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5 vital long-term storylines for NY Jets fans to track on TNF

Carter Warren, NY Jets, Stats, Draft
Carter Warren, New York Jets, Getty Images

Why should a New York Jets fan watch Thursday Night Football?

With the New York Jets eliminated from playoff contention, some fans are wondering whether it is even worth tuning into tonight’s game. There is a chance we could witness an utter calamity on the offensive side of the ball, as the Jets’ historically poor offense will take on Cleveland’s top-ranked defense in front of a raucous Dawg Pound crowd.

If you’re one of those fans debating whether to watch the game – no worries. I got you.

Jets fans, you guys have plenty of fascinating storylines to track tonight. While the final score may not matter much, there will be plenty of things happening on the field that are certain to affect the 2024 season (and beyond). This is your opportunity to be a meticulous talent evaluator rather than a crazed fan.

These are the five storylines I’ll be fixating on in tonight’s game.

1. Can Carter Warren build on his success against Washington?

Fixing the offensive line will be New York’s top priority this offseason.

The Jets have multiple spots to fill in the starting lineup, and they will surely attempt to fill them with blockbuster moves. But they also need to strengthen their depth along the offensive line.

In each of the past few years, the Jets’ offensive line went from subpar to completely unplayable as soon as injuries began to hit. Successful teams have strong enough depth to keep their offensive line looking respectable after an injury or two.

Look no further than the Jets’ opponent tonight.

The Browns have lost both of their starting tackles for the season: Jack Conklin (injured in first game) and Jedrick Wills (injured in eighth game). That hasn’t stopped Cleveland from building a wall that is sturdy enough to make an aging Joe Flacco look good.

Over the past four weeks, Flacco has been pressured on 32.2% of his dropbacks, per PFF, which is the fourth-lowest rate among 32 qualified quarterbacks.

On the year, Cleveland’s offensive line ranks 18th in pass-blocking efficiency. After losing both of your starting tackles, the No. 18 spot is a tremendous place to find yourself. The Browns’ offensive line has weathered the storm and continues to play at a level that gives the quarterback a fighting chance. Compare this to the Jets, whose offensive line ranks 31st in pass-blocking efficiency.

A big reason why Cleveland has been able to stay afloat is the play of Dawand Jones, who was a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft. Jones is now out for the season after a recent knee injury, but across nine starts at right tackle in place of Conklin, Jones was playing extraordinarily well given the expectations. Jones allowed 21 total pressures on 419 pass-blocking snaps, a pressure rate of 5.0% that ranks 22nd-best out of 79 qualified tackles.

All of that brings us to the Jets’ fourth-round rookie tackle, Carter Warren.

The Pittsburgh product played his first career snaps on offense in the Jets’ Week 11 loss at Buffalo. Over his first three games (Weeks 11-13), Warren struggled mightily while playing both left tackle (2 starts) and right tackle (1 start). He allowed 11 total pressures on 129 pass-blocking snaps for an 8.5% pressure rate. Four of those pressures were sacks. Warren also had two penalties.

Warren went back to the bench for two weeks until he returned to the starting lineup at right tackle against Washington. Taking advantage of the Commanders’ barren edge-rush unit, Warren had the first impressive performance of his career, allowing only two pressures on 55 pass-blocking snaps (3.6% pressure rate) with zero sacks allowed and zero penalties.

Cleveland will be an entirely different challenge compared to Washington. Can you name one Commanders edge rusher? Going once. Going twice. That’s what I thought. (Their starting edge rushers against the Jets were Casey Toohill and James Smith-Williams.)

In a chilly road game under the prime-time lights, Warren will square off against Myles Garrett and Za’Darius Smith, who rank third-best among EDGE duos with 133 combined pressures. If Warren’s progress against Washington was legitimate, he will make it clear tonight.

It’s unlikely that Warren will be given a chance to compete for a starting job in 2024 (if he does get a chance, it means the Jets didn’t add enough talent to their tackle unit), but he will have an opportunity to emerge as their top backup tackle. As Jones showed with the Browns, a team’s season can be saved through excellent play from a backup tackle – particularly a young one who was drafted on Day 3. Can Warren prove he is capable of doing the same for the Jets in 2024?

2. Can Will McDonald continue showing high-level flashes?

First-round pick Will McDonald has been hard to notice this year due to his tiny snap count (157 snaps). However, if you’ve watched him closely, you’ve seen that he’s made substantial progress from the start of the year up to now. He’s been making the absolute most of his opportunities in the second half of the season.

Since Week 9, McDonald has a 21.4% pass-rush win rate (10th-best among 128 edge rushers with 40+ pass-rush snaps) and a 20.5% pressure rate (7th). He’s not on the field often, but when he is, he wins.

Be wary of the sample size here. Over this span, McDonald has played only 44 pass-rush snaps in seven games (6.3 per game). It’s possible that McDonald’s efficiency is buoyed by his freshness when on the field, and it could also just be a small-sample fluke.

Still, those are incredible numbers. And they are very important numbers for the Jets to carry into the offseason for one reason: Bryce Huff‘s uncertain future.

Huff is set for free agency after a season in which it did not appear the Jets were particularly eager to discuss a contract extension with him. While New York’s mindset could change once the regular season concludes, it’s becoming increasingly possible that the Jets’ best pass rusher finds a new home this offseason.

If Huff does end up leaving, it will be on McDonald to fill his shoes. After all, the Jets drafted him in the first round, so it wouldn’t be shocking if the Jets feel confident they can replicate Huff’s impact with McDonald while tagging-and-trading Huff to net some assets.

It sounds perfect on paper. Trade Huff for some picks and simply have McDonald match his production. The on-field product stays the same and you add assets on top of it. That’s a net positive. If it plays out that way, the Jets will have hit a grand slam.

The hard part is actually making it happen. Huff is a known commodity. He’s proven for two years now that he is one of the most efficient pass rushers in the NFL. Here in 2023, he proved he could maintain his elite efficiency over a higher volume of snaps.

McDonald has the talent and tools to do the same thing, but until he definitively proves it, nobody knows for sure whether he can pull it off. His numbers this year are promising, but the sample is too small to invest stock in him just yet.

McDonald’s performance over these last two games will be crucial in determining how New York handles Huff. If McDonald has two more excellent games, it could push the Jets even closer to letting Huff go. If McDonald cools down, perhaps it influences the Jets into thinking they’d rather pay up for the certainty that Huff offers.

The Jets would be wise to boost McDonald’s snap count over the final two games so they can get more chances to evaluate him, but we’ve been saying that for weeks now and nothing has changed, so I wouldn’t expect anything different tonight. Regardless of how often he plays, all Jets fans should fixate on McDonald anytime he is on the field, keeping their eyes glued to him throughout the full duration of his reps.

3. Can Israel Abanikanda keep pushing for the RB2 role?

The Jets need to improve the No. 2 spot on their running back depth chart after a brutal season from Dalvin Cook in that role.

Against Washington, the Jets finally phased out Cook and gave Israel Abanikanda a shot. Abanikanda rushed for 43 yards on nine carries, already exceeding Cook’s season-high for rushing yards (35). Abanikanda’s average of 4.8 yards per carry was better than 13 of Cook’s 15 games this season, and in the only two games where Cook ran for more than 4.8 yards per carry, he only had a combined six carries.

That’s a long-winded way of saying that Abanikanda was an instant upgrade.

After that performance, Abanikanda is likely to continue getting plenty of touches over these final two games. This is Abanikanda’s chance to put himself in the driver’s seat for the RB2 role heading into the offseason.

One important part of Abanikanda’s game to keep an eye on is his blocking. Robert Saleh has stated that Abanikanda was not playing much due to his rawness as a blocker. It was an odd reason for keeping Abanikanda buried behind Cook considering how poorly Cook has blocked this season, but I’m sure Saleh isn’t lying about Abanikanda, as blocking was an issue for him in college. It’s something he must improve if he wants to carve out a consistent role next year.

Abanikanda was on the field for seven passing plays against Washington, but I watched all seven plays and he didn’t have to engage with any defenders on those reps. His progress as a blocker remains up in the air. Hopefully, tonight will yield some opportunities for Abanikanda to be tested as a blocker.

4. Will Kenny Yeboah or Zack Kuntz make the stronger case for TE3?

Jeremy Ruckert will miss tonight’s game with a concussion. That will push Kenny Yeboah into the No. 2 spot on the tight end depth chart. Behind Yeboah, rookie seventh-round pick Zack Kuntz will be elevated from the practice squad for his season debut.

Tyler Conklin and Ruckert are likely locked in as the Jets’ top two tight ends next year, but the third spot could be up for grabs. C.J. Uzomah is a strong cut candidate after being benched late in the season. Tonight is an opportunity for Yeboah and Kuntz to make their early cases for the third tight end spot on the 2024 opening-week roster.

Yeboah made his season debut in Week 14 and has played 55 offensive snaps for the Jets across the past three weeks. While he has yet to catch a pass, he has had some good moments as a blocker.

Kuntz is unusually intriguing for a seventh-round pick because of his historically impressive athleticism. Possessing a perfect Relative Athletic Score (RAS) of 10.00, Kuntz is a freak of nature.

However, the fact that Kuntz fell to the seventh round despite his RAS tells you all you need to know about his actual football skills. Kuntz was extremely raw coming out of Old Dominion and did not show enough in the preseason to earn a 53-man roster spot. Tonight, we’ll get our first chance to see how much he’s improved since the preseason.

For both Yeboah and Kuntz, the key is to impress as a blocker. Any passing-game flashes would be a bonus. Teams know they shouldn’t expect much in the passing game out of their third tight end. However, the Jets like to run some three-tight end packages, so even when everyone is healthy, the third tight end will be counted on to occasionally come in and make an important block. Proving you can do that is what will land you on the roster.

It’s fun to think about how flashy Kuntz can be as a receiver if he fully develops, but his athletic tools can translate to blocking, too. I’m most interested to see whether Kuntz has learned how to use his gifts to move defenders in the run game.

5. Breece Hall aims to set records

This one isn’t necessarily important to the Jets’ long-term future, but we do have a chance to see one of the Jets’ brightest young stars make history, which is well-deserved for Breece Hall considering all he’s been through.

While poor run-blocking has hamstrung Hall on the ground, he is enjoying a breakout year as a receiver. With two more strong performances as a receiver (or one incredible performance), Hall can set multiple single-season receiving records among Jets running backs.

Hall currently has 65 receptions. With seven more, he will pass Adrian Murrell (71 in 1995) for the most in one season by a Jets running back.

Johnny Johnson holds the franchise record for receiving yards in one season (641 in 1993). Hall currently has 537 receiving yards, which means he needs 105 yards to pass Johnson.

As for touchdowns, the record still belongs to Matt Snell after 57 years (4 in 1966). Hall has three receiving touchdowns, so he can tie Snell with one more touchdown or surpass him with two more.

It’s worth noting that Richie Anderson posted 88 receptions for 853 yards in 2000, but he is officially listed as a fullback.

Hall has been through so much. After having a likely Rookie of the Year season cut short by an ACL injury, Hall recovered in time to start in the ensuing season opener and has stayed healthy throughout the season. Despite being fresh off his ACL recovery and battling through countless offensive line injuries, Hall has still established himself as one of the best running backs in the league.

These franchise records would be well-deserved for Hall.

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