Jets preview: How far chip on shoulder can carry this anonymous crew

The Jets enter the 2020 season with fewer stars than a cloudy night.

Jamal Adams is in Seattle. C.J. Mosley has opted out of the season. Sam Darnold may become a star, but he is not there yet. Le’Veon Bell is trying to prove he still can be a star. But overall, the Jets’ roster is filled with players without much on their résumés.

The Jets will argue that this starless team has something to prove. They believe they are a tight-knit group that can overcome the lack of big names by playing team football. The skeptic will look at their roster and sees holes all over the field.

That is the challenge that awaits Adam Gase as he enters his second season as Jets head coach. He guided the team to a 7-9 record last year that included a 6-2 finish. Gase hopes the Jets can build off of that finish and make a push for the playoffs, a place the franchise has not been in 10 years.

General manager Joe Douglas spent his first full offseason with the team reshaping the offensive line. Douglas did not throw big money at any one player, instead choosing to spread it around on mid-level players. One of the big questions about this season is whether it will work.

Darnold is counting on Douglas’ formula being successful. The 23-year-old is now in his third season with the Jets. The No. 3-overall pick in the 2018 draft has had some good moments in his NFL career and some moments he’d like to forget. The jury remains out on whether Darnold can be the team’s franchise quarterback for the next decade and beyond. We should have more clues by the end of this season.

Defensively, Gregg Williams will be asked to work his magic again. The Jets traded away their best player in Adams. They got a massive haul in return, but that won’t help this season. Mosley then walked away, leaving Williams without his top two defensive players. There are questions at cornerback and the Jets still don’t have an elite pass rusher. It will be up to Williams to get the most out of this group.

The AFC East is without Tom Brady for the first time in two decades. Can the Jets take advantage of it? Can they have a winning record for the first time since 2015? The answers will soon be clear.

Offense

It can’t be any worse, right?

The Jets had the 32nd-ranked offense in the NFL last season. For those of you scoring at home, there are only 32 teams in the NFL. Nothing worked well for Adam Gase in Year 1. Injuries and ineffective play bogged down the offensive line and it took a solid half a season for the team to gain its footing.

Le’Veon BellCorey Sipkin

They swear this year will be different. Sam Darnold is in Year 2 with Gase and they have said he is processing things quicker and ready to take the next step. The first key for Darnold will be staying healthy. He has missed three games in each of his first two seasons. If Darnold can stay on the field for 16 games, that will be good news for the Jets, who are 0-6 without him.

Darnold settled down in the middle of last season after he and Gase got a better feel for each other. Theoretically, they should be way past that at the start of this season. Darnold had 19 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions last year. If he can get those touchdowns up to 25 and the interceptions below 10, that would be major progress.

Le’Veon Bell is back for his second, and possibly last, season with the Jets. Bell reported to training camp in tremendous shape after averaging 3.2 yards per carry last year. There has been lots of positive talk about Bell’s prospects this season, but we’ll see if he can actually deliver. He is joined in the backfield by veteran Frank Gore and rookie La’Mical Perine, who had a strong training camp.

The Jets were decimated by injuries at wide receiver in training camp and it could take a while for them to develop chemistry with Darnold. Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims are the projected starters on the outside with Jamison Crowder, last year’s leading receiver, in the slot.

Tight end Chris Herndon is back after missing almost all of last season. He and Darnold showed a strong rapport in camp and he looks primed for a big year if he can stay healthy.

Douglas’ remade line begins with gigantic left tackle Mekhi Becton, the team’s first-round pick. The 6-foot-7, 370-pounder will make some rookie mistakes, but the Jets have high hopes for him. Connor McGovern, Greg Van Roten and George Fant join holdover Alex Lewis to round out the line.

Grade: C

Defense

Jamal Adams was the motor that made the Jets’ defense run in recent years — both with his excellent play and his boundless energy. The Jets shipped him to the Pacific Northwest in July and now they have to mend a giant hole in their defense.

Marcus Maye, Adams’ old running mate, has looked up to the challenge in camp. Maye has taken over Adams’ role on the defense, playing in the box and causing havoc around the line of scrimmage. No one is quite as loud as Adams, but Maye has been more vocal.

Bradley McDougald, who came over from Seattle in the Adams trade, will be the other safety with Maye. McDougald is a veteran who won’t be able to fill Adams’ shoes, but is more than capable himself of manning his position.

The Jets looked like they were trying to figure out exactly who their cornerbacks would be in training camp. Pierre Desir, one of the team’s free-agent signings, missed nearly all of camp with a hamstring injury. Brian Poole, the team’s slot corner, missed most of camp after an extreme reaction to dehydration. The Jets hope both can be full speed for Week 1 in Buffalo. The other cornerback spot looks like it will be filled by Bless Austin, who had a strong second half to last season.

Neville Hewitt replaces Mosley at inside linebacker. Hewitt filled in admirably last season for Mosley and should be more confident this year. Blake Cashman has been starting throughout training camp next to him, but it would not be a surprise to see Avery Williamson regain his starting role as he returns from last year’s ACL surgery.

Up front, the Jets have a solid defensive line, led by veteran Steve McLendon in the middle. The Jets expect a big leap from Quinnen Williams in Year 2 and a bounce-back year from Henry Anderson, who only had one sack last year.

On the outside, Jordan Jenkins re-signed after nearly leaving in free agency. He has 15 sacks over the past two seasons and is solid on the edge. Tarell Basham will be on the other side once he returns from an ankle injury suffered in camp. Kyle Phillips, Jordan Willis and John Franklin-Myers all could have roles as well.

Grade: B-

Special Teams

Sam Ficken is back as the kicker after defeating Brett Maher in this summer’s competition. Ficken was inconsistent last year, but had some good moments with the Jets.

The team drafted Braden Mann to replace Lachlan Edwards as the punter. Mann was an outstanding collegiate punter at Texas A&M, averaging 47.1 yards per punt last year and winning the Ray Guy Award in 2018 as the nation’s top punter. He has a big leg, but showed some rookie inconsistency in camp.

Vyncint Smith was expected to be the kick returner until he suffered a core muscle injury in camp that will sideline him for several more weeks. Rookie Ashtyn Davis could be the returner until Smith gets back. Davis, a third-round pick, is expected to be a major contributor on special teams.

Braxton Berrios averaged 11.4 yards per punt return last season and showed soft hands and seemed to find his groove as the season went on.

Grade: C+

Coaching

It became very clear last year that Adam Gase was unpopular with a significant percentage of the fan base. But if you take an objective view, Gase held a team together that started 1-7 and guided it to a 6-2 finish. The 7-9 record was their best finish in four years. Gase needs to be evaluated separately as a head coach and as an offensive coordinator, where his unit was poor.

The pressure is on Gase this season to bring out the best in Darnold and get this team to play better than its talent level. If he doesn’t, the Jets may be searching for his replacement in January.

Gregg Williams did an outstanding job hiding the deficiencies of his defense last year. They were pulling people from other positions to play inside linebacker, but he made it work. Williams has a strong group of assistants on his side of the ball with Dennard Wilson, Frank Bush, Andre Carter and Joe Vitt.

Brant Boyer has elevated the Jets’ special teams units every year since his first season with the Jets. He should have a good group again.

Grade: C

Two-Minute Drill

Most important offensive player: It would be easy to get cute here, but let’s not overthink it. Sam Darnold holds the fate of the Jets in his right hand. If he can make a leap in Year 3, the Jets could be better than expected. If he stumbles, the Jets may be searching for a new coach to tutor him next year.

Most important defensive player: The Jets lost their top two defensive players in the span of a week with the trade of Jamal Adams and the opt-out of C.J. Mosley. Someone needs to step into the void and become a dominant player. That should be Quinnen Williams, who was the No. 3-overall pick in 2019. The Jets need Williams to become dominant, both against the run and rushing the passer.

Rookie to watch: Third-round pick Ashtyn Davis will be all over the field for the Jets. The former track star is a freakish athlete and will be used on special teams as a returner and in coverage. He also will be a favorite of Gregg Williams, who can move him around as a chess piece in his defense. Davis can play close to the line or deep safety, in the slot and even some outside corner.

Star on the rise: Marcus Maye spent his first three seasons in the shadow of Jamal Adams. With Adams in Seattle, expect Maye to excel this year. He had an outstanding training camp and looks primed for a big season with free agency looming after this year.

Biggest coaching decision: Adam Gase needs to figure out how he is going to divide carries among Le’Veon Bell, Frank Gore and La’Mical Perine. Bell was already unhappy when he was yanked from a scrimmage in training camp. Gase trusts Gore and may end up going to him more than Bell in some games, which is going to irk Bell. It is going to be a tricky situation.

Don’t be surprised if: The Jets get off to a slow start. They have a lot of new pieces on offense that barely got to work together this offseason. The offensive line has four new starters. The wide receivers were hurt in training camp. There will be communication problems early.

Breshad PerrimanCorey Sipkin

Sure to make fans grumble: Adam Gase’s play-calling will surely bother some people. All play-callers face a ton of scrutiny. Gase has to find a way to keep Bell happy, make Darnold better and score points with an underwhelming cast. That won’t be easy.

Can’t miss ’em

Sept. 13: at Bills: With no preseason games, this will be our first chance to get a true read on this year’s Jets. The Bills are now the favorites in the division. If the Jets can knock them off, that would send a message.

Nov. 9 vs. Patriots: The Jets had a disastrous outing last year against the Patriots on “Monday Night Football,” with Sam Darnold seeing ghosts. The Jets face the Patriots without Tom Brady for the first time since 2008 in this one.

Dec. 13 at Seahawks: Jamal Adams will be flying high when he faces his former teammates. Le’Veon Bell expressed his unhappiness with Adams after the trade and those two will get to butt heads in this one. Pete Carroll also may have something to say to Gregg Williams.

Prediction: 7-9

On paper, the Jets have one of the worst rosters in football. But this team has a chip on its shoulder after hearing it is going nowhere without Jamal Adams and C.J. Mosley. I think the Jets will get it together after a rough start and be respectable all season. They will be in contention in December before stumbling late.