Sam Darnold’s development was delayed by a three-game absence because of mononucleosis last season. But you could see that he was starting to understand Adam Gase’s system and was executing it better at the end of 2019. Darnold led the Jets to a 6-2 finish, making far fewer mistakes. Darnold is in his second year in this offense, has more familiarity with it and is playing behind an improved line, so he should be able to take another big step. Making better decisions is the key for Darnold, who has thrown 36 touchdown passes and 28 interceptions in 26 games. He threw 13 TDs and four picks over the final eight weeks last year. Former Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco will be Darnold’s backup eventually. He’s rehabbing from neck surgery. David Fales and Mike White are on the practice team and one will be elevated as QB2 each week until Flacco returns. Eventually, Fales could become the Jets’ “quarantined” quarterback, who they’ll turn to if needed. Rookie James Morgan is on the active roster but he’ll get his work in during practice.
The Jets have two backs out to prove they have plenty left and one rookie trying to make an impression. Le’Veon Bell is back for his second year with the Jets. His 1,250 yards from scrimmage last season was way below his average with the Steelers. Was it because of how Gase used Bell? The offensive line? Or did Bell lose something after sitting out 2018 in a contract dispute? Probably all three. But Bell shed pounds, got his body fat below 5% and now believes he will have his best season. The venerable 37-year-old Frank Gore could play behind Bell or with him. Gore keeps his body in great shape and impressed with the way he hit holes in camp. The same can be said for quick rookie Le’Mical Perine. He peeled off some long runs and could give the offense a lift when he returns from an ankle injury.
Wide receivers and tight ends
The receiver room needs improvement, but tight end is a strong position. Slot receiver Jamison Crowder caught 78 passes last year and will be a main target once again. Breshad Perriman replaces Robby Anderson. Perriman, slowed by a knee issue in camp, wants to show his end-of-season flash with Tampa was no fluke. The Jets have high hopes for rookie Denzel Mims, but he has catching up to do after missing all of training camp with a hamstring injury. Two-time Super Bowl champ Chris Hogan was a good addition to a mediocre receiving group that includes Braxton Berrios, Jeff Smith and Vyncint Smith. But both Smiths started the season on IR, which could lead to the Jets calling up Donte Moncrief or Josh Malone from the practice team. Tight ends Chris Herndon, Ryan Griffin and Trevon Wesco will have roles in Gase’s offense. A healthy Herndon — he played in only one game last year because of injury and suspension — is huge. Griffin stepped in for Herndon and caught five touchdown passes before suffering a nasty ankle injury. Wesco has shown ability as a fullback, blocking on the line or as a pass-catcher.
GM Joe Douglas gave the line the overhaul it needed. No Week 1 starters form 2019 are back. All eyes will be on mammoth rookie left tackle Mekhi Becton, who could be protecting Darnold’s blind side for many years. Becton is strong, athletic and a force in the run game. Veteran center Connor McGovern will be the anchor of the front five. The Jets also brought in right tackle George Fant and right guard Greg Van Roten of Rockville Centre and brought back left guard Alex Lewis, one of the O-line's bright spots last year after becoming a starter in Week 5. How quickly they mesh will be key. Chuma Edoga also started last year and provides depth up front with former Colt Josh Andrews and Conor McDermott.
The Jets have depth here. Nose tackle Quinnen Williams seems physically and mentally stronger and could have a big impact after an underwhelming rookie season. The No. 3 pick last year, Williams feels he’s ready to dominate and disrupt. Veteran end Henry Anderson is healthy and looking to bounce back after injuries slowed him last year. Steve McLendon, whose 10 tackles for loss tied for the team lead, is a steadying influence and leader. Kyle Phillips, Folorunso Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd all got valuable experience last year and produced for coordinator Gregg Williams’ second-ranked run defense. Williams likes to mix things up and use different looks to keep the line fresh, so those players could be valuable again.
Middle linebacker C.J. Mosley opted out because of COVID-19 concerns. It’s a big loss, but Mosley also missed 14 games last year. That allowed Neville Hewitt and Blake Cashman to play and get experience. Gregg Williams will rely on them again, but the Jets should get a boost from the return of inside linebacker Avery Williamson, who missed last season with a torn ACL. He led the Jets in tackles in 2018. Hewitt likely will be the defensive play-caller. Jordan Jenkins, last year’s sack leader with eight, is back on a one-year deal, looking for a bigger payday and a playoff berth. Tarell Basham also will start outside with Jordan Willis and Frankie Luvu backing up.
Jamal Adams forced his way out, leaving a large hole on defense. Marcus Maye will be asked to do more now. The fourth-year safety, who has been slowed by a calf injury, will play in the box and in coverage. The Jets acquired proven safety Bradley McDougald from Seattle (and draft picks) for Adams. Rookie safety Ashtyn Davis also should be in the secondary rotation. He’s versatile, can play multiple spots and has terrific speed. Cornerback is an area of concern again. Former Colt Pierre Desir has been inconsistent but could benefit from a change in defensive schemes if healthy. A hamstring sidelined him for all of camp. Second-year corner Bless Austin and Arthur Maulet — both started six games last year — should have big roles again. Slot corner Brian Poole was effective last year, but some health issues slowed him during training camp. The Jets hope he can stay healthy and be solid again. Another ex-Colt, Quincy Wilson, could help on the outside.
No preseason games made it more challenging for coordinator Brant Boyer to evaluate this group. Braxton Berrios will be the punt returner again. He was seventh in yardage (240) last year and third in average yards (11.4) among players with 10 or more punt returns. With Vyncint Smith having core-muscle surgery, Ashtyn Davis, Josh Malone, La’Mical Perrine and Berrios were competing for the kick returner job. Davis and Perine could be important players on special teams. Rookie Braden Mann, who averaged 51 yards per punt as a junior at Texas A&M, will handle the punting duties. The Jets had major kicking issues last year. Sam Ficken, who finished last season as the Jets' kicker, beat out veteran Brett Maher for the kicking job.