The Jets ended their offseason workout program with a feeling of accomplishment that made Robert Saleh say something with pride and conviction that he couldn’t a year ago.
“I think we’re in a really, really good place,” he said. “I really do.”
There are a number of reasons for that, including an upgrade in talent on the roster. The biggest reason, however, probably is familiarity.
Saleh was a rookie head coach last year. The Jets had a rookie offensive coordinator (Mike LaFleur) and gave rookie quarterback Zach Wilson the keys to the car.
It’s safe to say that the driving wasn’t smooth for any of these men. They all were learning and working through mistakes.
Now the returning players are not learning new systems. They are working on mastering the schemes. Wilson is more comfortable with the offense, his reads and where he needs to go with the football.
To a man, all the players who were with the Jets last year have talked about being able to think less and just react because they know all the plays and what’s expected of them.
“Guys are in a really good place,” Saleh said. “We’re obviously further along this year than we were last year. Guys are understanding exactly what they’re being asked in all three phases, whether it’s special teams, offense and defense. From a schematic standpoint, the language barrier of having a new staff and new players is down.”
Speaking specifically about Wilson, Saleh said there are times the second-year quarterback will make a throw and realize it wasn’t the best decision. Saleh said Wilson will point to where the ball should have been before LaFleur and quarterbacks coach Rob Calabrese can say anything to him.
The offseason workouts were more like a passing camp. To keep the linemen fresh and healthy, most of the sessions were heavy 7-on-7 drills in which Wilson could sharpen his skills and work on his decisions and timing.
To have any chance of competing for a playoff spot, the Jets need Wilson to take that big leap in Year 2. They have not reached the postseason for 11 straight seasons, the longest active streak in the NFL.
The Jets probably talk about the playoffs internally, but not publicly. Saleh continues to talk about being patient and letting Wilson go through his process of becoming a franchise quarterback.
“People are forgetting he’s got a young offensive supporting cast,” Saleh said. “His receivers are young. His backs are young. The O-line is just jelling together. He’s young. So for Zach, really it’s continue to progress and becoming a starting quarterback and moving in the direction that we all know he’s capable of.
“He doesn’t need to be Tom Brady this year. Now if he ends up being that, that’s awesome. But that’s not the expectation for him. The expectation for him is to continue to climb that mountain that’s quarterback play in this league. We all got his back and he’s got a supporting cast that’s working its tail off. From there, it’s just piecing it together.”
General manager Joe Douglas has put considerable resources into making sure Wilson has the playmakers and protection he needs.
The Jets added talent and depth at wide receiver, running back, tight end and on the offensive line. They signed Pro Bowl guard Laken Tomlinson, who played in a similar system with the 49ers, and hope tackle Mekhi Becton can stay healthy and be a difference-maker in the running and passing games.
“They’ve done a great job,” Wilson said. “You can tell the organization cares. You know they want to win just as badly as all of us. They’re doing everything they can to put me in the best position and everybody else around me . . . We just need to put it all together.”
Wilson has planned a multi-day training session/bonding experience with his skill players in mid-July. That should help them build chemistry and more familiarity on and off the field.
The defense has undergone plenty of changes, especially in the secondary, as the Jets drafted cornerback Sauce Gardner and signed cornerback D.J. Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead. Reed knows the system from playing for Saleh in San Francisco his first two years in the league.
Jets coaches love the passion and leadership Reed and Whitehead have brought. They complement what the Jets already had, with linebacker C.J. Mosley being the most respected voice.
Getting edge rusher Carl Lawson back from a ruptured Achilles will help the line and defense as a whole. Lawson also speaks up and has everyone’s attention on this roster of hungry players.
“In my time in the NFL, I have never been around a locker room with the character of this group,” defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said. “It is hard to be an [expletive] on this team. It really is. You have a lot of really good guys that love this game.
“Not only an [expletive], it’s hard to survive here if you’re not a self-starter, if you don’t love this game. There are so many guys that love it and push it and are self-motivated.”
The Jets head into the summer in a good place. It’s a start. But where they are in the fall and winter matters most.