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State of the 2021 New York Jets: Robert Saleh, Zach Wilson bring fresh buzz

Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.

Members of the Jets organization, Jets fans around the world and those who are ready to style their hair like Zach Wilson:

The New York Jets are coming off one of the lowest points in the history of this proud franchise. And I know that you didn't get the quarterback you thought you were going to get after you started last season 0-13. But there is a new coach in town. And a new quarterback, too. I know these are familiar themes for the Jets, a franchise that seems like it's starting over every few years. But this really feels like the start of something special.

How the Jets got here

Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.

The high:

  • Beating the Rams in Week 15 for their first win of the season. Hey, there are no guarantees in life. When you put on those shoulder pads, you are doing so with the intent -- as Herm Edwards once put it -- to win the game. You play to win the game.

The low:

  • Beating the Rams and then the Browns the next week. I know you can't tell a group of players – including many who might not even be on the team next year -- that losing is the best possible outcome. You just can't. But I can just imagine the dismay Jets fans felt -- after suffering through most of two seasons of the Adam Gase era -- when their team won enough games to ensure they would not be in position to draft the best quarterback prospect since Andrew Luck.

2021 VIPs

Head coach: Robert Saleh. I feel like I could spend a lot of time trying to do a deep dive into what went into the Jets' decision to hire Adam Gase two years ago. But let's not do that, mostly because I really do believe the Jets nailed it with the hiring of Saleh. Keeping tabs on him in San Francisco for the past few years has been like watching a guy develop to the point that you knew he was going to be a big star. Like Stone Cold Steve Austin before he was King of the Ring and launched Austin 3:16. Saleh was part of rebuilding the 49ers' defense into one of the league's best over the last couple of years.

And as my colleague Ian Rapoport mentioned back in January, the Jets wanted a clear leader as their head coach. Somebody who could lead this franchise. That was never going to be the former guy. They moved quickly to talk to Saleh, and Saleh clearly wanted this gig. If I'm being honest, this is one of the most desirable jobs in the NFL. The Jets had the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft. There was already some talent on the roster. And if you win with the Jets, you'll be beloved forever. I love this fit. Saleh is a high-energy, confident leader who is going to play well in New York.

Quarterback: Zach Wilson. The Jets obviously lost out on Trevor Lawrence, who went to the Jags first overall, and many fans will talk about that forever. But there was no wavering during the draft process -- Wilson was the Jets' guy. While the 49ers were perceived as the wild card who could go any number of ways at No. 3 overall, it feels like the Jets were locked in on Wilson from the jump at No. 2. He is the fifth quarterback the Jets have drafted in the first or second round since 2009. And I could sit here and list those quarterbacks now, but why do we have to talk about old (stuff)?

Wilson had 33 touchdowns and just three interceptions last season for BYU, which was the best TD-to-INT ratio in the FBS in 2020. He was electric every time you turned on the television. You can understand why the Jets were so quick to fall in love with him.

Projected 2021 MVP: Wilson. I know it's kind of tough to pin it all on a rookie quarterback. But really, it's up to him. The defense could be pretty good. (And we'll talk about the defense in just a minute.) But Jets quarterbacks rank last in the NFL in completion percentage (59.2), passing yards per game (189.0), TD-to-INT ratio (53:49) and passer rating (76.5) since 2018. While Wilson is expected to develop into a dynamic playmaker down the road, even being just a plus-level game-manager as a rookie would give this team a huge boost.

2021 breakout star: John Franklin-Myers, defensive end. Franklin-Myers played really well last season. And if it weren't for the fact that the Jets, you know, weren't very good, he likely would have received more buzz. But he's playing for a defensive-minded head coach now. The Jets made some nice additions to the D in the offseason, and they are getting C.J. Mosley back (again, we'll talk about this more in a moment) after he opted out of last season. So this could be a huge year for Franklin-Myers.

New face to know: Corey Davis, wide receiver. Davis had a career-high 984 receiving yards and five touchdown receptions for the Titans last year. And when you see a former early first-round draft pick who was widely considered a borderline bust for most of his career, then finally came through in the last season of his rookie contract, well, you have to sign him. At least, the Jets do. Sorry, that was mean. To make it up to you, I will point out that the only receivers to average more yards per route run (minimum 200 routes) than Davis in 2020 were Pro Bowl selectees Davante Adams, Justin Jefferson and A.J. Brown, per Next Gen Stats. If Davis can be a consistent deep threat for Wilson, then you really have something here. Jets QBs had a completion rate of 28.1 percent on deep pass attempts last season (ranking 29th in the NFL). But Wilson completed 62.5 percent of his deep passes in 2020 and had 12 touchdowns on such throws last season.

2021 roadmap

The competitive urgency index is: LOW. The Jets are 23-57 over the last five seasons, which is the worst record in the NFL over that span. They have five wins or fewer in four of the last five seasons. The Jets and Bengals are the only teams without a .500-or-better season since 2016 (both last finished .500 or better in 2015). Nobody is expecting a miracle here.

Three key dates:

  • Week 1 at Carolina Panthers. That awkward moment when you hit the town with your new bae, only to run into your ex, who is going to be starting for a new team.
  • Week 7 at New England Patriots. The Jets will host the Patriots in Week 2. But the first trip to Foxborough should be something special for Wilson.
  • Week 16 vs. Jacksonville Jaguars. Well, at least Trevor Lawrence will play one game at MetLife Stadium this season. I will completely understand if you don't want to tune in for this game. Or maybe Wilson will out-play Lawrence, and you can feel great about your franchise. Because that sounds like something that would happen for Jets fans.

Will the Jets be able to …

Score some points? The Jets averaged 15.2 points per game in 2020, the fewest in the NFL. They scored fewer than 20 points in 10 of their 16 games (most in the NFL). And they were one of five teams with 16 or fewer passing touchdowns in 2020. This is why general manager Joe Douglas has used all five of his first- and second-round picks on offense over the last two years. New offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur spent the last seven seasons on Kyle Shanahan's coaching staff, so expect LaFleur to use outside-zone run concepts on plenty of play-action dropbacks. Wilson had a perfect passer rating on play-action passes that used outside-zone run concepts last year at BYU, according to Pro Football Focus.

Get anything out of C.J. Mosley? The Jets made a big investment in Mosley in 2019. Thus far, that signing has kind of been like buying a Peloton: an impulse purchase you made with the best of intentions, but which just ends up sitting there in the spare room with a bunch of clothes hanging from it. Mosley played in two games in 2019, missing the other 14 with a groin injury. He opted out of last season, citing family health concerns. But now Mosley is back, and he's earning glowing reviews from teammates and coaches. He's re-joining a team that brought in Carl Lawson and Sheldon Rankins this offseason. I think this Jets defense has a chance to be pretty good. Keep in mind that the 49ers' defense ranked in the top five in 2019 (second) and 2020 (fifth) under Saleh. The 49ers allowed the fewest total yards per game (298.1) and passing yards per game (188.6) in the NFL from 2019 to 2020.

And while we're talking about defense, the secondary is going to be the biggest concern. The Jets allowed 28.6 points per game last year, the third-most in a single season in franchise history. They were bad in many metrics. Here's one that stands out: The Jets allowed an open target on 49.7 percent of pass attempts in 2020 (the fifth-highest rate in the league), per Next Gen Stats. Part of the reason for that? Well, the Jets are the only team in the NFL without a cornerback on their current roster that was drafted before the fifth round. That's by the Jets or any other franchise. I know, that's wild. Kind of explains a lot, though. Maybe next year, Douglas can use all five of the picks he has in the first three rounds on corners.

Run the football? The Jets ranked in the bottom 10 in rushing yards per game (105.2) and yards per carry (4.2) last season. They were one of two teams with fewer than 10 rushing touchdowns. And their leading rusher was Frank Gore, who is currently a 38-year-old free agent. But they did sign Tevin Coleman this offseason (because of course they did). And some fantasy analyst is going to try to convince you to draft Coleman this year because of his familiarity with Mike LaFleur's Shanahan-like system. Don't fall for that. Because we love fourth-round pick Michael Carter. He was one of four players drafted in 2021 who had at least 1,500 scrimmage yards in 2020. Carter averaged 8.0 yards per carry in 2020. EIGHT! He also averaged 4.5 yards per carry after contact in 2020. I mean, Gore averaged a total of 3.5 yards per carry last year.

One storyline …

... people are overlooking: The Jets' long-term quarterback woes. Or maybe it's just the content creators for other social media sites that love to illustrate the lack of proficiency from the Chicago Bears over the years while ignoring the Jets. The Bears get beaten up in graphics because they've never had a 4,000-yard passer. The Jets haven't had a 4,000-yard passer since Joe Namath in 1967. Ryan Fitzpatrick is the only quarterback in club history with 30-plus touchdown passes in a season (2015). And the last Jets quarterback with a passer rating above 100 was Chad Pennington in 2002 (104.2). Zach Wilson could become the best Jets quarterback since Namath by the end of the season.

... people are overlooking, Part II: The offensive line isn't bad. The Jets drafted left tackle Mekhi Becton in the first round last year, passing on the top receivers available. That includes CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson. And before Jets fans get too sad, you all know you would have ended up drafting Henry Ruggs III anyway, so don't do that to yourself. Besides, Becton was pretty good last year as a rookie despite some injuries. He's currently ranked among the top 30 OTs in the game by PFF, which is good. The Jets also traded up in the first round this year to draft Alijah Vera-Tucker, who allowed only one sack and seven pressures at guard for USC in 2019. And they signed veteran Morgan Moses to a one-year deal last month as kind of a stopgap at right tackle.

... people are overlooking, Part III: The Jets were good against the run last season. The Jets allowed just 4.0 yards per carry in the in 2020 (ranking seventh in the NFL). They gave up 112.0 rushing yards per game (12th) and 16 rushing touchdowns (tied for 14th).

... people are overthinking: Who will be the No. 1 wide receiver? Instead of worrying about that, focus on how this could be a low-key good receiver corps. Jamison Crowder leads the team in scrimmage yards and touchdowns since 2018. Then you have Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Keelan Cole and Denzel Mims. Moore, a second-round pick this year, led the FBS in receptions per game (10.8), receiving yards per game (149.1) and first-down receptions per game (5.9) in his final season at Ole Miss.

For 2021 to be a success, the Jets MUST:

  • Have Wilson establish that he's a good quarterback. And be competitive. The Jets finished with their second-worst record in club history (2-14) last year. Only the Rich Kotite disaster of 1-15 in 1996 was worse. Kotite -- like Adam Gase -- was a retread, so maybe stop doing that. The Jets' 0-13 start in 2020 was the worst in team history. Winning five or six games in 2021 would be a good sign.

In closing

I know that you're going to end up lamenting the Trevor Lawrence thing for quite some time. But why not celebrate the one who didn't get away? You got the coach you desperately needed. And if Wilson ends up being as good as the Jets' front office expects him to be, you could be on the cusp of something special.

Follow Adam Rank on Twitter.

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