The much-anticipated rematch between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets if finally coming to Orchard Park, NY this weekend. Highmark Stadium and the surrounding lots are sure to be a rockin’ all weekend long, with fans gearing up to drown out the Jet’s offensive productivity. The teams met just five weeks ago but it feels like far more time has passed. Given the week-to-week nature of the NFL, both teams’ rosters won’t look the same for this Week 14 clash.
The Bills appear healthier when considering the injury reports and types of injuries this week, but those who suit up will face a very talented and dangerous team with a one-track mind set on winning the AFC East.
But are the Jets ahead of schedule on their rebuild? What’s next for the Jets’ quarterback situation? Are there red zone struggles to be concerned about or was it just an anomaly against the Minnesota Vikings? Rookie wide receiver Garrett Wilson is loaded with talent. Will the Bills struggle to contain him?
Deputy editor MacGregor Wells of Gang Green Nation joined me again this week to discuss these topics and more. Read on to find out what MacGregor thinks ahead of Sunday’s kickoff!
1. The Jets have been a major surprise storyline for those outside the fanbase this season. Are they ahead of schedule and winning despite an unsettled quarterback room—and what makes that defense tick?
I think the Jets are probably ahead of schedule, largely because the Jets’ 2022 draft class has performed better than expectations. Ordinarily, even the best players struggle a bit in their rookie years. The Jets have rookies playing like veterans, and that has made the difference in the Jets “arriving” perhaps a year ahead of schedule. Rookie cornerbacks notoriously take a year to settle in and excel, but Sauce Gardner is a legit All-Pro candidate. You just don’t see that happen much. Garrett Wilson is likely to become a 1000-yard receiver. That’s also something you don’t see a lot as a rookie. Breece Hall, before he got injured, was looking like he’d get between 1500 and 1800 yards from scrimmage, depending on if he continued his upward trajectory. That made a big difference for the Jets’ offense while he was healthy. The Jets have also gotten solid contributions from Micheal Clemons and Jermaine Johnson on the defensive line and Max Mitchell on the offensive line. This is looking like the best Jets draft class since 1977, and probably the most impactful Jets draft class as rookies ever. The rookies, along with the success of free-agent additions like cornerback D.J. Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead, and the return to health after missed seasons for edge rusher Carl Lawson and safety LaMarcus Joyner, have combined to quickly transform the Jets from a talentless team a year ago to a talented team today, probably a year before Jets fans expected it.
The Jets’ defensive success is predicated on an excellent defensive line that generates lots of pressure on the quarterback, and one of the best cornerback groups in the NFL. Sauce Gardner and D.J. Reed form perhaps the best outside cornerback duo in the NFL, and slot cornerback Michael Carter has really come into his own in his second year in the league. On the defensive line, Quinnen Williams, after several good-but-not-great years to start his career, is having a career year and playing at an All-Pro level. He has been all but unblockable by single teams. Carl Lawson has come back from a season lost to injury to generate a lot of pressure on the edge, John Franklin-Myers is doing well on the other edge, and Jermaine Johnson and Bryce Huff have been excellent in spelling the starters on the edge. It all adds up to opposing quarterbacks being pressured and often having little time to throw, and when they have time, they have to navigate a Jets’ secondary that does an excellent job in coverage.
2. What do you make of the Jets’ uncharacteristic red zone struggles against the Vikings—a concern or anomaly?
I think the Jets’ red zone struggles are a concern. Whether it’s Zach Wilson, Joe Flacco or Mike White, the Jets have a below average starting quarterback, and that makes it more difficult when the Jets get in the red zone and the compressed defenses make windows tight. Perhaps Mike White will prove to be better than I’m giving him credit for, but for now, I think it’s pretty questionable as to whether the Jets have a quarterback who can consistently get it done in the red zone. The Jets also lack a prototypical big red zone target who can be relied upon to win contested targets on a consistent basis. Throw in an inconsistent running game and I think the Jets’ red zone issues are likely to persist.
3. The legend of Mike White took a hit last season when he faced off against the Bills. What do you attribute to his overall success, and what stands out most about him in comparison to Wilson—apart from experience?
Zach Wilson was not operating at the level of a competent NFL quarterback on a consistent basis. His mechanics were a mess, he took way too long to process what was in front of him, he too often passed on the easy gains to try for difficult long passes that just weren’t there, his accuracy was terrible, he did not read defenses well, and he did not have good pocket presence. Essentially, other than having a strong arm and a quick release, Wilson was doing nothing at an acceptable NFL level. Sure, there were brief stretches, sometimes a quarter or a half of a game, where Wilson looked good, but for the most part he was anywhere from mediocre to embarrassingly bad.
It remains to be seen what Mike White can develop into, but for now he is at least able to throw the ball with accuracy, get the ball out quickly, and make the right decisions most of the time. That lets the Jets’ offense function the way it’s designed most of the time. For now nobody’s talking about Mike White being a top NFL quarterback, but at this point competent will suffice.
4. Does it feel like the Jets have given up on Zach Wilson too soon, or does this feel more like what the Miami Dolphins did in repeatedly pulling Tua Tagovailoa?
Many Jets fans feel the Jets have given up on Zach Wilson too soon. I am not one of them. I think with any highly drafted young quarterback the natural response of fans of the team is to be in that guy’s corner and cling to hope well past the point when realistically the guy’s probably a lost cause. Nobody enjoys coming to the conclusion your team once again has failed at drafting and/or developing a quarterback, and it’s back to square one.
I personally like to see what the historical record says about quarterbacks who begin their career in similar fashions. In Wilson’s case, it isn’t pretty. There are perhaps one or two notable exceptions, but quarterbacks coming back from where Wilson is now and becoming long-term answers at the position are so exceedingly rare I think it’s time to move on. Can he improve? Sure, it’s not impossible. But I think that we as fans often get stuck on asking the wrong questions. To me, the question isn’t, is it within the range of possible outcomes? The question is, what is the opportunity cost of continuing to try to develop Zach Wilson at this point, and is it more likely that a guy with Wilson’s track record in the NFL eventually pans out, or is it more likely the team can find a better solution at the position with other options through trades, free agency or the draft? The sunk cost of a high draft pick and $30 million in cap space is already gone; nothing can be done about that now. The only question is what can be done about the quarterback position going forward, and is continuing to invest in Zach Wilson giving the team the best chance of success? I think the answer is probably continuing to invest in Zach Wilson does not give the Jets the greatest odds of success going forward, even if there is still some non-trivial chance he eventually develops into something valuable at the quarterback position. Others certainly disagree with that conclusion, and of course there is no way to prove it one way or the other.
The counterargument is, well, what about Josh Allen? He struggled badly, look where he is now? To that I say, Josh Allen is amazing. I wish he was the Jets’ quarterback. But expecting any young quarterback to follow the Josh Allen path is like expecting a sixth-round pick to become the next Tom Brady. Sure, it could happen, but it’s so exceedingly rare, it’s not worth devoting substantial resources to that potential outcome.
5. Rookie WR Garrett Wilson has been on a bit of a tear the last five games. Can you tell us a little more about the whys and hows of his success this season?
Garrett Wilson succeeds on the basis of his rare abilities to create separation quickly and to generate YAC. He has an unorthodox herky-jerky way of moving and juking that isn’t the way you’d teach anybody, but it works well for him. Wilson has had a few issues dropping passes, he may never be a great contested-catch guy because of his slight frame, and he could stand to gain a few pounds to stop from getting bullied by more physical cornerbacks, but the things he does well look to me like he is set up to be the first true No.1 receiver the Jets have drafted since Keyshawn Johnson a quarter century ago.
6. Our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook currently list the Jets as 10-point road dogs to the Bills. Given the way things went last month, do you feel this line is overlooking anything in the Jets’ favor?
I think the point spread is reasonable. I took exception the last time around when the Jets opened as 12.5-point home underdogs. But it isn’t easy winning on the road in the NFL. Winning on the road against a legit Super Bowl contender is exceedingly difficult. And getting the better of Josh Allen twice in one season is no piece of cake. The Bills have earned the respect this point spread gives them. Unless and until the upstart Jets prove otherwise, there is still a gap between these two teams, and if the Jets want to get more respect, they’ll have to earn it the old fashioned way — by winning in Buffalo. We’ll see if they’re up to that difficult task.
My thanks again to MacGregor for taking the time to answer questions about the New York Jets ahead of Sunday’s showdown. Overlooking the Jets is a foolish move for any team, and the Bills may have serious competition for AFC supremacy in the years to come out of the tri-state area.