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Camp confidential: Jets forging new bonds

8/1/2009

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Graham

CORTLAND, N.Y. -- The New York Jets needed to head off into the hills and find themselves.

No matter that they opened a sparkling, $75 million facility in Florham Park, N.J., less than a year ago.

Rookie head coach Rex Ryan thought it was critical for team chemistry to get away from home. So he's holding his first training camp at SUNY Cortland in the bucolic Finger Lakes region.

"I had a vision for what I wanted our training camp to be and look like, and the feel for it, and I think this really, maybe exceeds what my expectations were," Ryan said upon reporting to Cortland on Thursday. "We really have everything here and we can set out to accomplish everything that we have to do and make this a close-knit football team and get better.

"I think it is so important that when you come out from training camp three-and-a-half weeks from now, we are going to be a really good football team, an excellent football team."

The players all seem to be on board. They've offered nothing but praise about facilities at the Division III college. They have two artificial turf fields. New sod is being put down on the grass field. The dorms are said to be posh -- by dorm standards.

"You get away from the distractions of home and have a chance to bond as a team," quarterback Kellen Clemens said. "We are a close-knit team. We'll be able to battle through some of the adversities that will undoubtedly come up over the course of the season. The work that we are doing right now on the field and off the field will hopefully pay dividends in November and December."

Key questions

Can Clemens win the quarterback battle with rookie Mark Sanchez?

No matter how many times it has been rehashed, there's no other camp storyline that comes remotely close. Whether the Jets want to acknowledge it, they want Sanchez to win the job over the fourth-year pro Clemens.

It's common sense, really. Not pulling for him would be unnatural. With everything they've invested in the fifth overall draft choice -- two picks and three players just to draft him and as much as $60 million over the next five years -- they would love to see him seize the job immediately. That would validate their investment.

Ryan repeatedly insists he doesn't care which quarterback emerges, that the best man will win the job. On Friday, he said Sanchez "has got to be the best quarterback and the best leader" to be named the starter.

Clemens has the edge in experience, having started a handful of games in 2007. If he convincingly holds off the hotshot, it would be a strong enough statement to instill confidence in his teammates for the campaign.

But the Jets would rather Sanchez overtake the veteran instead.

 Jones  Washington
How will the Jets make sure their running backs are happy?

There's a lot of unhappiness in the backfield. The Jets have a pair of Pro Bowlers back there: Thomas Jones and Leon Washington. Both of them wanted new contracts. Neither of them has gotten one.

The remarkable news is that both were on the practice field when camp opened Friday morning. That's a wonderful sign that Jones and Washington are willing to put their personal disappointments aside for the good of the team.

The Jets need to make sure they stay in that frame of mind.

Other than Jerricho Cotchery, who will catch the ball?

Ryan and general manager Mike Tannenbaum chose to sort out their receiving corps in training camp rather than obtain some proven help over the offseason or draft a prospect.

So let's have at it. Cotchery, with a team-high 71 catches, will have a role. Beyond that? Anybody's guess.

Chansi Stuckey, David Clowney, Brad Smith and Wallace Wright will jostle for their spots on the depth chart. Stuckey had 32 receptions, while the others combined for 13.

Market watch

Jones had a career year in 2008, leading the AFC in rushing. It's difficult to imagine a repeat performance, and it would seem the Jets are preparing for the decline.

It may not happen this year, but rookie Shonn Greene will take over eventually. The Jets traded up to select the reigning Doak Walker Award winner with the first pick on the second day of the draft.

Green is the same type of physical player as Jones, who will turn 31 before the season starts. That's high-odometer territory for a running back.

Newcomer to watch

Fiery linebacker Bart Scott is the most important newcomer and almost certainly will be the most entertaining to follow during the season. But the most significant import to track at camp will be right cornerback Lito Sheppard.

The Jets have blanket coverage with left corner Darrelle Revis. But they had trouble on the other side last year. Ryan identified Sheppard as a solution, and Tannenbaum acquired him from the Philadelphia Eagles.

But there are concerns Sheppard has slipped too much from his Pro Bowl form of three years back. Sheppard was the Eagles' fourth corner at times last year. He started only three games. Two of those were as a nickelback.

Sheppard's coverage skills might not be the same, but he's still considered a playmaker. If the latter hasn't diminished too much, then the former will help him upgrade a pass defense that ranked 29th last year. Otherwise, sophomore Dwight Lowery will get his old job back.

Observation deck

Pre-snap penalties have been a problem in team drills so far. Some of the trouble can be attributed to Sanchez not having his cadence down. ... Behemoth nose tackle Kris Jenkins checked in at a svelte 360 pounds, and he's wearing the weight well. The four-time Pro Bowler looks like he's in better playing shape than last year, when he flagged down the homestretch. ... Jenkins suffered a minor calf injury Saturday and likely will miss the next few days as a precaution. Sione Pouha will absorb the added reps. ... Safety Eric Smith has stood out in every practice. Smith probably can't beat out Jim Leonhard or Kerry Rhodes for playing time, but Ryan will find a way to get Smith on the field. ... Ryan also singled out defensive back James Ihedigbo for his eye-opening start to camp. ... Second-year defensive end Vernon Gholston, hoping to avoid the dreaded "bust" label, appears much more comfortable. He's playing with confidence and is relaxed when discussing his situation. He seems to be handling the pressure well. ... Right tackle Damien Woody and defensive end Shaun Ellis got into a brief skirmish Saturday morning, the first fight of practice. "That's one that nobody would've broke up," Ryan said. "Whoa. Forget that. 'Just keep fighting until you die.' Not going to get in that one. Two big men going at it there." ... The Jets have been running a lot of nine-on-nine drills, something that was foreign to Ryan before he arrived. Jets offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has toyed with them before.