New York Jets go young (12 rookies!): Short-term pain, long-term gain

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets believe they're building something special. For now, in 2021, they would like their fan base to admire the blueprint and the construction site. Chances are, that's all you will get. Sorry, no fancy skyscrapers this year.

When team officials discuss the upcoming NFL season, they use words such as "excitement" and "energy" and "growth." They don't talk about wins and losses, and you're silly if you expect Jets staff to mention the playoffs and Super Bowl.

"Nice try," general manager Joe Douglas said Wednesday on a headline-seeking question about the Jets in the postseason.

The Jets, the youngest team in the NFL, are selling their future. Look at the roster: 25 of New York's 53 players are new -- a massive turnover, even by NFL standards. They have 21 players with less than two years experience, including 12 rookies. Yes, 12 rookies! Coach Robert Saleh said they have "a ridiculously young team," and he won't get any arguments on that one.

Basically, the Jets are starting over, which is what you'd expect after a 2-14 season.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. The Jets tried a roster teardown in 2017. Didn't work. They tried to reboot with a rookie quarterback in 2018 (Sam Darnold). Didn't work.

So, yes, it's easy for long-tortured Jets fans, frustrated by the league's longest active playoff drought (10 years), to look at the current situation and wonder, "Why will this time be any different?" This fan base has been hearing about big plans and staring at incomplete construction sites for the better part of a half-century.

"We embrace the urgency at which everybody wants to win, but at the same time that can't affect your decision-making for the long haul of the goal of winning championships for extended periods of time," Saleh said. "That urgency in the past has led to spurts of success and lengths of failure. We're trying to get that reversed, to where we have long, long runs of success.

"So while the fan base and all that stuff is greatly appreciated and we want that strain, it's not something that's going to push us to making a mistake that affects the longevity of this organization."

Leave it to the new guy to deliver the cold truth. Saleh has been on the job for about 15 minutes, but he's savvy enough to encapsulate the franchise's 50-year struggle into a single sentence:

That urgency in the past has led to spurts of success and lengths of failure.

We're talking about 12 playoff appearances in the past 51 years, so, yeah, there have been extended lengths of failure. This was Saleh's kind way of saying, "Folks, it is broke and it needs to be fixed."

It's hard to predict the future, but there are positive indicators. The Jets have a young, dynamic coach in Saleh. They have proven offensive and defensive schemes, which have won championships in recent years. They have a coach and GM in lockstep, philosophically. They have a coach and rookie quarterback on the same timeline, which will allow them to grow together.

None of these guarantee a Lombardi Trophy, but it's a lot more than they had with the previous two regimes.

Ultimately, they need to hit on the quarterback. If Zach Wilson justifies his lofty status as the No. 2 overall draft pick, the Jets will be in a great position to break the perpetual cycle of badness. You hate to put all that on a 22-year-old, but we all know how the NFL works. No quarterback, no chance.

"He's been everything we hoped for," Douglas said.

Wilson is one of eight Jets rookies who figure to play prominent roles in 2021. He is joined on on offense by guard Alijah Vera-Tucker, wide receiver Elijah Moore and running back Michael Carter. The back seven on defense is true green, especially at cornerback. Four of the seven cornerbacks are rookies, with two of them poised to start -- perhaps Brandin Echols on the outside, Michael Carter II in the slot. At least one of the starting linebackers, probably Jamien Sherwood, will be a rookie.

Cagey quarterbacks will pick them apart, but guess what? The Jets don't have many of them on the schedule, so maybe the anticipated onslaught won't be as bad as everyone fears. The team speed on defense is improved, no doubt. In some games, that speed will be offset by the indecisiveness of youth, leading to long days.

In case you're wondering, yes, the 12 rookies is a league high, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The Dallas Cowboys, Atlanta Falcons and Washington Football Team have 11 apiece, as of Sept. 1. The Jets' youth movement isn't unprecedented. A year ago, the Jacksonville Jaguars opened with 18 rookies and first-year players -- and they landed the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL draft. Rebuilding is painful.

The Jets have the look of a 5-12 team. That's reality. Asked how he will gauge success, Douglas said, "I can't wait to see these young guys play."

Saleh expects many "a-ha" moments from his young players. There will be many uh-oh moments, too. It's going to be a long season. All they ask is that you have patience and believe in the vision.