The New York Jets’ starting lineup is far from set. Training camp will feature a number of high-profile position battles.
All three facets of the team still have major openings. The offensive line has a number of holes, cornerback is an unknown, and who knows who the kicker will be?
The hope is that training camp will help the Jets figure that out, but the lack of preseason games could make that tricky. It’s going to be difficult for these coaches to pick starters when they only get to see the players in minimal game action.
That’s the task standing before Adam Gase and his staff. If they’re going to make some noise this year, then he’ll need to nail these decisions. His job could depend on it.
Guard: Brian Winters v. Greg Van Roten v. Cam Clark v. Alex Lewis
The position battle at guard may be the most pressing on the team. The Jets have four players fighting for two spots. Long time starter Brian Winters is hoping to retain his starting spot, as is Alex Lewis. Meanwhile, free-agent signing Greg Van Roten and rookie Cam Clark are fighting for roles.
It’s unlikely Clark is an opening day starter. The fourth-round pick is a long-term development project, but many thought he would surprise when given the chance. Without offseason workout programs and limited in-game action though, it doesn’t seem possible he wins a starting spot out of camp.
That said, Clark could stamp his name in the minds of his coaches and put pressure on the potential starters. Don’t be shocked if Clark makes enough noise that he becomes the team’s top backup guard.
The other three are jumbled together. It’s possible that any combination of the three ends up starting Week 1. The favorites for the job are Lewis and Van Roten. Winters seems to have worn out his welcome despite being the most consistent player of the bunch.
Many Jets fans often look at Winters as an example of everything that’s been wrong with the Jets’ offensive line for years. That ignores the fact he’s been paying next to poor centers and right tackles that have affected him. Even then, he’s still the only one of the three to have an above-average PFF grade in more than one season in his career. Winters’ biggest issue is his injury history, which is long and likely won’t improve as he ages.
Alex Lewis has his own injury history. He’s never played in all 16 games in a season. Prior to 2019, his career-high was 10 games played. On top of that, Lewis was 46th out the 64 starting guards in PFF grades in 2019. For the record, Winters was 26th.
Last is lifelong Jets fan, Greg Van Roten. After spending years in the CFL, Van Roten found his way to the Carolina Panthers and finally earned a starting role in 2018. He showed great improvement in 2019, but it’s the only year he’s been an above-average NFL player.
Can he repeat that success? The Jets are sure hoping so. Van Roten was the 24th best starting guard in the NFL in 2019. He doesn’t have a long injury history, and he has the most recent success of the group. The issue is that Van Roten doesn’t know the playbook like Lewis and Winters do.
It’s possible that the two guards could be the glue for the Jets offensive line or the reason it falls apart. They can’t afford to get this decision wrong or it could ruin the offense as a whole.
TE1: Chris Herndon v. Ryan Griffin
The position battle that really shouldn’t exist, but will. Chris Herndon had a phenomenal rookie year in 2018. He had one of the greatest rookie tight end seasons of the 2010s. It was on par with the likes of George Kittle and Rob Gronkowski. He was supposed to take the NFL by storm in 2019, but a suspension and injuries got in the way.
He was replaced by Ryan Griffin. Quarterback Sam Darnold and Griffin developed a chemistry that is hard to deny. Griffin set career marks in touchdowns and catch rate, while putting up the second-most yards and receptions in his career. That earned him a three-year extension that makes him the 25th highest-paid tight end in 2020.
The Jets aren’t going to want that money to go to waste. That means Griffin is likely going to have a role of some kind. What role is going to be is anyone’s guess. He’s a worse blocker and receiver than Herndon was in his rookie year. If Herndon continues to improve, then it makes no sense that Griffin would start.
That salary looms large, as does Herndon’s lost 2019. Expect Herndon to win the starting job if he’s healthy, but Griffin will have a large role in the offense regardless.
CB2: Bryce Hall v. Bless Austin v. Authur Maulet v. Quincy Wilson
The Jets have one of the worst cornerback situations in the NFL. Pierre Desir is a lock to be a starting corner, but who plays opposite Desir is still up in the air. It could be any one of a number of potential options. Arthur Maulet and Bless Austin played well in limited snaps in 2019. Quincy Wilson flashed potential at times for the Colts. Rookie Bryce Hall may be the most talented of the group, but is he healthy?
The Jets cut and then re-signed Arthur Maulet to a minimum contract this offseason. That doesn’t show a lot of confidence in his ability to hold down a starting spot. That said, Maulet played admirably in 2019. There’s an argument to be made that he was the Jets’ best outside cornerback.
Bless Austin was a surprise star for the Jets in 2019. After missing out on the offseason, training camp and the first eight weeks of the season, Austin was inserted into the starting lineup. To the shock of many, he was one of the best corners in football over his first four weeks. That shine quickly wore off. After a disastrous half of football against the Steelers, Austin was benched the rest of the reason.
The Jets acquired Quincy Wilson at the draft for a sixth-round pick. He’s never started more than five games, has injury issues, and has been up-and-down throughout his career. At his best, he looks like a No. 2 zone corner. At his worst, he looks like he doesn’t belong on a football field.
Bryce Hall fell to the Jets in the fifth-round despite first-round talent. A severe ankle injury ended his college career and kept him from competing at the combine. At Virginia, Hall was one of the best corners in college football. He led the NCAA in passes defended in 2018. If he’s healthy and the injury hasn’t sapped him of his athleticism, then Hall looks like the favorite for the job.
There is no clear-cut winner here. All the options have huge question marks. This is the one spot on the roster where preseason games would have mattered most. Without prolonged in-game action, the team is going to have to make a choice based on camp — where the corners are playing against a poor Jets receiving corps.
Weakside EDGE: Kyle Phillips v. Tarell Basham v. Jabari Zuniga
The Jets have lacked a strong pass rush for years, and that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change in 2020. Kyle Phillips, Tarell Basham, and Jabari Zuniga are going to fight it out for the right to play opposite Jordan Jenkins.
Kyle Phillips was one of the Jets’ great bright spots of 2019. An undrafted free agent who became the team’s most prominent defensive lineman. No defensive lineman played more snaps than Phillips did in 2019. He showed up as a run-stuffer from day one. He posted the 17th-best run defense among EDGE defenders according to PFF. His 16 tackles for loss or no gain were third in the NFL at the position.
Phillips has a lot of work to do as a pass rusher. He had just three sacks and 16 total pressures in 2019. Those numbers put at 102nd among edge defenders. He could improve in year two, but do the Jets want to give a starting spot to their worst pass-rushing edge rusher?
Tarell Basham played in all 16 games in 2019, but only started two of them. He’s the opposite of Kyle Phillips in a lot of ways. His run defense wasn’t good. He ranked 43rd among edge rushes in run defense grade according to PFF. Respectable, but not anywhere near as good as Phillips. Where he really outshined Phillips was as a pass rusher.
Basham only had two sacks, but he had 39 total pressures. That puts him 48th among edge rushers. Given more snaps, he was 53rd among edge rushers in snaps played, he could turn into a legitimate threat as a pass rusher. Is that worth the Jets’ stellar run defense taking a hit?
The big wildcard is rookie Jabari Zuniga. The third-round pick fits perfectly into the Jets 4-2-5 base defense. He can play edge, rush defensive tackle, rush the passer, and stop the run. Injuries are a big question with Zuniga as is his pass-rush technique.
He had three sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss in five games in 2019. He played injured in at least three of those games. In his first two games of the season, Zuniga had three sacks and three tackles for loss. If that production kept up over a full season he would have been a first or second-round pick.
If he can stay healthy and show the explosiveness that made him a threat at Florida, it’s not out of the question that he steals the starting job.
Kicker: Sam Ficken v. Brett Maher
The Jets’ kicker competition is one that nobody wants to watch. Sam Ficken and Brett Maher were two of the worst kickers in the NFL. The Jets are hoping to strike gold with one of them, but it’s more likely that both flop again.
Sam Ficken was 30th in the NFL in field goal percentage at 70.4%. He made just 88.5% of extra points. He was just 10-for-17 or 58.9% from 40-plus yards. The most alarming part is that was the best season of his career.
Brett Maher was even worse in 2019. He was 32nd in field goal percentage at 66.7%. He was 100% of extra points. Maher was just 5-for-13 or 38.5% from 40-plus yards. The good news is he was much better in 2018.
Maher hit 80.6% of his field goals in 2018. That includes 13-for-18 or 72.2% from 40-plus. His 6-for-7 from 50-plus yards put him among the best in the NFL from long distance. He’s the only kicker in NFL history to have hit at least three kicks from at least 60 yards out.
It’s clear that Maher has the higher upside. Can he be that guy again? The Jets can’t afford to run out a kicker who misses over 60% of the time from 40-plus yards.
The good news is this is one competition that the Jets can hold with limited preseason time. Most of this competition will happen in camp and the team will be perfectly fine.