New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas has devoted the 2020 offseason to fixing the offense, but was it enough?
The New York Jets offense was awful in 2019. They ranked 31st in the NFL in offensive DVOA, including finishing 32nd in passing offense DVOA. That’s inexcusable when head coach Adam Gase was brought in to fix the offense.
The Jets faced some clear difficulties on offense. The offensive line was poor to start the year, but injuries made it even worse. The awful offensive line play made it impossible for the offense to get moving at all in most games.
They weren’t the only issues though. The Jets scored just one offensive touchdown in the three games without Sam Darnold, the wide receivers were subpar, and the running game was one of the worst in football.
The offense needed to be rebuilt from the ground up. That’s what Joe Douglas spent the offseason doing. He brought in three, potentially four, new offensive line starters, two new outside receivers, and two new running backs.
With all the additions, the hope would be that the offense has been fixed, but that’s not the case. There are still so many question marks and it’s impossible to say that it’s been improved from the year before right now.
The offensive line
The offensive line was awful in 2019. There’s no other way to put it. Sam Darnold was pressured on nearly 40% of his dropbacks, the second-highest rate in the NFL. On top of that, Le’Veon Bell only got 1.4 yards before contact per average, the lowest in the NFL.
Whether it was pass blocking or run blocking, the offensive line was atrocious. That’s why Joe Douglas made it his mission to fix it this offseason. He re-signed Alex Lewis and brought in four other potential starters.
Rookie offensive tackle Mekhi Becton will slot in at left tackle. Former Denver Broncos guard and center Connor McGovern is slated to play center. George Fant will compete at right tackle. Lastly, Long Island native Greg Van Roten will compete for a guard spot.
With all these additions, the offensive line is much-improved on paper in 2020. The question is how much they will actually improve on the field.
Rookie offensive linemen are notorious for struggling early in their careers. It wouldn’t be a shock if Becton proved to be a downgrade from Kelvin Beachum in the passing game.
George Fant was unable to win a starting spot on one of the worst offensive lines in football. It should be worrying that Fant was unable to unseat Germain Ifedi for a starting role in Seattle.
The good news at right tackle is the position is a near certainty to improve. Chuma Edoga manned the position for the majority of 2019 as a rookie, and he’ll be back and improved in 2020. So, either George Fant beats out the improved Edoga or Edoga improves on his 2019 performance. Either way, the Jets upgrade at right tackle.
The biggest upgrade will be at center. Ryan Kalil and Jonotthan Harrison combined to create one of the worst situations at the position in the NFL. McGovern was a top-10 center in the NFL in 2019. Even if he doesn’t reach that height again he’d still be a massive upgrade over the 2019 crop.
The guard spots are currently likely to be the same as 2019. Alex Lewis and Brian Winters are expected to lock down the starting jobs. Van Roten will compete in training camp, but his lack of knowledge of the offense and the chemistry Lewis and Winters have already built up will likely make it difficult for Van Roten to win a job.
Break this all down and it’s clear the Jets offensive line will be improved, but it’ll likely only be a marginal improvement. Even that’s not guaranteed because of the lack of chemistry.
No position in the NFL relies more on another than the five offensive line positions. That means they need to have strong chemistry so they can work well with each other on the field. With no offseason workouts, it’s impossible for them to build that chemistry.
Without the chemistry, the offensive line could be a disaster early in the season. That’s something the Jets simply can’t afford. Even if they have the chemistry, is an upgrade from one of the worst in the league to below-average going to be enough?
The running game
The Jets’ running game was a trainwreck in 2019. They averaged just 3.28 yards per carry, the lowest rate in the NFL. Le’Veon Bell averaged just 3.2 yards per carry. His 52.6 yards per game were the worst in his career. There’s little reason to expect improvement.
The Jets are set to switch up their running game and blocking style in 2020. The hope is to run outside more, something the Jets rarely did in 2019. With athletic tackles on the edge and maulers in the middle, the hope is the Jets can create more running room for their new committee.
Bell was asked to be the sole rusher for the majority of the 2019 season. He had 245 rushing attempts, the next closest was Bilal Powell with 59. That’s not going to be the same in 2020. Expect Gase to spell Bell often with either the powerful veteran Frank Gore or the young jack-of-all-trades Lamical Perine.
Bell will still see a significant number of carries, but he won’t be expected to carry the full load in 2019. With fresher legs, Bell should hopefully be able to return to his All-Pro form.
In theory, this all makes sense, but it doesn’t make any sense in practice. The Jets added just one good run-blocking offensive lineman in Mekhi Becton. The rest of their offensive line additions are strong pass blockers who struggle to run block.
That means the run blocking in 2020 may not be improved much if at all from 2019. Fans can hope that Becton, the best run-blocking tackle I’ve ever scouted, can lead the running game on his own, but it rarely works out that well.
As for the fresher leg theory, Bell’s 16.3 rush attempts per game in 2019 were already the lowest he had in his career. Putting him in a committee and limiting those touches even more won’t so much keep him fresh, as it’ll erase him from the game.
The best way to open the running game is for the Jets passing game to get off the ground. If that doesn’t happen it’s hard to see how the rushing attack is going to improve in any significant fashion.
The passing game
Sam Darnold is the key to the Jets’ success. If he develops into a franchise signal-caller, then the Jets will not only have a successful offense, but they’ll be a playoff team. With an improved offensive line there’s a chance that could happen.
In games where Darnold has been sacked just two times or fewer, the Jets are 11-5 over the last two years. When Darnold’s been sacked four times or more the Jets are 0-6. It’s clear that Darnold needs protection to hold up.
The most staggering stat from 2019 may be that the Jets were an astonishing 7-3 in games both Sam Darnold and Kelvin Beachum played. Beachum didn’t make the Jets’ offensive line average, he just helped make it good enough that Darnold wasn’t being mauled on every play, and that was enough.
The hope is that with an offensive line built around players known for their pass-blocking Darnold will get enough time to be that player. That’s great and it may work, but the giant hole at wide reciever might make that difficult.
Jamison Crowder is one of the better slot receivers in the NFL, and he’ll return as Darnold’s top target. The issues begin behind Crowder. In 2019, the Jets had Robby Anderson produce over 700 yards as one of the league’s premier deep threats. Anderson has since left to join the Carolina Panthers.
He’s been replaced with Breshad Perriman who had a breakout final five games to the 2019 season but had been awful before that. To put this into perspective, Perriman put up more yards in the last five games of 2019 than in 2018 and 2017 combined.
He put up those numbers in Tampa Bay. That offense has been known to inflate wide receiver numbers to an insane degree. Perriman isn’t the first receiver to cash in on a breakout season in Tampa. It doesn’t usually work out for teams, but Perriman could be different.
His size and speed are special. He’s also got excellent hands as he hasn’t dropped a single pass in the past two seasons. That’s 94 targets and zero drops.
The issue is there’s no guarantee that Perriman will provide anything close to what Anderson did. He could now that he’ll have a guaranteed starting spot for the first time in his career, but it’s not a certainty. Perriman is a high-risk high-reward player. Given his past, it’s probably smarter to bet on the risk side.
The Jets’ other starting receiver is going to Denzel Mims. The second-round pick out of Baylor is another size-speed specimen. Mims was considered a first-round prospect by many before sliding to the Jets. It’s possible he proves the rest of the league wrong, but it’s rare for rookie receivers to carry a receiving corps.
Mims has superstar potential, but it’ll likely take a little while to achieve it. Expecting him to be a No. 1 receiver in his rookie year is asking a lot.
On the plus side, the Jets should get excellent production out of their running backs and tight ends in the passing game. Le’Veon Bell may not have been excellent in the running game in 2019, but he was still a strong receiver. He was third on the team in receiving yards in 2019 with 466 yards.
Another year of chemistry with Darnold and another year in Gase’s offense should open up the field for Bell as a receiver. That is, if Bell is used enough to take advantage of his receiving skills. Bell was only targeted 66 times in 2019. That’s the lowest per game target rate he’s had since his suspension shortened 2015 season.
The biggest gain for the offense might be the return of Chris Herndon. The University of Miami product was outstanding in his rookie year. Herndon and Darnold developed a special chemistry in 2018 and it looked like Herndon may break into the elite players at the position in 2019. That didn’t happen though, as Herndon’s season was destroyed by a suspension and injuries.
As he returns in 2020 there are high expectations. Herndon’s blocking skills and sure hands were missed in 2019. With him back in the fold the Jets’ could be adding their top target back into their passing game.
Overall, there are too many question marks to say the passing game will be improved. There are reasons to be hopeful, but just as many to be wary. It’ll likely all come down to the development of Sam Darnold.
It’s certain the offense isn’t built for success without a franchise quarterback. Now he has the chance to show that he’s that guy, and with a stacked quarterback class in 2021, it could be his last.