Monday, May 3, 2010

Position Overview: Quarterback

With the draft in the books and minicamp underway, it's time to start the evaluation period. Most of the 2010 Jets' roster is set now, though there are always a few players that aren't on the roster now that will make the opening day squad.

So let's take a critical look at the 2010 New York Jets, starting with quarterback.

Starter: Mark Sanchez
2009 regular season stats: 196-364 (53.8%), 2444 yards (6.71 YPA), 12 TDs, 20 INTs, 63.0 QB rating.
2009 postseason stats: 41-68 (60.3%), 539 yards (7.93 YPA), 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 92.7 QB rating.

Looking Back: Your Typical Rookie

For a top 5 NFL draft pick quarterback playing in New York, his play was not scrutinized as much as some figured it would. And if the Colts played their starters in week 16, we might be singing a whole different tune regarding Sanchez. But they didn't, and now Sanchez is the returning quarterback from a team that went to the AFC Championship, and with a plethora of new weapons around him, expectations are much higher.

All in all, Sanchez's rookie year was not very good, like most rookie quarterbacks. His 20 interceptions were 2nd highest in the NFL (tied with fellow rookie Matthew Stafford and six behind Jay Cutler). This is despite the Jets not asking him to do a whole lot offensively, especially down the stretch. Throughout the regular season, he played like a rookie. Between weeks 4 and 15, he threw 8 touchdowns and 18 interceptions and almost singlehandedly torpedoed the Jets out of the playoffs.

But some fortuitous breaks helped put the Jets in the playoffs, and from there, Sanchez showed why the Jets drafted him so highly. In the three biggest games of his NFL career, he played very well. He still wasn't asked to do a whole lot, but when he did throw the ball, he was successful.

2009 was an odd year for the Jets from the moment it started. Rex Ryan instilled high expectations despite a rookie quarterback and virtually no receivers for him to throw to. For Sanchez it was just another year of experience. With just one year starting in college, few expected him to play well as a rookie. And for the most part, he didn't. But he had enough help elsewhere on the team to get him to the playoffs, and once they started, he finally played like the Jets had hoped him to.

Looking Forward: Great Expectations

In 2009 the Jets had high expectations for themselves, but few actually believed the hype. In 2010 not making the playoffs would be unacceptable. But is Sanchez ready to make the next step and play consistently for an entire season?

That is the million dollar question.

Quarterbacks typically take large steps from their rookie to sophomore seasons, and the Jets have brought in a lot of help to make that transition easier for him. Last year, the Jets traded for Braylon Edwards to give Sanchez a legitimate downfield threat. Now, Edwards has a whole offseason to familiarize himself in the offseason and develop a rapport with his quarterback.

And for the second straight year, the Jets will bring in a new receiver in week 5 to bolster their offense. This time, Santonio Holmes, acquired a few weeks ago for a 5th round pick, will make his Jets' debut. Between Holmes, Edwards, and Jerricho Cotchery, nobody can question the Jets' talent at receiver. Holmes and Edwards both have their own issues: Edwards with concentration and Holmes with his off-field focus, but compared to last year's opening day receiver trio (Cotchery, Chansi Stuckey, and David Clowney), the talent level is leagues ahead. Plus, Dustin Keller is one of the best young receiving tight ends in the NFL.

The biggest key will be limiting interceptions. In games where Jets' quarterbacks threw one interception or less, the Jets were 11-2. 2 or more interceptions? 0-6. So clearly that will be the biggest point of emphasis for Sanchez heading into this season.

He has all the tools of an elite quarterback. He's intelligent and accurate with a good enough arm and work ethic to be a star one day. That day doesn't even need to be in 2010. The Jets made the playoffs and went to the AFC Championship game with one of the worst starting quarterbacks in the NFL. This year, Sanchez needs to take another step into becoming a great quarterback by cutting down interceptions. If that's the case, then the Jets won't be needing miracles to make the playoffs like they did last season.

The Backups: Lesson Not Learned?

Of course, you can pretty much disregard the entire article if Sanchez were to get hurt. Last year, Sanchez tweaked his knee and was forced to miss a game. By the end of the season, he was wearing braces on both of his knees. In February, he underwent surgery to clean up his left knee. He's expected to return in June minicamps, but it just shows how fragile the Jets season could be.

The 2010 season is being hyped more than any Jets' season since 1999. That year, Vinny Testaverde went down in week one, and the Jets could not recover.

While the Jets have three quarterbacks on their roster not named Sanchez, none appear to be the answer. By all indications, Kellen Clemens won't be a Jet come August. Even if he comes back, there's little reason to have much faith in him. Erik Ainge and Kevin O'Connell are completely unproven as well. So if Sanchez goes down, what happens?

There's always the possibility of Mark Brunell. Rex Ryan and the Jets are making it clear to Brunell that they want him. Brunell likely can't sign until July 22nd, the date where the Jets are free to sign unrestricted free agents. There's no doubt that the 39-year old could be a great mentor to the Jets' young quarterbacks, particuarly Sanchez. He's been around the block a long time and was a member of last season's Super Bowl champions. But the real question is can he still play if the Jets needed him to?

Even if Brunell signs, if Sanchez goes down for any length of time, do you have confidence in him? He started one game last year, in week 17 once the Saints had clinched everything. He went 15-30 for 102 yards, 1 interception, and 0 touchdowns at Carolina in a 23-10 loss. Before that, he hadn't thrown a pass since 2006.

As a mentor and a leader, Brunell is a great fit. As a quarterback? Not so much. That leaves O'Connell, Ainge, and possibly Clemens. Ainge looked good in preseason last year, but remember, some onlookers thought he would be released heading into last preseason. As for Kevin O'Connell, he actually was released last season by New England. Detroit picked him up off waivers before trading him to the Jets for a conditional draft pick.

There's little reason to have any faith in the actual football abilities of any of the current backups. That said, the Jets do have the infrastructure (great defense, running game, offensive line) to survive a few games without relying on their passing game. But as the Jets saw last year with Sanchez, you can only go so far without a passing game.

The Jets aren't the only team in the NFL with a big question mark at backup quarterback. And maybe Ainge, O'Connell, or even Clemens are better than advertised and can come out of nowhere to produce decent numbers a la Matt Cassel. But right now, backup quarterback has a major concern because if something bad were to happen to Sanchez, any of these quarterbacks could be the next Rick Mirer.

With the best defense in the NFL to go with talent everywhere else on offense, the quarterback play will determine how far this team can go. If Sanchez takes a big step forward, the sky is the limit for this team. He could even be the next Ben Roethlisberger (on-field only) and win a Super Bowl in his sophomore season. But there's no reason to think any of the backup quarterback possibilities can play at the NFL level at this stage in their respective careers.


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