Jets should be in playoff hunt

NEW ORLEANS -- Five observations on the New York Jets, based on the preseason game of Aug. 13 against the New Orleans Saints:

1. Coming off a disappointing 6-10 season, and the first non-playoff year of coach Herm Edwards' tenure, it is easy for some pundits to dismiss the Jets as a playoff threat in 2004. Maybe a little too easy. For sure, on paper, the Jets look more like an 8-8 team than one capable of qualifying for a playoff spot. But let's be honest, Edwards' teams have pretty much been written off, or certainly undervalued, every year since he became the head coach in 2001. In two of those seasons, they surprised the so-called "experts," and could do it again this year. The operative word is could because, from where we sit, it will take a lot of things going right for New York to still be playing into January. That said, Edwards is a tremendous motivator and it isn't as if the New York roster is bereft of talent. In the first series on Friday night, quarterback Chad Pennington moved the offense, tailback Curtis Martin flashed enough to know there is still something left in the tank, and the upgraded line came off the ball hard. The defensive line is deeper than people give it credit for being and the refurbished linebacker corps is quicker. Just analyzing the rosters in a division where we visited every team the last few weeks, we would probably rate the Jets as the No. 3 team in the AFC East talent-wise, clearly behind New England but close to Buffalo. The Jets were 5-7 in games decided by seven points or less in 2003, and 2-3 in games where the margin was three points or fewer. The team was 2-5 in the games where Pennington didn't play because of a fractured and dislocated wrist. With Pennington, this is a different team, one that hasn't really lost any veterans in the offseason that it wanted to retain. Some solid drafts are beginning to pay off as the Jets move more toward youth (keep an eye on rookie safety Erik Coleman, a fifth-rounder who didn't do much Friday, but he has jumped out in camp) and begin phasing in more two- and three-year veterans. Don't be surprised if the Jets are more competitive than people think.

2. If I am Eric Barton, the sixth-year veteran linebacker signed this summer as an unrestricted free agent after five seasons with the Oakland Raiders, I'm thinking that I had better hustle back ASAP from the hamstring injury that kept me out of a Friday preseason game. 'Cause if Barton stays off the field for too long, he may not get back on it again anytime soon, at least not as the starter at the weakside spot. Barton was supplanted on Friday by first-round draft pick Jonathan Vilma. And while the New York coaches don't necessarily want Vilma to play the weakside, and have avoided the temptation to put him there full-time, the former University of Miami star might not give them any choice in the matter. Although he lined up all over the field against the Saints -- opening the contest alongside Sam Cowart as an inside linebacker in the 3-4 front that first-year coordinator Donnie Henderson has added to the Jets repertoire, and as the lone 'backer in the "dime" package -- Vilma played primarily at Barton's weakside position. In just 1 ½ quarters, he had four solo tackles and two assists, along with one quarterback pressure. There were a few times Vilma appeared confused in coverage, which is one of his strengths, and an occasion or two when he overpursued the run. But in general, for a kid appearing in his first NFL contest, Vilma certainly flashed the diagnostic skills for which he was noted during his Hurricanes career, and was plenty good enough to draw your attention. The aggressive Henderson, who showed some intriguing wrinkles for an opening preseason game, may have to expand his bag of tricks to accommodate Vilma's abilities. And he may have to divine some ways to get the rookie on the field as much as possible. Vilma certainly fits the model of what Edwards wants at linebacker in 2004. In an effort to enhance the overall speed of the position, and to commit to younger players, the Jets dumped veteran stalwarts Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones in the offseason. The new starting threesome -- Barton and second-year veteran Victor Hobson flanking holdover Cowart -- is considerably quicker. Backups like Vilma, Jason Glenn and Kenyatta Wright can all run as well. The other twist added by Henderson, playing end John Abraham as a standup linebacker in the 3-4 package, also adds speed to the edge.

3. One was made very early in the offseason and the other came only last week, but the additions of wide receiver Justin McCareins and guard Pete Kendall, respectively, both appear to be terrific moves for the New York offense. Abruptly released by Arizona, where Dennis Green believed he reported him to the league for alleged violations of the offseason practice guidelines, Kendall has always been a quality inside lineman, and he immediately slid into the starting spot at left guard. It's a good fit and really completes a unit that was one more solid veteran shy of perhaps rating as one of the best in the NFL. Kendall should do well playing between left tackle Jason Fabini and perennial Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae, and it should permit the Jets to run the ball even more to the left. The other benefit is that it moves former starting guard Brent Smith into a backup role, where his versatility can be utilized. There were a lot of teams bidding for the nine-year veteran Kendall, and New York did well to outhustle them. McCareins, 25, should be a nifty complement to Santana Moss, who finally emerged as a big-time playmaker in 2003, but who is currently nursing his annual training camp injury. The Jets surrendered a No. 2 draft choice to Tennessee for McCareins, then quickly signed him to a long-term deal. The pricey investments, though, should prove worthwhile. The fourth-year veteran is a long and angular receiver who has deceptive deep speed but, almost as important, will give the Jets a presence in the middle of the field. McCareins has a career average of 17.4 yards per catch and is coming off his best NFL season. His size and ability to get on top of cornerbacks makes him a tough matchup. Notable is that McCareins has requested to continue his role as a punt returner. So look for Mike Westhoff, one of the league's top special teams coaches, to design some new return blueprints that will put McCareins and Moss in tandem. One more item on receivers: We don't know if journeyman wideout Matt Dominguez has a legitimate chance to make the roster or not, but he and rookie fourth-rounder Jerricho Cotchery of North Carolina State had some moments on Friday while working against the New Orleans reserves.

4. Perhaps the most unheralded great back in recent NFL history, the age-defying Curtis Martin, is much healthier and spryer this summer than he has been the last couple years, and there is no reason to believe that he won't extend his 1,000-yard rushing streak to 10 consecutive seasons. In a cameo appearance on Friday, he showed he can still run tough inside and occasionally get to the corner. At age 31, though, and having averaged 325.2 rushes per season, it's time, Jets officials, to cut back on Martin's workload, at least modestly. Just as important, it's time to get something out of backup tailback LaMont Jordan before he exits next spring in free agency. Every season, Herm Edwards vows to get Jordan more PT. And every year, it seems, the promise is broken. Edwards and the Jets staff can't be blamed for 2003, since Jordan suffered a broken hand that limited his availability in the second half of the year. Still, these numbers don't lie: In his three league seasons, Jordan has averaged just 56.3 rushes and only 68 "touches" per season. Sure, it's the ultimate conundrum. How do you get Jordan on the field without taking too many snaps away from the ever-dependable Martin, who is essentially the Energizer Bunny of running backs? Unfortunately, the Jets have never solved that riddle and may not this season, either. No one is suggesting that Jordan could maintain his career average of 4.7 yards per carry with more attempts, but it will take moving on to another team next spring to ever find out. The Jets offered Jordan to Washington this spring as part of their trade proposal for cornerback Champ Bailey. Too bad for Jordan, a big-thighed brutish runner between the tackles, the Jets got trumped when Denver opted to part with Clinton Portis. Some team seeking a power back (think: Miami) is going to pursue Jordan very hard in the offseason. Maybe the Jets' only hope of retaining him is to convince the fourth-year veteran he is the eventual heir to Martin's spot. But based on the past, it's going to be hard for Jordan to buy into any such promises. The Jets' best back Friday night was free agent Johnathan Reese, who carried 13 times for 56 yards. Reese is an interesting guy. He is a graduate of Columbia University, where you figure he would learned to write about football, not play it. Reese has already been cut four times by the Jets. But he looked terrific on Friday, so maybe this is the year he sticks.

5. No slight intended toward Edwards, general manager Terry Bradway, or any of the players, but the single most important individual on the Jets payroll, certainly in terms of the future, might be assistant general manager Mike Tannenbaum. One of the NFL's top salary cap experts, Tannenbaum figures to have his work cut out for him next spring. If there are no contract extensions, the Jets' contingent of potential unrestricted free agents will include four top-shelf veterans: Pennington, Abraham, defensive end Shaun Ellis and left offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie. That's a lot of talent poised to perhaps walk out the door and it will take a ton of money, probably between $55 million-$60 million in signing bonuses given the going rates at the respective positions, to retain the quartet. There is almost no way, realistically, that New York will keep all four. Pennington is the key because, despite an average arm, he is a special player. There will be discussions with his representatives, probably this week, and there is still a chance the two sides can reach an accord before the Sept. 1 deadline that Pennington has imposed. Pennington is key to the Jets for more than just football reasons. The Jets finally have their own stadium on the drawing board, a site on the West Side of Manhattan tentatively scheduled to open for the 2009 season, but need to rally public support for the project. Keeping Pennington, clearly a must on the field as well, would be a popular move. And it would reinforce to fans, and to voters, that the Jets are committed to a superior product.

Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.