Many people mock preseason action as fake football, but for hundreds of players on 90-man rosters, every preseason game could mark the continuation or end of a career.
The urgency makes for entertaining football, even if the caliber of play isn’t as good. For the New York Jets, a full-fledged rebuild is already on the horizon for next season, as they try to stave off expectations that they will be the worst team in the NFL this season. The Tennessee Titans are a few years ahead of New York, with a talented roster looking to take the next step into the playoffs. Here’s five things to watch for when the two teams square off on Saturday night.
Wide receiver questions
This time a year ago, it was the Jets offering a highly talented group of pass catchers in the form of Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Quincy Enunwa, while the Titans media was hyping up Tajae Sharpe as perhaps the team’s best receiver. Fast forward a year, and Marshall and Decker have departed to greener pastures, while Enunwa is out for the season with a neck injury. Sharpe, after a very mediocre rookie season, is fighting for a roster spot amongst a suddenly deep wide receiver corps.
The Jets will be forced to rely on young, mostly unproven talent at wide receiver, most notably in the form of third-round pick Ardarius Stewart and fourth-round pick Chad Hansen. Second-year players Robby Anderson, Charone Peake and Jalin Marshall make up the rest of the expected wide receiver corps, a group with some speed and upside, but very little in the way of refined targets.
Tennessee picked up Decker and drafted Corey Davis with the fifth-overall pick to fill out a receiver corps that already looked promising after a strong season from Rishard Matthews. Third round pick Taywan Taylor is assured a roster spot as well, leaving two spots for Sharpe, Tre McBride, Harry Douglas or Eric Weems to take advantage of. With Sharpe on the PUP list, the others will have a terrific opportunity to take advantage of the additional reps in his absence.
It should be exciting for Jets fans to see last year’s second-round pick in action at the game’s most important position, but talk to many Jets fans and they’ll tell you the feeling is more one of dread. Despite Hackenberg’s reported struggles once again in Jets camp, I’m excited to see if the second-year passer has improved at all since his rookie campaign.
If the Jets see nothing in Hackenberg during the preseason, they’ll roll with Josh McCown at quarterback to start the season, and probably draft a quarterback early in next year’s draft. Hackenberg must find a way to make his case to at least see increased playing time in the regular season, or the Jets will be moving on without him in their rebuilding plans after the season. That quest for Hackenberg begins against Tennessee.
I would expect Henry to get the majority of touches on Saturday night, as he begins to make his case for replacing Demarco Murray as the Titans’ starting running back. The problem is that Murray is also a really good back, but Henry is the more explosive of the two rushers and may possess greater upside.
He’s more of a finesse runner than people realize, although a body as big as Henry’s moving at the speed that he can is going to break plenty of tackles from smaller defenders. He’d be a strong starter on most NFL teams, but sharing a backfield with another top-ten running back is an interesting conundrum that should sort itself out over the course of the preseason.
Young pass rushers
The Titans will rely on veterans Brian Orakpo, Derrick Morgan and newly-signed Erik Walden to be their primary source of a pass rush this season, but second-year edge defenders Kevin Dodd and Aaron Wallace await their time to shine.
Dodd missed most of last season with an injury after being the Titans’ second-round pick, and Wallace earned some playing time down the stretch in 2016, flashing a few times as a pass rusher. Expect a lot of eyes to be on Dodd as he is the next man up behind the aging veterans.
For the Jets, edge rushers have never been featured pieces in Todd Bowles’ defense, but it is imperative to their efforts up front that Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins improve as pass rushers. New York has very little proven depth at the position, and invested Day 2 picks in both outside linebackers, hoping for impact players.
Mauldin has struggled with injuries, and Jenkins was more a run-stopper in 11 starts last season. If the young duo can make a big leap in 2017, the Jets could have a dangerously complete front with Leonard Williams, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson on the inside.
Both the Titans and Jets are rebuilding their secondaries, with Tennessee taking cornerback Adoree Jackson with their second first-round pick, and the Jets grabbing safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye with their first two picks. The Titans acquired cornerback Logan Ryan and safety Jonathan Cyprien in the offseason, and both will likely start, with Jackson and second-year safety Kevin Byard to round out the secondary.
The Jets have a number of options at cornerback, but second-year man Juston Burris and newly-signed Morris Claiborne figure to play heavy roles while veterans Buster Skrine, Marcus Williams and Daryl Roberts also compete for spots.
Preseason action figures to be a large determining factor for who wins jobs at several of these positions. The results will be key, as the secondary is widely considered to be the biggest defensive weakness for both teams.
MORE JETS AND TITANS COVERAGE:
- NYJ’s young defense suddenly flying under the radar
- What NYJ needs to do to become future Super Bowl contenders
- Starting Marcus Mariota in preseason comes with risks for Tennessee
- Taywan Taylor emerging as playmaking threat