Jets season preview: High hopes emerge with draft class, free agents

Expectations around the Jets rose this offseason as general manager Joe Douglas improved the roster, first in free agency and then in the 2022 NFL Draft. 

In all, the Jets could have eight new starters (not counting backup QB Joe Flacco) for their season opener against the Ravens. All that newness has provided hope for a fan base starved for success. But it also will take some time for this group to jell and many of those new faces are young and will be adjusting to life in the NFL. 

Head coach Robert Saleh has done his best to temper expectations, which rose unrealistically after the draft. The truth is the Jets are still in the middle stages of their rebuilding and expectations inside the building may not be as high as they are on the outside. 

The Jets should be improved this season, but their record may not reflect that thanks to a very difficult schedule. 

“Every team has goals, everyone knows the Super Bowl is everything right?” Saleh said “Playoffs, winning football games, Super Bowls, we all get that. I think that’s obvious. If that’s not part of your overall long-term goal, then what are you here for? But, you have to be disciplined enough to bring it back to what gets you to those moments and what gets you those moments is the everyday process. Staying focused on the things that you’ve got full control over. Dominate your moments, go to bed better than when you woke up. If you do that, you’ll trust results that happen. So, really the things that we talk about from a success standpoint. I’ll leave it all for you guys to judge, but for us it’s about dominating the day, getting better every day and finding ways to get better every day.” 

Zach Wilson will likely sit out the early part of the season.
AP

At some point, the Jets need to stop talking about the process and start talking about results. As Bill Parcells liked to say, “Don’t tell me about the pain, just show me the baby.” The Jets have the longest playoff drought in the NFL at 11 seasons and it’s hard to see it not reaching 12 this year. 

The Jets should be a more competitive team this season and more fun to watch, but fans dreaming of playoffs may be frustrated. 

Offense 

This season was supposed to be all about second-year quarterback Zach Wilson … until he injured his knee in the first preseason game against the Eagles. Now, the Jets are waiting to see when he will return. They believe the earliest will be Week 4 against the Steelers. Joe Flacco is taking his place for now. Flacco had a decent training camp but struggled in the one preseason game he played and he is 2-14 in his last 16 starts dating to 2018. The Jets have to hope Flacco can keep them afloat early and that Wilson does not need much time to get acclimated once he returns. 

The Jets definitely have surrounded whoever is at quarterback with more talent than they have had in a long while. They added wide receiver Garrett Wilson and running back Breece Hall in the draft, giving them two playmakers on offense. 

Wilson joins a receiving corps that features Corey Davis, Elijah Moore and Braxton Berrios, too. Hall will be part of 1-2 punch at running back with Michael Carter that has tremendous potential. 

No position underwent more of a face-lift this offseason than tight end, at which general manager Joe Douglas added C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin in free agency and then drafted Jeremy Ruckert in the third round. Tight end has been a wasteland for the Jets for most of the last decade, but it should be a strength in 2022. 

Breece Hall
Rookie Breece Hall is expected to be a formidable playmaker for the Jets.
AP

The offensive line took a hit when Mekhi Becton, the former first-round pick, went down with a season-ending knee injury early in training camp. The Jets planned on lining Becton up at right tackle and George Fant on the left side. When Becton went down, though, the team signed veteran free agent Duane Brown to play left tackle and slid Fant to the right side. 

Douglas made a big splash in free agency when he signed guard Laken Tomlinson to a three-year, $40 million deal. Tomlinson will start at left guard and Alijah Vera-Tucker is moving to the right side with Connor McGovern back for a third year as their center. 

Offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur improved over his first season as a coordinator. If he continues to grow on the job and all the new pieces mesh, the offense could be a good one. 

Grade: C 

Defense 

Things can’t get any worse on this side of the ball. The Jets were dead last in yards and points against in 2021. They were a very young unit last year and it showed. 

The defense should be improved this year with a line that looked dominant at times in the preseason. Carl Lawson is back after he missed last season due to a ruptured Achilles. Lawson leads a strong group of edge rushers that also features John Franklin-Myers, first-round pick Jermaine Johnson and Jacob Martin, whom the Jets signed from the Texans. The interior line is led by Quinnen Williams, who is playing for a contract, and veterans Sheldon Rankins and Solomon Thomas. 

If there is a question about the Jets’ front it is how it will fare against the run. The unit lost Folorunso Fatukasi in free agency and he was its best run stuffer. The line will get tested early against the Ravens and Browns. 

C.J. Mosley is back at middle linebacker after being named team MVP last season. Mosley called on the Jets to make the playoffs this spring and his words carry a lot of weight inside the locker room. Quincy Williams returns after a strong first season with the Jets. Douglas added Kwon Alexander early in training camp and he has looked like a great addition. He is a big hitter who brings a ton of energy. 

C.J. Mosely
C.J. Mosely will return to East Rutherford after being named last season’s MVP.
AP

The secondary is remade and there could be a period of adjustment with so many new pieces. D.J. Reed, a free-agent acquisition, and Sauce Gardner, the No. 4-overall pick, are the starting corners on the outside with Michael Carter II in the slot. Jordan Whitehead comes over from the Buccaneers to team with Lamarcus Joyner at safety. 

There is clearly more talent in the secondary but there could be communication issues. Gardner is also immensely gifted and was barely tested in the preseason, but rookies almost always take time to adjust to the NFL game and he may have some tough days as he gets used to being a pro. 

Saleh made his reputation on defense. He was upset with the way the unit played last season, although he would argue it was better than the numbers indicated. He and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich will have more talent to work with this season and should be able to avoid embarrassing blowouts that were too frequent in 2021. 

Grade: B- 

Special teams

Another year, another kicker. Greg Zuerlein was signed to stabilize a position that has been a revolving door for the last few years. Zuerlein has been an NFL kicker for 10 years and was All-Pro in 2017. He is not an untested player like some of the kickers the Jets have brought in recently. Zuerlein had a strong training camp to beat out Eddy Pineiro, who finished last season as the team’s kicker. Zuerlein has made 82.9 percent of his field-goal attempts in each of the last two seasons for the Cowboys. 

Braden Mann did not have a great season in 2021 but an injury in Week 1 affected him all year. He only punted in 10 games, and even when he came back from his left knee injury, he was not the same punter. The Jets are hoping a healthy Mann can be more effective this season. 

Berrios was an All-Pro returner last year and the Jets re-signed him in free agency to keep it up. He averaged 30.4 yards per kick return, the best in the NFL, and had one return for a touchdown. Berrios is a nice weapon, who can flip the field for the Jets. 

Special teams coordinator Brant Boyer has been with the Jets longer than anyone else on the coaching staff. Saleh is the third head coach he has worked for with the Jets. His units are consistently well-coached but penalties were an issue last season and have been a focus for Boyer entering this year. 

Grade: C 

Robert Saleh
Robert Saleh returns for his second year at the helm.
AP

Coaching 

There was a lot to like about Saleh in his first year on the job. He brought energy to the building and established himself as a strong communicator. He is popular with the players and with people around the organization. The on-field product was not as good as the off-field one, though, and he needs to show improvement in Year 2. There were times when the Jets got thumped and Saleh did not seem to have the answers. 

LaFleur rallied after a slow start to really find a rhythm as a play-caller. He got more creative and started using more gadget plays as he realized he was outmanned in most games. LaFleur has more weapons to work with this season and there should be signs of growth. 

It was hard not to feel bad for Ulbrich last season. The defense did not have much talent and they lost one of their best players, Lawson, in the preseason. Douglas gave Ulbrich much more ammunition this year. Gardner looks like he could be a star and Whitehead has been a great addition at safety. This defense relies on the front four getting to the quarterback and Ulbrich then can dial up some blitzes on third down. 

This was an inexperienced coaching staff in 2021 with a first-year head coach, two first-year coordinators and several first-year position coaches. Theoretically, they should be better in Year 2. 

Grade: C+ 

Two-minute drill

Most Important Offensive Player: It’s always easy to go with the quarterback here but I’ll pick Duane Brown. The Jets signed him to be their starting left tackle in training camp after Mekhi Becton was lost to a season-ending injury. If Brown stumbles, this line, and the entire offense, is in trouble. 

Most Important Defensive Player: Carl Lawson is back after missing the entire 2021 season to a ruptured Achilles. The Jets missed him. They did not have a pass rush, and Robert Saleh’s defense relies on the front four creating pressure. Athletes sometimes are not themselves in the first year back after a major injury. The Jets need Lawson to shake off the rust quickly. 

Rookie to Watch: There are so many to choose from but Sauce Gardner is the one to watch. Gardner was a fantastic college player and one of the cleanest prospects you’ll ever see in the draft. He can transform this defense once he figures out things in the NFL. 

Star on the Rise: Everyone expects big things from rookie running back Breece Hall, but don’t overlook Michael Carter. The second-year back from North Carolina is coming off a strong rookie season and should be playing with an edge after the team took Hall in the second round. Don’t be shocked if Carter ends up having a big season. 

Biggest Coaching Decision: The decision of when to bring Zach Wilson back as the starting quarterback could get sticky. What if Joe Flacco plays well early in the season? What if the Jets start out 3-0? What then? Does Saleh just go back to Wilson? It could be an easy decision if Flacco falters, but you never know … 

Don’t Be Surprised If: The Jets get off to a slow start. They have a brutal schedule to open the year and lots of new faces in key positions. Starters don’t get much time to work together with the way preseason is now managed. The first few weeks will be a feeling out process for this group. 

Sure to Make Fans Grumble: The 2022 draft created unreasonable expectations with fans. It could take a while for these high draft picks to have success. It feels like everyone expects them to be stars from Day 1. Be patient. 

Joe Flacco
Joe Flacco is expected to give the Jets steam early in the season.
AP

Can’t miss ’em

Sept. 11 vs. Ravens: We’ll find out quickly about these Jets when they face Lamar Jackson and Co. at MetLife Stadium to open the season. The Ravens are looking to bounce back after an injury-plagued 2021 and they could be Super Bowl contenders if they can stay healthy. Joe Flacco will be facing his old squad, adding a fun storyline to this one. 

Oct. 9 vs. Dolphins: The Jets nearly landed wide receiver Tyreek Hill in March. They had a trade in place with the Chiefs but the Dolphins swooped in and took Hill from them. Now, the Jets have to stop him. This rivalry has been dull in recent years but the Hill angle spices this one up. 

Oct. 30 vs. Patriots: The Jets have not beaten their rivals since 2015. This feels like the year that drought could end. Bill Belichick’s group looks vulnerable. The Jets have not won a division game since the end of the 2019 season. They are long overdue. This could be the one. 

Prediction: 4-13 

The Jets roster is better than it was last year but the schedule is brutal and there is still a major question at quarterback. Zach Wilson looked inconsistent before injuring his knee. Now, he’s going to have to come back after missing significant time. The Jets will struggle early and a season can spiral away quickly. The playoff drought turns 12.

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