CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Mark Sanchez might be the second-most popular quarterback on his own team, but his teammates expect him to be among the 10 best in the league.
Undaunted by Tebowmania, the New York Jets' starter has impressed in training camp, raising the expectation level in the locker room. On Wednesday, defensive leaders Bart Scott and Darrelle Revis spoke glowingly of Sanchez, both saying they anticipate a big year.
They expect him "to take that next step, to be one of the top 10 quarterbacks in the league," Scott said. "It's Year 4, and Year 4 is when the game slows down for you ... Last year, you saw Joe Flacco take the next step in his fourth year and you could see Mark do the same."
Revis echoed that sentiment.
"The quarterback needs to take us there, and we're counting on Mark to do that," he said. "Everybody has to do their job, but if we lose, it falls on Mark. If we win, it falls on Mark. The biggest thing is, we're very confident in Mark and we know he can lead us. He's done it in the past, and we're counting on him. We're counting on him."
Sanchez's poor finish last season, coupled with the arrival of Tim Tebow, spawned many questions about his psyche, whether he'd be able to handle the enormous pressure.
The real test won't come until the regular season, but so far, Sanchez has responded favorably. Privately, some within the organization believe he's showing greater maturity than in the past. His teammates sense it in the huddle and in the locker room.
"He carries himself with more confidence," tight end Dustin Keller said. "Not that he wasn't confident before, but you can see he knows he's playing good."
Sanchez has a long way to go to become a top-10 quarterback, at least as far as quarterback ratings go. He posted a career-best 78.5 rating last year but that was 23rd overall among NFL quarterbacks. By QBR metrics he was even worse, as his 33.6 Total QBR was the 30th best out of 34 quarterbacks ranked by ESPN.
Rex Ryan stopped short of endorsing Scott's top-10 prediction, saying, "I don't want to get into that." But he called Sanchez a "proven winner. He has elevated his game and I think his teammates recognize that ... I think his confidence is higher than I've ever seen it."
Sanchez's confidence, and stature in the locker room, took a hit at the end of last season, when the Jets dropped three straight and missed the playoffs for the first time in the Sanchez/Ryan era. Privately, some players questioned his leadership.
The Jets tried to rebuild Sanchez by giving him a three-year, $40.5 million contract extension, through 2016, but they undercut him by trading for Tebow -- at least that was the perception.
Scott said Sanchez "wants to prove the doubters wrong." He also complimented the fourth-year quarterback for improving his on-field demeanor.
"I always thought he overreacted too much to bad plays," Scott said. "You look at Eli [Manning]. He has the ultimate poker face. His happy face, his sad face and his excited face are all the same. I think that's one of his strengths. If defenses see they're getting to you, it's only going to pile on."
Sanchez's career arc has been compared to that of Manning, who won his first Super Bowl in his fourth year. Sanchez recently admitted that he studied Manning's career, noting that his crosstown counterpart overcame major struggles before reaching the pinnacle.
On Saturday night, Sanchez and Manning will be at MetLife Stadium, facing each other in the preseason. According to the Jets, the Giants will see a different quarterback than the one who completed only 30 of 59 passes, with two interceptions, last Christmas Eve -- a 29-14 Jets loss.
Revis said Sanchez has improved his placement on deep balls. Coaches have lauded him for the way he has grasped Tony Sparano's system, and his ability to make checks at the line of scrimmage.
"I think everybody has seen a difference in how he walks, how he handles it if he throws a bad ball, how he carries himself," Scott said. "Mark's always been a guy that you can see his emotions and how he's feeling about himself by his facial expressions. I think now he carries himself upright and he sticks out that chest like a peacock."
That's what you have to do when there's a target on your back.