It wasn’t supposed to be like this for the New York Jets in 2020.
In the offseason, everything was breaking right for them in AFC East with regards to their competition:
* Tom Brady left the New England Patriots for Tampa Bay, likely ending the Pats dynasty that dominated the division for the last 20 years.
* The Miami Dolphins were starting over with a rookie quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, eliminating them from any serious contention while the No. 5 overall pick developed.
* The Buffalo Bills, coming off a trip to the playoffs and favored in the division, were expected by many to struggle under the newfound spotlight and pressure to win.
What was supposed to happen for the New York Jets?
Quarterback Sam Darnold, the No. 3 pick in the 2018 draft, was supposed to take the leap in Year 3.
Running back Le'Veon Bell, the highest-paid in the league at his position, reported to training camp in the best shape of his career. He was supposed to return to being the dangerous dual-threat All-Pro he was with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The receiving corps, including tight end Chris Herndon, was going to grow together with Darnold and form at least an adequate offense that would keep New York in games.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would establish an aggressive approach and rely on talented safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, and young defensive lineman Quinnen Williams, to set the tone.
Opposing offenses were never going to feel comfortable against the Jets because they could bring pressure from anywhere, at any time.
It’s hard to believe that not even one of the above hopes for the New York Jets’ 2020 campaign has come to fruition, but that’s where we are.
Sitting at 0-6, with the worst record in the league, Jets fans and executives alike must be wondering if they wouldn’t be better off starting their official “Tank for Trevor” bid right now.
What has happened to the New York Jets?
Quarterback: Usually by a QB's third season, a front office and a fan base should have a pretty good idea of whether they feel comfortable building around a young signal caller.
For the Jets, it’s hard to be too convinced either way about Sam Darnold’s ability to be the franchise guy.
He’ll have breathtaking sequences where he extends the play, and throws a dime to a receiver on the move. On the other end of the spectrum, he’ll have plays that make you wonder if he’s still a freshman at the University of Southern California.
Running back: When the Jets signed Le’Veon Bell before the 2019 season, they thought they were getting a chain-moving machine. Bell never averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry with the Steelers, and that 3.5 average came during his rookie season. In his first year with the Jets, the former All-Pro rushed for 3.2 yards per carry, after having sat out the 2018 season.
It wasn’t all the running back’s fault, as the Jets’ offensive line ranked 28th in the league during the 2019 season, according to Pro Football Focus.
During the 2020 season, before and after Bell’s release, head coach Adam Gase appears to be as determined as ever to funnel carries to 35-year-old Frank Gore. LaMichel Perine is also in the mix for carries, but this backfield looks nothing like what fans had envisioned.
Defense: The death knell for this unit occurred before the season began, with Jamal Adams’ not so cryptic social media behavior expressing a desire to be traded away from New York if they didn’t want to extend his contract.
The organization was in a difficult spot because safeties, even ones who serve as a de facto linebackers, usually don’t get handsomely rewarded with long-term deals. Adams was also just entering his third year, and the organization may have wanted to see another productive season out of him before forking over a big deal.
At the end of the day, though, Adams’ loss on the field is one Gregg Williams has not been able to compensate for. Maye has not lived up to expectations, and the unit has been among the most penalized in the NFL. It’s hard to win when your talent is suspect relative to the opponent, and constant free yardage is being gifted to the offense.
What should happen next for the New York Jets?
QB: In the NFL, they say the worst place to be caught in is mediocrity at the QB position. The fact of the matter is, if you aren’t 110 percent behind your starting quarterback, you’re in a Ryan Tannehill-in-Miami or Andy Dalton-in-Cincinnati kind of situation. They might be good enough to get you into the playoffs every so often, but they won’t be the reason for your success.
While it would be unfair to cast all the blame on Darnold for the Jets’ lack of success the past few seasons, he also hasn’t distinguished himself enough to rise above the flotsam and jetsam surrounding him.
Look at Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz last year, and even on Thursday night; he was missing his starting running back, both starting TE’s, and multiple receivers, yet he led a late-game comeback against the New York Giants. Darnold hasn’t done that enough to dissuade Jets brass from taking a long, serious look at Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence, the likely first pick in the upcoming NFL draft. Lawrence profiles as the type of player who might be able to lift the pieces around him, which the Jets should seriously consider.
RB: Running back is routinely one of the easiest positions to locate talent in the NFL. The New Orleans Saints drafted Alvin Kamara in the 3rd round of the 2017 NFL draft; the Miami Dolphins are starting the viable Myles Gaskin, whom they drafted in the 7th round of the 2019 draft; and the Carolina Panthers turned to superb fill-in Mike Davis after Christian McCaffery’s injury.
Somehow, the Jets have not been able to fill the RB room with difference-making talent. At this point, after having released Le’Veon Bell, and utilizing Frank Gore as the primary ball-carrier, it’s time for the Jets to reset. The Jets received a third-round pick in the 2021 draft from the Seattle Seahawks in the Jamal Adams trade, and they would be well served using that selection on a running back.
Receivers: Although this unit could also use an infusion of talent, they may not be all that far off from becoming a respectable group. Jamison Crowder is an excellent route-runner in the slot, and someone who quarterbacks can rely on as an outlet to consistently move the chains. Crowder is signed through the 2021 season at $11.5 million, which may seem a little high, but is worth every penny for the reliability he provides. Second round rookie Denzel Mims has not yet been able to get on to the field for Gang Green, nursing injuries to both hamstrings. It’s way too early to give up on the Baylor product, who brings great size (6’3”) and potential red zone effectiveness.
The Jets would be well served to add one more reliable receiver with a blended skill set, since Crowder has the slot covered, and Mims projects to be featured in intermediate/goal line situations.
Defense: The Jets defensive unit is a little bit of a tough group to analyze, because they’ve pursued many avenues to try to improve. They signed linebacker C.J Mosley to a five-year deal in the 2019 offseason who was supposed to be a difference-maker, but he wasn’t able to remain healthy last season, and opted out of the 2020 campaign. They’ve used significant draft capital to improve their secondary, referring to Maye and Adams. The offense also doesn’t give them a chance to play with the lead, to allow Gregg Williams the opportunity to fully unleash his noted blitz packages.
While they’ve had some bad luck, they should continue to build around DL Quinnen Williams, who they selected 6th overall in the 2019 draft.
Williams hasn’t accumulated eye-popping numbers so far through six games, totaling only 2 sacks, but much of that could be explained by Jets’ opponents milking their leads by running the football. He still has the ability to become a difference making talent, and the team should keep him around to establish some continuity in the front seven.