Brian Bassett, TheJetsBlog.comAs the Jets set to kick off their 2014 season next Sunday against the Oakland Raiders, there are a number of young players that are expected to make a big impact for the team this season. Earlier today we started with the team’s sixth through tenth players under 25 and this post will finish with the top five.
As a note about the full list 1-10, I noticed a few concerns about the Jets not having more starters under the age of 25. There are 20 players under 25 currently on the 53-man roster and most rookies come into the league at age 22 or 23, so the window of available players to pick from is very small as evidenced in this age distribution chart. Had 25-year-olds been included, players like Demario Davis, Damon Harrison, Jeremy Kerley and Antonio Allen all would have been eligible. In fact as you’ll see in the list below, that the Jets have some third and fourth year players under 25 and who are still on the upswing. To me, this shows the real potential for this team in which many in the national media seem to have yet to grasp.
What I would say is that the top five players on this list more than make up for any deficiencies at the back half of this top-ten list.
So without further ado, here are the Jets top five players under 25.
#5. LB Quinton Coples
When the 24 year old Coples was criticized this spring by Jet great Joe Klecko for looking like Tarzan “but [playing] like Jane,” the third year Jet never responded to the criticism directly. What everyone forgets is that Coples played the first half of the 2013 season still recovering from a broken foot suffered in the Jets 2013 preseason. Instead of responding to the criticism, Coples used the offseason to focus on his conditioning efforts as the team had asked him to drop weight to play the rush linebacker role. By working in Atlanta with other high-profile NFL players and trainers, Coples lost an astounding 20 pounds — the 6’6″ Coples is now in the 270-275 range with a scant 8.5 percent body fat.
Why was this necessary? To work on the outside the Jets felt Coples needed more speed and stamina. This year the Jets need Coples to provide pressure off the edge, especially with a secondary that might be exposed due to injury right now. With Wikerson, Harrison/Ellis and Richardson in the mix, a speedier Coples will be sure to get some clean hits at the quarterback as well as countless additional pressures. As Coples ably demonstrated last year once he was recovered from his broken foot, he is more than capable of providing the pressure off the edge as well as inside. Coples had 4.5 sacks in 2013, most of which came in the second half. Digging deeper, PFF notes that of Coples 23 QB hurries last year, 14 of them came in the last five games. Now lighter and quicker, Coples is poised to make the leap. Playing among a his cohorts, Coples could easily have his first 10 sack season.
#4. CB Dee Milliner
Cornerback is one of the hardest positions in football to transition from college to pros and while it wasn’t always pretty for Milliner, the transition was most evident during the team’s last four games of the season. Milliner is large and rangy for a corner with great timed (4.37 40 yard dash) speed. Milliner has the height, length and upper-body strength to fight with NFL receivers on any route in the tree. Milliner gets a good press at the line of scrimmage thanks to his strength and has the feet and hip fluidity to keep up with most receivers. Milliner also has good quickness and ability to quickly change direction when necessary.
The Jets first first-rounder got lost during the Sheldon Richardson Show, but Milliner broke up 10 passes in the last two games of the season for the Jets and picked up right where he left off against Andrew Luck and the Colts in the preseason. Unfortunately, immediately thereafter, Milliner sufferred an ankle injury during a training camp practice in early August. Milliner is currently recovering from his high ankle sprain and might not be back to full strength for a while. Even so, along with Calvin Pryor, Milliner will be a key to a re-tooled secondary for the Jets this season.
#3. QB Geno Smith
He might only be third on this list, but the play of this 23 year-old might be the single most important factor to how the 2014 season goes for the Jets. Smith’s passes have touch and velocity, when required, and his placement of the football is improving at every level. Capable of firing the football into tight windows, Geno was one of the NFL’s best deep passers in 2013 and might be better able to take advantage of that trait this season. While he can be an effective runner, Smith looks to complete the pass first.
Most of Geno’s rookie season was hard to watch, but in December it looked as if the switch was flipped for Geno. Coming from a spread offense in college proved for a tough transition for Smith, and along with many other 2013 Jets rookies he did his learning on the field. It seemed that Geno Smith might have held too tightly to the notion to not run. His unwillingness to run might have been a key reason to Smith’s early struggles. When Geno was slightly freer with his feet during the second half of the 2013 season, his game rapidly stabilized — as did his decision-making. Geno began using his legs a little more to extend drives and his began trusting his receivers more. Rather forcing passes and taking sacks, those small incremental improvements were all the Jets needed to right the ship and square their record by the end of the season.
While it’s true the Jets played three sagging teams during that stretch, they also suited up against the surging Panthers. Geno might not have done enough to win against one of the league’s best defenses, but he was steady and alert in the pocket and was never rattled. Per ESPN, during the first 13 weeks of 2013 season, Smith was the NFL’s lowest-rated (21.6 QBR) quarterback. Over the last four weeks of the same season, Smith was the league’s second-highest rated (78.9 QBR) trailing only Peyton Manning.
Is that statistic a mirage? This season Smith will have more weapons and experience and will get to prove it one way or another.
#2. DL Sheldon Richardson
Sheldon Richardson’s rookie season was like watching a 300 pounder get shot out of a cannon. According to Pro Football Focus, the now 23-year-old Richardson (AKA Boss Hogg) was credited with four defensive stops in his first regular season game against Tampa Bay. By season end, Richardson had 41 stops — second only to one-tenth billionaire J.J. Watt (67) at his position. Shorter and stouter than Muhammad Wilkerson, Richardson has more agility and burst and uses it to devastating effect against slower interior offensive linemen.
Richardson was a key part of the Jets being among the league’s best at stopping the run. Richardson regularly used his speed and athleticism to knife into the backfield and either corral the runner, blow up the blocker in the backfield or redirect the runner’s path to another lineman. Watching Richardson play as a rookie and impact the game so acutely was a key reason as to why he won Defensive Rookie of the Year. That and his Refrigerator Perry style touchdowns. As a rookie, Richardson rushed the ball four times for a total of four yards: two carries were for first downs and the other two were touchdowns. Richardson doesn’t think he’ll be needed to carry the ball again this year, so don’t look for him to vulture touchdowns in the run package this season, but do look for him to use his speed an strength to vulture more than his 3.5 sacks from a year ago.
#1. DL Muhammad Wilkerson
Wilkerson is entering his fourth year with the Jets and won’t turn 25 until October, so he gets to scrape by the age cutoff and rightfully deserves to be at the top of the list. Still on the rise in a surging unit, it is amazing to think that last year Wilkerson totaled 10.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and 60 tackles. Big, sudden and powerful, Wilkerson is long and strong enough to hold up against the run when he plays the five technique, but he also is quick enough to press the pocket and disrupt the quarterback from wherever the Jets line him up. Wilkerson acts as the focal point for the Jets defensive line, but his athleticism and technique allows him to move around the formation situationally to best take advantage of opponents.
In 2013, Wilkerson did a lot of the dirty work for the Jets defense, paving the way for some of his brethren on the defensive line. Wilkerson often saw double teams due to his versatility and strength, but he still managed to be an impact player. Now with the level of talent around Wilkerson, it seems to matter less who specifically makes the play. The players say the same thing.
“I don’t care who makes the play whether it is me or my brother,” Sheldon Richardson told me at camp in Cortland this summer.
Wilkerson and his battery-mates all buy into the camaraderie that coach Karl Dunbar preaches day-in and day-out to his linemen. Thanks to Dunbar’s influence and Wilkerson’s example, the group’s dynamics much more mirror an offensive line group — a positive sign for how historically good this unit might be by season’s end.
Wilkerson is the unquestioned leader of the Jets linemen and he’s done everything required of him (and more) to be a team player through the questions about his contract status. The players in his unit gravitate to him and copy his dedication and work ethic. We look forward to him being a member of the team for a long time as the Jets consider his next contract. Now that J.J. Watt has set the mark for defensive players, it will be up to the Jets to come up with a structure for Wilkerson’s next deal to keep him in New York well past 25.
Read about the Jets sixth through tenth players under 25.