Saturday, July 12, 2014

Best of the 2014 Jets

In the inaugural "Best of the Jets" series, Jet Fuel writers Matt Barbato and Max Marcilla list the most talented 20 players on the 2014 New York Jets roster. Starting on July 3, Barbato and Marcilla will each post a new player to the list, which will lead right into the beginning of Jets training camp on July 23. If you agree or disagree with our assessments, feel free to comment below with your best Jets, or reach out on Twitter, @RealMattBarbato@MMarcilla98 and @NewYorkJetFuel.

20. David Nelson

The "Best of the Jets" series starts with a wide receiver who quietly emerged into one of Geno Smith's favorite targets. Nelson signed with the Jets in 2013 after three seasons with the Buffalo Bills. Nelson wasn't given much of an opportunity to play immediately, but after injuries to fellow wide outs Santonio Holmes and Stephen Hill, Nelson squeezed into the lineup and never left.

Nelson's best moment of 2013 was when he caught his only two touchdown passes in a Week 16 matchup against the Cleveland Browns. Despite playing in only 12 games, he caught 36 passes for 423 yards and two scores. Nelson also ranked second on the roster with 60 targets.

The hope is that as Smith grows, Nelson will as well. He finished 2014 relatively strong, catching 16 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns. Nelson could get a crack at the starting job opposite of Eric Decker and could become an instrumental component of the Jets' offense next season.

19. Geno Smith

The next person on the countdown is the field general of the offense and is arguably the Jets' biggest project.

In his rookie year out of West Virginia, Smith was up-and-down. He had moments of brilliance, such as his Monday night gem against the Falcons, in which he completed 80% of his passes and threw for three touchdowns. Smith's biggest problem was his high tendency to turn the ball over, as he threw 21 interceptions in his rookie season.

Odds are that Smith will win the starting quarterback competition with Michael Vick, and will be starting for the Jets Week 1. However, the Jets are hoping their quarterback of the future will be higher on this list next year. If he can avoid the mistakes that hurt the Jets many times this past year, Smith won't only move up on this list, but he could help get the Jets back to the postseason.

18. Calvin Pryor

The rookie safety has already made a good impression in OTAs and minicamp and carried that momentum into our top-20 list. Pryor has all the qualities of a safety that Rex Ryan loves: a hard-hitter, who isn't afraid to talk smack and jar the ball loose with vicious collisions. Pryor can play the run but also can be a playmaker the Jets defense desperately needs.

Pryor's biggest questions is his coverage skills. Pryor had three picks at Louisville in 2013 along and defended four passes. Those are good numbers for a safety, but ones that the Jets would like to see improvement on.

Potential is a big reason Pryor cracks the top 20. His hard-nosed style of play will be a natural fit in Ryan's blitz-heavy schemes and Pryor should make an impact in the running game and could earn a sack or two by rushing the passer. Most importantly, Pryor needs to create turnovers for New York, who finished second-to-last in the NFL with only 15 takeaways. Pryor has as good of a chance of being the defensive rookie of the year as Jadeveon Clowney or Khalil Mack and has an opportunity to be an impact player right away.

17. Dee Milliner

After the first 13 weeks of last season, no one thought the Jets rookie cornerback would end up on this list. The last four games convinced that he deserves the #17 spot in our countdown.

Milliner played in nine of the Jets' first 12 games, but was not playing up to his expectations. He was several times multiple times, and missed three games due to an injury. He didn't catch an interception during the first 12 games.

Suddenly, something clicked for Milliner. In the last four games, he picked off three passes, deflected ten more, and he received the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Month award.

Milliner will be the Jets top corner in 2014. He needs to stay on the field and perform well in order to be ranked higher next season. This is something Rex Ryan believes he can do. As Ryan said, "His challenge is to be in world-class shape because we have to have him out there. He needs to be out there. He needs to get work because that's how he's going to get better. He's got to step it up because I think he has all the talent in the world."

Milliner might have all the talent in the world, but he needs to show more of it in his second season.

16. Antonio Allen

Allen performed well in his second professional season and his first as a starting safety for the Jets. He recorded 63 tackles with a sack and one interception, which he returned for a touchdown, in just under 50 percent of the team's snaps. He and Dawan Landry were a decent duo in the secondary, but one that recorded only two combined turnovers all season. Allen’s best moment of 2013 was his lone interception, which he returned for a touchdown early in the second half in New York’s 30-27 win over the New England Patriots.

The addition of Calvin Pryor makes New York’s safety situation a bit more muddled. Pryor and Allen took the majority of the starting reps in OTAs and minicamp, but Landry will likely see his share of playing time.

The safety position may be the most interesting position battle of training camp and Allen can cement his name in the starting lineup by improving his coverage skills.  Pryor will likely be the run-stopping safety, leaving Allen as the last line of defense in the secondary. If Allen can play better in coverage and become more of a ball hawk, he could evolve into a solid safety for the Jets secondary. We think Allen has an opportunity to take a big step in his third season with the Jets.

15. Dawan Landry

Although Landry probably won't be a starter this upcoming year he is the most proven out of any New York safety.

Landry started all 16 games for the Jets in 2013 and his 100 tackles ranked second on the roster. Like the entire defense, Landry wasn't much of a playmaker, which is likely the main reason the Jets will roll with the rookie Calvin Pryor as the starter. After an interception in the opening week of the season, Landry didn't force a turnover for the rest of the season.

It is likely that Landry will see quality playing time despite not starting games this year. Unlike last year, he will not play 98% of the snaps. His success this year will be based on how he performs while on the field, and how Calvin Pryor will perform in his rookie year. Landry, a known hard-worker, has become a mentor to the young safety and is a player who could still be a big contributor in 2014.

14. Quinton Coples 

Potential is the reason we put Coples this high on our Best of the Jets list. This season will be a telling one for Coples, as he is healthy going into camp and has one year under his belt at his new position of outside linebacker. The Jets wisely moved Coples to his new position in hopes of getting another fearsome pass rusher off the edge to combine with the team's monstrous defensive line. 2013 was a mild success for Coples. He missed the first two games with an ankle injury, but managed to play the latter 14 games, recording 38 tackes and 4.5 sacks. 

Potential will have to develop into something fruitful for the talented pass-rusher out of North Carolina. Coples reportedly lost weight off of his 6-foot-6, 290 pound frame, which should make him quicker off the edge. Coples will need to take the next step as a pass rusher with his hand off the ground. The Jets exterior pass rush has not been spectacular over the years, which makes Coples' development even more pertinent. 

We expect Coples to take that next step and provide a reliable pass rush off the edge. If he develops like we think he will, the Jets could have the best front-seven in the NFL, which could help mask the growing pains of its inexperienced secondary.

13. Calvin Pace

An unexpectedly terrific 2013 campaign enabled the veteran linebacker to make the top-15 on our Best of the Jets list. It earned him a 2-year, $5 million contract from the Jets, but it did not come without higher expectations.

Pace's sack totals dropped every year from 2009, until this year. After only three sacks in 16 games in the 2012 season, the 12-year pro set a career high this past year with 10 sacks, the second best mark for any Jet. He also became just the 24th player age 33 or older to hit the double-digit mark in sacks, joining a few Hall of Famers such as Michael Strahan and Reggie White. Pace also played consistently in 2014. In 11 of the 16 games he played in, Pace recorded at least 0.5 sacks.

He also forced two fumbles, the best on the team starved for turnover production, and had a combined total of 53 tackles, ninth best on the team.

Although he was one of the best Jets last year, it is tough to anticipate another double-digit sack season for a player who is turning 34 this October. However, if he can continue to be a pass rushing threat on the outside, 2014 will be another successful year.

12. Jeremy Kerley

Although Kerley was not a dominant wide receiver last season, he was a first-down producer, which was enough to get him all the way up to twelfth on the list.

The fourth-year pro out of TCU had himself a productive year. While the yard totals were low, 523 receiving yards, 43.6 receiving yards per game, the timing of the passes were crucial. On 70% (30-out-of-43) of receptions, Kerley managed to get past the first down marker and move the chains. This is comparable to one of the best slot receivers in the NFL, Wes Welker, who recorded first downs on 67% of his receptions.

The Jets will likely run Kerley in the slot for the vast majority of snaps, as long as he is healthy, this upcoming season. With the Jets having two solid perimeter wide receivers in Eric Decker and David Nelson, Kerley will have an opportunity to shine this upcoming year.

For Kerley to receive a higher rank on next offseason's Best of the Jets list, he will have to stay healthy, continue moving the chains, and increase his yardage. He has the talent, but the health is the biggest question for the 25-year old wide out.

11. Breno Giacomini 

It's tough to argue for a new right tackle to be the 11th best player on the Jets roster, but think about where Giacomini is coming from. He is a world champion right tackle, who was one of the more stable pieces on a Seahawks offensive line that was actually in flux for much of the season. 

Giacomini was also the blocking tackle for Marshawn Lynch, an all-pro running back whether he's moving past his prime or not. Mainly, I vouched (Barbato) for Giacomini to be higher because a big part of this is potential and expectations and I see Giacomini rising above those expectations in 2014. 

Many were upset that the Jets let Austin Howard go to the Oakland Raiders, but general manager managed to get a comparable, if not better player than Howard for almost $2 million less. There aren't many stats out there that can rate offensive lineman, but Giacomini is a brawler. The only concern is staying healthy, as Giacomini played only nine games for the Seahawks last season, but if he stays healthy, he will help maintain the right side of the offensive line. It may be done quietly, but it will be efficient. 

10. Chris Ivory 

We begin the top-10 with a crucial part of the Jets offense going forward. In his first season in New York, Ivory was encouraging. He stayed healthy and ran for 833 yards on 182 carries, a 4.58 yards per carry average. 

The one concern about Ivory's 2013 campaign? He scored only three touchdowns. That's a low number for a six-foot, 220 pound back, who should thrive in red zone situations. Of course, some of that could be due to the lack of a red zone passing game around him, but Ivory didn't punch it in as much as anticipated. 

In most situations, splitting carries harms a running back's overall season. In Ivory's case, it could be a blessing in disguise. Ivory has missed games due to injury in each of his four NFL seasons and the presence of Chris Johnson between the 20s could be vital to preserving Ivory and keeping his legs fresh. The offseason enhancement of the offense should help Ivory get more scoring opportunities next season. A 1,000-yard season may be a stretch, but a 700-yard season with five or six touchdowns is definitely in a possibility for the bruising back.

9. Chris Johnson

Johnson was one of the Jets main offseason pickups and is expected to be a big part of a more versatile New York offense in this upcoming season. CJ was acquired via free agency after six terrific seasons in Tennessee. His most memorable season as a Titan was in 2009, when he ran for 2,006 yards and earned the nickname CJ2k.

As we just mentioned with Ivory, the running back reps will be split between the two. This might make Johnson unhappy. As he told, “Once the season starts and once the season starts and I’m doing my thing, I’m pretty sure if I’m making plays they’re going to want to keep handing the ball off to me. If they want me to continue making plays, I’m pretty sure I can’t do that if I’m on the sideline."

However, the tandem of running backs might actually help enhance Johnson's game. Ivory, as mentioned, is a "bruising back." Johnson is quite the opposite as a 5'11", 195 lb. speedster. As our own Matt Barbato wrote, CJ can bring options to the Jets offense. He can be used as a home run threat back or a safety valve pass-catcher.

Johnson has high expectations for his first year in green and white. Earning the ninth spot on our list might seem a bit low for a player of his stature, but an important component to consider is what Johnson will bring to New York in his seventh season. Don't expect another 1,500-yard season from Johnson, but he could reach the 1,000-yard plateau once more if given enough carries.

8. David Harris 

Some might say Muhammad Wilkerson (we'll get to him) is the anchor of the New York Jets defense, but don't forget about Harris, who accumulated over 120 combined tackles in the past two seasons. He roams the middle in Rex Ryan's 3-4 defense and is crucial in run defense. 

The concern about Harris is, at the age of 30, he could be slowing down. If the last two seasons have shown anything, it's that Harris still has plenty of good seasons left in the tank. The Jets linebacking group is filled with uncertainty, but Harris is a consistent piece who can be relied on up the middle. 

Harris could be a big beneficiary of New York's rapidly improving defensive line, namely nose guard Damon Harrison. Better play in the trenches usually results in better play from the second level, which can only help a solid linebacker in Harris. Some might say the ceiling for 2014 isn't too high, but a season with 130 tackles isn't out of the question. Expect another productive year from Harris, not the beginning of the end. 

7. Nick Folk

He didn't get the number one spot on our list, but Nick Folk was quite possibly the best Jet from last year. Being a kicker didn't help his stock, but he had one of the most memorable and accomplished seasons.

Folk earned the nickname "Ice Cold" from fans due to his unshakable demeanor. In three of his 16 games, Folk was called on to make a game-winning field goal and nailed it through the posts, including an overtime winner against New England. Overall on the year, Folk was 33-of-36, 91.7% on field goal tries.

A kicker will never get the benefit of the doubt when it comes to a list of best players, however, give Folk some props. He played like the best Jet week-in and week-out with his accuracy and clutch timing on his kicks.

6. D'Brickashaw Ferguson 

One of the most important pieces of a productive offense is a strong left tackle and Ferguson has been one of the more reliable blind-side blockers in the NFL since entering the league in 2006. Ferguson's best trait might be his durability, as he has started every game of his career in his 8 NFL seasons. 

Ferguson isn't to blame for his lousy quarterback play behind him, although the Jets did allow an adjusted sack rate (which includes intentional-grounding penalties) of 8.7 percent, according to the Football Outsiders

The problem is Ferguson just hit 30 and showed some signs of struggle in 2013. His run blocking has never been spectacular and the Football Outsiders show that when the Jets run the ball over the left tackle (12 percent of running plays), the Jets average about 3.61 yards per carry, which is about a third of a yard below average. 

Ferguson, along with Nick Mangold, is one of the most consistent players on the Jets in the past decade, but Ferguson will need to step it up in 2014, when the offensive line could be an unforeseen problem. 

5. Damon Harrison

The man known as "Snacks" came out of nowhere last season. The undrafted free agent from William Penn University in Iowa was just another defensive lineman in training camp attempting to make the roster. By the end of the year, he was playing great with Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson.

He is just 25 years old and has plenty of room to improve, but he deserves every bit of praise he has received. As an early-down run stopper, he was one of the best in the league.

According to Football Outsiders, the Jets had a 39% power success rating. Power success is defined as percentage of runs on third or fourth down, two yards or less to go, that achieved a first down or touchdown. This stat also includes runs on first-and-goal or second-and-goal from the two-yard line or closer.

Opponents were also "stuffed" on all rush attempts 26% of the time by the Jets, which ranked third in the NFL.

For Snacks to improve, he'll have to work on his pass rush. He only disrupted quarterbacks 10 times last year. However, his ability to stifle backs at the line of scrimmage should keep him high on this list next year if his contract, which expires after this season, is extended.

4. Eric Decker 

The biggest free agent signing of John Idzik's career brings some pedigree to a putrid receiving core, but also some uncertainties. Decker thrived with the Denver Broncos in Peyton Manning's first two seasons. He caught 172 balls for 2,352 yards and 24 touchdowns the past two years, but he also had Demaryius Thomas, Wes Welker, and Julius Thomas around him.

That's the biggest concern for Decker in 2014. Can he produce similarly in New York with Geno Smith throwing him the ball and the likes of David Nelson, Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley around him? A downgrade would be an understatement to compare moving from Manning to Smith and with an unproven group around him, Decker could often draw double teams in coverage.

There are doubts that Decker can be a top wideout in the NFL, but the statistics back him up. According to the Football Outsiders, Decker ranked fourth in the league in defense-adjusted yards above replacement, which measures how many yards better a receiver was in a given situation compared to an average wide out. He also ranked 12th in defense-adjusted value over average, which essentially defines how valuable a wide receiver was in the same situations. To compare, the next closest player on New York's roster in these two categories was Jeremy Kerley, who ranked 49th in DYAR and 29th in DVOA.

These fancy numbers say that despite all of the talent around him, Decker has the talent to be a legitimate first option in the Jets' passing game. Decker's 6-foot-3 frame will also be a crucial element in the red zone, a place where the Jets struggled in last season.

Decker is the most talented player on New York's offense in 2014 and he will have to play like it if the Jets want to be playoff contenders. Placing him fourth on this list reflects our respect for what he did in Denver, but also leaves room to move higher if he excels in his first year in the Big Apple.

3. Sheldon Richardson 

The winner of the Defensive Rookie of the Year award last season not only proves he's one of the best young defensive players in the NFL, he's also one of the most promising prospects on the New York Jets.

Richardson was acquired by the Jets thanks to the trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which sent cornerback Darrelle Revis to Tampa for the 12th pick in the draft.. Although Revis was a fan favorite, the trade has worked out nicely for the Jets. They found another young prospect who could develop into a star on a talented Jets defensive line. 

Last year as a rookie, Richardson ranked fourth on the Jets with a total of 3.5 sacks, sixth with 42 tackles and fourth in assisted tackles, where he had 35.

In the offseason, Richardson was ranked 94th in the NFL Network's "Top 100 Players of 2013" list. He was the 15th best defensive lineman out of 16 in the countdown and only the third rookie on the list.

Duplicating a similar season in 2014 will be a bigger challenge for Richardson, who won't be seen as a slouch by opposing offenses. When asked about a "sophomore slump," he shrugged it off and said, "That sounds like a rookie wall, something I never hit."

2. Nick Mangold 

Mangold has been one of the best Jets since he arrived in the league in 2006. He has started all but two games in his eight-year career and has been one of the best lineman to ever wear the green and white. Mangold isn't just the second-best Jet, but he's also one of the best centers in the NFL and is an anchor in run blocking. 

The question surrounding Mangold is whether his best years are behind him. He will turn 31 in January and wasn't as effective in run blocking as in years past. According to the Football Outsiders, the Jets ranked 15th in the NFL with a 3.99 yards per carry average when running to the middle of the line of scrimmage. This was almost a third of a yard less than the team's 2012 average of 4.27 yards per attempt. 

The center still has plenty of years left as long as he stays healthy, but sometimes an offensive line is only as strong as its weakest link. Mangold may be exiting his prime, but he is still an exceptional center and the best lineman on the New York Jets. 

1. Muhammad Wilkerson

Well we finally made it to the number one player in our Best of the Jets countdown and there is no one more deserving of this spot than Mo Wilkerson.

In just three years as a Jet, he's consistently been a lethal pass rusher. His sack totals have increased each year, with his total reaching double digits (10.5) in 2013. His sack numbers weren't the only impressive thing about last season. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Wilkerson was the 15th best defensive end. He ranked tenth in quarterback hits (nine) and eight in quarterback hurries (32). His 63 total tackles ranked 10th among defensive linemen. 

Of course, Wilkerson has plenty of room to grow. He needs to become a bigger fixture in non-passing situations, as his defensive linemates, Sheldon Richardson and Damon Harrison, each recorded more tackles than him. Having said that, the sky is the limit for a player as talented as Wilkerson. 

As the NFL is in the midst of a quarterback-driven stage, a good pass-rusher is important to every good team. The Jets are lucky to have one in Richardson, but to have two young and elite ends is a coach's dream come true - especially if that coach is Rex Ryan. Expect Wilkerson and this front seven to grow into the most dominant unit in the NFL, with Wilkerson leading the way. A Defensive Player of the Year trophy isn't a stretch for him. 

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