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The Youth Movement

NFL: Philadelphia Eagles at New York Jets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Every year after cutdown day Jimmy Kempski of Philly Voice calculates the average age of every initial 53 man roster in the NFL.

If you have been following the team’s overhaul, it should come as little surprise that the Jets have the youngest roster in the league.

Of course the average age is only one measure of youth. In a practical sense, a team with a ton of young backups who barely see the field and older starters isn’t really that young. The Jets, however, do not fit that description. Just under half of the projected starting lineup will be first and second year players.

This isn’t just a function of the front office wanting to get young. It also indicates the absence of something. Poor Draft after poor Draft has left the team with a lack of fifth, sixth, and seventh year players. In an ideal world, these players would be on their second contracts and the core of the roster.

There hasn’t been a ton of research on when NFL players peak, but the scant research we do have suggests it comes after those first and second seasons.

You probably don’t need a ton of advanced analytics to know this, however. It seems like common sense. Players entering the league usually haven’t reached their athletic prime yet. They have to adjust to better competition and more complex playbooks. They are just at the start of receiving top notch professional instruction, which many do not receive in college. Beyond that, there are the basic adjustments of life we all experience. You might not think about it, but professional football players have many of the same transitions we all do upon leaving college. You don’t have a dining hall to cook you food anymore. You have less free time. You have an actual job to focus your attention.

All of this is to say it takes time for most NFL players to develop.

For years Football Outsiders has calculated the average age of each team based on snaps played. Last year none of the five youngest teams in the NFL made the Playoffs. The same was true in 2019. Two of the five made it in both 2017 and 2018.

Of course it is possible that you find the right mix of young players who are able to immediately contribute, but the odds are against them. The impact talent you need to have a big season usually isn’t developed enough to make that kind of impact.

I’ll take it a step further. When a team is giving playing time to the type of youth to the degree the Jets will in 2021, some of the players will prove to be below NFL caliber. The team’s lack of veterans is forcing them to roll the dice on youngsters. The hope is that enough young players produce enough to provide hope for the future.

These are things to keep in mind as we approach kickoff in 2021.

Should success this season be defined based on making the Playoffs? I would say no. There’s just too much youth here to go into the season expecting it. There’s nothing wrong with hoping the Jets are an outlier, but demands should probably be kept in check. Yes, fans have a right to be upset that the team has failed to make the postseason for a decade, but that doesn’t change the current situation. It doesn’t matter that Mike Maccagnan rolled a gutter ball in the 2019 offseason. You don’t get points for that. Many of the current Jets starters were in college.

Does this mean the Jets season should not be defined by wins and losses? It depends on what you mean. I think it’s difficult to put a Playoff mandate on this season, but they do keep score for a reason. It’s the objective way you measure success. Again, you want to see some promise from these young players. If they are playing effectively enough, some wins will follow. If they aren’t there will be lots of losing, and that should be alarming. You can talk about progress and building a winning culture all you want. Meaningful progress should result in more wins. You don’t build a winning culture without winning some games. While postseason or even a better than .500 record might be a reach, if the Jets only win 2 games again this season will almost certainly be a failure.

I think this the context for the year. And I do think most fans will be satisfied with meaningful progress. As much as NFL fans are portrayed as impatient, I do think a large number accept losing seasons if they get the feeling their team is building to something bigger. If you see Zach Wilson look like he belongs, a couple of the young players look like budding stars, cohesion on the coaching staff, and a team that consistently gets better over the course of 17 games the record will take care of itself, and the Jets will have everybody fired up for the 2022 season.