Sanchez is obvious QB starter for Jets
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Located on a plain of green, tree-lined hills, Cortland is a picture postcard of a city. Rex Ryan, new head coach of the New York Jets, decided to pull his wired-up squad away from its practice headquarters in New Jersey in favor of camp here. Ryan wanted team bonding.
Drowning out the sounds of birds is the crashing of pads with the intent of inflicting a little pain. Cortland, meet Rexland. Middle America, meet old-school football.
The devious sound of Bart Scott laughing about crunching hits fills the air. Ryan, as you know, is the son of Buddy Ryan, who turned the Chicago Bears into real Monsters of the Midway more than two decades ago. His son, the former Ravens defensive coordinator, devises innovative schemes that send defensive players into violent collisions with opposing players, and he's not afraid to call out his rivals.
No one knows how many games this team will win, but Ryan wants to make sure his Jets are very physical. Camp in Cortland is where he is fine-tuning his mission.
Here are five more observations from my trip to Jets camp:
1. Sanchez should start: Mark Sanchez is going to win the starting quarterback job. Understand that Ryan is a players' coach. He understands the mentality of a football player and what makes him tick. He knows quarterback battles can't be transparent. Players in the locker room know who the best quarterback is on the field, and the fact is, Sanchez is the most talented quarterback on the field. That's why he will beat out Kellen Clemens. That's no knock on Clemens, who's entering his fourth year and his third quarterback battle. But Clemens is a second-round choice going against a USC quarterback drafted high in the first round.
Sanchez throws a better pass. He gets his elbow higher and throws more from the top, giving him better velocity and a better chance to hit each spot on the passing tree. Sanchez also is learning from his mistakes. Earlier this week, he was angry at himself for missing what he thought were two sure touchdown passes. When he looked at tape, he confirmed what he thought was wrong: he released the ball with his elbow lower than needed, flattening the throw. Sanchez spent the next couple of days consistently throwing the ball better. Like Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan in 2008, Sanchez can be protected as a rookie starter because the Jets have a great, high-paid offensive line and a solid running game to take pressure off him.
2. Clemens has the experience: The case for Clemens goes with his experience, which can't be underestimated. Brian Schottenheimer is the Jets' offensive coordinator and the two have been together for four years. Schottenheimer wants to go back to the motion offense of 2006, in which receivers moved before the snap to throw off the coverage. Limitations in the receiving corps make motion a necessary weapon.
When Brett Favre came to the Jets last summer, Schottenheimer had to throw out most of the motion and limit the playbook to give Favre a crash course to get ready for the opener. What's noticeable about Clemens is that he throws a wobbly pass. Receivers catch it and the throws are accurate, but Clemens doesn't have the tight spirals you would expect of an NFL quarterback. To his credit, Clemens made an incredible play the other day. Pressured by one of Ryan's blitzes, Clemens, falling backward, launched a red-zone pass in the end zone to promising undrafted free agent Britt Davis, who made one of the best one-handed catches you'll ever see.
3. The Jets will run more in 2009: It's a little surprising when you look at last year's stats and see the Jets ran only 26 times a game. Expect about six to nine more runs a game. Ryan watched the Ravens run 37 times a game last season to give Flacco an easy entry into his first season as Ravens quarterback.
Running makes sense for the Jets. They've built a powerful offensive line through the draft and free agency. Alan Faneca (who broke his finger this week), Nick Mangold and Damien Woody have been to the Pro Bowl. D'Brickashaw Ferguson has Pro Bowl potential and he came to camp in great shape. Ryan has three styles of runners to use. Thomas Jones is the crafty, one-cut-and-go runner who fits the team's zone-blocking schemes. Leon Washington is the elusive back who has toughness and great hands. Third-round pick Shonn Greene is a tough inside runner who can work perfectly in short yardage.
Ryan is worried about the lack of a proven blocking tight end. With Chris Baker gone, Dustin Keller is the starting tight end, but his specialty is catching the ball. Ryan is converting offensive lineman Wayne Hunter and defensive lineman Kareem Brown into blocking tight ends while the personnel office tries to come up with help.
4. Getting Gholston going: Linebacker Vernon Gholston may not be a bust, but he's a different type of player than most outsiders think. Gholston was the sixth pick of the 2008 draft, but he played only 192 defensive snaps last year. When a team takes a defensive end-linebacker that high in the draft, you expect pass rush. Gholston may take time to become a pass-rusher, but he shows some things he can do. At 6-foot-3, 264 pounds, Gholston can anchor his body going against a blocker and come off the block to make a tackle. He shows some promise in being a run-stopper. He has 4.58 40 speed, but his first steps are a little slow. Ryan has seen plenty of tape of Gholston being one of the first of the defenders to get downfield on a special teams play. Ryan is working with him to convert that speed into a quicker burst heading to the backfield. With outside linebacker Calvin Pace suspended for the first four games, Gholston must get off to a fast start.
5. Plax would help: Too bad Plaxico Burress isn't a viable option to sign at the moment because adding him would give the Jets a passable receiving corps. With Laveranues Coles gone, the Jets are one down from last year's receiving corps. Jerricho Cotchery moves from flanker to split end, so the Jets don't have a true flanker -- the receiver on the tight end side of most offenses who usually gets the most receptions. As a flanker, Cotchery caught 82, 82 and 71 passes over the past three seasons. A quiet, professional type of athlete, Cotchery is going to do a solid job in whatever role he's in. Chansi Stuckey is the starting flanker, but his best role is in the slot in three-receiver sets. Brad Smith may have a slight edge over David Clowney and Wallace Wright for the third receiver spot. If the Jets could sign Burress, who's still fighting weapons charges after shooting himself accidentally in New York last year, he could be the split end, with Cotchery the flanker, Stuckey the slot guy and Dustin Keller the pass-catching tight end. That would be formidable.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.