April 13, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version

Jets Need Spare Parts To Contend in 2005

BY SEAN LAHMAN
April 13, 2005
URL: http://www.nysun.com/article/12195

It has been a tumultuous off-season for the New York Jets. After dismissing offensive coordinator Paul Hackett, the Jets lost several key free agents, including offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie (Giants), running back LaMont Jordan (Raiders), defensive tackle Jason Ferguson (Cowboys), and tight end Anthony Becht (Buccaneers).

This has left the Jets battling just to keep even, and they weren't able to make any significant additions during free agency. As a result, Gang Green will be looking at next weekend's draft as their best opportunity to restock for another playoff run.

Last year, the Jets focused on defense in the draft, landing two players who paid immediate dividends. The additions of safety Erik Coleman, a fifth-round pick, and linebacker Jonathon Vilma, a first-round pick, helped their defense improve from 21st in the NFL in 2003 to seventh in 2004. They'll need to find players to make the same kind of impact this year if they hope to contend in the tough AFC East.

Even though they don't have an early selection - the Jets hold the 26th pick in the first round - this is a deep enough draft that they can reasonably hope to replace the departed free agents. Although this year's draft crop lacks the elite prospects at the top of the list, there will be more quality in the middle of the draft than in recent years. Here's a look at which of those players could plug the holes at several key positions.

TIGHT END

The Jets filled one of their biggest needs - a no. 1 receiver - by reacquiring Laveranues Coles in a trade with the Washington Redskins. The passing game could get a further boost if the Jets opt to use their first-round pick to select tight end Heath Miller from the University of Virginia.

Becht's departure leaves Chris Baker as the incumbent at tight end, but the Jets' off-season pursuit of free agent Jeb Putzier makes it clear that they'd like to upgrade. Miller is the draft's only impact player at the position, and while he doesn't have the speed of the elite NFL tight ends, he is an outstanding receiver and big enough to be a factor in the red zone. He also has great hands, and would be a great addition for new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger.

Because Miller had hernia surgery over the winter, he's dropped from a mid first-round pick. He would be a steal for the Jets at no. 26, but a team like the Jaguars or Panthers might reach for him in the middle of the first round. If that happens, the Jets will most likely use their picks on the first day to address needs at cornerback, defensive tackle, and offensive tackle. With four picks on the second day, they'll look for a safety, a tight end, and depth at running back and center.

OFFENSIVE LINE

McKenzie's departure also leaves a gaping hole on the right side of the offensive line. Even if the Jets opt to go with second-year tackle Adrian Jones as the starter, depth on the offensive line is a big problem. Age is the biggest concern; center Kevin Mawae will be 34, tackle Jason Fabini 33, and guard Pete Kendall 32. The Jets need to use one or two picks to select offensive linemen, and at least once on the first day.

There are two tackles projected to go in the mid to late first round - Alex Barron of Florida State and Jammal Brown of Oklahoma. Unfortunately for the Jets, both are better suited to playing on the left side because of their athleticism. The Jets are looking for a bigger player who can help open holes for Curtis Martin in the power running game. It's more likely the team will look at players like Khalif Barnes (Washington), Marcus Johnson (Mississippi), Adam Terry (Syracuse), or Michael Munoz (Tennessee) with a second- or third-round pick.

CORNERBACK

For the second straight year, a strong crop of college cornerbacks is coming out. This fact, combined with a relatively weak group of players at the other positions where they need help, might entice the Jets to grab one with their first round pick. At the same time, the NFL's new emphasis on enforcing the 5-yard contact rule has left many NFL teams in search of better athletes for their pass defense, and it's unclear just who will be left by the time the Jets get to pick.

Two cornerbacks, Miami's Antrel Rolle and West Virginia's Adam "Pac-Man" Jones, are expected to go in the top 10. That leaves a group of three or four to trickle down through the rest of the first round. Those players are Carlos Rogers of Auburn, Marlin Jackson of Michigan, Justin Miller of Clemson, and Fabian Washington of Nebraska.

Rogers is the most aggressive of the bunch, a four-year starter for the Tigers. Miller's value is enhanced because of his skills as a return specialist. Jackson's stock rose considerably after a strong performance at the combine. So did Washington's, whose blistering 4.28 time in the 40-yard dash turned a lot of heads.

Though most pundits believe that the Jets' biggest need is a cornerback, it's not clear how any of these four would make an immediate impact. Sure, some opponents were able to exploit a lack of speed in the Jets' secondary last year, and 31-year old starter Donnie Abraham is visibly slower; yet the Jets ranked 14th in overall pass defense last season and ranked ninth with 19 interceptions.

That might be mediocre but it's not a glaring weakness. Besides, the Jets used their second pick on cornerback Derrick Strait last April. Strait missed 11 games with a broken foot, but he is closer to winning a starting job in training camp than any 2005 first-round pick would be.

DEFENSIVE LINE

A more pressing need exists on the defensive line, where the Jets must find a replacement for run-stuffing defensive tackle Jason Ferguson, who left for Dallas. Josh Evans is the top man on the depth chart now, but he's 33-yearsold and has played only seven games during the past two seasons. Travis Johnson of Florida State is the only elite prospect at defensive tackle in the draft this year, and it would be hard to pass him up if he was still available.

It's more likely that Johnson will be gone by the time the Jets' first pick rolls around, forcing them to look for help in the second and third rounds. That could mean Wisconsin's Anttaj Hawthorne, a good two-gap defender who would fit in well with the schemes that defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson has implemented. Ronald Field of Mississippi State is a similar player who is projected to go in the third round.

One development that could throw everything into flux is if the Jets can find a taker for disgruntled defensive end John Abraham. The team prevented Abraham from becoming a free agent by putting the franchise tag on him, a move that infuriated the oft-injured sack master. Abraham did not sign the Jets' $6.7 million tender by the March 16 deadline and has not participated in the off-season workout program that began last week.

General Manager Terry Bradway has said that he is willing to listen to offers, and two potential trade partners could be the Cowboys and the Vikings; both teams need a pass rusher, and both have a pair of first-round picks.

If the Jets do trade Abraham before the draft, they'll have to consider taking a pass-rusher in the first round, probably with a pick they acquire in the deal. Players like Erasmus James (Wisconsin) and Shaun Cody (USC) can play well against the pass and the run, while Dan Cody (Oklahoma), David Pollack (Georgia), and Matt Roth (Iowa) are pure pass rushers. If the Jets trade Abraham and don't get a 2005 first rounder, they could still land a starter in the second round.

OUTLOOK

A year ago, the Jets used the draft to help revamp their defense. This year, the team will simply be looking to plug the holes created by free agency. The odds are against the Jets coming out of this draft with a marquee player, someone who'll generate excitement about the upcoming season. Still, they'll need to find a handful of players who can contribute if the team is to get back to the playoffs.

April 13, 2005 Edition > Section: Sports > Printer-Friendly Version