Boom or Bust: Top Five Make-or-Break Jets

Training camp is just around the corner and the Jets will open camp with a number of young, hungry players that have a lot to prove. Here are five key players to follow throughout training camp that the Jets will hope to see make a statement and have the potential to make or break the Jets’ pursuit for postseason football.

1. WR Stephen Hill

The signing of Eric Decker brought a much needed quality target to the team’s receiving corps, but John Idzik surprised a lot of people when he waited until round four of May’s draft to keep adding to a group that was arguably the worst in the league last season. Nobody could have been happier for that than Stephen Hill, who has one last opportunity to prove himself amid speculation that the Jets would be ready to cut Hill as a holdover from Mike Tannenbaum’s regime.

When Hill came into the league in 2012 everyone knew he was an incredibly raw player, coming from a triple option offense at Georgia Tech that does very little to prepare receivers for the NFL level. Some patience in development was a small price to pay for a player whose measurables are off the charts, his size and athletic ability drawing comparisons to Randy Moss. Hill could be excused not producing much as a rookie, but his lack of production and the team’s lack of confidence in him last season when the offense was crying out for a receiver saw patience quickly wear out for Hill.

Still, it is wise the Jets are giving Hill one last chance. He entered the league not only raw but quite young as well – he had just turned 21 when he heard his name called on draft day and it would be fair to say he had a lot of growing to do. As he mentioned earlier at spring OTA’s, he is even still growing physically as well as growing in maturity. The Jets know the disaster it would be if he is cut too early and he ends up being someone else’s breakout player. If nothing else, the Jets know that if he hasn’t shown anything by his third season than they can feel comfortable letting him go.

Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas took a similar path to the league as Hill, coming from Georgia Tech’s triple option offense to the NFL and had a quiet first two years as a pro before exploding onto the scene in year three and is now one of the league’s most productive receivers. That is not to say Hill is destined to follow the same path, but it does say something about the level of adjustment Hill has experienced.

And like Thomas, if Hill shows this year he finally “gets it”, he has the natural gifts to really make a marked impact as well. If nothing else, the Jets would benefit strongly if Hill stepped up if only to provide the offense a natural deep threat, the one trait the offense lacks even with additions like Eric Decker and Jace Amaro.

2. CB Dee Milliner

The Jets may not have drafted Milliner expecting the next Darrelle Revis, but he certainly was drafted to one day become the team’s top cornerback in a defense that demands a lot from its defensive backs. That is the challenge being thrown at Milliner this season and its one where there obviously will be a ton of pressure to perform. The Jets have taken a leap of faith with Milliner, releasing Antonio Cromartie and not bringing in one of the top corners on the market after doing so.

It is a major vote of confidence but also a ton of pressure for a player that is looking to build off a strong end to his rookie campaign but struggled mightily before that last handful of games. If Milliner can’t handle the challenge, the contingencies are limited with an oft-injured Dimitri Patterson and rookie Dexter McDougle the only additions to a cornerback group that was poor by Rex Ryan’s lofty standards last season. Though if Milliner can rise to the challenge, he’ll be a key piece returning the Jets revamped pass defense to one of the better units in the league.

3. OLB Quinton Coples

Coples frequently has his name mentioned amongst the likes of Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson when pundits talk about the Jets’ vaunted defensive line, but in truth Coples really hasn’t “arrived” yet. Coples was originally drafted in the 2012 first round as a bookend defensive end to Muhammad Wilkerson and led the team in sacks as a rookie with a modest 5.5, but when the Jets drafted Sheldon Richardson in round one the following year Coples became destined for a move to outside linebacker.

A combination of position unfamiliarity and injuries slowed Coples’ transition down and as expected wasn’t really able to be utilized as a true linebacker, with his 6-foot-6 290 pound frame and inexperience in the role making him too uncomfortable in space and he lacked the explosion at that size to be a consistent threat off the edge.

Like several other young Jets though Coples finished last season strong and aims to carry that momentum into this season. Entering into his third year as a pro, this is an absolute make-or-break for Coples as he won’t be supplementing Wilkerson or Richardson as starters at DE anytime soon and he has dropped about 20 pounds to be more comfortable in his new role. Having his best season collegiately at defensive tackle, Coples the past few years has played in the 285-290 pound range and a significant drop in weight should make him more able to move around but could be too much a departure from the player the Jets originally drafted.

The fascinating thing is nobody really quite knows what to expect from Coples – the Jets are hoping he can be the young, sack-producing outside linebacker that the team has lacked since the 3-4 was brought in by Eric Mangini eight years ago, but he could just as well find that the focus on a new position has led his promising career off-track. With that said if Coples can assimilate successfully, he will add a new dimension to an already strong front.

4. RB Chris Johnson

The lone new face of the group and also the most experienced, the Jets’ signing of Chris Johnson was seen universally as shrewd business for a team that has lacked home run hitting ability on offense recently and particularly in the backfield since the loss of Leon Washington. Although there will be questions about how much Johnson can offer the Jets in terms of workload given he is coming off his first season averaging under four yards-per-carry and had an alarmingly low longest run of 30 yards last season, the indications are that Johnson’s snaps will be monitored in plans to use a running back by committee approach.

In Johnson’s favor though, he has been a workhorse back since entering the league in 2008 and has been one of the league’s most durable as well, a fact that will work to Johnson’s benefit when Chris Ivory picks up a knock that he is bound to over the course of the season. With that said the Jets know they shouldn’t need Johnson to be a workhorse over the course of an entire season and will be looking for him to provide a number of facets the offense sorely lacked last season. Johnson’s offerings to the Jets are numerous – he’s well versed in being a three-down back and can not only run but also block and catch as well. The receiving aspect of his game should be of particular use as the Jets offense looks to build a number of receiving threats for Geno Smith to utilize. In Johnson, the Jets could have a multifaceted playmaker that not only takes the running game to a new level but takes a load of pressure off Geno Smith as a checkdown option as well.

5. QB Geno Smith

This piece simply couldn’t be done without Geno Smith ultimately becoming the center of attention. Naturally, the Jets cannot expect to make a serious run at a playoff spot unless Smith shows he can be the man at the quarterback position. His rookie season was the definition of a trial-by-fire, thrown into the starting lineup on opening day with a weak supporting cast and the mistakes came fast and frequently. He certainly had his highs and lows, his performance on Monday Night Football in Atlanta a sparkling moment and his performances in a string of three straight losses midseason amongst the worst football played by any quarterback this past season.

Where Smith gave the Jets hope was with solid end to the season when the team posted a 3-1 record and Smith turned the ball over just twice and was responsible for seven total touchdowns. With a full offseason under his belt reports are the second year pro looks exponentially more confident and the likes of Eric Decker, Chris Johnson and Jace Amaro added through free agency has turned the Jets’ group of skill players into one that is now respectable. He now has everything to succeed, and while he certainly can be forgiven for continuing to make some mistakes, the expectation for Smith will be to steer the Jets toward the playoffs with smart football and show some franchise quarterback potential along the way.

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