The Jets are a very hard team to figure out this year. Casual observers see a rookie quarterback and a group of receivers they have never heard of and immediately write the team off for 2009. Others (typically optimistic Jets fans) see an experienced and productive offensive line, a defense as talented as any in football, and enough offensive weapons, particularly at runningback, to have a decent year.
One thing is for sure. If the Jets want to have a winning season, these five players need to stay healthy and play well. If one of those two things don't happen for any of these guys, it could be a long year.
1. Kris Jenkins
To me, there's no question who is number one. All anyone needs to do is look at the defense last year. For years, the Jets struggled stopping the run. Kris Jenkins comes in, plays a dominant first half of football, one in which he could easily have been the best defensive player in football. Then in the last five games, he wore down due to a myriad of injuries, and the defense went down with him.
He makes a ton of plays on his own by pushing the center into the backfield or by tackling quarterbacks and runningbacks for losses, but his primary value comes in his mere presence. Opposing teams know how good Jenkins is, and they would be stupid not to double team him. This frees up the rest of the defense to have more space to make plays on their own, and guys like David Harris and Bart Scott will certainly benefit.
The key will be keeping the big guy healthy. He returned to practice yesterday after missing several weeks with a nagging calf injury. Barring an unforeseen setback, he will be ready to go Saturday against the Giants and certainly week one against Houston. Still, the Jets need to give him more time off in games early on to keep him strong late. Sione Pouha struggled last year when plugged in the middle, so former Seahawk Howard Green was brought in to provide depth. He's shown flashes in camp and preseason that he can be Jenkins's backup, but he might not have the stamina to be a full-time starter if Jenkins got hurt for an extended period of time. Then again, a serious injury to Jenkins, and the Jets can kiss any playoff plans good bye.
2. Darrelle Revis
Funny that the top two guys on this list have already been hurt and missed a chunk of camp. Like Jenkins, Revis also returned to practice on Wednesday after suffering from a hamstring ailment. The third-year man is already among the elite NFL cornerbacks. He is as close to a shutdown corner as there is in the NFL, and losing him would negate the signing of Lito Sheppard, likely making the pass defense even worse than it was last year.
Judging by the play of Dwight Lowery in preseason, losing Revis for an extended period of time would expose the pass defense. Sheppard and Dwight Lowery are both solid in their roles as the #2 and #3 cornerbacks, but asking more from them is asking for trouble. The lack of a pure pass rusher would come even more into play if they had to start. Revis and Sheppard could be an elite tandem. Sheppard and Lowery is not. And losing Revis for any period of time could be a death blow to the Jets.
3. Dustin Keller
Entering his second season in the NFL, Keller is poised to become one of the top receiving tight ends in the NFL. With the receiving corps as inexperienced as it is, Keller will be heavily relied upon by Mark Sanchez both between the twenties and in the red zone. In fact there's a good chance he leads the team in receiving when all is said and done.
But what makes Keller even more indispensable is the complete lack of depth behind him. Jack Simmons, Kareem Brown, and Kevin Brock are not starting material in 2009. They're barely good enough to be second stringers. If they had to start, there could be a black hole at tight end, and given how much the team will rely on Keller this year, there's no way they can make up his production.
4. Leon Washington
Washington may not deserve the $6 million a year he and his agent crave, but he might be that important to the Jets. Some might wonder why I put the backup runningback on the list, especially considering the presences of Thomas Jones and Shonn Greene, but neither back can provide the instant offense that Washington can. In fact nobody on the entire offense can do that. He is a home run threat every time he touches the ball, scoring six touchdowns in just 76 carries. He added two receiving touchdowns and one return touchdown as well, bringing the total to 9. In 2009 if the Jets expect to move the ball at all, he better get more touches.
Rex Ryan promises Washington will get the ball more this year. Of course, he's entering his fourth season, and it seems the front office and coaching staff have echoed that sentiment every year. Nevertheless, if the Jets really are going to pay him $5 million a year or more, that would show how valuable they think he is to the football team. Thomas Jones will likely end up with more rushing yards, but Washington led the NFL in combined yards last year (2332), and he should be near the league lead again this year. He's being taken off punt returns, but that's his worst area, and it should lead to him getting the ball more on offense.
5. Mark Sanchez
What would a blog post be without mentioning Mark Sanchez? The rookie has dominated all Jets news this offseason, and now that he is officially the starting quarterback, we can start to put expectations on him. For year one I for one am not expecting all that much, but if he can cut down on turnovers and manage the game, much like Joe Flacco did down the stretch last year, then the Jets could contend for a playoff birth. If he struggles like most rookie quarterbacks, the team won't go very far, but given how lackluster Kellen Clemens has looked throughout his career, Sanchez needs to be the guy both right now and in the future. He is getting $28 million dollars guaranteed for a reason. It's completely unfair to expect a Matt Ryan-like season, but behind a good offensive line, he needs to at least be competent for this team to win.
*Shonn Greene will likely miss the rest of the preseason due to cartilage damage to his ribs. Former Stanford runningback Anthony Kimble was signed as insurance.
*David Clowney is working with the first team in practice and could start against the Giants.
*Someone who will definitely start against the Giants is LB Vernon Gholston, who the Jets want to get up to speed for week one.
*QB Chris Pizzotti will start the 2nd half against the Giants. Rex Ryan wants to keep his promise to "Harvard" that he would get him into a game. With the quarterback battle settled, it's a good time to do it.