We tend to spend a lot of time daydreaming about starting lineups, penciling-in new acquisitions in, wondering how awesome the bookends of Coples and Wilkerson will look, hoping Kyle Wilson makes the leap and puts the finishing touches on a scary trio of shutdown corners. But sometimes the most important development in a season isn’t the evolution of an up-and-coming Pro Bowler or the impact of the big offseason signing, it’s the forced playing time of a reserve. Sometimes, in fact, the turning point of a season is Colin Baxter. (Collective shudder.)
Like him or hate him or anything in between, since Mark Sanchez took over the reins we were pretty much screwed if he missed more than a game or two with injury. I look back on last year and I honestly can’t believe that the Jets front office thought it was reasonable to go into the season with 41-year-old Mark Brunell as the backup quarterback and no legitimate third option after Greg McElroy dislocated his thumb in the final preseason game. Luckily, Sanchez played all 16 games and we never found out the answer to the question: ‘How bad will a 41-year-old quarterback who has one game start in the last five years look?’
But the injury gods don’t always smile on you, and Jets fans unfortunately did find out what life would be like without Nick Mangold. In the Sunday night game in Baltimore, Colin Baxter looked like he was Joe from one of those Pros vs. Joes episodes.
So, who is the next Colin Baxter?
Leaving aside Eric Smith, who seemingly plays the I-don’t-look-like-I-belong-on-the-field role of Baxter on a weekly basis, I think the top candidates are Ellis Lankster/Isaiah Trufant at corner, and every single reserve offensive lineman. The Jets are not what I would call a “deep” team, but I think their depth is improved from last year, specifically at quarterback, wide receiver, safety and linebacker. Tebow/McElroy/Kinne are an obvious upgrade to Brunell/O’Connell. Again, even if you despise Tebow he’s a much, much, much better four game solution at QB than Brunell, say if Sanchez were to go down with a slow-healing high ankle sprain. (Completing a few passes against a Week 17 Bills team that had already started their vacation does not make for a viable starting quarterback.) Similarly, I think Hill/Schillens/2nd year Kerley/White/Pollard/D. Ganaway offer a lot of upside and depth to Burress/Injured Logan Payne/1st year Kerley. Patrick Turner and Santonio Holmes are carryovers, but seriously the Jets had absolutely no depth at receiver last year. At safety, the Jets have traded Pool/Leonhard/Alexander for Landry/Bell/Bush/Allen, and the linebacker unit has sacrificed Jamaal Westerman, who I always oddly liked, for Ricky Sapp and Demario Davis and Marcus Dowtin. Obviously, every player I just named won’t survive the final roster cuts, but even our Practice Squad was bad last year.
I hold no dislike for Lankster or Trufant I simply don’t know anything about them and neither does anyone else. It’s not that we had great depth behind Revis/Cromartie/Wilson last year, but at least Donald Strickland had a track record of mediocre play. You knew the 5’10”, former third-rounder would at least be serviceable. The undrafted, 5’8” Trufant, and the 5’9”, former seventh-round selection Lankster have no history of play to suggest they can step in take starting reps if it ever comes to that. However, even if Lankster and Trufant (and all the incoming rookies) turned out to be complete liabilities, I have confidence that Rex and Pettine could scheme around them to some degree.
The reserves on the offensive line unequivocally scare the tar out of me, even though they’re not, to be fair, unlike most other offensive line reserves around the league: young and untested. Can Caleb Schlauderaff step in for Brandon Moore if need be? Are the Jets really as confident in Austin Howard’s ability as Steiny thinks? Is Vlad Ducasse an NFL caliber player? Can anyone hold the fort in the event Mangold misses more time? I honestly don’t know the answer to any of these questions, and, even more honestly, I hope I never do.
Running back? Tight end? What do you guys think, where are we thinnest?