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State of the Franchise: Critical year for Gase, Darnold, future of Jets

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2020? 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 New York Jets organization, J-E-T-S fans around the world and those of you who still own a condo on Revis Island:

There were a lot of changes for Gang Green last season. New coach. New uniforms. And a new place in the standings. That's right: The Jets finished third in the AFC East with a 7-9 mark last year, ending a skid of three consecutive last-place finishes. That's progress. The season started slowly but really picked up steam down the stretch. Will they be able to build on that momentum? Let's take a look.

How the Jets got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2019 season.

The highs:

  • Edging the Dallas Cowboys to finally get in the win column in Week 6. After a rough start, the Jets survived a late two-point conversion attempt to hold on for a 24-22 victory over Dallas. Which, I mean, at least kept your Cowboys-loving co-workers quiet for a week.
  • Winning six of the final eight games. This second-half rise from the ashes featured a perfect 4-0 home record, including a win over the crosstown rival Giants.

The lows:

  • Having your franchise quarterback sidelined by mono. Yep. This felt so cruelly Jets. And it spawned this unfortunate/unforgettable ESPN graphic on Monday Night Football.
  • Le'Veon Bell averaging 3.22 yards per carry. That's the lowest single-season mark by a running back in franchise history (min. 150 carries). The former All-Pro definitely didn't live up to the contract his coach apparently scorned in the first place.
  • Starting off 0-4 and losing seven of the first eight games. The lowest point? A 33-0 home loss to the Patriots on Monday Night Football, with Sam Darnold throwing picks and seeing ghosts.
  • Losing by multiple scores to the lowly Bengals in Week 13. Cincinnati entered the game with an 0-11 record, left with a 22-6 win.

2020 VIPs

Head coach: Adam Gase. He's in his fifth season as an NFL head coach ... and I'm still trying to figure him out. Gase, of course, has gotten a lot of mileage out of his successful two-year stint as Broncos offensive coordinator. But honestly, how difficult was that job? Lest you've forgotten, Gase had a guy by the name of Peyton Manning, who's not only one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time, but one of the most cerebral players of all time. The dude's extensive pre-snap adjustments became comically imitated art. Thinkin' Peyton deserves a healthy portion of the credit for the Broncos' scoreboard-assaulting offenses of 2013 and '14.

As a head coach, Gase got off to a nice start. Miami went 10-6 in his debut season of 2016, fielding an offense that ranked 17th in scoring. But in the three years since, Gase owns a 20-28 mark, with offenses that have finished 28th, 26th and 31st in scoring. Last year's Jets ranked dead last in total offense. Kind of alarming to see from an offensive-minded coach. That'd be like if you went to Arnold Palmer's Restaurant, and the worst thing on the menu was the Arnold Palmer.

This feels like a very, very important year for Gase. Working in his favor: You can't ignore how well the team played down the stretch last season. And as we're about to get into, the Jets made some significant moves this offseason to improve the offense. Let's give Gase a chance to see if he is going to be able to build on last November/December.

Quarterback: Sam Darnold. As an Orange County resident, I've been a fan of Sam for quite some time. You always admire the dudes who play for the local high school, as opposed to transferring to Mater Dei or Mission Viejo. Sam played for his hometown San Clemente Tritons and was a stud. And then he went on to USC, won a Rose Bowl, went third overall in the 2018 NFL Draft and -- well, you know the story from there. But I just want to let you know, I'm a fan of Sam. We both count Tesoro High as one of our most heated rivals. He's good people.

That said, last year wasn't all sunshine and rainbows for Darnold. We talked about the illness and the ghost sighting. (In fairness to Sam, that Pats debacle had more to do with his offensive line than him, but finishing a game with a 3.6 passer rating is embarrassing, nonetheless.) At the season's midway point, he had six touchdown passes and nine interceptions.

But like the Jets as a whole, Darnold really picked it up down the back half of the season. Over the final eight games, Darnold led New York to a 6-2 record by throwing 13 touchdown passes against just four interceptions, adding two rushing scores for good measure. And by season's end, his numbers had improved across the board from his rookie campaign. Not to mention, he personally posted a winning record (7-6).

I don't want to come off as some sort of Darnold fanboy, but after his inauspicious start to last season, Darnold didn't play nearly as poorly as many seem to recall.

Projected 2020 MVP: Darnold. I just detailed why he's going to be good this season -- or, at least, why you should be hopeful. We're about to embark on a journey exploring why the Jets -- as a team -- should be better, which would make Sam better. Not to mention, I'm taking him in a lot of my super-flex (two-quarterback) fantasy leagues, so I'm ready to put myself out there for him. I mean, the Jets are important, too. But my fantasy team is what really matters.

2020 breakout star: Quinnen Williams, defensive lineman. The Jets selected the 2018 Outland Trophy winner (best college interior lineman) with the No. 3 overall pick, and his rookie season wasn't terrible. But the dude drafted one spot in front of him, Nick Bosa, played a starring role for a Super Bowl team. Filtered through that lens, yeah, Williams' debut season was underwhelming. In 13 games, he posted 2.5 sacks -- the lowest total by a defensive lineman selected in the top five who played in at least five games since the Dolphins' Dion Jordan had two sacks over 16 contests in 2013. And I know that bringing up the name Dion Jordan in a Quinnen Williams blurb just gave Jets fans hives, but the latter did show some ability last season as he worked through some injuries (including a high ankle sprain suffered in Week 1 that lingered for most of the season). A healthy Williams should make a big impact this season. I'm not saying he's going to help lead the Jets to the Super Bowl, but he should be pretty good.

New face to know: Frank Gore, running back. Look, Frank Gore was one of the first players I ever drafted when I started playing fantasy football back in junior high. (Stop doing the math -- I'm kidding. But just barely.) At age 37, Gore's entering his 16th season, and what's amazing: He played in 16 games last year for the Bills, starting eight. I mean, he eventually lost playing time to rookie Devin Singletary, but that was expected. Gore's not getting 300 touches anymore, but he's still productive in limited spurts. He will provide some leadership the Jets could totally use. And he's just so reliable. He's the NFL version of comfort food -- a grilled cheese sandwich of a running back you can always depend on.

The 2020 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: HIGH. This seems fair, right? The Jets kind of stunned the football world when they hired Gase immediately after he was fired by the division rival Dolphins. Like, most people figured Gase would have to sign on as an assistant coach some place and work his way back up the ladder. But the Jets swooped in, and that was that. It feels like if New York doesn't make the playoffs -- or at least get to .500 -- there could be a change in the big chair.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Bills. The Jets defeated the Bills in Buffalo to close out the 2019 campaign. What better way to build on Gang Green's second-half momentum than storming Buffalo for a season-opening win in 2020? (Yes, I know the Bills were resting players for the playoffs in that Week 17 game. It's called a narrative, people. Just go with it.)
  • Week 8 at Chiefs. With the Bills in Week 7 and the Patriots in Week 9, this game against the reigning Super Bowl champs is the middle leg of a three-week stretch against some of the heavy hitters in the AFC.
  • Week 10 at Dolphins. Yes, I was indeed thinking about jokingly including this Week 10 game in the heavy-hitter stretch mentioned just above. But really, I want to point out that the Jets will play the Dolphins in back-to-back games. On the road here, bye week, and then hosting the Dolphins in Week 12. Does that seem strange to anybody else? Just me? Cool, cool.

Will the Jets be able to ...

Bury the hatchet with Jamal Adams? This seems so on-brand for the Jets. You draft an absolute stud in the 2017 NFL Draft. (I mean, you could've had Patrick Mahomes, but whatever.) He becomes one of the best players not only at his position, but in the game. And now he wants to be traded. Don't try to pin this all on Adams. There were reports that Jets GM Joe Douglas had offered up Adams at the trade deadline last year. You can't be all, "No, I don't want to break up," to your partner and then slide into somebody else's DMs. But at this point, you have to figure the Jets would want to keep Adams, right? Who wouldn't? That said, keeping the All-Pro safety long-term won't happen on the cheap. What if you want to lock up Darnold for the foreseeable future? I'm sure Adams' safety mate, Marcus Maye, is going to want to get paid at the end of the season. It could be troubling. And the Jets still have two more seasons (at least) of team control on Adams, so maybe they're in no hurry -- even if Adams rightfully is, given that his play has far exceeded his rookie contract. Maybe Gang Green should just fast-forward to the part where they trade Adams to Dallas for Michael Gallup and picks and be done with it. Or send him to Tampa in a Mike Evans deal. Or whatever. Because this situation could have lingering, detrimental effects for a team trying to build off a strong finish to 2019.

Get production from the ground game? From the outside looking in, Le'Veon Bell and Adam Gase appeared to have a rocky relationship last year. Like one of those tag-team wrestling duos that don't get along (storyline-wise), but have to find a way to set aside their differences to go for the gold. Like The Rock and Mankind back in the day. As mentioned above, it sounds like Gase wasn't too enthusiastic about the contract given to the running back. And this was a constant subplot in the coverage of the 2019 Jets. But Bell recently did a radio interview and tried to squash the notion of beef, heaping praise on Gase. Saying he'd never played for an offensive-minded coach before, and that he's talked to Gase "more than any other coach that I've ever talked to in my life." Bell did not elaborate on whether he left his phone number on Mike Tomlin's windshield after he ran him over, but we'll just have to assume he did. (Even though Tomlin wasn't offensive-minded, Bell clearly enjoyed the best seasons of his career in Pittsburgh.) Jets fans have to love hearing that coach and player are getting along. Bell's first year in Florham Park obviously didn't go as planned. The 789 rushing yards were the lowest total of his career outside of the 2015 season, when he played in just six games. And with a season-high of 87 yards, he failed to post a 100-yard rushing game for the first time in his pro tenure. He had four total touchdowns, and his receiving figures were meh. Some of that could be because of Darnold's disjointed season. And the offensive line woes. Speaking of which ...

Thrive with a revamped offensive line? Last season, the Jets allowed 52 sacks -- the fourth-highest total in the NFL and their most as a team since 2007. They will welcome in a number of new starters on the line this season, including first-round pick Mekhi Becton, who allowed only one sack on 303 pass-block snaps for Louisville in 2019, per Pro Football Focus. I applaud the Jets for ignoring my advice of taking CeeDee Lamb or Jerry Jeudy at No. 11 overall and instead snagging some O-line help. The biggest improvement might be at center, though. The Jets signed Connor McGovern to a three-year, $27 million contract in free agency. According to PFF, McGovern ranked fifth among centers last season with an 82.5 pass-blocking grade.

One storyline ...

... people are overlooking: The receiver room is actually kind of nice. They let Robby Anderson walk in free agency. They didn't take a receiver in the first round. But I'm a huge fan of Denzel Mims, whom they grabbed in Round 2. He was so much fun to watch at Baylor -- and he's lightning fast, having run a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Not only is he fast, but he's great at 50/50 balls. His route tree? Not so extensive. But I could see him being deployed like the Seahawks used D.K. Metcalf last year. Mims joins a team that signed Breshad Perriman, who finished strong for the Bucs last year with a career-high six touchdowns. The former first-round pick's still just 26 years old, too. And, you know what? I'm a fan of Jamison Crowder. I'm not saying this is the best receiving corps in the game. But it's not as bad as some people seem to think. At tight end, Chris Herndon could definitely be in for a breakout campaign. And Ryan Griffin is fine as a TE2.

ANOTHER storyline people are overlooking: The Jets ranked seventh in total defense last year. And second against the run. Partly because Williams was great up front as a run defender in Year 1. But they were able to do this without two key components at linebacker. C.J. Mosley hurt his groin in the opener and managed to play in just one more game. Avery Williamson tore his ACL in preseason and missed the entire year. Mosley has been cleared and should be ready to rock. Williamson at least has timing on his side, having suffered the injury nearly a full year ago.

For 2020 to be a successful season, the Jets MUST:

  • At least go .500. That's the least Gase has to do. Record-wise, the Jets weren't that far from the playoffs last year. And now there's an extra wild-card slot. Darnold was above .500 as a starting quarterback last season. So, again, the minimum should be .500. And the offense needs to score some points.

In closing

This should be a really interesting year for the Jets. Not only is Gase's seat pretty, pretty warm, but the NFL community still seems split on whether or not Darnold can be a true franchise quarterback. You obviously know how I feel on the latter subject. With enhanced protection on the offensive line and some intriguing new blood at receiver, this is a great opportunity for Sam to show everyone what he can do.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter @AdamRank.

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