As the Jets enter training camp, there are some players whose success or failure in 2017 could either lead the team to a surprisingly good season or cause the team to play down to expectations. I would consider these three the biggest X-factors on the team.
3. Kelvin Beachum
Left tackle is one of those positions you tend to not appreciate until you have a hole there. For close to a decade, the Jets had stability at the position with D’Brickahsaw Ferguson. Ferguson’s retirement led to the trade for Ryan Clady, a deal that did not pan out for the Jets. The former Bronco played only nine uneven games before suffering a season-ending injury.
After the failure of the Clady experiment, the Jets are making another risky bet at left tackle. Kelvin Beachum signed with the team in the offseason. Beachum had developed into a very good blind side tackle with the Steelers, but a serious knee injury ended his 2015 season.
He signed with Jacksonville as a free agent in 2016, but his play slipped. He didn’t seem to have the same preinjury level of athleticism. Some knee injuries take two years to fully heal. The Jets seem to be banking on Beachum returning to his old form. An ability to do so would solidify one of the most important positions on the team. If Beachum looks the way he did in Jacksonville last year, it would be another important area of weakness for an offense that might have too many to begin with.
2. Morris Claiborne
It is an easy mistake to make, and it is frankly one I have probably made. It is very easy to look at Claiborne as a sure thing after the best season of his career. For a stretch in 2016 he finally seemed to justify the trade up the Cowboys made to pick him near the top of the 2012 NFL Draft.
A lot rides on Claiborne. I view a top cornerback as the most important commodity a defense can have outside of edge rusher. A guy who can match up one on one with the best receiver on the other team makes the entire defense run more efficiently. Resources can be allocated to reinforce other parts of the defense. Playing one on one makes coverages simpler and less prone to busts.
With all of the optimism around this signing, it can be easy to forget how much the Jets have tied up in a player who has yet to put together a quality full season in the NFL.
Was Claiborne’s 2016 success a sign he is on the rise, finally putting the pieces together after early struggles? It is possible, but plenty of other players have had similar stretches that proved to be mirages.
Even if Claiborne has put the pieces together, can he stay healthy? It has been a challenge, and even in his successful 2016 he only played 7 games.
- Christian Hackenberg
Good quarterback play lifts a team in a way other positions simply can’t. A good quarterback can cover for a shaky line and shaky receivers. He can move a team even if the defense doesn’t have to respect the run.
In an ideal world, you would want to put your quarterback into a quality situation where he has a good line, group of receivers, and run game to support him. The Jets haven’t given Hackenberg much to work with so they will have to depend on him to carry the load if he earns the starting job.
Given that Hackenberg’s last substantial playing time consisted of struggling in the Big Ten two years ago, it is fair to expect him to carry the load for an NFL offense? Is it realistic? It might not be, but I am not sure I see a realistic path for the Jets to beat preseason expectations that does not include Hackenberg looking the part of a franchise quarterback.