FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:
1. Fountain of youth: The Jets are three months away from the start of an unprecedented 2021 NFL season. For the first time in franchise history, they have a first-year coach, a rookie starting quarterback and a young roster. The roster characterization is subjective, but a quick review of seasons past confirms there has never been a season quite like the one on the horizon.
The Jets had two out of three in 2009, with coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez as newbies, but that was a veteran team that made the playoffs after narrowly missing out in 2008. They came close to the trifecta in 1977, with coach Walt Michaels in charge of a youth movement, but quarterback Richard Todd had started six games the previous season as a rookie.
So buckle up, folks. This is going to be a wild ride — and Robert Saleh is all for it.
“Pete Carroll once said, ‘You can’t be afraid to play young guys,'” the Jets’ coach said, quoting one of his mentors. “They’re hell on wheels and they’re fun to watch.”
The Jets should have at least a half dozen rookies in prominent roles, led by quarterback Zach Wilson. Currently, they have four players in the 30-and-up club, which makes them one of the youngest teams in the league. They have a handful of players who were in diapers when Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady broke into the league in 2000, which should make for some fun “age” jokes for the Week 17 matchup.
Saleh knows what’s ahead: There will be growing pains, even for the coach, but he relishes the opportunity. The challenge for the coaching staff is to get the young players thinking and playing like veterans. When that happens, “You become an explosive team in a hurry,” he said.
“But to get to that point takes some trials and tribulations, some bumps in the road and some headaches. You can’t, as a football coach, be afraid to go through those bumps because there’s light at the end of the tunnel. It might be a freight train or actual light, but it doesn’t matter. We’re going through that tunnel and you just got to go.”
For their sake, you hope it’s not the Lincoln Tunnel at rush hour.
2. Scouting the Jets: Some personnel-related notes/observations from last week’s minicamp:
Linebacker C.J. Mosley, who opted out last season, slimmed down and looks quicker. … Outsiders might consider Ty Johnson the forgotten man at running back, but he’s still very much in the team’s plans. He made a strong impression. … Another forgotten player, defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd, turned heads. … Lamarcus Joyner could end up being a sneaky good free-agent signing. He played mostly free safety in minicamp, but his ability to cover slot receivers opens up different possibilities. … Speaking of sneaky good signings, Keelan Cole can ball. He will be in the wide receiver rotation. … Denzel Mims, who started eight games last season, isn’t even among the best five receivers on this year’s roster.
The Jets knew Elijah Moore was good — they had a first-round grade on him — but they were blown away by the rookie wide receiver. … The early returns on first-round pick Alijah Vera-Tucker are extremely positive. I know, I know; it’s early, and they weren’t in pads, but he might be the best offensive lineman on the team. … This coaching staff likes to employ a fullback, which allows them to control angles in the running game out of a two-back package. The leading candidate (actually, the only candidate) is Trevon Wesco.
Remember when tackle Chuma Edoga was considered a potential full-time starter? His roster spot is tenuous. He could be toast if the Jets sign free agent Morgan Moses. …Four of the 12 cornerbacks are rookies, and Isaiah Dunn (undrafted) might be the best of the bunch. The Jets almost drafted him in the sixth round. … Tight end Chris Herndon, who sat out the final day with leg tightness, failed to distinguish himself this spring. Let’s just say he needs a strong training camp.
Cool catch, Keelan. pic.twitter.com/bVtio5Ph1B
— Woody Johnson (@woodyjohnson4) June 9, 2021
3. Silent safety: Marcus Maye blew off the media in minicamp, certainly out of character for him (not to mention a violation of the NFL media policy). Clearly, he didn’t want to answer questions about his ongoing contract negotiations. Players answer contract questions all the time, especially this time of year. His silence spoke volumes.
Maye, who attended the mandatory camp after skipping the voluntary portion of the offseason, will play for the franchise-tag tender ($10.6 million) if he doesn’t agree to a long-term deal by the July 15 deadline. This is a tough one to predict. Like most negotiations, it probably will go down to the deadline.
“We did miss him, to be completely honest,” Jets defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “But he’s a guy that, in my short time getting to know him, is super eager to get caught up and to get up to speed with what we’re doing. I’m excited about moving forward in training camp with him because he definitely will elevate this group in every way.”
4. Backup plan: It doesn’t sound like the Jets are planning to add a veteran quarterback, at least not based on Saleh’s comments.
“I don’t know if there’s much value, aside from being comfortable that, if the crap hits the fan, you have a veteran who’s played football,” he said.
But that’s precisely the reason to add a veteran. If Wilson gets hurt in the preseason, would the Jets really open with James Morgan or Mike White, neither of whom has taken a regular-season snap? What kind of message does that send?
Saleh should know this better than most because of what happened with his previous organization. When the San Francisco 49ers had to go to the bench in 2017 and 2018, they turned to C.J. Beathard and Nick Mullens, neither of whom had played before. The 49ers were 6-10 and 4-12 in those seasons. Jimmy Garoppolo got hurt again in 2020, and they went 6-10 with Beathard and Mullens.
Some coaches like to have an older quarterback in the mentor role, but the value in that is debatable. What’s not debatable is having the benefit of an experienced backup in case … you know, the starter gets hurt or slumps. It’s admirable Saleh wants to give White and Morgan a chance to develop, but the bottom line is winning games.
As I’ve said before, the Chicago Bears‘ Nick Foles should be a trade target. There’s not much left in the free-agent cupboard. Robert Griffin III is the biggest name, and he hasn’t done anything in a few years. Brian Hoyer, who piqued the Jets’ interest last month, could shake free from the New England Patriots, but he has lost 17 straight starts.
Unless they change course and make a run at Foles, it looks like White and Morgan. That would be nice QB insurance in 2022, but not now.
5. Gang’s all here: You may recall the NFLPA, citing health concerns, encouraged players to skip voluntary workouts — and yet the Jets averaged about 80 players per day. Why? Guard Greg Van Roten, the team’s union rep, told teammates it was in their best interest to attend. He cited last season’s disappointment, the new coaching staff and the roster turnover as reasons why they needed to be there. It worked.
“I didn’t think [staying away] was a good recipe for the players to follow,” Van Roten said.
6. Q factor: Quinnen Williams, who sat out the offseason as he recovered from foot surgery, is expected to be ready for training camp. This is a big season for Williams, who is eligible for a new contract in 2022. If he delivers an encore performance, it will be interesting to see if the Jets pony up.
“I’m taking the steps to become eventually that dominant defensive tackle in the NFL,” Williams said.
7. The last word: “It’s like this is the world’s greatest honeymoon. Whenever a new group comes in, there’s the benefit of the doubt, but adversity will be the cement that solidifies everything that’s been built, going through those tough times.” — Saleh.