Two straight non-playoff seasons have sent the New York Jets into rebuilding mode. The Jets stripped down their roster to its very core this offseason, as they waved goodbye to a dozen starters from 2012. With so many gone, the Jets have various positions with only question marks. Here are the three biggest position battles that'll be decided in training camp.
Candidates: Mark Sanchez, Greg McElroy, Matt Simms, and Geno Smith
The field's most important position is New York's most uncertain one. Mark Sanchez has served as the team's starter the last four seasons, but he has proved to be incapable as a franchise quarterback in the NFL. After leading the Jets to consecutive AFC Championship games in his first two years in the league, Sanchez has regressed considerably.
Sanchez's poor accuracy and decision making have plagued him in recent years, as he consistently ranks among the most turnover-prone quarterbacks in the league. The former first round pick has thrown more interceptions (69) than touchdowns (68) and his career passer rating of 71.7 is abysmal.
However, Sanchez's massive contract, signed last offseason, prevents the team from moving on. As unbelievable as it seems, the USC product has a solid chance of claiming the starting role once again if he can have a remotely decent training camp.
Greg McElroy, despite starting a game last season, has little to no chance of winning the starting job. McElroy lacks the arm strength to be an effective starter, but he has a good chance to make the roster as a backup. Matt Simms, on the other hand, will probably be cut at some point during training camp.
If anyone is going to take away the starting job from Sanchez, it will be Geno Smith.
The rookie signal-caller was one of the most polarizing prospects in this year's draft. Originally projected as a potential top ten selection, Smith dropped to the Jets towards the middle of the second round.
Smith's attitude and ability to handle the blitz are huge question marks, and they could keep him from being a Week 1 starter. However, the West Virginia product has all the tools to be a franchise quarterback.
Pinpoint accuracy (71.2 percent completion percentage in his senior season) and elite athleticism are among the strengths of Smith's game. If Smith can impress coaches during training camp and show that he is fully capable of handling the new offensive system, he could start in his rookie season.
Despite Smith's potential and Sanchez's struggles, I project the latter to begin the season as the starter. The franchise doesn't want to make the same mistake it made with Sanchez by pushing Smith into the starting role too early and not letting him develop at his own pace.
2. Free Safety
Candidates: Josh Bush and Antonio Allen
The top three safeties on New York's depth chart last season all departed in free agency this offseason. Pro Bowler LaRon Landry signed a long-term contract with Indianapolis, veteran Yeremiah Bell headed to Arizona, and former third-round Eric Smith is still a free agent.
New York managed to sign LaRon Landry's brother, Dawan, to a two-year deal earlier this offseason, but they are yet to make a move on a veteran free safety. With the likelihood of the Jets bringing in a starting-caliber defensive back slim to none, it appears as though youngsters Josh Bush and Antonio Allen will compete for the starting job in training camp.
Both Bush and Allen are entering their sophomore season. Neither received much playing time in their rookie year. Bush and Allen were sixth and seventh round picks, respectively, and both players are products of major conference football.
Bush was a three-year starter at Wake Forest where he emerged as a team leader on and off the field.
In his senior season, he finished second in the ACC with six interceptions. Bush is a tough player with solid speed and a knack for making big plays. However, Bush doesn't have the size, strength or recovery speed to be effective in man coverage, and his tackling ability in open space is subpar. To win the starting job, Bush needs to show improvement in these areas.
Unlike Bush, Allen spent the majority of his collegiate career close to the line of scrimmage, evidenced by his team-best 88 tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss in his senior season at South Carolina. Allen possesses nice size with good speed and decent athleticism. The 24-year-old is a hard-hitting and consistent open field tackler. However, Allen is much less effective in coverage than Bush. He can sometimes appear confused before the snap and his ability to cover physical tight ends is a concern.
Both Bush and Allen are unproven players at the professional level, but both had decorated collegiate careers. Bush is more effective in zone coverage, while Allen does his best work in the box. With no clear favorite, it will be interesting to see which player steps up and claims the prized job.
3. Nose Tackle
Candidates: Antonio Garay, Damon Harrison and Kenrick Ellis
Nose tackle is another position where two players will vie for the starting job in training camp. After letting go of former starter Sione Pouha, the job is open to whoever can put together a more impressive training camp.
Veteran Antonio Garay and youngster Kenrick Ellis have to be the favorites for the job. While Damon Harrison is a mountain of a man who could emerge as a solid run-stuffer, his lack of pass rushing skills and quickness will doom him in a starting role.
Thirty-three-year-old Garay bounced around the league for years before finally receiving playing time with San Diego in 2010. In his first year as a starter, Garay led all San Diego defensive lineman with 48 tackles and 5.5 sacks, earning a spot on the second team All-Pro squad.
Garay has never been as effective since, mostly due to prevalent injuries. The former sixth-round pick appeared in just eight games last year, recording one sack. Despite his ineffectiveness in recent seasons, Garay has proven in the past to be a solid disrupter on the interior.
His combination of size, strength and athleticism are tough for opposing offensive linemen to handle. If Garay can stay healthy throughout training camp and show flashes of his old self, he should be able to claim the starting job.
Ellis possesses a great deal more talent than Garay, but his potential is yet to lead to production on the field. Legal troubles and nagging injuries have derailed Ellis' first two years in the league. However, Ellis appears healthy and ready to break out in 2013.
He boasts a rare combination of elite size and strength, as well as above-average athleticism and quickness. The 25-year-old showed in his collegiate days that he can be a solid contributor in both rushing the passer and stuffing the run. If Ellis can dominate the line of scrimmage in training camp, which he is very capable of doing, he could snatch the starting job away from Garay.
Right Guard: Veteran addition Stephen Peterman and rookie third-round pick Brian Winters will compete for the starting job at right guard in 2013. Peterman was a decent run blocker for years, but his upside is limited. If Winters can show his ability to handle interior pass rushers and get a push in run blocking, he should be able to win the starting role.
Third-string Tight End: Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow are pretty much locked in as the Jets top two tight ends, but there is a boatload of young talent competing for the third-string position.
Former rugby player Hayden Smith has great physical tools, but he is extremely raw. Konrad Reuland is a solid blocker, but he contributes little in other phases of the game. Undrafted rookies Chris Pantale and Mike Shanahan have to be fantastic during training camp to even be considered for the role. The race is a tight one, and it will be an interesting one to watch throughout training camp.
Nickel Cornerback: Pro Bowl cornerback Antonio Cromartie and rookie first-rounder Dee Milliner, if healthy, are expected to man the starting cornerback roles. However, it's a toss up to who will claim the nickel corner role.
Former first-round pick and semi-bust Kyle Wilson, Isaiah Trufant, Ellis Lankster, Aaron Berry and undrafted rookie Mike Edwards will compete for the position. The winner will likely be the player who impresses the coaching staff the most during training camp.
Backup Receivers: Santonio Holmes, Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley are penciled in for the top three spots on the wide receiver depth chart, and Clyde Gates is a pretty good bet for the No. 4 spot. However, beyond that is a huge question mark.
Second-year man Jordan White, veteran Ben Obamanu, and undrafted rookies Zach Rogers and Marcus Davis are all in consideration for backup spots. The backup receivers will be especially important considering the constant injury risks of the wideouts higher up.