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Making the Leap, No. 19: Jets QB Geno Smith

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For the third straight year, the Around The NFL crew will document the players we believe will be "Making the Leap" in 2015. This could be a player emerging from no-name status to a quality starter. Or it could mean an excellent player jumping to superstar status. 

Geno Smith showed more last December than Derek Carr or Blake Bortles showed all season. He torched the Dolphins in a nearly flawless Week 17 game, but nobody noticed because the Jets' season was over in November. Nobody noticed because "Geno" is already a four-letter word in New York.

There are different types of Making the Leap candidates. There are diamonds in the rough like Charles Johnson. There are guys like Le'Veon Bell last year, a great young player that we believed could develop into a true superstar. And there are guys like Geno, just trying to improve to "acceptable."

Though he is only 24, it feels like the book has already been written on Smith because of his propensity for big mistakes under pressure. But after being viewed as a punchline for two seasons, Geno is now in a perfect position to develop into a midlevel starter who survives a full 16-game slate. After a brutal start to his career, that would be quite a leap.

What changed in December


Geno's lowest moment as a pro was the last memory most folks have of him. In an ugly Week 13 loss to Miami on Monday Night Football, Rex Ryan was so afraid of letting Smith actually play quarterback that the Jets only attempted 13 passes compared to 49 rushes. Rex told a national audience that he'd rather set offensive progress back 40 years than allow Smith to do his job.

And then suddenly Geno started to do his job quite well. In the last four games, Smith completed 65 percent of his passes for 1,001 yards, six touchdowns, and two picks. He averaged 9.2 yards-per-attempt over that stretch, tied for best in the league. By the time the Jets played Miami again in Week 17, Geno was virtually flawless:

I re-watched each Smith snap on the coaches film from Game Rewind to see how he pulled off this turnaround. Here are my biggest takeaways:

1. Geno excelled over the final month because of his decision-making. His biggest issue as a pro has been panicking when under duress and throwing passes up for grabs. He's prone to the brain freeze. In the final month, Smith calmly found the open receiver. When no one was open, he made plays with his legs or got rid of the ball.

2. One huge reason that Smith made good decisions: He had time. The Jets protected Smith very well over the final month, which allowed him to show off his strengths. Smith has a strong arm and methodically goes through his reads better than plenty of his young contemporaries. A big question: If protection isn't so ideal in 2015, can he still excel?

3. Geno got me fired up enough to write this because he owns skills that are difficult to teach. He has excellent pocket movement, buying time to attempt passes. Some quarterbacks never get that sixth sense in the pocket; Geno has it. He is not afraid to make difficult throws, aggressively pushing the ball down the field. He looks off defenders. The play below is an example of him stepping up in the pocket and taking a hit before delivering:

4. The Jets didn't ask Smith to do too much. He ran the offense and didn't take too many chances.

5. In Weeks 14-16, Smith played solid midlevel starter football. He mostly stayed out of the way. But in the season finale, Smith put together one of the best games by any quarterback all season, throwing for 358 yards on only 25 attempts. He threw receivers open and even his incompletions were on point. The game showed off his big arm and his touch.

The Gailey effect


December was fun and all, but Smith wouldn't make our list if not for the arrival of Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. In previous stops, Gailey has turned Tyler Thigpen into a starting fantasy option, helped Ryan Fitzpatrick get a $60 million contract and coached a Jay Fiedler-led Dolphins team to finish eighth in points scored.

Gailey accomplished all of the above by getting mediocre quarterbacks to play smart and get rid of the ball quickly. Smith has plenty of talent, and he certainly has the supporting cast. The Jets receiver posse -- Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, Jeremy Kerley, second-round pick Devin Smith and tight end Jace Amaro -- form one of the deeper groups in the league.

Gailey has cooked up numbers with far less talent. His best offenses are similar to the one that Smith excelled in at West Virginia. It's almost like the Jets had a plan here.

Expectations


We aren't making the case that Geno Smith will be a Pro Bowler. We do believe he has the skills to be a competent starting quarterback who holds off backup Ryan Fitzpatrick all season. He can be the type of guy who finishes in the top 20 of our year-end QB rankings. Those guys have plenty of market value.

To put it another way: Geno, like Alex Smith in Kansas City, will no longer be the guy to hold the team back. The Genocoaster in 2015 should more closely resemble a Swiss train, staying efficiently on schedule.

The latest Around The NFL Podcast discusses the Bills' QB situation, the Odell Beckham Jr. drama and unveils the Superstar Club. Find more Around The NFL content on NFL NOW.

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