Healthy Sanchez key to Jets' season

June, 3, 2010
6/03/10
5:49
PM ET
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- New York Jets second-year quarterback Mark Sanchez is clearly making major strides coming back from the minor surgery on his left knee. But pay attention to the nuances of his progress and you can see he’s got more work to do.

[+] EnlargeMark Sanchez
Al Pereira/Getty ImagesMark Sanchez has been rehabbing his surgically repaired left knee, but is still limited in practice.
Case in point: Thursday’s OTA at the Jets’ practice facility here. Sanchez threw a nice back-shoulder 50-yard bomb that David Clowney caught after a slight adjustment. After Clowney waltzed into the end zone, Sanchez slapped his knee in frustration -- the ball should have been thrown in front of the wide-open receiver, requiring no adjustment at all. Last season, Sanchez might have made that connection perfectly.

But to really understand the progress Sanchez is making, it’s important to go back one play earlier. On a quick wide receiver screen to his right, Sanchez dropped back, planted his feet and seemed to lock his left -- surgically repaired -- leg in the grass. As a result, when the ball was released, it took a nose dive -- incomplete.

Quarterbacks coach Matt Cavanaugh quickly came over to Sanchez and motioned with his throwing arm to keep the release point up to avoid having top spin on the football. The next play, Sanchez did exactly what Cavanaugh instructed and the result was the long touchdown pass to Clowney.

"I’d be lying if I told you I saw that," said head coach Rex Ryan, when asked about Cavanaugh’s subtle instruction to his young QB. "That’s why we have Matt."

Sanchez said it was no big deal. "They're pretty happy with my mechanics," he said. "I’m using my legs. My feet are under me. I’m driving the ball."

Sanchez is still limited. Seven-on-seven drills are no problem. But team drills are still a no-no. In fact, Sanchez sneaked into a team drill last week for one hand-off to a running back, and got reprimanded by Ryan, who got an earful from team owner Woody Johnson.

"Rex said, ‘Next time you do it, make sure Mr. Johnson is not out there,’" said Sanchez, who is attacking these practices with his trademark boyish bounce and grin.

Sanchez said he hopes to be ready for all team activities for a three-day minicamp beginning June 14. But Ryan stressed that Sanchez has not been given clearance by the team’s medical staff.

Despite the additions of some big-name veterans -- LaDanian Tomlinson, Jason Taylor and Antonio Cromartie -- Ryan knows this team will get only so far without a healthy Sanchez. That’s why he’s being careful. But so far he likes what he sees.

"He really knows this offense well," Ryan said. "All that time rehabbing the injury has been a blessing, because he’s been here with the coaches all the time. He looks fantastic. Last year, you saw a lot of positive things, but you also saw a lot of negatives. Right now, he’s throwing the ball great. He’s got such a great grasp of the system and that’s so encouraging to me."

"Now, I’m visualizing it," said Sanchez. "I’m seeing the concept. Audible mechanics. Route depth. Little nuances ... every day it’s feeling better."

Clearly, Sanchez should be ready for training camp in Cortland, N.Y., in July. He better be. That’s when the HBO cameras will be with the team 24/7 for the next installment of the "Hard Knocks" series.

The Sanchez star power certainly will be good for ratings, even though the headliner will be the media-friendly Ryan. The New York tabloids are already calling the show, "Rex in the City II," a sequel to last season's appearance in the AFC championship game in Ryan's rookie year as head coach.

Sal Paolantonio

SportsCenter correspondent / NFL reporter
Sal Paolantonio joined ESPN as a SportsCenter correspondent in August 1995, primarily reporting on the NFL. Beginning in 2004, he also served as host of NFL Match-Up, a weekly "Xs and Os" football show produced by NFL Films.

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