FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Even though he missed some practice time because of a strained right calf, quarterback Aaron Rodgers made enough impressive throws in OTA practices to fuel the New York Jets‘ overflowing optimism. It wasn’t just his arm strength or accuracy that grabbed their attention; it was more nuanced than that.
It was the way he used his eyes to manipulate defenders, the way he anticipated open receivers because he recognized the coverage and the leverage. The man has played approximately 14,000 snaps in his career, so those eyes have seen a lot. He gave his new team a glimpse of what high-level quarterback play really looks like.
“It’s a different vibe,” linebacker C.J. Mosley said of Rodgers’ impact. “He sets the bar. He sets the expectations with his résumé, with his name and the way he approaches the game every single day.”
Rodgers’ mere presence makes the offense better than last season, which ended with an embarrassing string of inept performances. The Jets scored only 15 points combined over the final three games, resulting in big changes. Out went offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, in came Nathaniel Hackett, whose hire was a turning point because it helped lure Rodgers out of possible retirement and set up the eventual Jets-Green Bay Packers trade.
The question is, can the addition of Rodgers turn the Jets — 29th in scoring last season — into a high-functioning offense?
“[We’re] far away. We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Hackett, assessing the state of the offense after the final practice. “I think the guys have gotten the nuts and bolts of it during this offseason. There’s a lot of guys that haven’t been out there that we need to see and be able to evaluate and see how they fit in, but there’s a lot of work still to be done.”
Let’s compare the 2022 offense to the projected 2023 unit:
Additions: Rodgers, Tim Boyle
Better, worse or the same: Much better
You’d be hard-pressed to find a position group across the NFL that improved as much as this one. The Jets went from an overwhelmed Wilson, who has 15 touchdown passes and 18 interceptions in 22 careers starts, to a future Pro Football Hall of Famer. That said, Rodgers still has some questions to answer.
He’s coming off his worst season — a career-low 39.3 QBR. A fractured right thumb and an inexperienced cast of receivers probably had a lot to do with that. There’s also the health question: Is the calf injury, suffered in pre-practice warm-ups on May 23, an outlier or an ominous harbinger? When healthy, Rodgers takes the Jets to a level at quarterback they haven’t reached since Brett Favre in 2008.
From all indications, Wilson has embraced his demotion, saying the opportunity to learn from Rodgers will benefit his career. There’s no reason to doubt that, but what happens if Wilson is forced into action, like, now? His footwork has improved and he’s “a lot more accurate” than last season, according to coach Robert Saleh. The key, of course, is how he responds in the face of a pass rush — something that can’t be answered until he’s in a game. When under pressure, his career QBR is a historically poor 3.4 — 34th out of 34 qualified passers over the past two years, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Losses: Ty Johnson, James Robinson
Better, worse or the same: Same
They’d be in the “better” category if there was more certainty with Hall’s surgically repaired left knee. Saleh said Hall already is hitting 22 mph on GPS tracking, creating optimism he will be ready for Week 1, but ACL injuries can be hard to predict. While Hall has regained his pre-injury top speed, the metric we don’t know is his rate of acceleration — one of the keys to full recovery. When Hall is right — he averaged 5.8 yards per carry in limited action — he’s a playmaker.
The RB2 position is up for grabs between Carter, Knight and Abanikanda, a fifth-round pick with Hall-like speed. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as an early factor because of his home run ability; he averaged 6.0 yards per carry for Pitt last season. Can the Jets count on Carter and Knight for significant roles? Consider: In one key metric — rushing yards over expected per carry — Carter and Knight ranked 50th and 51st, respectively, out of 52 running backs last season (minimum: 80 attempts), per NFL Next Gen Stats.
Better, worse or the same: Better
They’re bigger, more explosive and more experienced than last season. Basically, the Jets added a starter on the outside in Lazard and swapped out slot receivers Moore and Berrios for Cobb and Hardman. With Wilson, Lazard and Davis on the outside, and Cobb or Hardman inside, they have the makings of a very good receiving corps. One stat to watch is yards after the catch. When Hackett was the Packers’ coordinator from 2019 to 2021, they ranked second in YAC per reception (6.0).
Of course, the star is Wilson, the 2022 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. He already has impressed Rodgers, who said: “I love Garrett. [He’s an] awesome, awesome young kid. The whole world [is] in front of him. He’s got all the talent and ability.”
Neither Cobb nor Hardman practiced in the spring as they recovered from injuries, so their health bears watching. Other questions: What kind of role will Davis have? Is there room for Mims?
Better, worse or the same: Better
The top four haven’t changed, but we’ll lean toward “better” over “same” because of Ruckert’s expected improvement. Slowed by plantar fasciitis, he was a nonfactor as a rookie (one reception). He moved better and looked more confident in OTA practices, sparking optimism that he’s ready for a jump in Year 2. The Jets could use more big plays out of the entire group; the tight ends combined for only four red zone receptions in 2022.
Better, worse or the same: Same
This group has the potential to be better than last year, but it’s hard to take that leap right now because there are so many questions. Three spots are up in the air — left tackle (Brown vs. Becton), center (McGovern vs. Tippmann) and right tackle (Mitchell vs. Turner). Becton has made it clear he wants to play left tackle, but there’s little chance of him unseating Brown.
Best-case scenario: Becton embraces right tackle, stays healthy and wins the job; Tippmann outplays McGovern and nails down the pivot. Tippmann and Becton would add youth and much-needed strength to the line. McGovern was the team’s lowest-rated lineman in ’22, based on ESPN’s run and pass block win rates relative to each position.
Becton, a 2020 first-round pick, is the biggest wild card. He has dropped about 50 pounds, but durability is an issue. He has missed 33 of the past 34 games because of knee injuries.
“I think, from what I’ve seen of him, he has shown a really good maturity,” line coach Keith Carter said. “He’s made some really good decisions outside football to get to where he is right now. It’s exciting to see where that leads.”