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New York Jets 2004 Season Preview

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(Sports Network) - While most of the attention in the Big Apple is on Eli Manning, Kurt Warner, and the new-look New York Giants, the other team that calls the Meadowlands home is conspiring to steal the spotlight.

The New York Jets, coming off their first losing season since 1996, are quietly formulating a plan to put themselves back among the NFL elite. Quarterback Chad Pennington, who two years ago was one of the league's top signal-callers, is back and fully healthy. His best receiver, Santana Moss, comes off a breakthrough season and will be joined by another pass-catching talent in Justin McCareins. The running game, led by the ageless Curtis Martin, doesn't look to be slowing down, and the offensive line got better in a hurry when it signed Cardinals castoff Pete Kendall. The defense will be in the trusted hands of coordinator Donnie Henderson, who formerly worked wonders with the secondary of the Baltimore Ravens. There are several concerns for Herman Edwards' team, with depth and the defense's ability to grasp a new scheme chief among them. But even if the Jets don't realize their postseason goals, the club should be able to prove the Eli vs. Kurt-obsessed public of one fact: the best team playing in Giants Stadium isn't the Giants. Below we take a capsule look at the 2004 edition of the New York Jets, with a personnel evaluation as well as a schedule analysis and prognosis included therein: 2003 RECORD: 6-10 (t3rd, AFC East) COACH (RECORD): Herman Edwards (25-23 in three seasons with Jets, 25-23 overall) OFFENSIVE STAR: Curtis Martin, RB (1308 rushing yards, 42 receptions, 2 TD) DEFENSIVE STAR: Shaun Ellis, DE (69 tackles, 12.5 sacks) QB: Pennington (2139 passing yards, 13 TD, 12 INT) missed the first six games of the 2003 season with a broken wrist, and by the time he got his rhythm back, the Jets were no longer part of the playoff picture. When healthy, Pennington is one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. The team has limited options behind him, as neither Brooks Bollinger or CFL veteran Ricky Ray has ever attempted an NFL pass. Look for New York to scan the waiver wire for an experienced backup before the regular season begins. RB: Though 31 years of age and supposedly past his prime, Martin will continue to get carries until he proves he can no longer handle the load. The running back extended his streak of 1,000-yard rushing seasons to nine a year ago, but managed to find the end zone only twice. LaMont Jordan (190 rushing yards, 4 TD) is going on his fourth year as the Jets' running back of the future, and has done a nice job when called upon. Behind Jordan, local heroes Johnathan Reese (Columbia) and Ian Smart (C.W. Post) have no experience but are long on raw talent. Fullback Jerald Sowell (47 receptions) did a nice job catching the ball last season, and B.J. Askew should once again be his backup. WR/TE: The Jets' best game-breaker during 2003 was Moss (74 receptions, 10 TD) who had a breakout season despite the lack of a strong No. 2 wideout to take the pressure off of him. The team thinks it solved that problem by signing former Titan Justin McCareins (47 receptions, 7 TD with Tennessee), and having a fully healthy Wayne Chrebet (27 receptions, 1 TD) in the slot won't hurt either. The surprise of training camp may have been fourth-round draft pick Jerricho Cotchery (N.C. State), whose draft stock dropped because of suspect speed but has excellent hands and play-making ability. Jonathan Carter will once again be the fifth wideout and a kick returner. Tight ends Anthony Becht (40 receptions, 4 TD) and Chris Baker (14 receptions) are solid but unspectacular. OL: New York caught a huge break when Arizona shockingly cut loose talented center Pete Kendall, who the Jets snapped up to play left guard. Tackle Jason Fabini will join Kendall on the left side, and both he and center Kevin Mawae are solid. The right side is weaker, though tackle Kareem McKenzie is improving. Whoever plays right guard, either Brandon Moore or veteran Brent Smith, figures to be the weak link on this unit. The Jets are short on line depth, and are hoping that draft picks Adrian Jones (Kansas) and Marko Cavka (Sacramento State) can help out right away. DL: Ellis is the star of this group, and will join with tackles Dewayne Robertson (43 tackles) and Jason Ferguson (75 tackles, 4.5 sacks) to head up an underrated pass rush. Henderson will employ more 3-4 sets, which means ends John Abraham (32 tackles, 6 sacks) and Bryan Thomas (42 tackles, 1 sack) will shift to outside linebacker on occasion. James Reed (31 tackles, 1 sack) is the top backup on the interior. LB: The 3-4 is thought to be tailor-made for inside linebacker and first-round draft pick Jonathan Vilma (Miami (FL)), who will join with veteran Sam Cowart (140 tackles, 2 sacks) to help stop the rush. Victor Hobson (56 tackles, 2 sacks) and free agent pickup Eric Barton (133 tackles with the Raiders) will be featured primarily on the outside. DB: Henderson's biggest task could be squeezing production from a group of mediocre cornerbacks, who probably won't do much to better the mere 11 interceptions the defense accrued last season. Donnie Abraham (11 tackles, 1 INT) and former Cardinal David Barrett (79 tackles, 1 INT with Arizona) will likely be the opening day starters, with Ray Mickens (64 tackles, 2 INT) seeing time as a backup and in nickel situations. The rest of the secondary is stronger, with Jon McGraw (31 tackles) returning to the free safety spot and Reggie Tongue (63 tackles, 4 INT with Seattle) coming in to play strong safety. Like so many areas of this team, the Jets don't have much in the way of veteran depth in the secondary. SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Doug Brien (27-32 FG) was perfect on kicks of 40 yards or closer last season, and should have no trouble keeping his job. Toby Gowin (39.0 avg. with Dallas) is a journeyman, but represents an upgrade over Dan Stryzinski. Moss (11.1 avg.) is a dangerous returner, and the team was happy with Carter's (28.7 avg., 1 TD) work on kickoff returns. SCHEDULE: The road slate is especially kind, as the Jets have seemingly winnable visits to San Diego (9/19), Miami (10/3), Buffalo (11/7), Cleveland (11/21), Arizona (11/28), and Pittsburgh (12/12). Home affairs with San Francisco (10/17), Miami (11/1), and Houston (12/5) don't look particularly daunting either. The toughest matchups will be the home-and-home with New England (10/24 on the road, 12/26 at home) along with tilts against Baltimore (11/14 at home), Seattle (12/19 at home), and St. Louis (1/2 on the road). PROGNOSIS: The Jets aren't necessarily weak in any area outside of the secondary, but that doesn't mean they'll have a strong year. Edwards' team has some of the worst depth in the league at quarterback, running back, and on both lines, and could be a couple of injuries away from having their season spiral out of control. It's a wonder they didn't learn their lesson when Pennington went down in 2003. If the Jets stay mostly injury-free, they'll have a chance to challenge Buffalo for the No. 2 spot in the AFC East, and could even be a major player in the hunt for a Wild Card berth. But staying injury-free in the rugged NFL is an extremely risky proposition, which is why the Jets will probably crash after a seven- or eight- win 2004 campaign.

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