Sam Darnold. (Photo: Getty Images)
It really isn’t about this year for the New York Jets, who kick off their slate of preseason games on Friday against the Atlanta Falcons. This season is really about setting up next year.
 
Then again, that was already a known fact.
 
This is the second year of a rebuild for the Jets, who are turning a once veteran roster into a young group with actual depth. And with a likely $100 million war chest heading into next offseason, this year is about continuing to build that two-deep before going after some high-priced free agents.
 
And with that, ‘Three Things to Watch’ as the Jets host a possible Super Bowl contender on Friday night at MetLife Stadium:
 

1. Filling in for Mo

The Jets will need to replace the production and threat that was Muhamad Wilkerson coming off the edge, and while the former first-round pick declined each of the past two years, Wilkerson was still a name and a commodity around the league. He commanded respect from opposing offensive lines, even as he struggled with injuries and didn’t get into the backfield with regularity.
 
This is where Nathan Shepherd, the third-round pick of the Jets in this spring’s NFL Draft, will need to step forward. Shepherd is a big-bodied defensive end who can also play in the interior.
 
As the only rookie on the first-team on the unofficial depth chart released by the team, Shepherd will have the responsibility of providing balance to the defensive line. How he performs and holds up will determine the effectiveness of the Jets pass rush and can help defensive end Leonard Williams, who is likely to face a number of double-teams this year.
 

2. The running back battle

It will be another year of running back by committee for the Jets, who haven’t had a true bell cow in the backfield since the Curtis Martin days (although Shonn Greene briefly had that type of role for a couple of seasons). So who gets the nod as a starter doesn’t matter too much as two if not three running backs will split the carries this year.
 
But it was interesting to see that in the aforementioned unofficial depth chart released this week, free agent running back Isaiah Crowell was listed as the starter over incumbent Bilal Powell.
 
Crowell is a versatile running back with a good frame and equally good hands as a receiver out of the backfield. While he might be more explosive than his competition on the roster, there is no denying that Powell is not only proven but steady.
 
This is a training camp battle that might linger for a couple more weeks as Crowell has shown some positives up to this point.
 

3. Oh yeah, there’s a rookie quarterback

How could we forget that Sam Darnold is making his Jets debut Friday?
 
Don’t expect 2009 where Rex Ryan dialed up a deep pass for Mark Sanchez’s first pass of the preseason, a ball where the ‘Sanchise’ nearly connected on a go-route. The plan with Darnold is to bring him along slowly, a mindset that makes sense given the solid depth at the position with veterans Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater ahead of the USC quarterback on the depth chart.
 
He likely will get his shots to get the ball down the field but this is a process of development with Darnold and not sizzle.
 
Darnold should see significant snaps on Friday night and it will be a chance to watch his footwork (he showed some happy feet in the pocket last year at USC), his ability to read defenses (there’s a tendency to try and fit balls into too tight of a window) and his overall grasp of the playbook. He’s a work in progress but there is potential there.
 
Buckle up. It will be fun.