The Jets were two defeats to the Bills short of being the No. 1 seed in the AFC last season. Such a successful first season under the guidance of Todd Bowles should be a springboard for the Jets to launch into the playoffs in 2016, but contract disputes with key players on both sides of the ball are threatening to cast a shadow over Gang Green’s aspirations. As training camp and preseason progress we should see that uncertainty start to resolve itself but at the present moment it’s hard to gauge whether the Jets are on an upward or downward trajectory.
[More: Be sure to check out PFF’s ranking of all 32 NFL QB situations, offensive lines, running back units, receiving corps, secondaries, and defensive front-sevens. Catch up on all the team previews here.]
Uncertainty at QB could be Jets’ undoing
Quarterbacks: 32nd in PFF’s season preview rankings
The first of those contract disputes, with Ryan Fitzpatrick, is what ultimately raises the biggest question over the Jets’ trajectory in 2016. Without Fitzpatrick aboard, the Jets are left with Week 17 specialist Geno Smith leading a quarterback contest with Bryce Petty (fourth-lowest-graded QB in the 2015 preseason) and Christian Hackenberg (fifth-lowest-graded QB in the 2016 NFL Draft). The lack of clarity at the quarterback position must surely be addressed early in training camp either with Fitzpatrick returning to the fold or the door being closed to his return. The Jets will hope that one of three quarterbacks currently on the roster can seize the position in a positive manner but the previous track record would suggest the quarterback position will be a lead weight around the Jets’ hopes for 2016.
Arrival of Forte should signal change team’s running style
Running Backs: 17th
A year ago, the Jets were led in the backfield by the power of Chris Ivory, but have instead looked for a more balanced backfield in 2016 with former Bear Matt Forte leading their ground attack. Forte will not add the same value in the running game in terms of yards after contact or forcing missed tackles as Ivory, but his production in the passing game adds an extra dimension and threat to the Jets’ backfield that Ivory rarely offered. The concern for the Jets will be how much Forte can create for himself if the offensive line cannot give him a consistent platform to attack opposing defenses. The Bears got Forte across the line of scrimmage untouched more often than any other offensive line in the NFL last year and still Forte didn’t set the world alight with more than steady production. Bilal Powell complements Forte’s skills in the passing game but neither is at their best, as Ivory often was, overpowering opposing defenses who manage to breakdown the blocking in front of them.
Strength of the top two help mask other weaknesses
Receiving corps: 11th
Led by Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, the Jets boast one of the best 1-2 punches in the league at wide receiver and make this receiving corps one of the strengths of the roster in spite of question marks over the third and fourth options (Matt Forte aside). Each racked up double-digit touchdowns, and their ability to win contested catches will be an assist to whoever emerges as the starter from the Jets’ quarterback competition. Around these two the question marks, or the potential depending upon your viewpoint, start to come in. Devin Smith’s rookie season was almost entirely derailed by injuries; can he show why he was seen as one of the premier deep threats in a stacked 2015 receiver class? Options are limited at tight end so the pressure will be on the running backs and the depth at wide receiver to add third, fourth and fifth options around the Jets top wide receiver pairing that will look to drive this offense.
Ferguson’s retirement messes with the plans
Offensive Line: 24th
It’s the start of a new era for the Jets’ offensive line, which must move forward without D’Brickashaw Ferguson tying down the left tackle position for the first time in a decade. A healthy Ryan Clady should offer an upgrade on Ferguson’s final season for the Jets, but with Clady having missed two of the last three seasons due to injury that isn’t necessarily a guarantee. The Jets have the potential for a strong left side to their offensive line with Clady sitting outside James Carpenter, who impressed in his first season with Gang Green, and veteran center Nick Mangold. However, things look a little less cheery on the right side with Brian Winters and Breno Giacomini among the worst starters in the league at right guard and right tackle. Only four offensive tackles allowed more total pressure than Giacomini last season, while the Jets averaged less than four yards per carry on runs to the right side with 66 percent of those yards coming after first contact. Competition from unheralded members of the offensive line will need to materialize if the Jets aren’t to have a very unbalanced offensive line this season.
Wilkerson extension helps to solidify things
In terms of run defense, this is the strength of the Jets’ entire roster. Muhammad Wilkerson proved last year to be a terrific and versatile defender, racking up run-defense and pass-rushing production from both the edge and the interior of the defense. Wilkerson racked up at least 30 pressures from both defensive tackle and edge alignments, a profile that Sheldon Richardson came close to matching himself as the Jets bulked up on the edge with a lack of production from their “true” edge rushers. Entering his second season, Leonard Williams adds further weight to the Jets’ powerful defensive line, but that force is not matched either by the Jets edge defenders or their off-the-ball linebackers. Can Lorenzo Mauldin raise his game and claim a more rounded role after playing 86 percent of his snaps on passing downs as a rookie? At linebacker, Darron Lee attempts to bring an X-factor next to veteran David Harris, who will once again be solid in coverage but needs to raise his game as a run defender to help cover for the loss of Damon Harrison.
Revis makes this unit good if top-heavy
Any unit led by Darrelle Revis is in a good position at the very top of the depth chart, but behind Revis, who led all cornerbacks allowing a completion percentage of 46.5 percent in 2015, questions start to rise around the overall strength of this unit. Buster Skrine struggled as the Jets’ third corner last year, earning the worst single-season coverage grade of his career, and will be challenged to raise his game to be the second corner behind Revis. In his two seasons as a full time starter in Cleveland, Skrine allowed 17 touchdowns and he will be heavily tested across from Revis in 2016. The competition for Skrine will surely come from the likes of Marcus Williams and Dee Milliner with Milliner’s strong close to the 2013 season drifting into memory at this point in time. The Jets’ safety play adds to this secondary however, with Marcus Gilchrist and Calvin Pryor bringing quality play against the run and in coverage respectively. Heavy investment at cornerback didn’t pay off for the Jets last year and whether the Jets’ secondary flourishes or is let down by a lack of depth at corner will be determined by the likes of Skrine, Milliner and Williams.