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State of the 2022 New York Jets: Robert Saleh, Zach Wilson hitting crucial Year 2 with offseason optimism

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2022? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Jets organization, Jets fans around the world and those who are old enough to remember when the Jets actually participated in the playoffs ...

OK, I'm sorry for piling on, but it's been a while. In fact, this team currently owns the NFL's longest playoff drought at 11 seasons. However, things are looking up in Florham Park! The Jets have enjoyed a fine offseason, highlighted by a nearly flawless draft plan that was executed to perfection. Is that enough to get them into the playoffs? Let's take a look.

2021 rewind

One high note from last season: Beating the Bengals in a Week 8 shootout. Listen, it wasn't a great year for the Jets, to put it mildly. Going 4-13 is no fun. But Gang Green did knock off the eventual AFC champions on Halloween, so they had that going for them. And they did so with Mike White, making his first NFL start in place of the injured Zach Wilson, outdueling Joe Burrow with 405 yards passing. Shoot, the guy even caught a 2-point conversion pass. It was some real "on any given Sunday" stuff.

One low note from last season: Getting drilled 30-9 in Week 14 by a Saints team that had lost its previous five games. The Jets had a tough schedule and couldn't get a lot of momentum going throughout the season. It's hard to really identify a single low point, but hitting double-digit losses (3-10) in a 21-point home defeat to the Taysom Hill-led Saints was pretty rough.

2022 VIPs

Head coach: Robert Saleh. I loved New York's hiring of Saleh, who felt like a superstar in waiting in San Francisco. Sort of like Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise, that type of "next big thing" situation. Unfortunately, Year 1 didn't exactly go as planned, with the Jets finishing below .500 for the sixth straight campaign. New York's defense, which is Saleh's side of the ball, finished dead last in points and yards allowed. Not ideal.

All that said, I'm still pretty confident Saleh can get this program turned around, especially with the inspired roster-building GM Joe Douglas has executed over the past couple years. I'm not expecting a miracle run to the AFC championship or anything crazy like that, but I do need to see something in 2022 to justify my positive feelings about Saleh. A better effort on the road -- where New York went 1-7, with those seven defeats coming by an average of 16.9 points -- would be nice. And Saleh logging his first division win sometime this season wouldn't hurt, either.

Quarterback: Zach Wilson. Well, I could explore some recent New York tabloid fodder -- and Wilson's "poor cell service" -- but we're here to talk football, people! And on the gridiron, the soon-to-be 23-year-old still has a ways to go.

Bottom line: The No. 2 overall pick really struggled as a rookie. His completion percentage (55.6) and passer rating (69.7) both ranked dead last among qualified quarterbacks. The touchdown-to-interception ratio (9:11) and yards-per-attempt figure (6.1) were similarly ghastly. On the plus side, he did flash the kind of natural arm talent that made him the No. 2 overall pick, most notably in an inspired performance during New York's Week 4 win over Tennessee -- you know, the team that wound up earning the AFC's No. 1 overall seed. And hey, he ran for a 52-yard touchdown in the Jets' Week 16 victory over the Jaguars, fully showcasing his underrated mobility. But we need to see more consistency -- and faster processing -- in Year 2.

Projected 2022 MVP: Wilson. Like I just said, Wilson's rookie campaign was far from successful, but he did sprinkle in some promising moments. And the Jets have done a really nice job of building around the young quarterback. Nobody should expect Wilson to make a Joe Burrow-like leap in Year 2, but it's fair to anticipate a pronounced improvement. This franchise's hopes of ending an interminable postseason drought squarely depend on Wilson, plain and simple.

New face to know: C.J. Uzomah, tight end. The Jets have added a lot to the offensive side of the football over the last few years, but the Uzomah signing is one of the low-key moves I really love. Now, the eighth-year vet isn't going to be confused with Travis Kelce, but he did just set career highs in catches (49), receiving yards (493) and touchdowns (five), playing a big role in Cincinnati's AFC North title and Super Bowl run. He wasn't New York's only tight end signing, either: Tyler Conklin is another addition who will provide a nice boost for Wilson.

2022 breakout star: Carl Lawson, defensive end. Last offseason, New York seriously attempted to end its eternal search for edge pressure by signing Lawson to a three-year, $45 million deal. A few months later, Lawson ruptured his Achilles in a training camp practice, ending his debut season with the Jets before it even began. So this offseason, with Lawson preparing to finally take the field in Gotham green, the big question has been whether he'll still have the explosiveness that got him PAID. And then this video started making the rounds. I don't know who that guy is on the receiving end of Lawson's push, but I feel bad for his family. Tough recovering from a viral moment like that.

2022 roadmap

Three key dates:

  • Week 2 at Cleveland Browns. Can we be honest about how challenging the Jets' first nine games are? Before the Week 10 bye, New York faces a bunch of playoff teams, a squad that added Russell Wilson and the track team that is Miami. I'm not sure how many of those games the Jets will be favored in, but this trip to Cleveland seems winnable, especially if Deshaun Watson is sidelined by a suspension.
  • Week 12 vs. Chicago Bears. Justin Fields vs. Zach Wilson. Let's go. I know quarterbacks don't guard each other. But pitchers don't bat against each other, either. (Well, unless it's Shohei Ohtani.) So let's just enjoy this duel.
  • Week 18 at Miami Dolphins. Imagine if the Jets are the breakthrough team everyone expects the Dolphins to be. This regular-season finale could be huge.

Will the Jets be able to ...

... have a legit receiving corps? Over his first three drafts, Joe Douglas has taken seven offensive players in the first two rounds, including three wide receivers. Garrett Wilson came off the board at No. 10 overall, making him the highest-drafted Jets receiver since Keyshawn Johnson went No. 1 in 1996. Wilson joins a receiving corps that already includes Corey Davis, who was a big free-agent signing for the Jets last offseason after a breakout year with the Titans. But Davis is still looking for his first 1,000-yard campaign. And so are the Jets. Well, at least their first since Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker both eclipsed 1K in 2015. New York also has Elijah Moore, who led the Jets with 538 yards as a rookie last season. Moore had just 79 receiving yards in the first seven weeks of the season, but he put together a stellar stretch from Week 8 through 13 (34 receptions for 459 yards and five touchdowns) before a quad injury landed him on IR. Add in the two free-agent tight ends discussed above, as well as third-round TE Jeremy Ruckert, and this team might just have a receiving corps after all.

... count on Sauce Gardner and Jermaine Johnson II to resurrect the defense? I love that the Jets got Sauce at No. 4 overall. I thought he was going to the Texans at No. 3, for sure, but they went with Derek Stingley Jr., which feels like one of those things we're going to debate for years to come. Maybe both CBs end up being great -- that'd be wonderful! Here is what I like about Sauce, the highest-ever drafted player out of Cincinnati: He did not allow a receiving touchdown during his entire college career. The man logged 1,059 coverage snaps, per Pro Football Focus, and didn't yield a single score. Opposing quarterbacks could only manage a 31.8 passer rating against Gardner during his three years as a Bearcat. I mean, he's going to make a lot of people recall the days of "Revis Island." And then there is Johnson, the second defensive player New York nabbed in Round 1. He led the ACC with 12 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 2021 -- and plenty of mock drafts had him coming off the board within the top 10 picks. When he was still available at No. 26 overall, the Jets pounced, trading into the Titans' slot to get their man. If Johnson provides an instant impact and Carl Lawson comes back strong, New York will suddenly have a fine edge-rushing duo.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The offensive line is improving. New York's O-line actually finished a respectable 11th in Pro Football Focus' year-end rankings. In free agency, the Jets added guard Laken Tomlinson, who's fresh off his first Pro Bowl nod. Tomlinson allowed just two sacks on 565 pass-blocking snaps in 2021, according to PFF. And I'm not ready to give up on hulking left tackle Mekhi Becton. The former No. 11 overall pick clearly has experienced issues with injuries and conditioning, but he was quite a presence as a rookie in 2020, earning the second-highest PFF grade on the Jets' offense.

... people are overthinking: The running back rotation. You might not be loving life if you have Michael Carter stock in a dynasty fantasy league, but I do love the second-round selection of Breece Hall. Here's a guy who can play all three downs for the Jets and should be a solid contributor right from the jump. Dude ran for nearly 4,000 yards in his three seasons at Iowa State, leading the FBS with a whopping 50 rushing scores during that span. The Jets will likely sprinkle in Carter as a change-of-pace guy, but Hall is going to do work in Year 1.

For 2022 to be a success, the Jets MUST:

  • Show tangible improvement. Again, we don't want the Bengals' magical 2021 campaign to skew everyone's expectations. The Jets are 27-70 over the last six seasons, the worst record in the NFL during that span. They have won five or fewer games in five of the last six seasons. Their point differential during this time period: -817, easily the worst figure in the league. Just get near the .500 mark and we'll say it's a win.

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