwhile, according to Jets head coach Robert Saleh, New York is planning to take a similar approach to last week’s Hall of Fame Game and will rest the majority of its starters once again.
This will provide a unique chance for the Jets’ backups to shine in a big way.
For however long the Panthers’ starters are on the field, the Jets will be at a major disadvantage. The Panthers have a good chance of steamrolling the Jets during these drives. But even if the team’s performance looks ugly as a whole, that doesn’t mean every individual player on the Jets has to lose their individual matchups.
I will be watching closely to see which Jets players can win their one-on-one matchup against a Panthers starter. This is an opportunity that players do not get in the preseason all too often. Usually, we analyze preseason action with the caveat “it was against backups”, but this afternoon, that will not be the case (for at least a couple of drives).
The first few drives of this game will carry more weight than the majority of the Jets’ other preseason reps due to the increase in competition quality. This could be the absolute best chance for the Jets’ second and third-string players to make a statement in their respective roster battles. Succeeding against Carolina’s starters will mean a whole lot more to the Jets’ coaches than succeeding against the Browns’ backups in the Hall of Fame Game.
This afternoon, try to focus on particular one-on-one matchups rather than simply following the football. Pick an OL-versus-DL matchup to watch. Fixate on a WR-versus-CB matchup. Glue your eyes to a linebacker and see how well he handles his zone coverage responsibilities.
The Jets might get stomped by Carolina’s starters, but every single crisp route, clean pass-block rep, vicious pass-rush rep, and so forth that a New York backup can record against a Carolina starter will go a long way toward winning the favor of the coaching staff.
2. Can the tackles start showing any semblance of reliability?
After spending the whole offseason purporting they are comfortable with their offensive tackle situation, it’s obvious the Jets are starting to grow frustrated with the unit’s shaky performance so far in camp and the preseason. Through various comments to the media, the Jets have made it clear that they want to see more out of their tackles – and fast.
The Jets’ joint practice against the Panthers featured plenty of pass protection woes and culminated in Aaron Rodgers directly calling out the tackle position as an area where the Jets need “a little more consistency”. Rodgers specifically mentioned Max Mitchell and Billy Turner.
“We got to figure out who the first five is going to be,” Rodgers said of the offensive line. “A lot of guys in competition right now. Seems like they’re switching the tackles left and right just about daily with Max and Billy. Just looking for consistency with those guys. I feel like the interior has been a bright spot, pretty consistent for us, both the first and second group. We just need a little more consistency on the edge.”
In addition, Robert Saleh made comments that suggest the Jets could be open to moving Alijah Vera-Tucker to right tackle if the situation called for it. It’s the first time all offseason that Saleh has shown he is open to the possibility, as he’s spent the entire year insisting the team intends to keep Vera-Tucker at right guard. This seemed to be Saleh’s subtle way of sending a message to the tackles: step it up or we’ll take drastic measures.
Coach Saleh doesn’t shut the door on AVT playing tackle for the Jets, but adds the team wants to keep him at guard if they can.
“We’re going to play our best five and he’s one of them.”
— Ethan Greenberg (@EGreenbergJets) August 10, 2023
Robert Saleh doesn't say anything w/o purpose. Those comments about possibly moving AVT to OT were a signal to the guys working at OT to step it up ASAP#Jets 100% want AVT to stick at RG. They need someone to show they can be relied on at RT- or else.
Protecting No. 8 is No. 1
— Dennis Waszak Jr. (@DWAZ73) August 10, 2023
Mekhi Becton is another factor in this situation. He was actually solid in South Carolina – Mitchell and Turner were the primary culprits for the protection struggles, hence Rodgers singling them out – but Becton still has a long way to go on the road to proving he can stay healthy.
Becton looked dominant in his brief Hall of Fame Game appearance but could only fight through seven offensive snaps before leaving the game due to knee soreness. Prior to the game, the Jets planned for him to go much further – Saleh had mentioned “20-25 snaps” as the goal.
This time around, Saleh is challenging Becton to make it deeper into the game. Saleh told the media he does not have a snap count in mind for Becton against Carolina, merely stating that he would “like for [Becton] to push as far as he can.”
Becton and Mitchell will surely play this afternoon after both starting against Cleveland last week. For Becton (#77), the challenge is to log as many reps as possible and build off the dominance he showed in Canton. For Mitchell (#61), the goal is to show substantial improvement in the run game after he was downright bullied by Cleveland’s backups in the preseason opener. Jet X’s Robby Sabo reported Mitchell showed improvement as a run blocker in the ensuing week’s practices – can he translate it to a real game?
Turner (#54) did not play in the Hall of Fame Game, but considering his recent practice struggles, it’s fair to think he has a good chance of playing this afternoon. Turner has a lot to prove. Yes, he’s a veteran, but he’s a fringe starter at best. Situated in the middle of a heated roster battle against Becton and Mitchell, Turner should be playing in the preseason to earn his keep.
We shall see if Turner suits up today. If so, he is one of the top players to watch.
3. Is Malik Taylor the new favorite for WR6?
For the longest time, camp star Jason Brownlee felt like the unanimous favorite to win the Jets’ sixth and final roster spot at wide receiver. But Malik Taylor has come on strong recently. Suddenly, it feels like Taylor is the man to beat.
Taylor, 27, was signed by Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2019. He went on to spend four years with the Packers from 2019 to 2022, sharing all four with Aaron Rodgers and the first three with Nathaniel Hackett. So, Taylor provides extensive familiarity with the Jets’ scheme, QB, and OC – an asset that cannot be matched by any of his competitors. In a ring-chasing season, that could be something the Jets value greatly when making their roster-cut decisions.
Taylor drew the limelight in Canton with his 57-yard reception from Zach Wilson on a go route up the left sideline. He then enjoyed success in the Spartanburg practice sessions. Brownlee, meanwhile, only caught 2-of-5 targets for 17 yards against the Browns, and he seemed quiet in Spartanburg.
Adding to Taylor’s roster case is his ability to contribute on special teams. This is something that could give him a leg up on Brownlee.
The 57-yard catch was not Taylor’s only standout play in Canton. Taylor also delivered a bone-shattering hit in punt coverage that limited the returner to zero yards.
Taylor has plenty of special teams experience in the NFL. With the Packers, Taylor played 313 special teams snaps over 25 games and made five tackles.
Brownlee, on the other hand, does not seem likely to be viewed as a potentially valuable special teams contributor. Brownlee hardly played special teams in his college career, logging just 71 snaps over three years and making zero tackles. He played seven special teams snaps in Canton but did not do anything particularly notable (good or bad). This was actually more snaps than Taylor, who only had four special teams snaps, although that arguably helps Taylor’s case as he was able to outshine Brownlee despite having three fewer reps.
Being able to contribute on special teams is important for the final member of a wide receiver unit. That player is expected to be a vital special teams cog on an NFL roster. It is especially true with this particular Jets team, as each of their other five wide receivers will not contribute on special teams (save for potential returns from Mecole Hardman or Randall Cobb). Having a six-man wide receiver unit with zero frequent special teams contributors is not ideal.
Make sure to watch Taylor (#86) and Brownlee (#16) closely today – but not just on offense. Look out for them on special teams, too. That’s where this battle will likely be won.