While Mark Sanchez and Tim Tebow have dominated the summer headlines, they will need plenty of assistance to return the Jets to the playoffs. it is a group of young up-and-comers virtually hidden under the giant shadow cast by the quarterbacks and the likes of Darrelle Revis and Santonio Holmes that will dictate how far this team can go. Here’s a look at six Jets poised for breakout seasons:
6. Kendrick Ellis- Ellis has had far from a typical start to his career; with a pending assault case and possible deportation cast a dark cloud over his rookie season. Now that his legal situation has been cleared up, after spending 45 days in jail during the offseason, he seems poised to have a larger impact on the defense this year.
While defensive line depth is among the team’s strengths going into 2012, there are question marks behind the ever-reliable nose tackle Sione Pouha, who turned 33 in February. At 6’5” and 346 pounds, Ellis has more than enough size to fill that void, and a level of potential that matches his enormous stature. A distraction-free season could be a big step toward him realizing it.
5. John Conner- It’s hard to believe that anyone nicknamed “The Terminator” could get lost in the shuffle, especially after all the attention he garnered as a rookie on HBO’s Hard Knocks in 2010, but for the Jets running game to get back on track this season, Connor will have to get back to the bone crunching form he showed that first made head coach Rex Ryan giddy.
While Connor wasn’t a liability, his first season as a starter after taking over for the retired Tony Richardson, directly coincided with a steep decline in the Jets “Ground and Pound” offense, dropping from 4th in rushing in 2010 to 22nd last year. Conner remains the only legitimate fullback in camp. Barring a last minute addition, it will be up to Conner to help pave the way for bell cow Shonn Greene and the rest of the Jets running backs.
4. Bilal Powell- Powell appeared in only 2 games last year and was underwhelming in both, averaging 1.6 yards per carry on 13 attempts. Without an obvious role and the addition of 6th round rookie Terrance Ganaway, his spot was far from assured entering training camp. That has all changed as Powell has been running with a great deal of confidence and has thrust himself into a competition for the backup and 3rd down slots with Joe McKnight. Powell’s skills as a pass blocker and his newfound authoritative running style could make him the key change of pace back for Greene.
3. Stephen Hill- Though just a rookie wide receiver in a run heavy offense, Hill is expected to fill a glaring void from last season. Hill was drafted in the second round with the intent of bringing back the big play electricity that Braylon Edwards provided in 2009 and 2010. A tall (6-4), speedy (4.30 40 yard dash at the combine) target, much in the Edwards mold, the Jets hope Hill will open things up for the team’s only established pass catcher, Santonio Holmes and tight end Dustin Keller, while also hitting some home runs of his own. Hill played in an option offense at Georgia Tech, so he will endure his fair share of growing pains, but his progression could make or break this passing attack.
2. Aaron Maybin- If you made a list like at this time last year and included this guy, you most likely would have been rushed to the hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. But much has changed in 12 months and now Maybin has gone from a punch line to the potential savior of the Jets pass rush.
Maybin, the 11th pick in the 2009 draft, was cut last August by the Bills, and again in training camp by the Jets. He hadn’t recorded a sack and, on some occasions, wasn’t even active on game day. He had become a cautionary tale of someone who could not translate his immense physical gifts to the field when the whistle blew. That all changed in 2011 when he led the Jets with 6 sacks (and 24 quarterback hits) in limited action. Ryan put Maybin in a position to do what he did best, pressure the quarterback, bringing him in on 3rd downs to create, as his new nickname suggests, “Mayhem.”
Maybin added weight this offseason with the intention of receiving more defensive snaps. He bulked up to 254 pounds before being asked by the coaching staff to scale in back to 240 pounds With the projected starters at outside linebacker struggling with declining play (Calvin Pace) and significant injuries (Bryan Thomas, ruptured achillies), Maybin, who could also be a force on special teams, could find himself in the base package before long. With the Jets in desperate need of quarterback pressure, after dropping from 8th in sacks in 2010 to 17th last year, more Maybin could be just what Dr. Ryan ordered.
1. Muhammad Wilkerson- So many of the Jets moves in recent years have been made with the Patriots in mind, with good reason, the Patriots have been the class of the AFC East (and the AFC as a whole) for the better part of the past decade. Many came and went during that time, but the key cog of the Patriots defense throughout their “dynasty” was defensive end Richard Seymour. In Wilkerson, the Jets believe they have found their Seymour.
Ryan has stated that he expects an increased snap count and a breakout season from Wilkerson that would make him the most important player on the Jets defense not named Revis. Wilkerson offers a package of eye-catching physical skills and positional versatility that few defensive linemen in the league boast. Wilkerson, a sturdy run defender, played mostly defensive end in the Jets' 3-4 during his promising rookie season. When Ryan and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine transition to a 4-3, Wilkerson’s skills as a pass-rushing end and potentially as a defensive tackle should be apparent. He will be a matchup nightmare due to the multitude of ways in which he can make an impact.