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Top non-Rodgers storylines for NY Jets’ preseason finale

NY Jets, Alijah Vera-Tucker, OL
Alijah Vera-Tucker, New York Jets, Getty Images

Aaron Rodgers is not the only guy playing for the New York Jets tonight

Yes, Aaron Rodgers is playing tonight! We know. Everybody does. You will be watching No. 8 tonight and you don’t need anyone to tell you that you should.

With that in mind, let’s ignore Rodgers for a moment and highlight some of the lesser-heralded storylines that New York Jets fans should watch in tonight’s preseason finale.

The revamped WR race

Corey Davis’ retirement not only altered the hierarchy at the top of the Jets’ WR depth chart, but it drastically changed the battle at the bottom, too.

Prior to Davis’ retirement, it seemed likely the Jets’ fringe WRs were competing for one roster spot – and that spot wasn’t even guaranteed. There was a possibility the Jets could roll with only five WRs if nobody impressed them enough to earn the sixth.

Now that Davis is out, the Jets only have four roster locks at WR: Garrett Wilson, Allen Lazard, Mecole Hardman, and Randall Cobb. Keeping four WRs is a nonstarter, so now the Jets have to keep at least one of their bubble WRs. If they want to go six-deep at WR, they could even keep two of the bubble WRs.

Between Jason Brownlee, Xavier Gipson, Malik Taylor, T.J. Luther, Alex Erickson, and Jerome Kapp, the Jets will keep at least one player (barring outside additions in the future). Tonight is the last chance for these players to make an impression.

Trey Dean vs. Ashtyn Davis

Trey Dean has been lighting it up throughout the preseason and is making a strong case to crack the roster as an undrafted free agent. However, the incumbent Ashtyn Davis is fighting to defend his spot. Davis had a big game against the Bucs last week and is playing well overall this preseason.

Tony Adams, Jordan Whitehead, and Adrian Amos are locks at safety. After that, it seems likely the Jets will only keep one more safety. Will the Jets go with the younger, cheaper Dean? Or will they stick with Davis, who they seem to trust on special teams?

Keep an eye on Dean and Davis tonight – but don’t just wait until you notice them making big hits. Watch them closely on a snap-to-snap basis and evaluate the little things. Are they filling gaps correctly? Are they defeating blockers or getting blocked out of plays? Are they handling their assignments in coverage?

Don’t forget about special teams, either. This will be an important factor in deciding the Dean vs. Davis battle. Davis was the Jets’ primary punt protector in 2022, which is an underrated role on special teams. He also played plenty of snaps in other special teams roles. New York clearly likes Davis on special teams, so if Dean proves that he can at least match Davis in that phase, it will significantly improve his roster chances.

So far, Dean has done a good job of proving himself on special teams. On only five punt-coverage snaps, he’s already made two tackles, both holding the returner to a one-yard gain.

Davis is set to have a cap hit of $3.0 million this season, of which the Jets can clear $2.7 million by releasing him. Considering how well Dean has played so far, it’s hard to envision the Jets keeping Davis at that cap number over Dean, but we shall see. Tonight is Dean’s chance to seal the deal. With another good performance, he’d be at four-for-four in the preseason, giving the Jets’ coaches absolutely no choice but to keep him.

Alijah Vera-Tucker’s return

Alijah Vera-Tucker is on track to make his first appearance since he suffered a season-ending triceps tear in Week 7 last year.

There are probably at least a dozen Jets players who get talked about more than AVT, but despite the relative lack of fanfare (more so among the national media than among Jets fans), he has the talent to be one of the five best players on the team.

In fact, it can be argued that Vera-Tucker was already the most valuable player on the team in 2022. He single-handedly held together a patchwork offensive line throughout the first six-and-a-half games. Once he went out, the entire unit collapsed.

A gifted athlete who boasts buttery-smooth footwork, tremendous explosiveness out of his stance, and unique open-field speed for an offensive lineman, Vera-Tucker pops off the tape in every game he plays. He can be one of the best guards in football if he stays healthy.

Just a few weeks ago, while the Jets offensive line was struggling, Robert Saleh suggested the team is open to moving Vera-Tucker back outside to tackle if the situation calls for it. Vera-Tucker’s ability to do that in a pinch is extremely valuable, but he’s at his best on the inside. And with Mekhi Becton finally moving to right tackle, Vera-Tucker will be able to stay put at his best position.

Watch No. 75 at right guard tonight. He’s one of the most special offensive talents the Jets have had over the past decade.

Most of the first-team offensive line playing together for the first time

Left tackle Duane Brown’s status for tonight is unclear, but at least four of the Jets’ five projected OL starters are expected to play tonight: left guard Laken Tomlinson, center Connor McGovern, right guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, and right tackle Mekhi Becton.

Over the first three games, the Jets never had more than two of their five projected starters on the field at once. Laken Tomlinson and Connor McGovern played some snaps together, but Vera-Tucker and Brown never played while Becton only played with the second-team offensive line.

This will be the first and only opportunity for Rodgers and the starting offensive line to build chemistry in a live game prior to the season opener. More than anything, keep an eye on the unit’s communication.

Are blitzes getting picked up? Are stunts being passed off smoothly? Can the unit avoid allowing any unaccounted-for defenders to penetrate the backfield? Are pre-snap penalties kept to a minimum? These are the things I will be watching for tonight as Rodgers gets his first opportunity to command the majority of his starting offensive line.

Rodgers’ veteran experience and wizardlike wherewithal should allow the offensive line to stay on the same page and minimize communication breakdowns. That is the ideal outcome, but we have to see it in action first.

While a couple of drives in the preseason won’t declare anything about this unit’s future (good or bad), it would nonetheless be a very promising sign to see this unit display chemistry tonight.

How do the Jets utilize their offensive weapons?

While the entire first-team offensive crew will not be out there tonight – Breece Hall and Dalvin Cook will sit – we should see the rest of the Jets’ skill-position players outside of the two star running backs. This will be our first chance to get at least somewhat of a feel for how the Jets will utilize their offensive weapons in 2023.

I recently projected how the Jets will spread targets around this year, building a model based on the 2019-21 Green Bay Packers. I’ll be fixated on the target distribution of the first-team offense tonight, even if it only comes over a small sample size.

It would be silly to try and draw definitive conclusions from a couple of preseason drives (especially with no Hall or Cook), but still, I’m curious to see how the first-team offense spreads the football around in its sole dress rehearsal. Will Rodgers lean on Garrett Wilson to the degree he leaned on Davante Adams? Or will a No. 2 target emerge – coming closer to Wilson’s target volume than anyone ever did to Adams during his peak years? Perhaps Allen Lazard or Tyler Conklin pull this off.

One thing to watch out for – which might be more telling than the target distribution – is the Jets’ personnel usage. I am curious to see two things: how often they utilize 12 personnel (1 RB/2 TE/2 WR) and how often they use fullback Nick Bawden. Especially now that the Jets lost Davis, I could see them being one of the lowest-ranking teams in the usage of 11 personnel (1 RB/1 TE/3 WR) while ranking near the top in the usage of heavy personnel packages.

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