Five New York Jets have earned captaincy patches for the 2021 season, including three newcomers to the fold.
The New York Jets unveiled their five new captains for the 2021 season on Wednesday, as Corey Davis, Foley Fatukasi, Justin Hardee, C.J. Mosley, and Zach Wilson will have a C stitched to their jersey. Davis and Wilson will lead the offense while Fatukasi and Mosley represent the defense. Hardee received the honor on special teams.
“The best-coached teams are the teams that coach themselves and have especially veteran leadership to step in and voice their opinions and have a thought on how they can make things better,” head coach Robert Saleh said in a statement on the Jets’ website by Randy Lange. “I think that’s always important. It’s a machine, and they’re a big, big part of it. Obviously, I would always appreciate their voice.”
What’s particularly interesting about this new crop of captains is their relative lack of experience in a New York uniform. Fatukasi accounts for 30 of the 32 games in green among them, with Mosley accounting for the lingering pair. The Jets did retain two of their captains from 2020 (keeping tackle George Fant and safety Marcus Maye) but their titles did not return.
Wilson’s inclusion, coming days before his official NFL debut, likely shows the effect and impact he has had on the New York locker room in the early going, as captains are named based on results via a player vote. The early accolade was no surprise to Saleh, however.
I think it’s more of a testament to him and the way he’s been able to conduct himself here,” Saleh said in a report from Brian Costello of the New York Post. “If you go to the cafeteria, he’s hanging out with his O linemen. He’s got an infectious personality. It’s a credit to him and the way he’s handled himself so far.”
The other captains’ lack of games in green are likely offset by their extensive playoff experience: Mosley and Davis were respective AFC playoff staples in Baltimore and Tennessee while Hardee established himself as one of the league’s best special teams coverage names during New Orleans’ recent postseason runs.
Meanwhile, Fatukasi is coming off a breakout season that saw him set new career-highs in tackles (42) and sacks (2). The fourth-year pro is reminding some of the previous defensive captain Steve McLendon, who was dealt to Tampa Bay at last year’s trade deadline.
“He’s been a tremendous friend, mentor, brother to a lot of people. I was fortunate, we were fortunate as players, as friends, to have him around. But as he would tell me, the show’s still going, you have to keep going,” Fatukasi said of McLendon in another report from Lange. “I feel pretty confident, pretty good about us,” he said. “We understand we have a lot of work to get done, we have to keep sharpening our tools. But I feel like we’re coming along, taking the right steps. You know all the guys in our room, I could list all their names, but they’re all selfless. We all care about each other so far and the amount of progress that we’ve made in such a short time knowing each other has been good.”
The Jets will open their season against one of their former captains, quarterback Sam Darnold, when they take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
It’s been theorized that the New York Jets could seek out a new pass rusher. But is that the most worthwhile move as the 2021 kickoff looms?
Any analysis of the New York Jets’ 2021 offseason must be prefaced with the caveat that the previous campaign sunk the team to such dramatic depths that anything short of full-on contraction would’ve been seen as an upgrade…and, even then, some Gang Green fans would go full John McKay.
But there is no objectively denying that the Jets made smart moves following last year’s disastrous two-win showing. Even with the loss of the most expensive purchase, defensive end Carl Lawson, the Jets are in a favorable position to at least start to reintroduce themselves to the world of professional football relevancy. At the same time, however, even the most unapologetic Jets propagandist has to admit that Lawson’s forced season-long departure due to a ruptured Achillies sustained during last week’s joint activities with the Green Bay Packers puts a bit of a damper on Joe Douglas’ most impactful offseason to date.
To that end, the Jets are reportedly seeking help from abroad to bolster their pass rush game. A popular candidate amongst fans has been former New England pass rusher Chandler Jones, who’s reportedly displeased with his current settings in Arizona. Other potential movers could include Preston Smith of the aforementioned Packers or 2019’s fourth overall choice Clelin Ferrell in Las Vegas.
But as the Jets plan one more summer splurge before school starts, is the pass rush the right area to address?
The loss of Lawson obviously brings the unit down a few notches, but the Jets’ pass rush still has several notable returnees looking to build on breakout seasons from 2020. It’s a group headlined by 2019’s third overall choice Quinnen Williams and assisted by John Franklin-Myers and Foley Fatukasi. The team is also set to welcome back Kyle Phillips and Bryce Huff, the latter of whom has earned positive reviews during the most recent camp sessions in Florham Park. Veteran arrivals Vinny Curry and Sheldon Rankins have likewise dealt with ailments but bring talent and playoff experience from Philadelphia and New Orleans respectively. A major opportunity rises for Ronald Blair, a late arrival who previously worked with head coach Robert Saleh in the Bay Area.
In addition to the talent assembled, the Jets’ new boss has experience in dealing with big losses in the front seven. During his final season as the San Francisco 49ers’ defensive coordinator, new head coach Robert Saleh dealt with injury reports that resembled Pro Bowl rosters. Nick Bosa and Solomon Thomas were lost for the year after ACL tears at MetLife Stadium. Help from abroad (Dee Ford, Ziggy Ansah) was likewise medically removed from the 2020 proceedings.
Despite the losses, Saleh’s backfield invaders still managed to post respectable efforts. The 49ers ranked fifth in quarterback hurries per dropback (11.2 percent) and yards allowed (314.4 per game) despite the departures. One could argue that Saleh’s ability to adapt was one of the big reasons why he was one of the most coveted head coaching candidates once the year let out.
Saleh knows how much is lost with Lawson done for the year but he was among the first to come to grips with the doomsday diagnosis in the aftermath of the Green Bay business trip.
“I’ve said it before, the NFL train stops for nobody,” Saleh said after the Jets’ 23-14 preseason win over the Packers on Saturday, per team reporter Randy Lange. “When someone falls off the train…it’s another opportunity for someone to jump on the train. A lot of men at that defensive end spot are chomping at the bit for the opportunity, and they got it. We’ll work our tails off to get them ready, and I know they’ll work their tails off to reciprocate.”
There’s enough talent on the defensive line for the Jets to survive. The injury of Lawson shouldn’t awaken the Jets from dreams of development that would allow them to label the 2021 season a success. But there’s always room for improvement, especially when your rebuild prepares to enter a second decade. With so much draft capital…the Jets currently own 13 spots on the 2022 draft board…it would almost be silly not to seek out a trade. There are enough valuable names on the line that can hold down the pass rushing fort while Lawson heals. Improvement is better sought elsewhere.
Douglas has never been one to shy away from a late move if it helps the team: he took over the Jets after primary offseason activities like free agency and the draft ended and immediately tried to bolster the blocking (Ryan Kalil, Alex Lews) and receiving (Demaryius Thomas). None of those moves truly panned out in the long term…none of them are with the team…but Douglas’ activity was refreshing after the passiveness of the Mike Maccagnan era.
It appears that the Jets might be ready to make another late summer move, but they have to assess their priorities. A show of faith to the talented youngsters of the defensive line might help team morale moving forward, leaving them to look at other areas, ones entrenched in far greater states of desperation.
With apologies to those still traumatized by the 2020 season, the ineptitude on display in the final year of the Adam Gase almost guaranteed that some area on the team was going to be neglected, even with the perfect offseason. The secondary still remains woefully undermanned in terms of experience. Their struggles were prominently on display during Saturday’s exhibition showcase in Titletown: Jets starters played deep into the first half and allowed a Green Bay offense consisting almost entirely of reserves to score on two of their four drives over the first 30 minutes. The ultimate insult was a 19-play, 81-yard drive that ate over 10 minutes of game time.
Zach Wilson’s (nearly) perfect showing allowed the Jets to bring some optimism home, but New York can’t allow it to mask their defensive struggles. Green Bay went 8-of-14 on third down, four alone earned through the air on the aforementioned long drive. The last was a five-yard touchdown pass from Kurt Benkert to Jace Sternberger. Perhaps the extra draft capital is better spent on a veteran corner to mentor and/or compete with Bless Austin and Bryce Hall. Charvarius Ward could be a championship addition from Kansas City (especially with L’Jarius Sneed’s emergence) while C.J. Henderson remains a tantalizing prize in Jacksonville.
The early strong returns from Wilson also shouldn’t discourage the Jets from bolstering their backup quarterback situation. Sam Darnold’s medical woes over the past three seasons have shown the Jets just how far south a season can go without the intended starter, even if they had good intentions through veteran additions like Joe Flacco, Josh McCown, and Trevor Siemian.
Mike White has been serviceable this preseason (86.1 passer ratings and no turnovers through two games) but it probably hasn’t been anything to convince the Jets they can stay afloat if the unthinkable happened to Wilson. White also took a few tough hits during Saturday’s win in Green Bay, leaving the contest with a rib injury. Late acquisition Josh Johnson was seen as a veteran mentor to Wilson but has yet to take a preseason snap in green.
Trading for Chicago’s Nick Foles remains the most popular and realistic option for teams seeking quarterback depth. Not only is Foles set to wallow in the third slot on the depth chart behind the Justin Fields/Andy Dalton conundrum, but the Bears are also in desperate need of early draft picks. Chicago has only two picks over the first four rounds in Las Vegas next spring, having dealt their first and fourth round choices to the Giants to ensure the selection of Fields. The Jets’ pair of first-rounders (including the last piece of the Jamal Adams trade from Seattle) is likely off the table but they have five other choices over rounds two through four.
The New York Jets will undoubtedly miss their new pass rusher after Thursday’s painful news, but not all is lost.
The football gods were feeling bored on Thursday and thus engaged in one of their oldest and most cherished pastimes: toying with the New York Jets.
Carl Lawson, one of the NFL’s rising pressure artists, with the Jets in March, was injured in a joint practice with the Green Bay Packers on Thursday afternoon. The Jets later announced that their $45 million man ruptured his Achilles tendon during a blitz on a team drill and would miss the entire 2021 season. Zane Lewis, an undrafted freshman in the secondary, was likewise lost for the year through a sprained MCL and a torn patella tendon.
The Jets have little time to truly process this unfortunate turn of events. An exhibition contest against the Packers lingers on Saturday late afternoon (4:25 p.m. ET, WLNY/NFL Network), their penultimate preseason game under the new shortened format. Lawson was expected to bolster a pass rush that has had trouble creating pressure in the backfield in recent seasons. This season alone, the team faces matchups against elite passing talents like Josh Allen and Tom Brady, as well as young rising stars like Joe Burrow, Trevor Lawrence, Jalen Hurts, and Tua Tagovailoa.
Pessimism over the coming Jets season has become as prevalent of a metropolitan summer tradition as Macy’s 4th of July fireworks and the New York Mets’ collapse combined. Lawson’s injury has done little to alleviate concerns from a fanbase that now has to deal with the NFL’s longest active playoff drought.
But Jets fans should know…not all is lost with Lawson done for the year:
Bryce Huff now has a great opportunity to prove to the NFL he shouldn’t of went undrafted last year
Don’t let the Jets’ garish two-win campaign blur the fact that their front seven enjoyed several breakout campaigns. The team has recently welcomed back Quinnen Williams to their trenches. Williams is coming off a breakthrough year that saw him lead the team in sacks and vindicate his status as the third overall pick in the 2019 draft. He believes that the arrival of head coach Robert Saleh will allow him to reach his true NFL potential, especially considering the pass rushers that the former San Francisco defensive boss has turned into household names. Williams has spent the offseason going over their film.
“I’ve been watching every tape (for) about two years now. When they had DeForest Buckner), (Arik) Armstead, Nick Bosa, man them guys were rolling,” Williams told Steve Serby of the New York Post. “That year when they went to the Super Bowl, I was watching their tape, how much fun those guys were having…Kwon Alexander was there, one of my good friends. (I was) watching those guys ball, watching those guys get off, watching those guys dominate that year.”
Elsewhere in returning trench talents, John Franklin-Myers and Foley Fatukasi will also look to build on breakthrough years. Another returnee, Bryce Huff, has been one of the most pleasant surprises in camp, drawing rave reviews after a two-sack performance in last weekend’s preseason opener against the Giants.
“The more we watch him, he’s just winning,” Saleh said of Huff’s Saturday showing, per Max Goodman of Sports Illustrated. “He’s one of those guys, at first, we were like, ‘Man, how are we going to hide this guy in the preseason, he’s going to end up with like 10 sacks.’ It got to the point where we were like, ‘How are we going to keep him off the first unit?’”
It comes with a painful sacrifice, but Saleh may no longer have an answer to that question.
They Studied Abroad
It’s clear that Lawson figures into the Jets’ long-term plans. With the team potentially facing a pair of annual matchups against multi-talented quarterbacks like Allen and Tagovailoa for the foreseeable future, addressing the pass rush was vital.
But even sans Lawson, the Jets have built their backfield invasion force to a strong level. Lawson perhaps made them an elite unit, but there is still plenty to work with. The former Bengal wasn’t the only entry from abroad on the defensive depth chart: the Jets also welcomed Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry to the fold as affordable, serviceable options that have championship experience.
The Jets dodged a bullet when it came to Rankins. He also left Thursday’s practice in Wisconsin early thanks to a knee injury, but the Jets have since labeled him day-to-day. Earlier this month, Rankins, a playoff participant in each of the last four seasons as a member of the New Orleans Saints, didn’t single anyone out when it came to his praises of the defensive line. He feels that the pass rush can instill fear in offenses through a team effort.
“I’ve played with some good dudes. But the dudes I’m playing with now, in this scheme, I feel the sky’s the limit,” Rankins said in a report from Rich Cimini of ESPN. He was clear that the Jets’ backfield assaults wouldn’t end with the first teams, perhaps retroactively prophesizing that one lost cog, no matter how expensive that piece is, won’t break down this machine. “Whoever we roll out there, teams better, excuse my French, buckle their s***. We’re coming. And when that group gets tired, the next group is coming. We expect to do that for a full 60 minutes of a football game and dominate games.”
Curry, formerly of the Philadelphia Eagles will likely miss the Jets’ opening weekend contest in Carolina but has refused to hide his enthusiasm for donning a new shade of green. The 33-year-old defender compared the modern Jets to the 2016 Eagles, a team that finished with a losing record but planted the seeds for a Super Bowl run the following season. Like the Jets, Philadelphia was working with a first-year head coach (Doug Pederson) at the time. Current Jets general manager Joe Douglas was serving in the Eagles’ front office as the Vice President of Player Personnel.
“I’ve seen this ship before. When Coach Pederson took over in Philadelphia, so I’ve seen this ship before and I just wanted to be a part of it, so no hesitation at all,” Curry said in his opening statements as a Jet, per Dave Zangaro of NBC Sports Philadelphia. “Just the relationship with Joe and just to see what he was building, it was kind of like too good to pass up. The excitement around the building when I met some of the staff members. I met a couple of my teammates that I knew just down the road. It was just like a great fit for me, a very exciting opportunity so I just had to do it.”
Lawson’s injury also opens up a big opportunity for late signing Ronald Blair, a disciple of Saleh’s systems in San Francisco. Despite Blair’s relatively unsung status, Saleh has spoken highly of the fifth-round pick from 2016 during their shared tenure in the Bay Area.
“If you like winning, you like Ronnie Blair. If you don’t like winning, you don’t like him,” Saleh said in 2019, per Kyle Posey of Niners Nation. “I love him to death. He can do no wrong in my book. He’s got great versatility. He’ll play nickel if you ask him to, and he’ll know what to do, and he’ll execute.”
Don’t Talk About Playoffs
Jets fans have every right to be upset about Lawson’s injury. But they must face an uncomfortable truth: Lawson’s prescience didn’t thrust them into the playoff discussion. 2021 was never going to be the Jets’ year, frankly.
Perhaps nothing short of a full-team swap with the Kansas City Chiefs was going to put the Jets into this winter’s bracket. Competing for a division is out of the question for the time being with the Buffalo Bills at full strength. There are simply too many established contenders in the AFC to compete for the wild card…the AFC North might send three playoff teams alone. That predicament isn’t meant to be a critique of Douglas: it simply goes to show just how far backward the Adam Gase era set back the Jets’ fortunes.
Of course, one never wants to say never when it comes to NFL postseason fortunes…the greatest moment in Jets history is based on the first-ever Super Bowl upset after all. But there’s no denying that the odds are stacked against them. Appearing in the “In the Hunt” column once the networks breakout the playoff charts come the holiday season would be a respectable and attainable goal for the Jets. Lawson or no Lawson, the postseason was a tall ask, even with expanded real estate to work with.
Lawson’s forced departure shouldn’t depress the Jets. A prime opportunity still stands on the horizon, one to foster development and figure out who will be part of the potential good times ahead. Getting an upset win at some point in the season over one of those established contenders would also serve as a great throat clearing gesture, one that would put the rest of the NFL on notice. That Philadelphia team mentioned by Curry, for example, earned wins over Steelers, Falcons, and Giants teams that went to the playoffs (they also topped a top-seeded Cowboys squad that was resting starters in Week 17).
But Lawson’s injury shouldn’t derail any goals or endeavors put forward by a Jets team embroiled in a desperate search for stability. Part of that is a mental struggle, but the Jets and observers both domestically and abroad appear to believe they have the right man to help them work through it in Saleh.
The New York Jets undoubtedly became a better team over the past eight months. But are they a playoff team? ESM’s experts discuss.
The 2020 New York Jets left the franchise’s immediate and long-term future in a rare state of optimistically macabre: after the Jets sunk to the depths of the football underworld…plummeting to dubious valleys that even the cursed Rich Kotite era managed to avoid…any move the team made in the offseason could’ve been seen as an improvement.
With both the Stanley Cup and Larry O’Brien Trophy…not to mention every medal at the Olympic Games in Tokyo…earned and bestowed, it’s officially socially acceptable to start forecasting the 2021 NFL season. The metropolitan arrivals of so many elite new faces, of both the rookie (Zach Wilson, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Elijah Moore) and veteran (Carl Lawson, Corey Davis) variety have gotten fans excited, as has the hiring of head coach Robert Saleh.
But the ultimate question lingers: after a two-win season and now ensnared in the NFL’s longest active playoff, just how much improvement will the Jets show in the one place it matters…the standings, namely the win column?
ESM’s Jets experts ponder this quandary as the preseason opener against the New York Giants looms on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, WNBC)…
To take a page out of another New York sports decisionmaker Brian Cashman, let’s view Joe Douglas’ New York Jets from the perspective of the Death Star.
Ignoring the fact that the Star Wars-based superweapon is destroyed in each of its incarnations, Douglas does have a Death Star at his disposal. But it’s not the behemoth seen in A New Hope (and, by extension, Rogue One), nor is it the partially constructed but “fully armed and operational battle station” from Return of the Jedi. Rather, the Jets’ Death Star resembles the infantile version Vader and Palpatine look over at the end of Revenge of the Sith.
The Jets began this offseason with the hiring of head coach Saleh. In contrast to the Adam Gase hire, a transaction praised exclusively by modern hot take artists, the Saleh move was lauded by on-field participants both domestically and abroad. New York was and is by no means a football destination yet…one needs to establish a victorious on-field prescience before they become that…but the Jets were able to attract several names with championship experience, winners that were attracted to what Saleh was trying to build.
Douglas and Co. could’ve stood pat on the pass rush, a rare 2020 silver lining after the breakouts of Quinnen Williams, Foley Fatukasi, and John Franklin-Myers. They instead bolstered the unit by bringing in rising pressure artist Lawson and NFC postseason staples Sheldon Rankins and Vinny Curry. Elsewhere on defense, they prepared for Saleh’s reimplementation of the 4-3 with the arrival of linebacker Jarrad Davis, whose finest defensive days came in Florida and Detroit’s similar formations.
On offense, newly minted quarterback Zach Wilson’s arsenal appears to contain more firepower than anything Sam Darnold had to work with. Two-time Super Bowl participant Tevin Coleman is ready to work with potential day three draft gem Michael Carter in the backfield, while the upgraded aerial attack features Davis and Moore uniting with returnees Jamison Crowder and Denzel Mims. Mekhi Becton returns on the line with Alijah Vera-Tucker on Wilson’s blindside.
Yet…the playoffs remain a pipe dream.
The AFC East already appears to be under the control of a new potential dynasty in Western New York, so capturing the quartet for the first time since 2002 appears to be out of the question. The North could well send three teams to the postseason, while the West’s mighty Kansas City Chiefs show no signs of slowing down, even with the Los Angeles Chargers rising fast with Justin Herbert. Even with an extra playoff spot, it’s asking a lot for the Jets to establish themselves in the crowded conference.
Even if the AFC wasn’t packed to the brim with contenders, the Jets aren’t fully completed just yet. There were so many holes so fill, so much damage to repair from the Gase era that it was a guarantee that some area of the roster was going to be neglected. One look at the current depth chart shows that the secondary got the raw deal, as inexperienced options like Bless Austin, Ashtyn Davis, and Bryce Hall are set to assume primary roles. On offense, there are plenty of players that can become major contributors (Carter, Moore, Davis), but they lack the experience in the primetime situations they’ve been called upon.
Until Saleh’s group proves otherwise on the field, their dire straits are more indicative of just how poorly the Gase era went. Gase might be gone, but the dark spirits of his tenure will linger over the Jets’ facilities until the fruits of Saleh’s process appear in the win column. A good season in 2021 would be to at least double the two-win tally from last season and perhaps earn an upset win over an elite opponent, a similar process to what the Chargers went through last year with Herbert.
Record Prediction: 6-11
The New York Jets have a lot of hype leading into the season and for good reason: rookies Wilson and Moore highlight a revamped offense. Lawson adds a much-needed pass rush to a defense that needs it with unproven corners.
The Jets, however, are not a playoff team just yet. Aside from their own play, they find themselves in an increasingly brutal AFC East. Each team is improving, but, at the moment, Gang Green finds themselves behind Buffalo and, most likely, either New England or Miami…maybe even both.
Yes, the future is bright and fans should be excited. All of the excitement should be taken with a grain of salt, though. There need to be reasonable expectations for this season. So, realistically, look for this team to win about 6 games of the newly-implemented 17 game schedule.
Record Prediction: 6-11
As the Jets head into a season filled with promise, I want to make one thing clear before I begin: I do NOT expect the New York Jets to make the playoffs.
I expect the team to take a significant step up and approach the 7-9 win territory. With that said, I foresee hiccups along the way: Wilson will likely experience significant growing pains early as he leaves Brigham Young University and acclimates to the bright lights of Broadway. I firmly expect struggles from both sides of the ball early as they look to establish a new identity under a new coaching staff. Lastly, I have a bad feeling about the secondary, but guys like Hall and Michael Carter II will likely get better as the season progresses.
On a lighter note, I foresee a strong debut in green and white for Lawson, Rankins, and Davis. Lawson is a legitimate threat to finish in the top ten in sacks, while Rankins and Davis will likely be impact contributors if they can stay healthy. Finally, look for rookies, Michael Carter (the running back) and Alijah Vera-Tucker to make names for themselves early, although the story will be Moore, the budding star receiver.
Valoaga, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of UNLV in 2017, spent the last two seasons with the Raiders franchise in both their Oakland and Las Vegas incarnations, though he did not play last season after opting out in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. He previously worked with Jets head coach and former San Francisco 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh during a shared season (2019) in the Bay Area and enjoyed a lucrative preseason, leading the team in sacks during the summer exhibition quartet (4.5).
The Oxnard, CA native has become an NFL veteran despite some struggles with academics in college, but he recovered and eventually earned a rookie contract from the Detroit Lions. He also spent most of the 2018 season on the Miami Dolphins’ practice squad. Over 13 regular season games with Detroit and San Francisco, Valoaga has earned seven tackles, including one sack.
Valoaga was one of several roster moves the Jets made as they descended upon One Jets Drive for training camp on Tuesday. He takes over a roster spot from blocker George Fant, who was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. His arrival should help the Jets bide time on the defensive line until Quinnen Williams, Kyle Phillips, and Vinny Curry are activated. Williams and Phillips landed on the Active/Physically Unable to Perform list over the weekend, while Curry is in the Active/Non-Football Injury group.
Elsewhere, the Jets got three of their defenders back. Safety Marcus Maye and Valoaga’s new fellow lineman Foley Fatukasi were activated from the NFI list while another front seven attendee, final draft pick Jonathan Marshall, came off the PUP group.
The New York Jets won’t have to wait long to check in on Sam Darnold, as they’ll open their 2021 season against their April trade partners.
The Opponent: Carolina Panthers The Date: Week 1, September 12, 1 p.m. ET, CBS The Series: Carolina leads 4-3 (last meeting: 2017, 35-27 CAR)
The “main protagonist showing off their new significant other in front of their ex” episode seems to be a staple of every sitcom. But more serious matters await in Charlotte on September 12.
Five months after collaborating on a trade that set the post-Trevor Lawrence portions of the 2021 NFL Draft into motion, the New York Jets and Carolina Panthers will do battle to open their respective campaigns. That April transaction ended the Jets’ Sam Darnold era in New York, giving way to the Zach Wilson chapters of the green Gospel.
Blessed with a rare meeting between New York and Carolina, the scheduling powers that be at the NFL wasted no time in staging a reunion. The Jets will face off against an interconfertnce opponent on kickoff weekend for the first time since 2018, when the Darnold saga began with a win in Detroit.
Darnold won’t be the only former green representative partaking in the game. Other ex-Jets who saw nothing finer than Carolina include Robby Anderson, Juston Burris, Pat Elflein, and Frankie Luvu.
The Skinny on the Panthers
The Jets will likely be all too familiar with the predicament the Panthers currently find themselves in: trapped in a division with Tom Brady with no end to his reign in sight. Carolina hit the reset button shortly before Brady took his talents to Tampa, firing Ron Rivera and bidding farewell to franchise face Cam Newton after the 2019 season.
To replace the departed Rivera, Carolina hired Matt Rhule, who knew more than a thing or two about rebuilds on the college level. Following a one-year term as a metropolitan assistant (assistant offensive line coach with the Giants), Rhule went back to school and dragged Temple and Baylor out of the college football underworld. Rhule was reportedly strongly considered for the Jets’ job following Todd Bowles’ ousting, but he wound up returning to Waco for one more season (guiding the Bears to a Sugar Bowl appearance and a program-record 11 wins).
The football gods immediately bestowed Rhule another hurdle to leap, as injuries swallowed Christian McCaffrey after he became the highest-paid rusher in NFL history (four years, $64 million). Despite the loss of McCaffrey, the Panthers played respectable football. They were unable to escape another 5-11 season (their ten-win tally over the last two years is their worst since 2010-11), but nearly every game was competitive. Eight of their eleven losses came by single digits and they scored a late win over the playoff-bound Washington Football Team in December.
What’s New in Carolina?
When removing veteran quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Carolina was one of the youngest teams in football last season (26.05 on their 53-man opening day roster). Somehow, they managed to get younger, apparently finding the fountain of youth in Cleveland.
The Panthers were one of three teams (Dallas and Minnesota the others) that came to the podium an event-high 11 times during draft weekend. They used their opening pick (eighth overall) on South Carolina defender Jaycee Horn and ensured continued to surround Darnold with strong talents. Some of Carolina’s Saturday gems could particularly intriguing: injury issues landed Oklahoma State offensive force Chuba Hubbard in the fourth round, while another former Gamecock, Shi Smith, could become a hidden gem in the sixth-round.
Defensively, Horn will join Burris and versatile sophomore Jeremy Chinn in the secondary. Veteran A.J. Bouye likewise joins the fold, though the former Denver Bronco is missing the first two games of the year with a PED suspension.
Even before their draft day splurge (which also netted them LSU receiver Terrace Marshall Jr. in the second round), Carolina brought Darnold to an offense that, at least on paper, was better than anything he had to work with in New York. In addition to McCaffrey and fellow former Jet Anderson, Darnold will also get to work with D.J. Moore (1,193 yards in 2020) and touchdown hawk David Moore (no relation).
How to Beat Them
-Let Bygones be Bygones
It’s no secret that the Jets’ visit to Charlotte will be one of the most intriguing matchups of Week 1…if only because the court jesters of Twitter probably already have scheduled posts lauding Darnold and Anderson.
The Jets have proven to be one of the most exhausted sources of social media schadenfreude in football circles. That was ridiculously present throughout the course of the Darnold era. The discourse behind his mononucleosis diagnosis and supernatural encounter probably would’ve died down in a week if it happened anywhere else in the NFL map…but, because it happened in a green uniform, it went viral.
Simply put, the Jets can’t go into Charlotte purely with the purpose of trying to show Darnold and Anderson (who has never let an opportunity to disparage the Jets go to waste) what they’re missing. They’re playing the Carolina Panthers, not the Carolina Ex-Jets.
The team would be wise to follow the example of general manager Joe Douglas. Ironically enough, no one in football was more complimentary toward Darnold than the man who pulled orchestrated his trip down south (notably scoring a second-round pick for a quarterback with a career 78.6 passer rating). Douglas has diplomatically addressed the trade, claiming that Darnold’s “best football is in front of him” but that the trade was in the best interest of both sides.
“Ultimately, we felt that wouldn’t be the best situation for Sam…for Coach Saleh and his staff, and for the locker room,” Douglas said, per team reporter Randy Lange. “We felt this was the best decision for the organization moving forward, hitting the reset button.”
-Un-Christian Like Behavior
To the Panthers’ credit, the team did not completely fall apart when McCaffrey was lost for the season, thanks in part to a career-best season from the Atlanta-bound Mike Davis. If disaster comes to Carolina again, it’ll likely come down to the talented Hubbard to pick up the slack.
But, if McCaffrey is truly back, he’ll undoubtedly be a front-runner for the Comeback Player of the Year Award. No one on the New York defense…heck, any defense on Carolina’s 2021 docket…needs to be told what he’s capable of at full strength.
In the midst of their woebegone 2020 season, the Jets’ run defense was a rare silver lining. Thanks to the breakouts of interior linemen Quinnen Williams, Foley Fatukasi, and John Franklin-Myers, the Jets’ run game ranked fourth in the AFC last season (12th overall in the league). They’ll have an instant opportunity to prove that last year was no fluke, especially when the offseason centered on bolstering the pass rush.
Will the Jets be able to show Darnold what he’s missing when they meet in September? Follow @GeoffJMags on Twitter @GeoffJMags and continue the conversation.
The arrival of Robert Saleh should help stabilize a New York Jets defensive line packed with young potential.
Following the conclusion of minicamp activities, the NFL offseason is officially over. The next time the New York Jets convene in Florham Park, they’ll be getting ready for preseason and regular season action for the 2021 campaign.
With the offseason in the rearview mirror, ESM looks back on the green offseason that was, position-by-position. Our next portion turns to the front seven, starting with the defensive line…
If you, the reader, often skipped these sections of the offseason recaps, this writer could hardly blame you. After all, reading them from a Jets fan’s perspective may be the Gang Green equivalent of watching Avengers: Infinity War and skipping to Thanos’ snap.
But the Jets’ defensive line was a rare bright spot in 2020, featuring several breakouts from young pieces. By far the most impressive was that of Quinnen Williams, who immediately reclaimed the narrative on his NFL career after a sputtering rookie season. Williams’ greatest leaps came in the pass rush, more. than doubling his pressures (14 QB hits) and sack totals (7 after 2.5 in 2019). The third overall pick of the 2019 draft credited his resurgence to an adjusted workout and diet routine in a report from team correspondent Olivia Landis. He believes last season the precursor to something bigger.
“I didn’t want to be the player that I was my first year. I hit that goal and I wanted to say that I was on the right track for my career,” Williams said. “I feel like this is the stepping stone for me to get better and better every year.”
Williams wasn’t the only one whose introduction to the mainstream NFL conversation was washed out by the antics of the Jets’ 2020 season. Foley Fatukasi followed through on the promise shown at the end of the 2019 season while previous Super Bowl participant John Franklin-Myers had a career-best year in the interior. Together with Williams, both Fatukasi and Franklin-Myers were among Pro Football Focus’ top 35 best-graded interior defenders.
Admittedly, not everything was a breeze for the Jets’ front group. Kyle Phillips missed a majority of his sophomore season after impressing as an undrafted rookie, while the team bid farewell to veteran leader Steve McLendon through a de facto fire sale in October. McLendon was dealt to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he eventually earned a Lombardi Trophy hoist in February. The Jets are also set back to bring back Ontario-based Nathan Shepherd. Chosen in 2018’s third round out of Fort Hays State, Shepherd has yet to live up to his day two billing but reportedly “turned heads” at minicamp last month.
How It’s Going
The arrival of new head coach Robert Saleh has many projecting that the Jets will switch to a 4-3 setup, which will rely on a strong, rotating edge rush. Their defensive line additions saw them address that area, home to a long-gestating renovation project that hasn’t seen a consistently disruptive backfield invader since John Abraham’s departure.
When Saleh called tackle Sheldon Rankins about joining the cause, the former New Orleans Saint was all in.
“When he called me and expressed his interest and how much he really wanted me to be a part of this and the vision he had for me and Quinnen inside and Carl (Lawson) out on the edge, it got me fired up,” Rankins said, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. “It made me want to be a part of something special.”
One of the first moves the Jets made this offseason, from a roster perspective, was releasing DE Henry Anderson, who had failed to live up to the hype of a $25 million contract. Afforded an additional $8 million through Anderson’s release, the Jets surrounded their young core with veterans that should only up their pressure.
Casual observers dismissed the addition of defensive end Carl Lawson ($45 million over three years after four seasons in Cincinnati) by complaining about his pedestrian sack numbers (11.5 in the last three years after eight in his debut campaign). But Lawson has been one of the league’s most prevalent pressure artists in recent memory, his dominance on display through advanced stats. Even if Lawson wasn’t the one taking the quarterback down, played a major role in the thrower’s eventual demise. Lawson was one of only 11 defenders who reached double figures in ESPN’s “sacks created” category and, in a more conventional area, ranked sixth in QB pressures.
In addition to Rankins, the Jets also welcomed Saleh’s former San Francisco disciple Ronald Blair into the fold before using their final draft pick on DT Jonathan Marshall from Arkansas. Vinny Curry, who previously appeared on Philadelphia’s championship squad, can provide depth and veteran leadership.
Are They Better Off?
The Jets need to plan for a future where they’re almost guaranteed to face Josh Allen (and possibly Tua Tagovailoa) twice a year until further notice. A strong pass rush is going to be vital if they want to pull themselves out of the playoff drought mire.
General manager Joe Douglas deserves some props for his activities on the defensive front this offseason. Few could’ve blamed the Jets for becoming complacent after the breakouts of Williams, Fatukasi, and Franklin-Myers. Instead, they upped the pressure by surrounding a defensive coach with elite defensive talents that will help foster in this latest…and most hopeful…chapter of the Jets perpetual rebuild. Lawson’s contract, for example, may be steep from a financial sense, as he’s the Jets’ biggest 2021 cap hit at over $14 million. But if he follows the promises of pressure on display over the last few seasons with the Bengals, the three-year deal could wind being one of the most consequential moves in Douglas’ tenure in both a short and long-term lens.
The green glory days have been characterized by strong defensive efforts. With the frontline additions, the Jets have set themselves up handsomely for what’s sure to be a dangerous, yet ambitious, road ahead.
Final Offseason Grade: B+
Are you more confident in the Jets’ defensive line with Robert Saleh in tow? Continue the conversation Twitter @GeoffJMags
The New York Jets have released defensive lineman Henry Anderson. Anderson was brought over in a deal with the Indianapolis Colts just 3 years ago. The deal was for a 7th round pick, and it ultimately lead to success in his first season with the Jets. Anderson put up 7.0 sacks, 7 TFL ‘s, and 35 overall tackles. This prompted the former front office to offer him a three-year, $25.2 million dollar extension. The deal has been an utter failure.
in the past two seasons, Anderson has combined to put up a measly 1.5 sacks, 7 TFL ‘s, and only 77 tackles. Anderson has consistently underperformed, and for the money he was worth, he failed to live up to expectations as a whole, only starting 22 of 32 of games since resigning.
The guaranteed money blocked the Jets from cutting him last offseason and allocating resources elsewhere, now with the availability to free much more cap, the team has released him, freeing up $8.2 million.
The Jets have a plethora of young and talented defensive linemen behind him with Quinnen Williams, John Franklin Myers, Foley Fatukasi, and Nathan Shepherd, who will all see increased playing time now. Anderson is older and less likely to fit the Saleh/Ulbrich defense, making him an easy cap casualty. The move also pushes the Jets closer to the Jaguars for the most cap space in the league as they look to reconstruct the roster this offseason. As for Anderson, he hits the open market, and for a team that still sees potential in the veteran, he could be a tempting depth option.