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NY Jets: Roster Building With Crackback

An interview with one of Gang Green Nation's best and most original football minds.

Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Today we have a special guest on Gang Green Nation. You all know him as Crackback. He is one of the keenest talent evaluators and football minds in our community, and one of the most original thinkers. It is our privilege to present to you an interview with Crackback on building the back of the roster. I hope you enjoy reading the ruminations of this terrific football mind as much as I enjoyed interviewing him. Without further ado, I bring you a chat with Crackback.

OK Crackback, let’s get right to this. The idea for this interview came from a brief debate we had on Gang Green Nation regarding whether or not the Jets should keep Kenbrell Thompkins on the 53 man roster. I liked your ideas so much I wanted to delve more into your thoughts for the entire back of the roster. Starting with Thompkins, I know you want to keep him because you are uncomfortable having little more than a bunch of rookies and unproven players behind Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker.  Last year the Jets ran Decker out of the slot a lot and posted Devin Smith on the outside.  Smith struggled badly in that role. Is your discomfort related to how well or poorly that worked out with Smith?

Crackback: No.  Devin Smith really wasn't a thought at all.  I was purely thinking about either Decker or Marshall missing extended time due to injury and filling that void.  I don't really expect Smith to be a factor at all this season.  Even when he's medically cleared to play, I think it's going to take some time for him to mentally get over the hurdle of trusting his knee to go full speed; and it's going to take time to knock the rust off and get his rhythm back.  Hopefully, he gets well enough to get some game reps this season but I'm not expecting any real contribution from him until 2017.

I know you’ve expressed reservations about utilizing Quincy Enunwa on the outside if Eric Decker or Brandon Marshall are out for any length of time. Could you go into a bit of detail on why you think moving Enunwa to the outside is a mistake?

Crackback:  Enunwa is a "gotcha" player to me.  He's a guy that you want to move all around the field and try to create a mismatch and say "gotcha!"  To me, his value is in an H-back role where you want to bait the defense into either assigning a linebacker into covering him on a route in space or bait them into using a defensive back in the box to stop the run.  I think either way, you want Enunwa on the inside.  Because let's face it, he can block a linebacker in the box.  Heck, we've even seen him sealing off defensive ends on the backside.  So he's a heck of an ancillary piece because you don't have to rely on him in the passing game.  His value is in the blocking, blocking and more blocking and then, "gotcha!"  I think he loses a lot of value as a full time WR on the outside.  I just don't see him winning very many snaps out there in that role, and I think you would lose a lot of his value as a blocker too.

As an H-back type, Enunwa is speedy and athletic.  As a wide receiver he's big but also slow and clunky.  You can get away with it, but to me it's similar to playing Sheldon at outside linebacker. He can do it, but it's kind of a waste of his talent.

Do you think Jace Amaro will have a substantial role in this offense, and if so, does that factor into your thinking on Thompkins?

Crackback:  Let me preface my answer to this Amaro question by saying that I'm not objective when it comes to this guy.  I'm a big believer in him.  I wanted to draft him in the first round and believed he could have a Hall Of Fame career if he was lucky enough to play with the right QB. So yes, I do believe that Amaro will emerge and have a substantial role in the offense.  He has a lot of detractors right now, and that's completely fair, the dude has the dropsies.  You have to make plays to earn respect.  But I believe this guy has an uncanny feel for the game and knows how to get open.  I think the drops issue is because he's pressing, he didn't have this problem in college; and I think that once he makes a couple of plays and gets going, he'll become a big time player for us.

My feelings about Amaro do not factor into my thinking about Thompkins.  So I guess I should flesh out what my thinking on Thompkins is since that's the crux of the matter...

It's not a matter of principle.  Meaning, it's not a principle or a guideline type of thing.  It's specific to this team at this time.  The Jets are a veteran team, particularly on offense.  Just about all of our important offensive pieces have only two to three years at most left in their careers (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Matt Forte, Nick Mangold).  It's now or never for these guys.  It's their second season together in the offense now and they're thinking the game on a graduate level.  They're making play changes non-verbally based on sight adjustments.  First and 10 they come to the line and see the corner giving Brandon Marshall a ten yard cushion, so Fitzpatrick chucks it to him for a quick and easy 5 yards.  He doesn't call an audible, give a hand signal, nothing...  Just flicks it out there and steals five yards.  Of course they've spoken about doing this beforehand.  But I'm sure that's not all they've spoken about.  Based on reports, Fitzpatrick communicates with these guys constantly, sometimes they text each other in the middle of the night to discuss concepts and how they'll attack certain looks.  So imagine the conversations Fitzpatrick and Marshall and Decker and Forte are having.  The route concepts to attack coverage concepts.  Imagine the level of conversations they're having in the meeting room with offensive coordinator Chan Gailey the next day.

I imagine Gailey studies opponents' defensive concepts and the coverages they like to run in certain situations against certain looks.  I'm sure he communicates to Fitzpatrick and the guys about what defensive looks he expects to see in certain situations and the plays he'd like to set up to exploit that.  I'm also sure that once the game actually starts, adjustments will have to be made.  So we have all these guys thinking the game at a pretty high level and everybody is on the same page and the offense is clicking and boom...  Brandon Marshall goes down.

Who do you want to replace him with?  Robby Anderson or Kenbrell Thompkins?  Can the Jets run the same offense with Anderson?  Can they have the same types of conceptual conversations, make the same sight adjustments, use the same hand signals?  Maybe the defense changes a look pre-snap and there's no time to call an audible, but the wide receiver can make a quick hand signal to Fitzpatrick to adjust the route.  Who do you trust more to be up to speed, a veteran like Thompkins or a rookie like Anderson?  Not only that, but Anderson and Charone Peake and the like haven't even shown yet that they can win routes when they are all on the same page.  I just think Thompkins would make everyone in that offensive room from the coach on down more comfortable.

Now if Decker and Marshall are both healthy, I'd prefer to use Peake or Anderson over Thompkins to mix in with those two.  I think the younger guys would add an explosive element that would offset the big two nicely.  And in that kind of a role you're not heaping any expectations or pressure onto them that they're not prepared for.

Suppose the Jets cut Thompkins and keep three of the four youngsters among Jeremy Ross, Jalin Marshall, Robby Anderson and Chandler Worthy.  Suppose either Decker or Brandon Marshall is injured for a significant stretch of time.  Do you think Thompkins or an equivalent player would be available midseason to pick up off the street?  If you think that's likely does that impact your decision on whether to keep Thompkins on the original 53?  Does the fact that veterans’ salaries beyond their rookie deals are 100% guaranteed if they are on the Opening Day roster, but not if they are cut and brought back week 2 or later, factor into the decision?

Crackback:  Yes, an equivalent player would be available, Kenbrell Thompkins is no world beater.  But Thompkins has a year in the system and familiarity with the QB.  There are no changes to the meeting room with him, and no dumbing down of the offense.  I don't think he makes enough money to play around with cutting him.  I think the risk of losing him would outweigh the benefit of any financial gain.

OK, I think I have a good grasp of why you don't want to move on from Thompkins.  Let’s move on to some other battles for spots at the back of the roster. Dee Milliner and Dexter McDougle; any thoughts?  Any potential replacements you'd rather have make the team?

Crackback:  I have no real connection to Milliner or McDougal.  I feel like defense, and particularly cornerback, is much less nuanced than offense.  So I feel like continuity with teammates is much less important.  Especially corners, who are usually isolated and who only play in concert with one other player most of the time (i.e. a safety).  There's only a handful of concepts and techniques that you need to know to play.  Man coverage is man coverage, and you're either press or off.  Zone, you’re in cover 1, cover 2, cover 3 or quarters.  Now every defensive system has nuance and different play call language, but for a cornerback it all boils down to a very limited set of responsibilities.  Now I'm grossly oversimplifying here to make my point, but what I'm taking the scenic route to say is that you can pick up a corner off the scrap heap and stick him out there without compromising your defensive system.  A teammate can just whisper to the guy "hey you're in X coverage here"  and the responsibility isn't going to be all that different here than it would anywhere else.  The complex stuff is going to involve the front seven and the safeties.

McDougle has never been healthy and he doesn't have the pedigree of being a first round pick to warrant some patience.  And to top it off, he's a pick from a prior regime.  If I can dump McDougle for a cheap veteran that might not be great (let's say a Kenbrell Thompkins type guy) but I know will be available, I don't see why I wouldn't make that move.

Dee Milliner is a little different because even though he's the pick of the prior regime, he was still a highly regarded first round pick.  I think give the guy every opportunity to make the team. If he shows me something in practice, he gets some benefit of the doubt.

But I don't think either guy brings anything to the room like Thompkins would.  Neither are really veterans in that they don't have very much game experience.  Neither have been around the block and been on different teams or have any experience really.  So I'd have no problem cutting either/both and going skinny in my cornerback group so that we can retain talent at another position (like wide receiver).

Can anyone really tell me that some guy off the scrap heap would be any worse than either of those guys?  If there are some injuries, are Dee and Dex going to be available to fill in anyway? It almost seems like more of a gamble NOT cutting these guys.

How about Trevor Reilly?   Some people feel Reilly is worth keeping for special teams.  Do you agree?  Do guys need to be absolute special teams studs to keep just for that aspect of the game?

Crackback:  Trevor Reilly.   I begrudge the superlatives that often get heaped onto guys without justification.  Smart, hardworking, scrappy, high motor, etc.  Has Trevor Reilly ever made a play that you considered a smart play? No, he has not.  Is he really any more hardworking than anybody else? There's no way for a fan to know whether he is or isn't.  Does his motor run higher than anyone else's?  Nope.  There's really nothing to like about Trevor Reilly.  There's no objective reason to latch onto a guy like that.  Some people praise his special teams play.  But even that feels cheap.  Has he ever made a stand out play in specials?  Have you ever watched a game and even noticed him anywhere at any time?  Our special teams were awful last year and he was a kind of decent player in that unit, I guess.  This is going to be Reilly's third season in the NFL and he's going to be 29 years old in January.  What purpose does he serve? He's a marginal player with no upside and he's old.  There's nothing to like about him.  There's no reason for someone to say "hey I like that Trevor Reilly guy."  He's good at nothing.  Yet people identify with him and pull for him and wax poetic about how he's a smart hardworking guy. C’mon.

I don't know that a fringe guy needs to be a special teams stud, but if he's not an absolute stud on specials then he needs to have some upside.  I don't think Reilly fits into either category.

Which young linebackers do you like?  Is Bruce Carter somebody you want to keep, or should the Jets give a young guy a chance instead?  Do any of the new outside linebackers stand out to you?  Should the Jets keep Freddy Bishop and Mike Catapano?  Should either one start over Mauldin or Jenkins?

Crackback: The young linebackers I'm excited about are Darron Lee, Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins.  I'm biased about Jenkins, fell in love with him before the draft.  I think he's going to set the edge really well and will be a physical presence for us.  I wasn't crazy about Lee pre-draft but he's grown on me.  I think he's got star potential in this defense and I'm really excited about him.  I’m hoping Bowles is going to do a lot of creative things with him.  I think his range and explosiveness has the potential to make this defense special.  Mauldin looked a lot better than I thought he would last year and I'm expecting him to build on that.  I don't think you can get away with blocking either of our outside linebackers with a tight end; I think you HAVE to assign a tackle to each of them.  And that's all I want for our defensive line.

I do want to keep Bruce Carter.  I like having a veteran like him in case Lee isn't what we expect him to be.  Carter is athletic and rangy.  I think he'd be a nice coverage backer to have in the fold and I think he would be decent in a full time role if necessary.

I like both Bishop and Catapano.  I think both have potential.  But I just learned today that Catapano is basically from my hometown, so I'm completely biased and am pulling hard for the guy.  I don't think either have shown me enough to warrant starting over Mauldin or Jenkins.  If either dominates in the last preseason game, then I could see them earning some regular season snaps.  But I think Mauldin and Jenkins start.  Then again, I'm not watching these guys in practice every day so I'm basing this on very limited information.

Four quarterbacks or three?  If three, which guy is out?

Crackback: Four quarterbacks, unless I can trade Bryce Petty for a draft pick of equal/greater value.  I don't think Fitzpatrick will play all 16 games and right now Geno Smith is the only one on the roster that I think is capable of running the offense with a wide open playbook and winning some games.  That could have changed if Christian Hackenberg showed a high level of command and control in the last preseason game.  If Hackenberg had wowed me enough, then I would have been willing to cut Geno. Obviously that didn’t happen against the Eagles.

But I'd like to pose an interesting question of my own...  Why keep Bryce Petty?  A lot of folks have made up their minds on Geno based upon his play in his first two seasons.  A lot of folks say something to the effect that Geno lacks the mental ability to play QB on the NFL level.  But Petty is now into his second season and he still hasn't shown enough mental ability to definitively unseat Geno.  What's the problem?  If he can't push aside a QB as terrible as Geno Smith for a backup role, then he clearly doesn't have enough mental ability to play in the NFL, right?  Might as well cut your losses.

If you do want to keep Petty, why?  And why doesn't that justification apply to Geno? Especially when Geno, despite all of his horribleness, is still a better player right now.

Are there any running backs you would keep besides Matt Forte, Bilal Powell and Khiry Robinson?  Would you keep Tommy Bohanon or Julian Howsare?   Or neither?   Is there any reason to keep a fullback at all on this team?

Crackback:  I'd like to see more of that Antone Smith kid, but I think the Jets roll with the 3 running backs you mentioned.  I don't at all see the necessity of carrying a traditional fullback on this team.  I guess the thinking is that you'd like to have it in the fold for times when the situation calls for it.  But the Jets don't really run much fullback lead stuff so it doesn't make much sense. I would like to deploy Enunwa from that position more.  Not as a lead blocker, but to try and trap a linebacker into covering him in space.  Maybe even do a couple of runs out of an  offset-I, but instead of having him lead just have him peel back to seal the backside like he often does from the TE position.  And once we set the bait and condition the opposing linebackers to flow and the defensive ends to crash through, we can run play action and pop him into the flat for a quick hitting catch and run for a big chunk.

Which tight ends would you keep?  Why is Kellen Davis still on the team?  What value does a pure blocking tight end like Davis, who is no threat in the passing game, give you over just putting in an extra mobile guard or tackle when you want an extra blocker?

Crackback: I think I keep four tight ends -- Kellen Davis, Jace Amaro, Quincy Enunwa and Zach Sudfeld. You make a good point about Davis, though.  Davis may be a good blocker by TE standards, I don't know.  But I would imagine that a tackle is a much better blocker.  And I seriously doubt that Davis' minimal threat to run a route and catch a pass is enough to offset the gains you'd make in the run game by using a tackle to block.  I don't really see the purpose Davis serves.

Final question. In general do you have a bias about the final ten or so guys who make the roster?  Most of them will rarely play. Should they be mainly young developmental guys with the highest upside, or should they be more ready to play now guys who can play a useful role right away if called upon?  In general do you think the back of the roster type veterans can be easily picked up off the street and plugged in in the event of multiple injuries, or do you think it's too difficult to get guys integrated in the middle of the season so it makes sense to have useful JAGs on the roster to step in if needed?  Is the price of cutting ties with potentially high upside youngsters worth the extra security of knowing you have a vet who knows the system ready to jump in if needed?  Does that answer change because the Jets are in win now mode?

Crackback:  Tough question, and I don't mean to be a cop out, but it depends.  I guess I'll take it from the general to the specific.  I think priority has to be given to special teams.  It's an important phase of the game that you can't just toss aside.  Big plays on special teams often decide games, so you want to make sure as best you can that you’re coming out ahead in that contest.  That means backup slots are more likely going to go to guys that can contribute there.

Next I'd prioritize talent.  Try to hang on to guys who look like they could start but need a little fine tuning.  Next, I think comes guys that can contribute in a defined role right now (e.g. pass rush specialist, cover linebacker, red zone tight end, etc.).  However, you might give that last group more weight if you're an aging team in win-now mode.

Basically, I don't think there is much upside when it comes to these types of guys at the end of the roster, whether they're JAGs or late round picks.  But it's probably better to look within before looking without.  At least your own guys know the system.