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“I think this team has playoff upside”: Five illuminating Jets answers from Gang Green Nation

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Learn more about this week’s preseason opponent, the New York Jets.

NFL: New York Jets-Training Camp Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

As is our custom around these parts, we’ve reached out to the rival SB Nation site this week to learn more about our opponent. Here are five questions and five smart answers from Michael Nania at Gang Green Nation.

Sam Darnold

Dave Choate: Any Q&A has to start with Sam Darnold, right? How is the rookie looking, how soon is going to start, and what are your expectations for him both in the short-term and in the years to come?

Michael Any sentence involving the New York Jets has to start with Sam Darnold! Anyway, early reports on him in training camp have been overwhelmingly positive. He was getting headlines for the wrong reasons as he missed the first few days of a camp due to a holdout, which was mostly blamed on his agent. Fortunately, he only missed one padded practice, and all of that nonsense is water under the bridge now. The beat reporters have gushed over Darnold, praising him day after day for his maturity, ability to produce “wow” throws, mobility, and advanced field-reading talent for a 21-year old. Jets fans have been hard on reporters for being overly negative on the quarterbacks for years - but it seems that now there could finally be a true young prodigy in the building.

It seems the Jets are going to give him every shot to earn the starting job. Last season, the Jets gave young prospects Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg all the time in the world to steal the starting spot from Josh McCown in the preseason, but they just could not take advantage. Now having paid a high price to move up and spend a premium asset on Darnold, there is no reason to expect the Jets to change their approach from last year’s when it comes to the starting competition. McCown is there for insurance, and Teddy Bridgewater is an interesting wild card, but it seems like the team is very high on Darnold and will confidently roll with him from the start as long as he is sufficient throughout the preseason.

Of course, you have to keep expectations at a minimum for his first season. Rookies rarely produce at an efficient level as starters. The main thing that I would like to see is for the Jets to refrain from simplifying things and let him take his bumps. Darnold has a gunslinger mentality - he’s a chance-taker. He’s probably never going to be a pristine ball-protector, but he can still be a superstar while turning the ball over at average rates. After all, his college interception rate is in the neighborhood of the NFL career interception rates of guys like Peyton Manning, Brett Favre, Dan Marino, and Ben Roethlisberger among other Hall-of-Famers. I want the Jets to let Sam do his thing - design rollouts for him, get him some option plays, and let him get his feet wet playing his brand of football in the NFL. Longterm, the upside for a guy like Sam, with his combination of IQ and the ability to make those plus throws, is unlimited.

The state of the offense

Dave Choate: This offense has been a trouble spot for what seems like years. Are things looking up, or are you expecting another rough year?

Michael Nania: As I mentioned previously, you have to cap your expectations with an offense led by a rookie. If Sam does not start, the other two quarterback options are decent but not exactly world-beating from a production standpoint. Bridgewater was a good game manager in Minnesota, but I don’t think he would do much to lift the offense beyond where it was last year. Josh McCown had an average-ish sort of 2017, but is due to regress if he plays any extended time this year.

The Jets also have a spotty offensive line. Their only proven starter from last year was left tackle Kelvin Beachum who already has a week-to-week foot injury. They added Spencer Long for a big upgrade at center. He is a quality pass protector when healthy and has experience in an offense similar to what Jeremy Bates (a Shanahan disciple) will run, but he has consistent injury questions and can stand to get much better as a run blocker. It’s a group that has some potential untapped upside in Long (who has only played a pair of seasons at center in the NFL), the young Brandon Shell, and the oft-injured Brian Winters, but way too many question marks to be relied upon.

The skill position group is what gives you confidence this unit might be sneaky good. While the tight ends are unproven, the wide receiver core is overflowing with upside. Robby Anderson is an elite deep threat and was a top-ten producer when playing with Josh McCown last year. Quincy Enunwa eclipsed horrible surroundings and quarterback play to have a tremendous 2016, and will return from injury this year. Jermaine Kerase had a career season last year as a solid chain-moving slot receiver. Terrelle Pryor had a down 2017 marred by injuries but showcased tremendous potential as a receiver in 2016 in Cleveland. At running back, Bilal Powell and Isaiah Crowell are among the most efficient backs in YPC over the past two years. Elijah McGuire is a young back with a lot of receiving talent. Sixth round rookie Trenton Cannon has been the star of camp with his speed.

The skill position group has the upside to make a surprise run towards playing at a top-ten level this year, but questions at offensive line, tight end, and a limited ceiling at quarterback (for this year) cap my expectations for the unit. I expect something similar to last year - they will explode at times, but ultimately have too many complete messes of games to be an overall good unit. I think they finish some where from 22nd-16th in scoring (they were 24th last year).

The secondary

Dave Choate: I’m intrigued by the New York secondary, especially the safety position. What are your expectations for that unit this season, and are we lucky the Falcons are only having to play them in the preseason?

Michael Nania: If the Jets are to make a surprise playoff run, which I think is on the table, this secondary will be the main reason why. Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye had their bumps last year, allowing a combined 9 touchdowns in coverage, but they played overall strong football, borderline dominating against the run and having some sound stretches against the pass.

Trumaine Johnson brings a positive ripple effect that helps everyone. Morris Claiborne was very strong as the #1 last year before an injury hampered his end-of-year production, but Johnson allows him to slide to a #2 role. He’ll also take coverage pressure off of Adams and Maye - in addition to lessening the impact of the Jets’ lack of depth at cornerback that hurt them last year. 2017 draft pick Derrick Jones has also made a lot of training camp noise. It’s a secondary with a ton of potential. Johnson and Claiborne are both very physical press corners who can hold up on islands and allow Todd Bowles to get aggressive with creative blitzes. Adams and Maye are both extremely versatile - and if they can tighten up with their backs against the wall and lessen their touchdown yield, they both have Pro Bowl potential.

Somehow, without an edge rush and while facing Tom Brady twice, the Jets ranked 16th in fewest yards per attempt allowed and 19th in lowest passer rating allowed last year - decent numbers. With Johnson aboard, another year of experience for Adams and Maye, and the potential uprising of the aforementioned Jones and fellow 2017 draft pick Jeremy Clark, this unit is absolutely poised to become a top-ten secondary.

Young players to look for

Dave Choate: Who are some young players you think Falcons fans should keep an eye on, either because they’re destined for greatness or headed for roster spots?

Michael Nania: We’re excited to watch Trenton Cannon in live game action, as we’ll be seeing him for the first time and the same time as you will be. He dominated Division II at Virginia State, and has popped throughout training camp to onlookers. If he is the guy he has been at camp, you won’t have a choice but to notice him. His speed stands out big time in his grainy small-school college highlight videos.

Another DII guy to watch - 3rd round pick Nathan Shepherd. A soon-to-be 25-year old rookie, Shepherd owned Division II offensive linemen at Fort Hays State and turned heads at the Senior Bowl. So far, the athletic behemoth has caught eyes at training camp. He has the physical profile to dominate in the NFL - will his production translate over a two-level leap?

2018 Jets season expectations

Dave Choate: What are your expectations for the season ahead? Can the Jets surprise in the AFC East this year, or are we another season away?

Michael Nania: In terms of winning the AFC East, I’d hold back. Though I think the Patriots lost a lot of key talent and might regress to an 11-12 win team, this is their division until it’s not. Betting on them to win this division is one of the safest bets in sports.

However, I think this team has playoff upside. If Darnold can have a Watson or Luck-esque rookie year, and the secondary fulfills its potential, the team can absolutely be winning consistently down the field on both sides. I can see a 10-win ceiling for this team.

However, they lack any proven edge rush talent, a dominant offensive playmaker, any sort of reliability at tight end, have big-time question marks in coverage at inside linebacker, and could be starting a rookie quarterback. The main goal for this year is to get Sam Darnold a lot of playing time and set him on the track for longterm success, while at the same time continuing positive development on defense, something Todd Bowles has yet to prove he can do. I would predict the Jets to win 7 or 8 games at this point, with a floor of 6 wins.

But make no mistake, this year is not about the playoffs, and most fans have accepted that. The Jets are poised to enter 2019 with a second-year Darnold, a developed core of young talent, and loads of cap space in a market gushing at positions of need. As long as the Jets can come out of this year confident they have their guy in Darnold, and with a young core they can rely upon to be the nucleus of a consistent winner, the year will be a success, even if it falls short of the playoffs.