Joe Douglas promised Sam Darnold’s parents that he would keep him protected and get him the weapons he needs to be successful. The Jets general manager’s work isn’t done, but it’s fair to say he spent more time and money on the line than on skill players.
The Jets open the NFL season Sunday in Buffalo and one of the biggest questions remains whether Darnold has enough game-changing, game-breaking weapons. Most would say he doesn’t. Naturally, the Jets don’t agree.
"We’re excited about the playmakers we have," Douglas said.
"I like the weapons we got," Adam Gase said.
"We got a great group," Darnold said.
That group will need to prove they’re great if the Jets, who went 7-9 last year, are going to end their playoff drought at nine years. The offense will be put to the test right away.
The Jets’ first two opponents — Buffalo and the reigning NFC-champion 49ers — were elite defenses last year. The Bills allowed the second-fewest points and third-fewest yards. The Niners ranked seventh and third in the same categories.
Douglas had to address and rebuild the offensive line. The Jets allowed the fourth-most sacks last year and opened few holes for Le’Veon Bell in the running game.
Out went most of the old and in came new center Connor McGovern, right tackle George Fant, right guard Greg Van Roten and 6-7 rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton. They join holdover left guard Alex Lewis.
The O-line is bigger, faster, stronger and should be far better. Some of those same things can’t be said for the receiving corps which is still without a true No. 1 pass-catcher.
It’s not a good sign when your running backs are their most accomplished pass-catchers. Frank Gore, about to start his 16th NFL season, has caught 468 passes for 3,896 yards. Bell has 378 receptions for 3,121 yards. They’re the only two Jets with at least 300 catches.
Two Pro Bowl receivers were traded during the offseason — DeAndre Hopkins to Arizona and Stefon Diggs to Buffalo. Douglas did his due diligence, but the Jets weren’t in play for either. They signed Breshad Perriman and drafted Baylor’s Denzel Mims in the second round. Perriman, a first-round pick by Baltimore in 2015, has yet to distinguish himself. The Jets are his fourth team in five years, and he’s caught 95 passes in his career.
Mims could turn into a No. 1 receiver, but he won’t play Sunday becasuse of a hamstring injury and may land on IR. He missed all of training camp with a hamstring injury, and injured the other one at practice this week. Perriman also sat out two weeks with knee soreness/swelling.
The Jets signed veteran Chris Hogan, which looks like a really smart pickup. The Long Island resident will start on the outside with Perriman, and reliable slot receiver Jamison Crowder.
Braxton Barrios is Crowder’s backup. Jeff Smith and Vyncint Smith will join the receiving corps when they return from IR. Josh Malone and Lawrence Cager would be next receivers up. The Jets elevated Malone from the practice team to the active roster for Sunday’s game.
"They’re a great group, a group that’s hungry to learn and a group that’s hungry to win," Darnold said of the skill players. "As long as I execute and do my job, I’m very confident in those guys to go out and make plays and make the big plays when they’re there."
The injuries, Gase said, made it "hard to get a good picture of what I think we’re going to end up being as the season evolves." That may be true, but the Jets can’t afford to start slowly. It could be inevitable with OTAs, minicamp and preseason games all canceled because of COVID-19.
Gase is confident his offense will be better than last year. But Gase wants the skill players as a whole to be judged, not just the receivers.
He’s quick to point out that Bell, Gore and rookie La’Mical Perine give the Jets versatility in the backfield, though Perine is out Sunday with an ankle injury. And Gase speaks about the return of tight end Chris Herndon — he missed 15 games last season because of suspension and injuries — as if the Jets are getting back Travis Kelce or George Kittle.
"Chris is a game-changing type player," Gase said. "Chris is unique. He can do a lot of stuff and he can cause a lot of problems for teams."
Herndon is a solid re-addition, and all the injuries at receiver, forced the Jets to focus more on pass-catching skills of the backs. That should allow the Jets to be more diverse.
The offense definitely needs to show improvement. It’s Darnold’s second year in Gase’s system. Gase is expected to utilize Bell more as a receiver, either out of the backfield or with him lining up outside. Gase loves Gore and could use him and Bell together and vary the personnel packages he uses.
"We definitely got to find a way to be balanced on offense," Bell said. "I’m confident that guys on the outside can make plays. We don’t have just two receivers. We got tight ends. We got running backs. It looks like we got a team where we can spread the ball around a lot. You can’t really key in for one thing that we’re doing."
The Jets said similar things last year, but things crashed and burned, especially when Darnold missed three games with mononucleosis.
The offense was predictable and ineffective. The Jets finished last in total yards and next to last in scoring, rushing yards and rushing TDs. Gase believes things will be different this year because of Darnold’s growth and all the talent around him.
"There’s a lot of things I’m excited about that are pointing us in the right direction," Gase said.