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Biggest questions for Jets as training camp opens

07/23/2014 12:49 PM ET
By Brian DiMenna
After back-to-back trips to the conference championship game in Rex Ryan's first two seasons as head coach, the team has settled into mediocrity in his past three. New York surprised some people a season ago, going 8-8 while breaking in Geno Smith at quarterback. The team added some impressive names in free agency, most notably on offense with the additions of Eric Decker and Chris Johnson, while using the draft to bolster and already stout defense. Will these moves translate into a return to contention? Let's take a look.

Is Eric Decker the No. 1 receiver the Jets have been missing?

The Jets thought they had a top wide receiver when they brought Santonio Holmes over from Pittsburgh in 2010. But Holmes spent his four seasons in New York battling injury and ineffectiveness while developing a reputation as a problem in the locker room. That's pretty much the trifecta, "Well, he hasn't played well ... and he's hurt all the time ... and no one likes him ... but other than that!"

With former second-round pick Stephen Hill yet to prove he can be an impact player, New York offered big money to lure away one of Peyton Manning's top targets in Eric Decker. Decker is coming off a monster season in which he caught 87 balls for 1,288 yards and 11 TDs, and before you credit that all to playing with Manning, keep in mind that he grabbed 8 TDs in 2011 while running routes for Kyle Orton and Tim Tebow. In other words, he's legit.

Can Milliner erase memories of Revis and Cromartie?

The Jets once had two of the most feared corners in the league playing alongside each other in Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie. Now, both are gone, and second-year man Dee Milliner will be asked to justify his own lofty draft expectations. Milliner suffered through an uneven first year in which he was benched at times, but seemed to come on late. 

The Jets have what is widely regarded as one of the best defensive lines in the sport, and first-round pick Calvin Pryor should help in the secondary. But they'll also need Milliner to emerge as at least a starting caliber corner if they are to thrive in Rex Ryan's aggressive defensive system.

How good is Chris Johnson?

Chris Johnson is a little like one of those solid MLB sluggers who randomly throws up a 50-homer season in the middle of their careers. For most of Johnson's tenure, he was a very capable runner, routinely eclipsing 1,000 yards while averaging around 4.5 yards per pop. But then there's that 2009 season.

In Johnson's second season in the NFL he erupted for 2,006 yards and 14 touchdowns, while averaging an absurd 5.6 yards per carry. Judging the rest of his career against that and everything else looks like bitter disappointment, particularly for the Titans who signed Johnson to a generous contract extension based on that performance.

The Jets won't need Johnson to be CJ2K, and would certainly settle for the consistently productive runner he was for most of his time in Tennessee. With Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory already on the roster, Johsnon merely fitting in among a trio of running backs would probably be enough to boost what's been an anemic running game in recent years.

Is Muhammad Wilkerson the best player in New York?

Muhammad Wilkerson was the consensus "Best player you've never heard of" prior to last season. After 2013's monster campaign, the budding superstar may still not be a household name, but he may well be the best player in New York, in any sport.

Wilkerson posted his first season of double-digit sacks with 10.5 in 2013, but those numbers don't begin to express his impact on a game. The versatile Wilkerson can play multiple positions on the defensive line in Rex Ryan's defense, and his ability to stuff the run and pressure the passer make him a unique threat in the AFC. If the Jets are to be the contender that Rex Ryan keeps promising they will be, expect Wilkerson to be perhaps the biggest reason why.

Can Rex Ryan finally back up all that talk?

After a humbling 6-10 record in 2012, the Jets saw a quieter, gentler Rex Ryan in 2013, which is really no Rex Ryan at all. The Jets head coach enters this season clearly feeling better about his roster, as the bombast of years past has returned. Ryan has already promised a return to the postseason, and made waves when he responded tersely to a question about whether he worries about the Patriots:

"Somebody asked me if we focus on New England. Bull---"-," Ryan told the New York Post. "We're focused on us. We're focused on us and how are we going to be better. I have to be honest, I don't worry about them. They need to worry about us. I think that's really where we're at now."

Though the Jets are coming off a third straight playoff-less season, last year's over-achieving team seems to have gotten him off the hot seat, which makes sense when one considers he's one of the few coaches in the sport that gives his team a distinct advantage on a side of the ball, and he is already one of the most successful coaches in the history of the franchise. But mostly it's just good to have mouthy Rex back. It's more fun for everyone.

How much will Michael Vick push Geno Smith?

Had Geno Smith been a first-round pick instead of a second-round one, his status wouldn't be even remotely in doubt. But such is the way with expectations. Smith had about three seasons in one during his rookie year, as he impressed early on, regressed badly in the middle, before showing signs of life by season's end.

Smith did enough in 2013 to enter camp as the entrenched starter, but not enough to convince the team that they didn't need to bring in competition. To that end, the Jets turned to veteran Michael Vick, a quarterback who comes with his fair share of controversy, but who is also well versed in offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's system. Vick isn't the playmaker he was in his youth, and the Jets likely hope not to have to use him, but his presence does mean that Smith won't be allowed to struggle indefinitely for a team that has playoff aspirations.

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