In preparing for Sunday’s matchup against the New York Jets, Gang Green Nation’s MacGregor Wells and I sat down for a small Q&A for one another’s publications.
Check out the Q&A below, and be sure to check out DraftKings Sportsbook for all your betting needs this season.
1. Jets Head Coach Robert Saleh announced on Wednesday that quarterback Joe Flacco will start Week 1, with Zach Wilson sidelined due to injury. How confident are you (and Jets fans) in the former Raven?
While Jets fans respect what Joe Flacco once was and all that he accomplished in his career, I think it’s safe to say Jets fans are skeptical that he can perform at a high level at this point in his career. Flacco at this point seems like a hold the fort guy who is capable of providing competent play for short stretches, but you don’t want him starting for any appreciable length of time. There are Jets fans who think Flacco is the best option the Jets have, but that is for the most part more an indictment of how rough a start second year quarterback Zach Wilson has had to his NFL career than it is an expression of great confidence in Joe Flacco. Suffice it to say most Jets fans do not go into this game against the Ravens with Flacco under center with a whole lot of hope Flacco can be a deciding factor in the Jets favor.
2. Both the Ravens and Jets received national praise for their draft classes back in late April. How have the rookies looked in training camp and which of them are you expecting to start and/or contribute Week 1?
The Jets rookie class received high praise in April. I expect that was as much a result of the large amount of draft capital the Jets had to spend as it was a result of exceptionally great choices. When you have three first round picks, two top 10 picks, and four of the first 40 picks, expectations should be high.
It is difficult to say with any certainty how the Jets rookies looked this summer. I did not personally attend training camp, so what little I saw of the Jets rookies came in limited preseason snaps. Relying on the Jets beat reporters’ accounts, it seems the Jets pick at #4 overall, Sauce Gardner, has looked the part of a shutdown cornerback. Cornerbacks tend to struggle as rookies in the NFL, but thus far Gardner is reported to look very comfortable as the Jets’ CB1. He’ll start on Sunday and Jets fans do not expect the moment to be too big for Gardner.
At #10 overall the Jets chose wide receiver Garrett Wilson, and the reviews of Wilson have been a mixed bag. He has struggled with drops, and thus far it appears he has been unable to secure a starting spot to open the season. Nonetheless Wilson has earned his fair share of praise for his precise route running and outstanding body control, and hopes are still high he can develop into a top receiver. Wilson is expected to get a good amount of playing time this year, but it is not entirely clear where he sits in the pecking order of Jets receivers. My guess is that he will open the season as WR4 for the Jets, behind Elijah Moore, Corey Davis and Braxton Berrios, and work his way up from there. If Wilson is unable to crack the top three at some point this year that would be disappointing.
The Jets third 1st round pick, edge rusher Jermaine Johnson II, was selected at #26 overall. Johnson got off to a slow start, running with the third string to open camp. The Jets defensive line is probably the deepest position on the team, and Johnson has not had a great deal of success working his way up the depth chart thus far. My guess is we will see Johnson in a fairly limited role as a situational pass rusher to open the season, with hopes he can eventually work his way up to a starting position. Thus far Johnson has been slightly disappointing, but that can change quickly.
The Jets chose running back Breece Hall with the 36th overall pick in the 2nd round of the draft, and thus far he has received generally positive reviews. Many believe it is only a matter of time before Hall becomes the Jets’ clear lead back, though it would not be surprising to see something like a 50/50 split with 2nd year back Michael Carter to open the season. Many Jets fans believe Hall has a real chance to earn offensive rookie of the year honors, but I’ll reserve judgment on that until we see him in real NFL game action for multiple games. For now I’d just like to see Hall clearly take over the RB1 spot for the Jets.
At #101 overall in the 3rd round the Jets chose tight end Jeremy Ruckert. Ruckert battled some injuries early in camp, setting him back a bit. In addition, the Jets spent a good deal of money in free agency to acquire tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin this year. That makes this likely to be a developmental year for Ruckert, as, barring injuries to Uzomah and/or Conklin, he is not likely to get a lot of opportunities as the Jets TE3 this year.
At #111 overall in the 4th round the Jets chose offensive tackle Max Mitchell. Mitchell has performed reasonably well in limited opportunities this summer. If he is asked to step in as a starter should one of the Jets top tackles get injured, that will probably be asking too much of Mitchell. But for a developmental tackle whom the Jets probably never envisioned starting this year Mitchell has looked pretty good, and Jets fans are hopeful he can develop into a valuable swing tackle or perhaps a starting right tackle in a year or two.
The Jets’ final pick, #117 overall in the 4th round, has thus far exceeded expectations. Micheal Clemons, a versatile defensive lineman who can play inside or outside, has looked very good this summer, largely outplaying the more celebrated Jets rookie defensive lineman Jermaine Johnson. The old cliché about getting “the steal of the draft” applies to Clemons for many Jets fans. While that remains to be seen, Clemons has looked good in preseason action, largely against backups. Clemons looks like he may be ready to step in immediately and give the Jets positive contributions as a rotational guy along the defensive front. Jets fans are hopeful that in time he can develop into much more than that.
3. Last season, the Jets finished the season with the lowest ranked defense in terms of DVOA. What were some of the personnel struggles of last year’s team and what do you expect to see differently on the field Sunday?
The Jets defense suffered from a severe lack of talent last year. There were four, maybe five guys on the entire Jets roster that had any business starting NFL games on defense. Quinnen Williams, Folorunso Fatukasi and John Franklin-Myers were three quality starters on the defensive line. Former Raven C.J. Mosley anchored the linebacking crew. And Michael Carter at slot cornerback and Bryce Hall at outside cornerback were sort of hold the fort guys, barely NFL starter quality. No other Jets defensive player who started more than 7 games could be considered a real NFL starter other than by default. Consequently the Jets overhauled their secondary and defensive line in the offseason, bringing in multiple legitimate NFL starters. The Jets drafted Sauce Gardner to hold down one outside cornerback spot and brought in D.J. Reed for the other outside cornerback position. Now the Jets at least should be able to do some things other than sitting back in a loose zone, giving huge cushions and conceding everything in front of the cornerbacks. The ability to play effective man defense at times in the defensive backfield should open up blitzing opportunities that were difficult to exploit last year with the Jets’ subpar cornerbacks, as well as make the Jets pass defense less predictable and more difficult to prepare for.
The Jets also brought in safety Jordan Whitehead, giving the Jets another credible piece in the secondary. Free safety is still a big question mark with 34 year old LaMarcus Joyner expected to start, but the infusion of talent in the secondary should at least make the Jets competitive there this year for a change.
On the defensive line the Jets lost Fatukasi, an excellent run stuffer with limited pass rushing ability who did not fit the Jets preferred attacking penetrating scheme. They added rookies Johnson and Clemons and brought in free agents Jacob Martin and Solomon Thomas. The Jets also regain the services of edge rusher Carl Lawson, who was expected to be the Jets’ best pass rusher last year before he was lost for the entire season due to a torn achilles tendon in camp. This remains to be seen, but Jets fans are hopeful the Jets now have the stable of quality pass rushers needed to properly run the Robert Saleh defensive scheme.
Not much was done at linebacker by the Jets, though they did bring in Quan Alexander late in the preseason. It doesn’t appear linebacker will be a major strength for the Jets, but with Alexander joining Mosley and Quincy Williams, a waiver wire pickup from last year, Jets fans are hopeful that this group can at least not be terrible.
4. With the Jets losing OT Mekhi Becton to injury, what is the state of the Jets’ offensive line and where might the Ravens find success against the unit?
This sounds flippant, but your guess is probably as good as mine here. We never saw the Jets revamped offensive line play together until a handful of snaps against backup defensive players in the Jets’ final preseason game. The Jets starting right tackle, George Fant, is being moved from left tackle. Fant has only had success on the left side thus far in his career. Alijah Vera-Tucker, a second year starter at guard, is being moved from the left side to the right side to accommodate the Jets new left guard, free agent signing Laken Tomlinson. 37 year old Duane Brown was brought in late to replace the injured Mekhi Becton. Brown is expected to start at left tackle. Who knows how much he has left in the tank? The only starter on the offensive line who remains at the same position for the Jets as last year is center Connor McGovern. With all the position switches and the nearly complete lack of playing time together as a unit, it’s difficult to know what to expect, though it’s probably a fair bet that this will take some time to gel. In limited preseason action the Jets pass protection held up fairly well while the run blocking was pretty awful, so perhaps the best chance of finding success against the Jets’ offensive line is in the run game. However, under the circumstances, it would not be surprising to see the Ravens’ defense give the Jets’ offensive line fits in every aspect of the game and at every position, as it is probably too much to ask for this to all gel for the Jets practically overnight against a tough Ravens defense.
5. Which two players (one offense, one defense) Ravens fans should be concerned about as the “X-factors” of making this game go in the Jets’ favor?
On offense I think if there is one player opponents should be worried about it is second year wide receiver Elijah Moore. Moore was emerging as a top flight weapon in his rookie year before he suffered a season-ending injury, and he has seemingly picked up where he left off this summer. Moore has excellent speed, great lateral quickness, good hands and outstanding route running ability. Perhaps I’m biased as a Jets fan, but he looks like an emerging star to me. I know the Ravens’ secondary is much improved over last year’s injury ravaged version, but if there is one player on offense who might have major success in this game for the Jets, my money would be on Moore.
On defense if the Jets are to have any chance in this game they must limit the damage Lamar Jackson does with his legs. Clearly that’s a whole lot easier said than done against the former MVP. But if there is one player on the Jets who has any chance of impacting the game here it is probably edge rusher Carl Lawson. Lawson has outstanding power and speed off the edge. If he and his fellow defensive linemen can put constant pressure on Jackson perhaps the Jets can surprise here. Again, much easier said than done, and probably not the way to bet, but if the Jets are to have any success on defense in this challenging matchup, it probably starts with lots of pressure up front, and Lawson is the Jet best equipped to apply the pressure.