CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Warning to the NFL: Watch out for the New York Jets.
The Jets, of course.
Despite three straight years out of the playoffs, the Jets are back to the "swaggerlicious" ways that made them a team to watch (and listen to) in 2009 and 2010. Rex Ryan is fired up, and that means everybody around him is fired up, too. They've been yapping it up in training camp, claiming they have the best defense, the best cornerback (Dee Milliner's self-proclamation) and a future top-five quarterback (Geno Smith's opinion).
What are we to make of their outward self-confidence?
Frankly, it's not very becoming -- we're old school here -- but there's no disputing the Jets are a better team than a year ago. They added a couple of proven players on offense, Chris Johnson and Eric Decker, and their depth is better at almost every position. Smith looks more comfortable than last year and the defensive line has a chance to be scary. There's a lot to like about the Jets, who came together for Ryan at the end of last season -- and saved his job.
There's more roster and coaching-staff continuity than a year ago, prompting Ryan to say the team is "a zillion miles" ahead of last year at this time. There's a positive vibe around the team, replacing the uncertainty that filled the minds of many last year. Ryan's job status, a major theme throughout 2013, is a backburner issue. The focus is on the field, as the Jets attempt to return to the postseason.
"We've been gone too long," linebacker Calvin Pace said.
THREE REASONS FOR OPTIMISM
1. The defense can control the line of scrimmage against anybody. Led by Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson, the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, the Jets have one of the best young lines in the league. They finished third against the run last season, and it would be a disappointment if they slip from that perch. The front seven can go from good to outstanding if a pair of third-year linebackers, Quinton Coples and Demario Davis, improve their consistency. Davis has been one of the best players in camp, showing better instincts than in the past. Coples is an enigma: Gifted, but his motor runs hot and cold. The Jets' middle-of-the-road pass rush needs a double-digit sack season from Coples.
2. The offense doesn't have to play in a phone booth anymore. With Johnson in the backfield and Decker on the perimeter, it has the ability to attack all areas of the field. The key is Johnson. If his surgically repaired knee holds up, he'll give them something they've never had under Ryan -- a legitimate home-run threat at running back. The Jets plan to use him in space, occasionally flexing him out as a receiver. That could put tremendous stress on the defense, assuming Johnson -- dumped by the Tennessee Titans -- still has enough in the tank. Decker isn't a game changer, but he'll be a reliable and versatile target for Smith, especially in the red zone.
3. The quarterback situation is solid. Barring an injury, Smith probably will be the opening-day starter -- even though the team continues the charade of a Smith-Michael Vick competition. Smith will be better than last year, when he was a turnover-prone rookie, but there are still questions about his decision-making and ability to read defenses. If he stumbles, Ryan will turn to Vick, 34, who knows Marty Mornhinweg's offense and already has the respect of his new teammates. Unlike last year, when there was no proven backup, the starting job won't be a season-long appointment for Smith. Vick, a smart offseason pick up, is lurking.
THREE REASONS FOR PESSIMISM
1. The Jets, once known for great cornerback play, will have trouble covering people. And that's not a good thing, considering some of the premier wide receivers on their first-half schedule -- Calvin Johnson, Brandon Marshall, Jordy Nelson and Demaryius Thomas. For the first time since 2006, they don't have Darrelle Revis and/or Antonio Cromartie at corner. It's a rebuilt group headed by Milliner, who has talent but still has a lot to prove. After him, it's all stop gaps and unproven players. If they don't get help from the pass rush, the Jets will regret not signing one of the big-name corners in free agency.
2. They're still waiting for a No. 2 option in the passing game to emerge. Will it be rookie tight end Jace Amaro? Slot receiver Jeremy Kerley? Will Stephen Hill finally reach his potential? If no one steps up, the offense will be too Decker-reliant, and that will result in defenses rolling their coverage to Decker. That didn't happen to him in Denver, where he was the third or fourth option in Peyton Manning's prolific passing attack. The Jets say they can scheme up ways to keep Decker in single coverage, but the best way would be to have a legit weapon on the other side.
3. The oversized draft class (12 picks) is off to a slow start. Injuries can be blamed for part of that. Safety Calvin Pryor, projected as a Week 1 starter, has missed a week due to a concussion. Cornerback Dexter McDougle and wide receiver Shaq Evans also have been slowed by injuries, although neither one was lighting it up before getting hurt. Amaro, too, is struggling, trying to master a complex position in Mornhinweg's system. No one expected them to duplicate the 2013 draft, which produced five starters, but the early returns haven't been too encouraging.
Smith and Vick have a good rapport. That's important because it will allow them to weather the inevitable storm. What storm? Come on, we're talking about the Jets' quarterback position. There's always turbulence on the horizon. The beat writers chart every pass and every rep in practice; that's what you call scrutiny.
Johnson, he of six straight 1,000-yard rushing seasons, is the most accomplished player on offense, but that doesn't mean he'll be the every-down work horse. No, those days are over. He'll share time with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, which should keep Johnson fresh for the long haul.
There's a three-way guard competition between Willie Colon, Brian Winters and Oday Aboushi. Look for Colon and Winters to nail down the starting jobs, but Aboushi has impressed with his ability to block in space and get to the second level. That intrigues the coaches.
The coaches have placed a big emphasis on takeaways. Since Ryan took over in 2009, the Jets rank only 15th in that category. They're hoping that Pryor, their first-round pick, can help remedy the problem, but he's not a big interception guy. In college, he made his bones as a "box" safety.
In an attempt to revitalize their once-formidable special teams, the Jets may employ starters more than usual on various units. The focus is on the punt-returning unit, which disappeared last season.