- AJ Mass, Fantasy
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Everything seemed to be going according to plan. The Jets had brought in Brett Favre to lead a team coming off a 4-12 season to the playoffs, and after they beat the Patriots and Titans on the road in consecutive weeks to raise their record to 8-3, that plan was soon to be marked "mission accomplished." People throughout the sports world were talking about the possibility of a Jets-Giants Super Bowl.
Then it all fell apart. The Jets missed the playoffs after going on a 1-4 slide against four teams that ended the season with losing records.
So what happened? Favre simply didn't finish what he started. He ran out of steam, throwing just two touchdowns against nine interceptions in the last five games. Coach Eric Mangini was sent packing, and Favre, the unsuccessful hired gun, headed off into the sunset for another alleged retirement.
Enter new coach Rex Ryan, the man primarily responsible for the return of the Baltimore Ravens' defense to elite status. His style -- he's an aggressive, never-stop-blitzing attacker -- is well-suited for the hustle and bustle of New York and lies in stark contrast to Mangini's more laid-back approach to the game. But although the Jets ranked 29th in the league against the pass, as compared with the Ravens, who finished No. 2 in that category, they actually outsacked the Ravens 41 to 34 on the season. Imagine what they'll be able to accomplish in Ryan's 3-4 scheme, especially because the new head coach didn't come to the Jets alone. He brought with him Bart Scott, Jim Leonhard and Marques Douglas -- three players who already know what Ryan expects and who can help bring a positive attitude to the rest of the Jets' defensive unit. This unit should be vastly improved from the get-go.
The offense, on the other hand, might not come together as quickly. Laveranues Coles is gone after signing a four-year deal with the Bengals, and the team doesn't really have a true complement at wide receiver to go with Jerricho Cotchery. Even if it did, who will be the guy charged with throwing the ball downfield? The quarterback position is a huge question mark, and we might not have the answer until the coin gets tossed in Week 1.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: Clearly, the Jets drafted the man they would like to see running their offense for years to come when they traded up for the No. 5 overall pick in this year's draft to grab USC's Mark Sanchez. But will he be ready to start the 2009 season? Certainly, after watching Joe Flacco succeed with the Ravens last season, Ryan won't shy away from starting the young Sanchez if he is ready. And although Kellen Clemens has said and done all the right things, if he doesn't simply blow the coaching staff away in the preseason, he'll be holding a clipboard and wearing a baseball cap on the sideline as the odd man out yet again.
As for who will be on the receiving end of the Jets' passes this season, it'll be an open competition between Chansi Stuckey, Brad Smith and David Clowney for that second starting wide receiver job. Stuckey has more experience, but Clowney's speed could open a few eyes during the preseason, as it did last season when he caught a couple of long touchdown passes against Cleveland. Unfortunately, a collarbone injury took him out of the equation early on, but if he stays healthy this season, he might have some impact. As for Smith, his talents could be used in a Wildcat formation, should the Jets choose to go that route. That extra dimension just might be enough to give him a leg up on the No. 3 wideout spot, too.
Fitting in: The one-two punch of Thomas Jones and Leon Washington is well established at the Meadowlands, so Shonn Greene will have to make the most of his opportunities when they come. However, because of his immense size, the vast majority of those chances likely will come in the red zone, and Greene could well pull his fantasy weight with a bunch of vulture scores.
The rest of the newcomers on the Jets are all on the defense. The three former Ravens should be able to lead by example, and although the linebacking corps will suffer from the four-game suspension of Calvin Pace, Vernon Gholston should be able to fill in for the first month, if not longer. The secondary is the one big area of concern, so the team traded for Lito Sheppard of the Eagles. Teaming up with Darrelle Revis and Kerry Rhodes, Sheppard should provide the veteran stability this unit surely will need to compete in the rugged AFC East.
On the line: One of the primary reasons we think Sanchez will be under center come Week 1 is the Jets' offensive line. With Alan Faneca, Damien Woody, Nick Mangold and D'Brickashaw Ferguson, all first-round picks in their own right, plus strong run-blocker Brandon Moore, this could be the best line in the whole AFC. Last season, the Jets rushed for 4.7 yards per carry, fifth-best in the league, and the line generally kept defenses away from Favre. He was sacked fewer than two times per game. Even though Sanchez lacks experience, given his mobility, don't expect that number to climb much.
The bottom line
Rome wasn't built in a day, and these Jets won't be rebuilt in a season. However, they have a solid offensive line, good running backs and an emerging tight end in Dustin Keller. Those factors are coupled with a new intensity on defense focused by players who already have bought into the coach's philosophy and want to play for him. So the foundation here is stronger than one might expect. Although we expect the Jets to finish around 9-7 again in 2009, it will feel a lot more satisfying than last season, especially with a quarterback at the helm who intends to wear green come 2010 and well into the future.
AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.
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