Dave Choate: The headlines Adam Gase has been grabbing seem to concern bugged-out eyes, weird bets with Peyton Manning, and smelling salts, but how are you feeling about the job he’s actually done to this point with the Jets? Are things looking up with him at the helm?
MacGregor Wells: This is a difficult thing to evaluate at this point. I have not attended practices, so I am relying on reports from beat writers. Reports are that Sam Darnold has a much better grasp of the offense this year and is poised to make the proverbial second year leap at quarterback. Whether that’s true or nor remains to be seen. Thus far we have seen one pre-season drive with the Jets first team offense, and It resulted in a good looking seven play touchdown drive. Darnold looked in command and efficient. Do we give credit to Gase for this? Who knows? The alchemy between quarterback and coach is always a little difficult to parse as far as credit is concerned.
Regarding the team other than Darnold, practices appear to be well organized and spirited, and the team so far seems to have a more positive vibe than in years past. Whether that extends into the regular season, particularly if and when a losing streak hits, is anyone’s guess. For now the Jets have avoided off season drama after Gase and new GM Joe Douglas settled in, have installed a more aggressive scheme on both sides of the ball, and dominated on both sides of the ball in very limited first team against first team action in their pre-season debut against the Giants. That all seems positive, so for now I’ll say Gase is doing well, with the proviso that we really won’t know much until the regular season is well underway.
Dave Choate: Sam Darnold is obviously this franchise’s great hope of the moment, and I thought he had a pretty impressive rookie season, given everything. How is Darnold looking in his second year, and what steps have the Jets taken to help him take step forward?
MacGregor Wells: Most reports are that Darnold looks like a much improved quarterback thus far. His arm appears stronger, his reads more decisive, his decisions better. The offense seems to be much improved, though we really won’t be sure of much until we see real NFL action in the fall. The Jets have tried to upgrade the offensive line, bringing in former Pro Bowl linemen Kelechi Osemele and Ryan Kalil, as well as drafting tackle Chuma Edoga and bringing in backup interior linemen Tom Compton and Alex Lewis. That is a pretty substantial turnover on the offensive line, and at least on paper, it should represent a pretty significant upgrade. The Jets also have brought in slot receiver Jamison Crowder to go with incumbents Robby Anderson and Quincy Enunwa at wide receiver, they brought in running backs Le’Veon Bell and Ty Montgomery, significantly upgrading the offensive skill positions. With tight end Chris Herndon coming off an impressive rookie year and expecting a nice second year leap, the Jets have made an aggressive investment across the entire offense in an attempt to give Darnold the pieces he needs on offense to succeed. It would be a surprise if the Jets offense isn’t significantly more productive in 2019.
Dave Choate: The Le’Veon Bell signing was obviously a big deal. Is he the true bell cow for this offense, and how much do you expect him to be involved in the passing game for Gang Green?
MacGregor Wells: Le’Veon Bell is a far better running back than the Jets have had at any time since Curtis Martin retired more than a decade ago. He has been a workhorse in the past, and he should be primed to continue to be the bell cow for the Jets. He will likely be less effective running the ball than he was with Pittsburgh, simply because the Steelers have a better run blocking offensive line than the Jets. I would expect Bell to be heavily involved in the passing game, simply because he is one of the best, if not the best, pass catching backs in the NFL. Up until now Bell hasn’t seen any action in the pre-season, and he may not see any action against the Falcons. His work in practice has been limited, as Gase tries to ease him back into game shape after a year away from the NFL. As a result it’s not entirely clear how the Jets plan to use Bell, but if Gase is anything close to the offensive mind he is said to be, Bell should be heavily involved in all aspects of the Jets offense and rarely leave the field. If Bell stays healthy it would not surprise me if he ended up being targeted in the passing game more than all but one or two Jets in 2019.
Dave Choate: That Jets defense is looking pretty good! How have the offseason additions bolstered an already promising defensive line, and where are the weaknesses here? Are there young defenders we should be looking for in this game?
MacGregor Wells: The Jets defense is very strong up the middle, with Pro Bowl players on the line (Leonard Williams), at inside linebacker (C.J. Mosley) and at safety (Jamal Adams). The Jets added Quinnen Williams to the defensive line, a player many considered the best in the 2019 draft. It should be very difficult to run the ball against the Jets in 2019; if the team stays healthy I would anticipate a top 5 run defense for this team.
Passing defense, on the other hand, is a completely different story. The Jets have one of the weakest cornerback groups in the NFL, with Trumaine Johnson at CB1, Darryl Roberts at CB2, and Brian Poole at slot CB. Johnson is coming off a mediocre 2018, Roberts has never been a starting cornerback in the NFL, and Poole is better known for his hard hitting than his coverage abilities. To make matters worse Johnson is hurt and may not be ready for the start of the season, and his primary backup, Kyron Brown, a 2019 undrafted free agent, is also hurt. Cornerback looks to be a huge weakness for the 2019 Jets, and unless they add somebody good or are hugely surprised by one or two of the young back of the roster guys, it could be a very long year for the Jets’ secondary.
The Jets also have no edge rushers to speak of. The starters are Jordan Jenkins and Brandon Copeland, not exactly household names. Unless the interior linemen take a big leap in their pass rushing prowess in 2019, it looks like the only way the Jets will have to create consistent pressure is blitzing. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves to blitz, and perhaps his schemes can make up for a lack of pass rushing talent, but as we know, blitzing presents its own set of issues. If you don’t get to the quarterback with a blitz you are counting on your cornerbacks to hold up in coverage without much help. With the weak Jets cornerbacks look for the Jets to give up more than their fair share of big plays against the pass this year.
The two young Jets defenders you might want to keep an eye on in this game are 2019 first round draft pick defensive tackle Quinnen Williams and 2018 sixth round draft pick defensive tackle Folorunso Fatukasi. Williams was widely considered to be the best player in the 2019 draft. So far he has been relatively quiet in Jets camp; it would be nice to see him break out soon. Fatukasi showed very little in 2018, but he looked like a different player against the Giants last week, penetrating at will and living in the Giants’ backfield. That earned him some first team reps in practice; we’ll see if he can keep up the momentum this week against the Falcons.
Dave Choate: Is this the year the Jets knock the Patriots off the top of the AFC East? Please say yes, and let me know what your expectations for the season are.
MacGregor Wells: Ummm...yes??? Look, the Patriots have what has proven over the years to be the magic formula in the NFL, an all time great quarterback and an all time great head coach. Unless and until Tom Brady and/or Bill Belichick show clear signs of decline, that team has to be the favorites in the AFC East. In addition, the Patriots now have an excellent defense and running game, two things they have been bolstering recently in anticipation of Brady’s decline. It is certainly possible this is the year Brady finally declines, but until we see it, it’s tough to bet against the Patriots.
The way somebody will eventually dethrone the Patriots is Brady will either become injured or ineffective, Belichick will retire, or some other team will come up with a great head coach and great quarterback combination. I am obviously biased, but in the AFC East, my opinion is Sam Darnold has the best chance of becoming the kind of top quarterback needed to compete with the Patriots. If Darnold were to take the proverbial second year leap, and if Brady declined a bit, and if the Jets stayed very healthy all year so that their paper thin depth is not an issue, then perhaps the Jets might challenge the Patriots for AFC East supremacy. But that’s a lot of ifs. The better bet is the Patriots reign again in 2019 in the AFC East, with the Jets being at least a year away from being serious challengers.
If the Jets are blessed with good health I think they might challenge for a wild card spot in 2019. Prediction: maybe 9-7, if things go right.