The Jets open training camp this week full of hope despite lingering questions within their own rank. The rest of the AFC East has question marks, too.
New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady will miss the first four games due to a suspension from the tired Deflategate saga. The Miami Dolphins have a neophyte head coach in Adam Gase, so they’re a question mark. And the Buffalo Bills – led by former Jets head coach and current nemesis – Rex Ryan are already at a crossroads in just his second season at the helm.
If there was ever a time for the Jets to strike and steal the division, this season figures to be their best chance. But with the Ryan Fitzpatrick drama still ongoing and the team’s best defensive lineman, the newly-inked Muhammad Wilkerson, still recovering from a broken right leg suffered in last season’s finale, it will not be easy for Gang Green to usurp the Patriots’ divisional grip.
Things can never be easy for the Jets – it’s the Jets’ way. But for the first time in a long time, they at least have the look of a staunch opponent to New England.
Wilkerson declared that he will be ready for the Sept. 11 opener, while several reports state the Jets have provided Fitzpatrick with several offers to choose from, so things could get resolved any moment.
Metro takes a look at key training camp storylines to follow, as the Jets try to finally get over the hump and back into postseason play.
What to watch for:
The bearded elephant in the room
Fitzpatrick, who last season enjoyed the finest campaign of his journeyman career, is still unsigned. The Jets-Fitzpatrick ordeal is perhaps the league’s most confounding contract stare-down of the NFL offseason, and with camp about to start, unless there’s massive compromise from both sides, it looks like this will drag on – and hover – well into camp. Fitzpatrick is coming off a season throwing for 3,905 yards and 31 touchdowns, as he led the Jets to a single-season mark of 5,925 total yards. The Jets finished No. 10 overall in offense and No. 11 in scoring at 24.2 points per game. Their 66-percent red-zone touchdown conversion rate placed them No. 3 overall. New York also had two 1,000-yard receivers in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and a 1,000-yard rusher in Chris Ivory (now in Jacksonville) in the same season for the first time since 1998. Gang Green was a sneaky-good offense, last season, but if they don’t bring back Fitzpatrick, New York fans will be forced to ride the Geno Smith roller coaster or hinge their hopes on two untested signal callers -- second-year vet Bryce Petty, or rookie Christian Hackenberg. And this long-suffering fanbase may not be ready for any of those options.
Newcomers need to be upgrades
Gone are Ivory, the AFC’s leading rusher, and mainstay D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who abruptly retired in the offseason. General manager Mike Maccagnan, though, moved quickly on both fronts to fill those voids at running back and left tackle, respectively. The Jets rebounded from the Ivory free-agent defection by signing Matt Forte, and acquired four-time Pro Bowl left tackle Ryan Clady from the Denver Broncos, via trade. Two of the most important pieces in a Chan Gailey attack were filled by question marks, as Clady has missed the better part of four seasons with multiple maladies, while Forte was seen as expendable by a Bears squad that is far from playoff contention. The latter is coming off a season where he had career lows in rushing yards (898) and receptions (44). Clady, if healthy, isn’t a huge drop off. But the questions about him have never been on-field excellence, but rather can he stay away from the training table. If Forte regains his form, he could be a game-changer, as his 12,718 yards from scrimmage since 2008 is tops in the NFL. He’s excelled at between-the-tackle running and wreaking havoc in the passing game, so for the offensive coordinator Gailey, it’s just another weapon at the disposal for whoever is under center.
Fitz isn’t the only notable absence
First-round pick, linebacker Darron Lee, remains unsigned. He’s one of three rookies who has yet to sign a contract. A fourth-year guarantee figures to be the snag, as players drafted ahead of him all received the guaranteed fourth year. The exception is the San Diego Chargers defensive end Joey Bosa, selected third, who has also yet to sign. Lee was selected 20th overall and is in line to earn about $1.8 million in that guaranteed fourth year. The player picked after him, Houston Texans wideout Will Fuller received a fully-guaranteed $1.836 million in the fourth year. The Jets are countering that this year’s 22nd pick, Washington receiver Josh Doctson, only received a partial guarantee on the fourth year (a reported $1.2 million of $1.8 million), while last year’s 20th pick, Philadelphia’s wideout Nelson Agholor, will also see a partial guarantee ($1.1 million of $1.7 million). Both players have the same representation (Creative Artists Agency’s Todd France), so expect for matters to move swiftly, especially when the gap is just a reported $600,000. But once Lee is inked, he will need to quickly catch up to speed. Not just because he’s a rookie, and their heads are usually swimming in camp, but also because he’s going to have to adjust at playing inside linebacker in the Jets’ 3-4 scheme (three linemen and four linebackers) where players at that position have traditionally been burly thumpers able to take on NFL-sized guards. Lee is listed at 6-foot-1 and 238 pounds, so he’ll need to have his run stopping skills match his speed and agility.