Friday, May 15, 2009

State of the Jets: May 15, 2009: A Look at the Offense

It’s been a long offseason so far, longer than what it should have been considering where the team stood after week 12. But halfway into the offseason, it’s time to take a look at the state of the union for the NYJ. Today, I will take a look at the offense, what changes have been made, and what else needs to be done. In the coming days, I'll post about the defense as well.

Last year’s collapse cost former coach Eric Mangini his job and put a small blemish on Brett Favre’s storied career. Now, both are gone, and the Rex Ryan/Mark Sanchez era is set to begin. Still, the offense will keep some continuity after offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer decided to return to the team.

Schottenheimer has had an up and down tenure at offensive coordinator for the Jets. In 2006 he was a genius, creating a respectable offense out of a rehabbing Chad Pennington, a mediocre Kevan Barlow, a rookie Leon Washington, Laveranues Coles, and an unproven Jerricho Cotchery. On paper, that offense was by far the worst in his three years as coordinator, but it was his most successful. Defenses were kept off-balance as the offense was creative, using shifts and various other ways to generate points.

But in 2007 the offensive line fell to shambles, and 2008 brought a new quarterback and a bastardized version of the offense, with less shifting, and more of what fit Favre’s game. This year Rex Ryan is giving Schottenheimer the freedom he had three years ago, and while the talent is not particularly strong again, there is a foundation in place for a power-running football team, much like the Baltimore Ravens had last season.

In fact on paper, Baltimore is a perfect comparison for this team on both sides of the ball, and just like the Ravens, the Jets will run a three-pronged running attack to protect an unproven quarterback. Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, and Shonn Greene will play the Willis McGahee, Ray Rice, and LeRon McClain roles respectively.

But the biggest key to the offense working the way Ryan and Schottenheimer want it to is the offensive line. We all saw between 2007 and 2008 what difference an offensive line makes because make no mistake about it, Alan Faneca and Damien Woody meant a ton more to the Jets last year than Favre did, and re-signing Brandon Moore in free agency means that all five linemen are back for another year.

That line helped turn Thomas Jones from a disappointment to the AFC’s leading rusher in 2008. This year, Jones will presumably have a lot more help carrying the load, though he probably would prefer not to. But there’s no way the coaching staff can ignore Leon Washington again. With a new staff, the playmaking Washington (5.9 YPC) will almost assuredly get more than 76 carries. And the Jets didn’t trade up to get Greene if they didn’t plan on getting him some touches, too.

Last year in Baltimore, McClain received 232 carries in 16 games, while McGahee and Rice had 170 and 107 in 13 games apiece. Expect a similar breakdown between Jones, Washington, and Greene, in that order.

However, as appealing as the running game is on paper, the passing attack needs to be respectable enough to keep defenses honest. It’s hard to expect either Kellen Clemens or Mark Sanchez to be a great quarterback this year. Clemens has been passed over by two separate regimes, a clear sign of a lack of confidence by both staffs. Still, Clemens has never really received a fair shot in the NFL, and he has some tools to work with plus a head start in Schottenheimer’s offense.

But it’s clear from listening to the Jets that they would prefer Sanchez to win the job. Rookie quarterbacks rarely have success in the NFL, but amazingly, two rookies led their teams to the playoffs last year: Joe Flacco in Baltimore and Matt Ryan in Atlanta. However, both had extensive college experience, even if it wasn’t at schools as prestigious as USC. Sanchez has just 16 starts and as talented and media-savvy as he is, there is no subsitute for experience.

That being said, it’s unlikely either Clemens or Sanchez throws 22 interceptions, the number that Favre threw last year. 22 touchdowns may be a stretch, too, but this team is going to win based on running the football and playing defense. The quarterback will simply need to manage the game and not screw it up. Part of that has to do with the inexperience of whoever wins the job.

But the other reason for the likely conservative offense is the lack of experienced weapons on the outside. Jerricho Cotchery is the clear-cut number one receiver by default, with three 850+ yard seasons under his belt. He will produce no matter what, but for this offense to reach its full potential, he will need to get some help.

The number two option in the passing game should be second-year tight end Dustin Keller. He has all the talent to be a star receiver at the position after posting 535 yards and three touchdowns as a rookie. His presence will be key for Sanchez or Clemens as a safety valve that can also make some big plays on his own. His hands were a little shaky last year, but they weren’t a problem in college, so don’t worry too much about that. His biggest issue should be blocking, as he is not a good in-line blocker.

The Jets will need to bring in some help at tight end to pick up some of the blocking duties. Bubba Franks was re-signed, and while he will help provide depth, he’s not enough. The free agent market is pretty weak right now, so they will likely have to wait until June 1st or perhaps even later.

Outside of Cotchery and Keller, the next receiving option could be anyone. Chansi Stuckey is probably the best receiver of the group trying to replace Laveranues Coles, but his best fit is in the slot. David Clowney and Brad Smith should battle for the #2 receiver job. Give a slight edge to the speedy Clowney in this battle because he never really got a chance to produce while Smith has had numerous opportunities and has never taken advantage of them. Either way, the Jets will need at least two of them to step up and fill what appears to be a gaping hole on paper.

Going forward, there are a number of different issues the Jets will need to address, but I’m sure Mike Tannenbaum didn’t expect runningback to top the list. But Thomas Jones and Leon Washington have skipped OTA’s hoping for new contracts. Washington has a case, as he has clearly outperformed his rookie contract and he is a restricted free agent after the year. Jones signed a contract knowing full well that his 2009 salary would be much lower than the previous two seasons. It makes sense that he would want a new deal as he’ll be 31 years old opening day. He wants to get one final big payday.

Will the Jets give them new deals? I’d be shocked in Jones's case. Tannenbaum could get creative to appease him, but it’s more likely that nothing happens. On the other hand, Washington deserves a deal, and while $5-$6 million dollars a year may be a little high considering the bargain price the Jets have him at now, I can't see the Jets not appeasing him, whether it's in the next few months or during the season.

The bigger battle at runningback will be between Danny Woodhead, Jehuu Caulcrick, and Brannan Southerland for a 5th runningback spot if there is one. Jesse Chatman is gone, and the three backs all have promising skillsets. Woodhead, the former college rushing leader, has reportedly been impressive in OTA's, but is there room for a fourth halfback, especially one as undersized as he is? One of these guys will need to show some promise on special teams.

The receiver position might not be resolved for a while. The Jets seem content with Clowney, Smith, and Stuckey battling for the job, but they also said they were happy with Kellen Clemens at quarterback. Chances are the Jets will continue to evaluate the troika, and if none of the three steps up, specifically Clowney or Smith, then there’s a good chance a veteran will be brought in.

The most interesting name is Plaxico Burress, especially considering the Jets have already shown preliminary interest. He comes with a lot of baggage, and he is likely facing either a suspension, a jail sentence, or both, but if he is available to play this season, he would be a perfect fit next to Jerricho Cotchery. Would he be a long-term solution? Doubtful, but as a stop-gap, getting someone with that type of talent would be a great move. Other options include Amani Toomer and Marvin Harrison, but I only see a veteran being brought in if there is a major bargain or if the current receivers disappoint the coaching staff.

As for quarterback, while it would be ideal to have a veteran mentor Mark Sanchez, there really isn't much available at this point. Brian Schottenheimer and Matt Cavanaugh will have to teach the rookie the ropes, as it is unlikely anyone is brought in barring injury.

What should we expect from this offense? Ball control. Cotchery and Keller should give the quarterback a comfort level in the passing game, but the meat of the offense, like Baltimore's last year, will come from the running game. Jones, Washington, and Greene have diverse running styles, and the offensive line was quite productive last year. If the line stays healthy, the offense will be fine. There isn't a ton of upside unless Sanchez or Clemens dramatically exceeds expectations. But down the line, Sanchez, Washington, Greene, Cotchery, and Keller provide a nice nucleus. All that's left is one more receiver.

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