FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — The days run together in training camp, with one practice barely distinguishable from the next as the relentless grind continues. But on this day and in this practice, there were two reasons for the Jets to feel better about themselves.
Their names are Matt Forte and Mo Wilkerson.
With a brutal six-game stretch to start the regular season, the presence of these two important players couldn’t have been better news. Forte, the former Bear who is equally adept at running the ball and catching it out of the backfield, and Wilkerson, the recently re-signed defensive end who figures heavily into one of the league’s best front sevens, were back on the field.
Forte is critically important to an offense that opted not to re-sign bruising tailback Chris Ivory, who cashed in with a $32-million free-agent deal in Jacksonville. But until Forte finally began full-contact team drills Wednesday, the doubts were as nagging as the hamstring injury that had sidelined him from the start of camp.
Forte can keep defenses guessing and provide a viable play-action passing option for Ryan Fitzpatrick. You don’t want Fitzpatrick throwing 50 times a game — even in a pass-happy league — so having Forte in the lineup is essential. Bilal Powell is a nice changeup back and a polished inside runner, but he’s not a No. 1 back.
At 30, Forte is at or near the tipping point for most NFL backs, who experience a gradual — or sometimes precipitous — falloff at that chronological milestone. The Jets are hopeful he can squeeze a couple more good years out of his body, so the hamstring issue was disquieting for a player entering his ninth season.
Perhaps that’s why coach Todd Bowles was being cautiously optimistic about Forte.
“It’s good to see him getting in shape,” Bowles said. “We got him some reps today, first time taking team reps, so hopefully he doesn’t have any ill effects and we’ll go from there. He still has a ways to go, but it’s encouraging to see.”
Still a ways to go.
“He’s got to get in football shape,” Bowles said. “He wasn’t tackled and no one really hit him. He was about three-quarters speed. If he doesn’t have any setbacks (Thursday), then we’ll move forward.”
It was particularly gratifying for Fitzpatrick to be on the field with Forte for the first time.
“This was really the first extensive work I’ve had with him,” Fitzpatrick said, “and I figured with as much ball as he’s played and how great of a player he’s been that he’d be able to fit right in and we’d mesh pretty well. So it was nice to see him with pads.”
A nice feeling, too, for the Jets to have Wilkerson back for the first time since he fractured a leg in the season-ending loss to the Bills that kept the Jets out of the playoffs.
“Good to hit some of the offensive linemen and get back in the groove,” a sweat-soaked Wilkerson said after practice.
Wilkerson is part of a defensive front that he says can be “great. We just have to keep pushing each other, keep competing each and every week, and go out there and dominate.”
Wilkerson wouldn’t say whether working out an $86-million contract is a relief — “right now, everything is about football” — but he does share the enthusiasm of teammates who believe this can be a special season for the Jets. This despite opening with six games featuring five playoff teams from last season and a Bills team that beat the Jets twice.
“Clearly, everyone knows that 10-6 wasn’t good enough,” Wilkerson said. “We got to make sure we work hard to be better than 10-6.”
Wilkerson was heartened to see Forte back in action, too.
“I played against him a couple years ago, but to have him here is a great thing,” Wilkerson said. “His resume speaks for itself.”
And so the grind continues. On this particular day, with these two players back in uniform, it was all good.