Sam Darnold of the Jets looks on against the Atlanta...

Sam Darnold of the Jets looks on against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of the preseason game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on August 15, 2019 in Atlanta. Credit: Getty Images/Kevin C. Cox

Joe Namath is dreaming big about the Jets. So is Boomer Esiason, who said this past week that he’s “jacked” about the possibilities for this team. And just about anywhere else you look, the optimism surrounding the team — and especially quarterback Sam Darnold — is readily apparent.

That’s all well and good, and Darnold really does look as if he’s ready to take a big step forward after a solid rookie season. But let’s tap on the brakes just a bit here, because some legitimate issues could result in the Jets not getting quite as far as many people think.

Darnold clearly is the most important player on this team and has shown the kind of progress you want from your franchise quarterback. He goes into the season as the unquestioned starter, has had a terrific camp, has looked sharp in his first two preseason appearances and seems poised to build on what he did as a rookie.

But this season will not come down simply to how well Darnold plays. There are things beyond his control that could factor into how well — or how poorly — things will go:

We’ve targeted seven areas of concern:

1.  THE OFFENSIVE LINE

The injuries are starting to pile up, with right tackle Brandon Shell the latest to go down. He hurt his knee in warmups before Thursday night’s game against the Falcons. Guard Brian Winters already is dealing with a shoulder injury, and recently acquired guard Kelechi Osemele is dealing with a pectoral strain. Center Ryan Kalil, who came out of retirement to sign with the Jets, is not ready. General manager Joe Douglas smartly traded for Ravens guard Alex Lewis, so there’s at least some quality depth at the position. But it’s unsettling that there are a plethora of injury concerns on the line before the season has begun. So much so that coach Adam Gase might want to limit Darnold’s own exposure to injury by severely limiting his playing time the rest of the preseason. It’s just not worth the risk.

2. CORNERBACK

The Jets were thin at the position to begin with. After the hamstring injury suffered by Trumaine Johnson, they’re so decimated now that Jamal Adams actually has volunteered to play cornerback. That won’t happen, of course, because he’s too valuable at safety. But it points up a dire lack of depth at an all-important position. Even Johnson’s backup, Kyron Brown, suffered a hamstring injury, leaving the Jets with Arthur Maulet to start opposite Darryl Roberts against the Falcons. Douglas no doubt will explore the trade market, or at the very least get some help when the final cuts are made. A season-ending ACL injury suffered by linebacker Avery Williamson limits defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ ability to create pressure and take strain off the secondary.

3. BELL’S INACTIVITY

The plan seems to be to keep Le’Veon Bell out of harm’s way for the preseason unless there is a change of plans that prompts Gase to get him some snaps in next Saturday night’s game against the Saints. It will have been roughly 19 months since Bell last got hit in a game that counted, and there’s no telling how ready he will be. Gase believes the hitting in practice is enough to get him back into the swing, but we won’t truly know if Bell can get up to speed until the regular season. Gase will need to manage his snap counts, but it seems overly optimistic to think Bell can take on a full workload from the start.

4.HERNDON’S SUSPENSION

Tight end Chris Herndon enjoyed a terrific rookie season and developed good chemistry with Darnold, contributing 39 catches for 502 yards and four touchdowns and creating plenty of trust with his quarterback. But the former fourth-round pick out of Miami won’t be with the team the first four games because of his suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. That’s a big loss, and Darnold won’t have that safety valve that quarterbacks so often enjoy with a surehanded tight end. It puts more pressure on the wide receivers, especially slot receiver Jamison Crowder, who likely will be used heavily by Gase.

5. THE FIRST-HALF SCHEDULE

This is as challenging an early-season schedule as any, with the Jets facing the defending champion Patriots twice in the first seven games, as well as the Eagles on the road and the Cowboys at home. Other tough opponents: the Browns in a Monday night game at home in Week 2 and the Jaguars, who figure to rebound after acquiring quarterback Nick Foles in the offseason, on the road in Week 8. The Jets hope to get through that stretch in relatively good shape before things soften up the second half.  

6. THE KICKING GAME

Chandler Catanzaro was a mess early in camp and abruptly retired after the preseason opener. Taylor Bertolet, who has never played in a regular-season game, was signed as his replacement but missed two of three extra points against the Falcons. The Jets ultimately may regret not keeping Jason Myers, who had a Pro Bowl year in 2018 but signed with the Seahawks.

  

7. THE PATRIOTS

This team has dominated the AFC East for most of the last 20 years, and there’s no indication that Bill Belichick or Tom Brady will relent anytime soon. The Jets, Bills and Dolphins are always playing for second, and this year is no exception. Can the Jets close the gap? Sure. But as has almost always been the case since Belichick and Brady joined forces in 2000, it’s still the Patriots’ division to lose.

There’s still a lot to like about this team, starting with Darnold and Bell and a bunch of other promising players. And there might be a return to the playoffs for the first time since the 2010 season. But there also are enough warning signs to believe that progress might not come that quickly, no matter how high the enthusiasm level is.

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