The New York Jets are poised to make a legitimate run at the AFC East crown -- or, at least, a wild-card slot -- behind a championship-caliber defense and a talented collection of skill players with the potential to anchor a sneaky-explosive offense in 2015. Of course, the team will need efficient play from the quarterback position to earn a spot in the postseason.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a long, hard look at Geno Smith. Does the third-year pro have the tools to get it done for Gang Green in coach Todd Bowles' first season?
What's the scouting report on Geno Smith?
The prolific quarterback out of West Virginia was expected to come off the board in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft, but a draft-weekend slide allowed the Jets to snap him up with the 39th overall pick. Watching Smith when he was in college, I believed he had all of the tools to develop into a quality NFL starter. He displayed a high football IQ -- I was impressed with what I saw of his football aptitude when he served as a counselor at the Elite 11 Quarterback Camp prior to his senior season at WVU -- and was a diligent worker behind the scenes. From a physical standpoint, he was an accurate thrower with a strong arm and quick release. He showed outstanding ball placement on various quick-rhythm throws (slants, seam routes and skinny posts) in the Mountaineers' spread offense. In addition, he was courageous in the pocket, exhibiting the toughness and concentration to deliver the ball in the face of heavy pressure.
Despite a slight regression in production during the second half of his senior campaign -- Smith started the season with a 25:0 touchdown-to-interception ratio but finished with a 42:6 mark after a few bad games down the stretch -- and concerns about his ability to transition from a spread offense to a traditional pro-style system, I viewed Smith as a streaky player with the potential to blossom into a quality starter in a scheme built around his talents as a quick-rhythm passer.
During his first two seasons with the Jets, Smith certainly has been an inconsistent playmaker from the pocket. He has mixed a handful of brilliant moments with a number of boneheaded mistakes that lead to questions about judgment and awareness. Smith has surrendered 41 giveaways (34 interceptions and seven lost fumbles) in 30 appearances (29 starts), showing a propensity to turn the ball over when attempting to improvise outside of the pocket. Smith routinely throws the ball up for grabs at the end of scrambles, resulting in costly turnovers at inopportune times. While some of his mistakes can be blamed on the Jets' leaky pass protection, the fact that he has consistently put the ball in harm's way is a major concern.
In terms of the positives in Smith's play, I would cite his accuracy and ball placement on quick-rhythm throws. When given the opportunity to execute an assortment of catch-and-throw passes (one- and three-step shotgun passes or three- and five-step drop-back passes), Smith gets the ball out of his hands quickly and delivers pinpoint passes within the pass catcher's strike zone. Smith shows good timing and anticipation on in-breaking routes between the numbers. He releases the ball well before the receiver makes his break and routinely fits the ball in tight windows between multiple underneath defenders. Smith's aggressiveness and confidence delivering the ball over the middle is uncommon for a young quarterback, which is why a wily offensive coordinator would welcome the opportunity to work with him as a developmental player.
Although Smith needs to work diligently on reducing his mistakes and costly turnovers, he displays enough ability and potential to merit some consideration as a long-term solution at the position. In the right environment, I can envision Smith playing the game like Matt Hasselbeck in his prime. During my time with the Seattle Seahawks, I watched coach Mike Holmgren use a tough-love approach to help Hasselbeck refine his game and eventually develop into a Pro Bowl quarterback. The veteran coach stressed the importance of stringing together completions to pick up first downs and sustain drives. When Hasselbeck finally adhered to Holmgren's instructions to simply "connect the dots" as a passer, he became a top-10 quarterback (after entering the league viewed as a marginal prospect). If Smith follows a similar blueprint, he could finally settle the Jets' quarterback situation.
How will Chan Gailey build the offense around Smith's talents?
When Bowles hired Gailey to guide the Jets' offense, he brought on an innovative play designer with a reputation for concocting quarterback-friendly systems. Gailey's positive work with the likes of Kordell Stewart, Tyler Thigpen and Ryan Fitzpatrick speaks volumes about his adaptability and flexibility as a play caller. As the Pittsburgh Steelers' offensive coordinator, Gailey transformed the ultra-athletic Stewart into a capable pocket passer by tweaking the playbook to feature a number of quick-rhythm and movement-based concepts to help the youngster make solid decisions with the ball. With the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008, Gailey brazenly introduced the NFL to the "pistol" offense with Thigpen at the helm. Gailey decided to incorporate the collegiate tactic into the playbook to help his inexperienced passer quickly transition to the pro game after being thrust into the starting role due to injuries. Gailey's decision to install Thigpen's collegiate offense (he ran the pistol at Coastal Carolina) not only showcased his ability to build around a quarterback's specific talents, but it also demonstrated his schematic flexibility as a play designer.
With Smith at the helm for Gang Green, I would expect Gailey to continue to use a variety of spread formations with "10" (1 RB, 4 WRs) and "11" (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs) personnel on the field. The quarterback was at his best at West Virginia directing the offense from a shotgun attack with spread personnel on the field. This matches Gailey's philosophy of using open sets to clear up the pre-snap reads for the quarterback, allowing the signal-caller to be confident and decisive with the ball. In addition, Gailey likely will use a number of quick-rhythm concepts to help Smith promptly get the ball out of his hands. The Jets would be wise to play to Smith's strengths as a rhythm thrower while masking an offensive line that's struggled in pass protection at times.
Here are some of the quick-rhythm passes Gailey could feature in the Jets' game plan to help Smith get off to a fast start in 2015:
WIDE RECEIVER SCREEN
The "now" screen is the easiest way to get the ball into the hands of dangerous playmakers on the perimeter. The screen is an effective complement to zone-read action in the backfield and gives the quarterback a low-risk pass with big-play potential against "off" coverage. Gailey has always mixed in a variety of screens into his game plan to offset blitz pressure, but he likely will incorporate more WR quick screens -- especially against soft coverage on the outside -- to take advantage of passive defenders on the edges. Not to mention, Smith proved capable in such concepts a season ago.
In the play depicted just below, taken from last year's game at Miami in Week 17, New York executes a quick screen to wide receiver Eric Decker to exploit soft coverage on the perimeter. Decker is positioned on the outside to the right as part of the Jets' dubs formation. He will take three steps up the field before retreating to snag the screen pass from Smith. With a nice set of blockers leading the way, Decker turns a short pass into a solid gain on a high-percentage play (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
If Gailey has studied all of Smith's NFL game tape, he'll have quickly realized his young quarterback is very comfortable executing the "Chevron" concept (snag-corner-flat) from the pocket. Smith understands how to read the designated defender (curl/flat player) and consistently targets the open pass catcher. As a result, the Jets repeatedly ran "Chevron" from a variety of formations; it allowed Smith to string together completions and keep the offense in favorable situations on early downs. Given the multiple formations and pre-snap shifts/motions that can be created to disguise the play, Gailey could make this concept one of the staples of the Jets' game plan in 2015.
In the next play breakdown, drawn from the Week 14 game at Minnesota, the Jets are aligned in a dubs formation, with Percy Harvin lined up in a nasty split on the right. He will run the snag route, with tight end Jeff Cumberland instructed to execute a corner route and running back Chris Johnson racing to the flat. Smith is reading the reaction of the outside linebacker (Minnesota's Chad Greenway) to determine whether to throw the ball to the flat or hit the snag route. When Greenway follows Johnson to the flat, Smith fires a dart to Harvin for a 9-yard gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
This sets up a manageable third down, allowing the Jets to avoid the type of risky, long-yardage situation that can lead to a turnover.
Later on in the game against Vikings, the Jets call Chevron again -- as you can see in the following footage -- but Smith elects to work the back side of the play when he notices the cornerback playing soft against Decker. The veteran receiver is running a 6-yard hitch against "off" coverage, which is an easy completion for a quarterback. Smith quickly fires the ball outside and allows his big-bodied pass catcher to create a third-and-short following a solid gain (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
In the next play breakdown, the Jets are again running Chevron from a dubs formation, but this time it is against the Dolphins in Week 17. Chris Owusu is aligned at the flanker spot to the right, with Cumberland in the slot. Owusu will run the snag, with Cumberland on the corner and Chris Ivory racing to the flat after short motion in the backfield. The Dolphins are playing man coverage, which locks linebacker Jelani Jenkins onto Ivory. However, Jenkins gets confused with the crossing action and drops coverage on Ivory to the flat, resulting in an easy touchdown to Ivory on Smith's favorite concept (TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
Smith does a great job executing quick-rhythm throws in stacked and bunch formations. These condensed sets force the defense to scale back on press coverage and allow the quarterback to quickly identify which defender is vulnerable to the horizontal read on the outside. Once again, this helps Smith make quick decisions with the football and deliver accurate passes -- because he knows exactly where to go with the football.
In the following play, taken from the Week 15 contest at Tennessee, the Jets are aligned in a dubs stack formation, with Decker positioned on the left and T.J. Graham just behind him. Decker is instructed to run a 6-yard hitch, with Graham immediately racing to the flat to create a horizontal stretch on the flat defender (Marqueston Huff). When Huff expands to match Graham, Smith immediately delivers a dart to Decker on the inside, resulting in an 8-yard gain and a first down for the Jets(TO VIEW THE PLAY, SCROLL LEFT TO RIGHT ON THE IMAGE BELOW):
How will a new-and-improved receiver corps impact Smith's game?
It's uncommon to find an inexperienced quarterback with the talent and leadership skills to raise the play of his supporting cast at a young age. Thus, it is imperative for decision makers to surround a green signal-caller with a diverse WR corps that features a number of players with complementary skills. Surveying the Jets' roster heading into Smith's "make or break" season, I believe the team finally has enough weapons on the perimeter to allow the young passer to thrive from the pocket.
Brandon Marshall was acquired from Chicago via trade, giving the team a legitimate WR1. The 10th-year pro has been one of the most dominant receivers in the NFL over the past decade, with seven 1,000-yard campaigns and 65 career touchdowns on his résumé. Despite constantly facing double coverage on perimeter, Marshall has topped the 100-catch mark five times. With the Jets, he will give Smith a big-bodied pass catcher to lean on in key situations -- particularly on third down and in the red zone, where quarterbacks are forced to fit the ball into tight windows. Given the Jets' scoring woes a season ago -- New York finished 28th in points per game -- I would expect Marshall to receive plenty of targets on back-shoulder fades and traditional post-up plays when Gang Green gets inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
Decker is the ideal WR2 offensive coordinators covet in the lineup. He has imposing physical dimensions (6-foot-3, 214 pounds), yet is a polished route runner with strong hands and impressive ball skills. He is at his best working inside the numbers on digs and short crossing routes, but he also flashes the skills to make impact plays on "now" screens and fade routes. Decker is crafty at the line of scrimmage and has a little wiggle to elude defenders in traffic. In an offense that's poised to feature more catch-and-run plays designed to get the ball out of Smith's hands, the presence of another big-bodied target will allow the young passer to use both sides of the field.
The Jets have yet to fully tap into the skills of Jeremy Kerley, but the fifth-year pro could blossom as a slot machine in the team's three- and four-receiver sets. Kerley is a dynamic playmaker with the ball in his hands. Given his quickness, burst and running skills, Kerley could see his role enhanced as the "go-to guy" on screens and quick routes from the slot. Also, Kerley could touch the ball on an assortment of gadget and misdirection plays, which are staples of Gailey's offense.
Devin Smith is the X-factor of the group, as the designated deep threat in the lineup. The team's second-round pick in May averaged an incredible 28.2 yards per catch during his final season at Ohio State, tallying 17 receptions of 30-plus yards (including 10 of his 12 touchdowns). Thus, Smith immediately adds a big-play element to an offense that desperately needed a vertical playmaker to prevent opponents from condensing the field with aggressive coverage tactics. Last season, the Jets finished with just 40 passing plays of 20-plus yards (30th in the NFL); that should change with Smith coming onboard. If he can enhance the passing game as a vertical threat, Marshall and Decker will have plenty of room to work on underneath routes inside the numbers.
Is Smith good enough to get the Jets into the playoffs this season?
Yes, I believe so. Smith is definitely talented enough to lead the Jets into the postseason, but he has to play the game the right way to get it done. He needs to continue to reduce his turnovers (Smith dropped his interception total from 21 as a rookie to 13 last year) and avoid the silly mistakes that make things too easy for the opposition.
Most importantly, Smith needs to become a better "game manager" and master the nuances of playing complementary football. With one of the best defenses in the NFL supporting him, Smith simply needs to play the position like a pass-first point guard, allowing his teammates to make plays on the perimeter. If Smith adheres to the script that Gailey and Bowles lay out for him during training camp, the Jets should be right in the thick of the playoff race come December.