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NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger fired up for Jets and Geno Smith this season

Former NFL player Brian Baldinger played offensive line

Former NFL player Brian Baldinger played offensive line for the Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles. He also worked as an NFL color commenter for Fox from the late 1990s until 2009 and now works for NFL Network. Credit: AP

The Jets open training camp this week with plenty of optimism about first-year coach Todd Bowles and rookie general manager Mike Maccagnan. And it's not just the predictable sense of hope that comes with a change in leadership. It's legit.

After an offseason in which Maccagnan reshaped the roster by bringing in star cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie and Pro Bowl-caliber receiver Brandon Marshall to give the even-keeled Bowles a fighting chance, there is every reason to believe the Jets will be significantly better than last year's 4-12 team.

Brian Baldinger takes it a step further. The former NFL offensive lineman and longtime NFL Network analyst believes the Jets are going to the playoffs.

He likes the coach. He likes the quarterback. And he likes this team's chances as much as anyone we've come across since Woody Johnson cleaned house by firing coach Rex Ryan and GM John Idzik this past January.

"I'd be shocked if this team doesn't win 10 games," said Baldinger, who starred at Massapequa High School. "I think you have the guys on this team that know how to win."

It was obvious by the end of last season that sweeping changes needed to be made, and Johnson did so by pulling the plug on Ryan after six seasons and Idzik after two years.

The replacements look like the right guys . . . so far, anyway. Bowles offers a more even-tempered and detailed approach than Ryan, who was a players' coach but whose team often was undisciplined. And where Idzik was ultra-conservative in how he acquired players, Maccagnan's aggressive moves instantly solidified the secondary and added a big-time receiving threat in Marshall, a temperamental yet supremely talented player.

Baldinger likes the Bowles-Maccagnan combo, especially the coach.

"I think [Bowles] is the right guy for the right time," he said. "You don't need [a coach] to make these guys jump out of their skin on Saturday night in the team meeting. I think it's about playing smarter. I know defensively they're going to be very good. I think offensively, just reel [offensive coordinator] Chan Gailey in. Don't let him go too crazy. Let's put Geno Smith in good spots.

"That's Todd's thing," Baldinger said. "He'll do a good job of managing his coaches. Rex was too emotional and too wrapped up. He was big on emotion. Todd is a detail guy, and I do think they're going to be very disciplined and detailed. I just think it's a good fit."

The roster is by no means perfect. There are questions at guard, there is depth at running back but not necessarily a clear-cut No. 1, the defense will be without suspended tackle Sheldon Richardson during the first month of the season, and the Jets still don't know if their issues at safety have been resolved.

And don't forget that the Jets play in the same division as the defending Super Bowl champion Patriots, as well as Buffalo and Miami teams that got better -- on paper, anyway.

But the big "X" factor is Smith. In two years, he has shown some encouraging signs -- the Monday night game against the Falcons as a rookie, season-ending wins at Miami both years, and some strong games against the Patriots. But all the promising moments were outweighed by the problematic ones: two horrendous games against the Bills, another against the Ravens as a rookie, and the brutal first half against the Chargers last season after he missed a team meeting the day before.

Smith clearly is the man on the spot, but Baldinger believes the quarterback will be up to the challenge. And the analyst has one eye-popping observation that tells you just how much conviction he has about Smith.

"This is a pivotal year for Geno, obviously, but he's in a good position," Baldinger said. "I think he's smarter than people think. He can't get too aggressive, but you have to put him in the right position. I think Geno's arm strength is superior. I like him, and I think having Brandon Marshall is going to help a lot."

And for those of you who wanted to see Maccagnan make a desperate move at the top of the draft to select Florida State's Jameis Winston or Oregon's Marcus Mariota, Baldinger offers this:

"Geno would be better than anybody in this draft. Even if you had a chance to get Winston or Mariota, Geno's better than all those guys."

That's a pretty bold statement, especially after two uneven seasons by Smith and plenty of early raves about Winston and Mariota, the top two picks of 2015. But Baldinger clearly is all-in with these Jets. It's a stronger take than we're willing to make just yet, but the former guard knows his football, so it's certainly worth considering.

Especially if this does turn out to be as good a team as Baldinger expects.

New York Sports