Jets will displace New England Patriots atop AFC East

Make no mistake about it, the New York Jets will displace the New England Patriots atop the AFC East this season.

The King is dead; Long live the King!

This famous phrase has been uttered by many nations at the death of one monarch and the rise of another. It signifies that order is restored, all is the same as it ever was, nothing to see here, go back to your hovels.

According to Chris Simms on ESPN New York Radio, however, everything is not the same in the AFC East. He recently made a remarkable statement: “The Jets have the best roster in the NFL.” A second commentator on local sports radio picked the Jets to go to the Super bowl.

To fans of the New York Jets, this sounds like wishful,  delusional or crazy thinking. Jets fans cannot fathom such good news in part because they suffer from a severe case of JFTSD (Jets Fans Traumatic Stress Disorder). The symptoms are obvious: focus almost entirely on Jets’ weaknesses (i.e., the right side of the offensive line, tight end position and perhaps quarterback) while noticing only the strengths of their opponents.

Not having won a championship for forty years will do this to anyone. Boston Red Sox fans are mostly over their harsher case of the disease, but you may still hear echoes of a time when they hadn’t won for a century. Mets fans went to the World Series last year but nevertheless call for Terry Collins’s job every time they have a losing streak. Chicago Cubs fans … Well, we’ll need to wait and see on that one.

It is difficult to write a positive article in the wake of a depressing first loss.

And everyone has noted the Jets horrendous, borderline criminal schedule. But I still believe this will be a tough team all the way through. They will get better and they will make the NFL Playoffs.

So the question looms, “Is Simms right?” Despite our natural disbelief due to aforementioned illness, is he actually on to something? Is it plausible to think that this year the Jets would finally dethrone the king, end the reign, slay the dragon and whatever other metaphor you like for displacing the Patriots atop the AFC East?

Let’s see what we can discern by comparing the Jets’ roster to the team they need to displace. This will at least give us a sense of whether a playoff birth is a reasonable expectation and perhaps provide a small insight into Simms’ mental state. The Patriots serve as a good team for this comparison not only because they are the reigning first place team in the division, but also because they play the same teams.

My strategy will be to examine grade numbers at each position from Pro Football Focus.

Then provide an average based on player groupings in some cases and discuss individual ratings where they are meaningful. Just know that there will be serious caveats to this approach.

For one thing, in football, the whole is greater than the parts. How a team plays together is as important as the individuals on their roster.

For instance, in Week 1, wide receiver A.J. Greene caught a pass against cornerback Darrelle Revis for 54 yards.

However, Revis had outside leverage on Greene. What should have happened was that a safety should have dropped deep in the middle and either covered Greene coming from his left or intercepted the ball. It looks bad for Revis, but this was clearly a team error and not Revis’s fault.

For another, one would need to ask which position grades are the most significant when it comes to winning so that all positions are not weighted equally. We will be sure to register issues as we go that cannot be captured by “grades” alone.

We will begin with receiving. Including only the top two wide receivers from each team, the Jets gain a narrow advantage grading of 83.9 versus the Patriots 81.95. The tight end position needn’t detain us.

Jets fans are not sure who their tight end will be and the Patriots have an all-world player there.

Perhaps more importantly, the Jets have both wide receivers Brandon Marshall (#2) and Eric Decker (#6) in the top ten for touchdown receptions. Only tight end Rob Gronkowski (#7) is there for the Patriots.

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Aug 11, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski (87) during pregame warmups prior to a game against the New Orleans Saints at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

What accounts for this imbalance is precisely the balance of the Patriots scoring attack. They had nine different players catch touchdowns all but one with multiple touchdowns. The Jets were top heavy with Marshall and Decker–26 of the Jets’ 33 touchdown passes were to these two receivers–but here too the Jets had running back Chris Ivory in the top ten for rushing touchdowns and the Patriots had no one.

True, Ivory took his talents to Jacksonville, but it would be surprising if running back Matt Forte comes up with fewer than seven touchdowns either receiving or rushing this year.

The x-factor here is how the Jets talented rookie corps of receivers will do and what ground can be made up at the tight end position by wide receiver Quincy Enunwa. Early returns are positive. Both Enunwa and Jalin Marshall looked very good today.

The quarterback position should be simple, no? Well, no. First, Mr. Brady will not see the field for the first four games. Jimmy Garoppolo grades out at 63.6 while Ryan Fitzpatrick comes in at 73.7. Of course, once Brady does return, we are looking at a Pro Football Hall of Fame grade at 94.3. Fair enough, but let’s look at some interesting numbers here.

Brady’s quarterback numbers are clearly better than Fitzpatrick. He threw 36 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. The Patriots play a style of ball control football meant to demoralize a defense by consistently moving the chains. Fitzpatrick throws downfield more often (not far downfield, but downfield nonetheless).

More importantly, Brady was sacked 38 times last year to Fitzpatrick’s 19.

The Patriots lost more than double the number of yards the Jets lost due to sacks. The advantage here clearly goes to Brady who runs a tight efficient ship. He would rather take a sack and live for another play than give up the ball. Nevertheless, if he continues to take that many sacks, New England’s offense might lose some its potency. This brings us to the offensive line.

Jets fans are rightly worried about the right side of the offensive line. We did not know until 1PM  who was playing right tackle! And neither option has a PFF grade. Surprisingly, however, after watching the game against a formidable Bengals’ defensive front, Jets fans can take heart. Fitzpatrick was sacked once and the run game looked stellar. The Patriots are no Dallas Cowboys themselves. The Jets average 72.17 on the front line; the Patriots 61.425.

This may be surprising to many fans who are concerned about the Jets’ offensive line (and given the symptoms of JFTSD mentioned above). True, it is an aging unit and we really do not know how Ryan Clady, James Carpenter, and Nick Mangold will gel. They will most likely do fine in pass blocking, but it remains to be seen whether they can open holes for the running game on a regular basis. The right side is younger, but not exciting.

However, the Patriots’ offensive line is nothing to write home about.

They run a quick strike offense and Brady still got sacked 38 times last season. They do help out with Gronkowski blocking on the end, but if the Jets have worries here, the Patriots should have deep-seated anxiety. The Jets have a very good left side. Carpenter had his best year last year, Clady has been to several Pro Bowls and Mangold, when fully healthy, is a brilliant center. But of course, this all depends on upon health and cohesion. Still, I like the Jets in this category.

On to the running backs! LeGarrette Blount is a load and everyone can see what the Patriots are building here: Two tight end sets with Blount running downhill. That is called going heavy. Blount grades out in the low 70’s. He is big and tough and had six touchdowns last year. Tough to stop on the goal line for sure, a kind of runner the Jets will miss without Ivory and with running back Khiry Robinson going down and out with an injury. However, he is also susceptible to being tackled behind the line as his first steps are not particularly quick. Given the Patriots’ weaker offensive line, this can be a real problem.

Aug 18, 2016; Foxborough, MA, USA; New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount (29) runs the ball during the first half against the Chicago Bears at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Jets have Matt Forte and Bilal Powell who grade in the mid to low 70s respectively. They both looked strong in Week 1. I look for both to have good years in this offensive system as both can run between the tackles and serve as receivers either out of the backfield or in an empty backfield formation. Last year Powell had 388 yards receiving. He is dangerous out there. Forte, if healthy, is a terrific pass blocker, runner and pass catcher. The Jets take this category.

As everyone knows, the Jets’ defensive line is scary. They can now play a 3-4 or a 4-3 and opponents will not know which one is coming or when. The defense totaled seven sacks today in a loss. Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson, and now Steve McLendon are big, athletic, and young. This year may be Williams’ coming out party. They average a 77.28 grade, but this is only because McClendon somehow graded at a 54.8, most likely due to the way he was used in Pittsburgh. Otherwise, their number would be 84.7.

The Patriots, without their lowest number, average 68.1.

Now, they do have a stud on their defensive line named Jabaal Sheard but traded Chandler Jones to the Arizona Cardinals. Rob Ninkovich can be listed as either a defensive end or linebacker in the 3-4, but is always quite good. Unfortunately for him and the Patriots, he will be watching at home for the first four games as he serves his PED suspension. Advantage, Jets.

What helps the Patriots’ defensive line is their excellent linebacker corps, specifically Jamie Collins and Dont’a Hightower. Young, athletic and smart, these two can wreak havoc on an offense. Collins went to the Pro bowl last year and they grade well above the Jets in this area. Certainly, the Jets have a fine leader and player in David Harris and they have added serious rookie talent in Darron Lee and Jordan Jenkins. They also hope that Lorenzo Mauldin can take a step forward this year. But this is all in the category of the possible, not the probable or knowable. The advantage goes to the Patriots here with hopes to revise mid-season!

Now at cornerback, we might expect to find a clear Jets advantage, but PFF actually says the opposite, at least as far as last year goes.

The corners for the Patriots are strong: Logan Ryan and Malcolm Butler. Evidently, the tandem of Buster Skrine and Darrelle Revis does not measure up. Butler did make the Pro Bowl last year and Ryan grades out in the low 80s whereas Revis was dropped to a 78.4-grade last season (from 87.7 the year prior). Skrine is lower again.

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Aug 19, 2016; Landover, MD, USA; New York Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis (24) reacts after making an interception in the first quarter against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field. Mandatory Credit: Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

So the claim would be that the Jets are quite weak in this area. I don’t see it. Ryan and Butler are certainly strong players, but while Revis had some tough moments last year, he also had an abundance of big plays. Former Jets’ linebacker Bart Scott is correct to observe that as the safety play of the Jets matures and improves, Revis’  talent will once again be clear to everyone. The safety play today was suspect and the communication on the back end hurt the Jets badly. Because we do not yet know how Skrine is going to hold up in the cornerback position, I will give a slight edge to New England here—but only the slightest.

At safety, we meet Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung, a fine tandem for the Patriots. The Jets put Calvin Pryor and Marcus Gilchrist here. Again, the advantage goes to the Patriots, but only the slimmest of margins. Apart from injuries last year, Pryor struck fear into his opponents with his big hits. This intimidation factor and the energy he brings to that defense are worth more than his 77.1 rating would indicate. The jury is still out on Gilchrist. Chung and McCourty patrol the back end very effectively, but are susceptible to the big play (see Decker, end zone).

What analysis like this shows are the complexity of the situation and the crazy parity in the NFL.

Are the Jets ready to take over from the Patriots, to assume the throne? I believe they are with two hedges: first, Fitzpatrick needs to play as well or better than last year. He had an acceptable game in Week 1 but missed some open receivers that cost the Jets significantly (especially Marshall in the end zone). Second, the linebackers and safeties need to pull their weight. The linebackers did reasonably well today, but the safeties lagged.

It may be that the Jets win fewer games this season than last. But remember, the Patriots need to beat the same teams the Jets play. They too may win fewer games than last year.

Finally, the Jets’ special teams look eons ahead of last season already save for kicker Nick Folk who had an uncharacteristically shaky game. I very much doubt we will see that again.

The best roster in the NFL? That is a bit bold for me.

But this analysis does reveal that they have a more formidable lineup than Jets fans might suspect. How they all come together will be the key and I trust head coach Todd Bowles to have this ship moving steadily forward.

On the strength of their offensive talent, their defensive line and what I believe will develop into a formidable defensive back end, the Jets will go at least 9-7 this year. They will make the playoffs. They will beat New England twice. They will dethrone the King. Don’t let one game fool you. The Jets are for real.

The King is dead, long live a new King!

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