There is one team in the AFC East that has made tremendous strides on every side of the football this off-season. They've improved on offense and on defense. They've upgraded their front office. They've brought in a brand new face of the coaching staff. They own the sixth overall pick in the NFL draft. They get to face the last place team of the AFC North and West. They're a more-than-reasonable sleeper pick for the annual AFC Runner-Up competition.
We haven't been able to discuss the Jets in this capacity for a while.
The New York Jets kicked off their off-season with an early firing of general manager John Idzik, who opened up oodles of cap space, and head coach Rex Ryan. Early returns on Idzik were flat as the gross neglect of the secondary and offensive line sunk the team's chances for success in a Rex-lead season. Of course, Idzik's 2014 was handcuffed by an obvious attempt to get Rex out of the door, and he was kicked out with a Mike Lombardi treatment.
Former Texans head of college scouting Mike Maccagnan was tagged as the new general manager, with former Cardinals defensive coordinator Todd Bowles selected as the new head coach, and both seem to be in a great position to succeed.
Maccagnan has done a quality job of avoiding the splashy spendings- outside of the pick-up of the obviously tampered Darrelle Revis- instead opting to flesh out quality depth or acquire cheap veterans.
They acquired Brandon Marshall and a seventh round pick for only a fifth rounder. They sent a future 2016 late round pick for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, and reunited him with Chan Gailey, the coach that made Fitzpatrick a respectable starter in Buffalo. They brought in cheap potential starters in James Carpenter, James Brewer, and Corey Hilliard to compete for starting roles on the offensive line. They paid handsomely for a secondary, with Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Buster Skrine, to match their fantastic defensive line.
They've done everything outside of playing a game in order to set up for the most successful 2015 the Jets could ask for- and their head coach is putting the team in good hands.
Bowles deserved a trophy for how he navigated the 2014 season as the Cardinals defensive coordinator (and I guess he did, as he was named the PFWA NFL's Assistant of the Year). His top linebacker, Daryl Washington, was suspended for the season. His top defensive linemen, John Abraham and Darnell Dockett, were placed on the injured reserve. The Cardinals offense was a horror show, putting the defense in terrible situation after terrible situation.
They still fielded the fifth best defense by points allowed per drive.
If Bowles can sprinkle that magic fairy dust on the Jets roster, it's not out of the question that they can field a top five defense- their personnel is better than what he used in Arizona. And it's the offense that might surprise even more.
Ryan Fitzpatrick isn't a top quarterback, but he was on pace for the best statistical season of his career last season and he can offer a 3,500/25/15 slash line. A skill grouping of Marshall, Eric Decker, Jeremy Kerley, Chris Ivory, and sophomore Jace Amaro is fairly solid. The offensive line still needs to improve, especially at the guard positions (sound familiar?), but that can still develop as the season continues.
This isn't to say that the Jets are going to be a world beater next season. They're picking sixth overall for a reason- their depth is atrocious, they play undisciplined football, and their shaky offensive line has been blocking for a bottom three quarterback. All of these warts can be cured with a smart coach and a smart general manager. Time will tell if the Jets are led by the right people.
The Patriots don't have any more reason to worry about the Jets than they have in the past- and that's to say that these match-ups will remain the status quo. It'll be a low scoring slugfest that will be decided by a last second field goal, likely favoring New England.
Bowles will likely tag Revis to be a shadow cornerback on the opposition's #1 receiver, but since the Patriots feature three viable game changing targets in Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, and Brandon LaFell, there will always be a favorable match-up to be found.
Tom Brady is still the better quarterback. Bill Belichick is the best coach in the league until proven otherwise. That alone will always keep this rivalry in New England's favor. But the addition of a top tier secondary in tandem with the defensive line that gives the Patriots the most trouble in the entire league is sure to offer headaches.
One of the advantages that the Patriots offense still has over the Jets is the strength versus weakness up the middle of the field. It's where Rob Gronkowski makes his dough, it's how the Patriots move the chain, and it's how they methodically dismantle physical defenses- through dogged persistence. The Jets safeties and linebackers remain a pockmark on a unit otherwise studded with talent.
And until Ryan Fitzpatrick gets into a rhythm with the offense, it remains to be seen how much of liability the Patriots currently incomplete secondary will become- and also the Patriots are assembling a defensive line that might be able to rattle the cages of whichever quarterback lines up under center.
Factor in the Jets having the easiest schedule in the East, and it shouldn't be a surprise if the Jets turn in an 8-8 season. They've made all the little moves necessary to inch their way back into the ranks of the mediocre. They're still a while away from piecing together a championship roster.