The 2016 NFL season is just around the corner. As such, Sportsnaut will be previewing all 32 teams before the games begin in September. Next up is a trip to the AFC East to take a peek at the New York Jets — a team that will likely sink or swim depending on how well Geno Smith can play if Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn’t come back into the fold.
Before we look ahead, let’s take a glance at some key developments.
New York Jets 2016 Preview
2015 record: 10-6 (second place in the AFC East, missed playoffs)
Head coach: Todd Bowles (second year)
Key arrivals: RB Matt Forte, DT Steve McLendon, RB Khiry Robinson
Key departures: DT Damon Harrison, RB Chris Ivory, LB Demario Davis
1 . Will Ryan Fitzpatrick double down on last year’s success?
This question trumps all others.
The Jets appeared poised to abandon Ryan Fitzpatrick but finally got a deal done at the 11th hour.
But the veteran missed all offseason workouts and will have to regain his rapport with his receivers in a hurry to come close to matching last year’s totals. Throwing 31 touchdowns and leading the Jets to 10 wins, it was a career year for Fitzmagic.
We’d never before seen him playing with such competence, and many NFL experts believe the Jets were great in spite of him, not because of him, based on the amount of breaks he actually got on missed interceptions and the like.
If Fitzpatrick can return to the form we saw in 2015, then the Jets will be formidable. If not, then Geno Smith might actually get his chance to shine.
2. Is Matt Forte still a dominant running back?
Regardless of who’s playing quarterback, the Jets are counting on Forte to move the ball on the ground after losing Chris Ivory to the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency.
Bilal Powell was also brought back to play behind Forte, but he’s never been more than a complementary back. And that’s not likely to change going forward. In fact, the team is so desperate at running back that Bernard Pierce was brought on board. He’s never been great, and he will be suspended the first two games of the season.
Needless to say, Forte is going to be a focal point for this offense as a dual-threat back. During his heyday with the Chicago Bears, Forte made a name for himself as one of the most dynamic and consistent runners in the NFL.
But he’s already into his 30s and could be set to start slowing down. Forte missed three games last year, and Chicago was content to let him walk after watching him torch defenses the past eight years.
If he’s still got it, then New York’s offense might be able to withstand the loss of Fitzpatrick. If not, then the offense will be doomed.
3. How good can this defense be?
By now, you’ve probably realized that New York’s defense is likely to be under tremendous pressure to win games this year.
Even with Fitzpatrick playing out of his mind (by his standards) last year, the Jets missed the playoffs. If he’s not around, it’s going to be even more difficult to win enough games to beat the New England Patriots in the AFC East or win enough games to claim the wild-card spot that eluded them last year.
Securing defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson for the long term was huge for the Jets. He joins a talented group of big bodies up front that can dominate the trenches. The linebacking corps got a lot faster with the arrival of rookies Darron Lee (more on him in a minute) and Jordan Jenkins, too. And who can forget about the talented back end, led by none other than Darrelle Revis.
Last year the Jets finished the season with the fourth-ranked overall defense and the ninth-ranked scoring defense. In order to match last year’s win totals (which might still not be enough to make the postseason), this unit must be even better.
Darron Lee, linebacker
This rookie linebacker out of Ohio State can fly. He ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, which is the kind of number some of the top receivers are happy to post.
ESPN’s Rich Cimini envisions this rookie hitting the field right away as the team’s nickel linebacker.
“First-round pick Darron Lee will play immediately as a nickel linebacker, bringing much-needed speed to the Jets’ sub packages. Coach Todd Bowles will find creative ways to integrate Lee, a blitz-and-cover linebacker, into the scheme.”
While Erin Henderson will likely start the season as the starting inside linebacker in base situations, the way teams pass the ball these days Lee will have plenty of moments to shine.
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The addition of Forte should give the offense the ability to move the chains on a regular basis. Provided New York’s defense isn’t constantly on the field this year, this unit should absolutely dominate most teams.
If the passing game can start clicking with either Smith or Fitzpatrick, then the Jets could potentially improve upon last year’s 10-win total and vault into the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
REASON TO PANIC
The Jets have an absolutely brutal early schedule, with games against the Cincinnati Bengals, and Seattle Seahawks at home and road games against the Buffalo Bills, Kansas City Chiefs, Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals in the first six weeks.
Furthermore, even though Tom Brady is suspended the first four games, it should be expected that the Patriots will find a way to win at least three of those games and dominate the division, as has been the norm for the past decade-plus.
Also, let’s be honest. Geno Smith just isn’t very good.
Prediction: 8-8, tied for third place in the AFC East