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Interview with the Enemy: New York Jets

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MacGregor Wells of Gang Green Nation joins us to preview the “dress rehearsal” of the regular season.

NFL: New York Jets at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

It’s football time, folks, and we’re back again with the Interview with the Enemy series. This week, MacGregor Wells of Gang Green Nation answers 5 quick questions about tonight’s preseason matchup between the New Orleans Saints and the New York Jets.

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How has Sam Darnold looked in camp and the preseason (if he’s played) so far? What are we expecting this year?

According to the beat writers Darnold has generally looked very sharp in training camp. Accurate, poised, in command of the new Adam Gase offense. While I have not been to camp and thus cannot confirm those reports, the limited action Darnold has seen in the pre-season tends to confirm those impressions. Darnold has had four drives in pre-season and scored two touchdowns. His decisions for the most part have been good, his throwing accurate. He has looked like the budding franchise quarterback the Jets hoped he would become when they drafted him number 3 overall in 2018.

However, it is such a tiny sample, and it has come in pre-season action, which may or may not be indicative of what to expect when the games count. So we should look at things with a fair amount of skepticism at least until we see Darnold in real games in 2019. Based on what we’ve seen so far this pre-season and the last four games of 2018, when Darnold performed well, I’m pretty confident Sam Darnold will be in the upper half of NFL starting quarterbacks in 2019. There’s a decent chance he ends up a top 10 quarterback this year, but that’s probably an aggressive projection from a biased Jets fan.

What about Le’Veon Bell? Is Darnold going to be asked to shoulder the offense, or will this now be Bell’s team? Think of it this way: is Darnold the Dak to Bell’s Zeke and the Eli to Bell’s Barkley, or is Bell going to be the James White to Darnold’s Brady?

In the long haul Darnold will be far more important to the Jets than Bell, simply because quarterbacks are far more important than running backs. However, for the 2019-20 season, the more likely scenario is Bell is analogous to Zeke and Darnold to Dak. With Darnold in just his second season, with a proven bell cow running back with budding Hall of Fame credentials in Bell, it is difficult to envision a scenario where the load is largely placed on Darnold and Bell is just a nice complementary piece this year.

Bell is probably going to get the ball a ton, both on the ground and through the air, and will be a nice safety blanket for Darnold to rely on as he continues to develop. By next year, however, if all goes as planned with Darnold’s development, I could see Bell being much less important, and Darnold being much more dominant, in 2020. For Jets fans, given the wretched history at quarterback, that’s an almost unfathomable scenario, but this particular Jets quarterback has Jets fans excited about the possibilities.

What if any position battles and spots are still up for grabs on the Jets? Any particular battle the Saints fans should be aware of?

For a team that was 4-12 last year there are surprisingly few starting positions up for grabs. The entire starting offense, as long as everyone is healthy, is pretty much set, and has been for some time. The defense, if everyone is healthy, also has surprisingly few starting positions up for grabs. One spot still there for the taking is at outside linebacker, where Harvey Langi, Frankie Luvu, Tarell Basham and Brandon Copeland (I know, I know, an embarrassment of riches) are duking it out to determine which NFL nobody takes the spot. Last year’s starter, Copeland, has been suspended for the first four games of the NFL season for PED use, so the other three have an opportunity to step up and make a name for themselves.

The other spot open on defense is, temporarily, at starting cornerback, where Trumaine Johnson, the Jets’ top outside cornerback, is injured and may not make it back for the season opener. His primary backup, undrafted free agent Kyron Brown, is also hurt, leaving a temporary opening for the likes of Tevaughn Campbell, Arthur Maulet and Alex Brown (Yikes!).

On special teams incumbent punter Lachlan Edwards is battling Matt Darr. Undrafted free agent Greg Dortch seems to have taken control of punt return duties and 2018 6th round running back Trenton Cannon seems to have the upper hand in kick returns. At kicker Taylor Bertolet is locked in a gripping battle with himself as he botches kick after kick and appears all but certain to lose the competition with fill in the blank kicker currently located on some other NFL squad.

Most of the battles for the Jets come down to who makes the back of the 53 man roster and who gets cut. At blocking tight end incumbent Eric Tomlinson appears to be in danger of being replaced by 2019 4th round pick Trevon Wesco. At backup running back third year pro Elijah McGuire appears to be at risk of being cut after the Jets brought back long time Jet Bilal Powell and signed Le’Veon Bell and Ty Montgomery in free agency. There is a riveting battle between Davis Webb and Luke Falk for the 3rd and 4th quarterbacks, neither of whom may make the team. No doubt the entire NFL community is watching that battle with eager anticipation of what QB gem might shake loose. At wide receiver a motley assortment of characters, has beens, never weres and likely never will bes are raising the bar to unprecedented levels for the 4th, 5th, 6th, and perhaps 7th wide receiver spots. Jets fans are fervently praying to their deities of choice that nobody other than Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa and Jamison Crowder ever see the field in meaningful situations. If those prayers go unanswered, the slots will be filled by some combination of Greg Dortch, Deontay Burnett, Deonte Thompson, Quincy Adeboyejo and Tim White. Please try to control your drooling at the prospect one or more of those luminaries may become available when the Jets cut them.

Generally how does the first team unit stack up in your mind across the NFL? Frankly, Saints fans want to know what the measuring stick will be: if the Saints gash the Jets on offense, is it just because the Jets defense is bad, or is it actually an accomplishment? Likewise, if the Saints offense stalls, is that more a testament to you or us? Same for defense.

The Jets first team offense has legitimate NFL talent for the first time in years. Le’Veon Bell is a star, second year tight end Chris Herndon (suspended 4 games) is a budding star, and wide receivers Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa and Jamison Crowder, while lacking star power, are at least three pretty decent, legitimate NFL receivers. The offensive line, if healthy, should be at least average, and maybe better than that, at pass blocking, but sub-par at run blocking. The Jets have what looks to be a modern, innovative NFL offensive mind at the helm in Adam Gase, something Jets fans haven’t seen in a very long time. It all adds up to what should be a pretty good, but not great NFL offense, provided Sam Darnold develops as expected. Darnold, of course, is the big unknown. If he lives up to expectations, the Jets should have an effective, modern offense, something Jets fans are only familiar with in the opposition.

On defense, the Jets are very strong up the middle, with stars at every level of the defense in Jamal Adams, C.J. Mosley, Leonard Williams and perhaps rookie 3rd overall pick Quinnen Williams. The Jets should be very difficult to run against this year. The pass defense, on the other hand, looks like it could range anywhere from below average to disastrous. The Jets starting cornerbacks are Trumaine Johnson, Brian Poole and Darryl Roberts. Even if Johnson bounces back from a rough 2018 campaign, that is one of the weaker CB groups in the NFL. If any of those three are injured, the group of players backing them up are all complete unknowns who have rarely if ever seen NFL action. There is of course always the possibility a hidden gem emerges, but thus far in pre-season action the Jets backup defensive backs appear to be somewhere between incompetent and utterly useless.

The unfortunate situation at cornerback might be covered up a bit by a ferocious pass rush, but unfortunately the Jets don’t have any ferocious edge rushers. There is hope Gregg Williams’ aggressive blitzing schemes will generate a pass rush, but of course aggressive blitzing requires defensive backs who can hold up without much support, a dubious proposition for the Jets’ secondary. Barring the acquisition of talent via trade or waiver wire pickups or the unexpected emergence of a top pass rusher or cover corner, the Jets look to be in for a long difficult year in pass defense.

Who is the Jets’ #1 wide receiver? Is it Anderson, Enunwa, or the newly signed Crowder? Predict the order of targets for each at the end of the season.

Who is the Jets #1 wide receiver? I don’t know. It probably will depend on the game. None of these three are legitimate, take all the targets, number one receiver types, but each has his strengths. I expect the targets to be spread around fairly evenly among the following five players: Le’Veon Bell, Chris Herndon, Robby Anderson, Jamison Crowder and Quincy Enunwa. Among the wide receivers, at the end of the season, if everyone remains healthy, I think Crowder leads in targets and receptions, because Gase loves him some slot receivers. Next will be Robby Anderson, who I think will lead the Jets wide receivers in yards and touchdowns. Bringing up the rear, but still capable of being the lead target any given Sunday, will be Enunwa.

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Thank-you, MacGregor, for taking the time to answer our questions. Saints fans, make sure you check out MacGregor and the work his guys are doing over at Gang Green Nation. You can follow Gang Green Nation on Twitter @GangGreenNation, and of course you can follow me @dunnellz.