Training camp preview: Running back

July, 14, 2014
Jul 14
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Breaking down the New York Jets' roster, unit by unit, in preparation for training camp, July 23:

Position: Running back

Projected starters: Chris Johnson, Tommy Bohanon (FB).

Projected reserves: Chris Ivory, Bilal Powell.

Notables on the bubble: Alex Green, Daryl Richardson.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Andy Lyons/Getty ImagesChris Johnson, shown running against the Jets in 2012, has rushed for more than 1,000 years in each of his six NFL seasons.
Player to watch: Johnson. Five years removed from his 2,000-yard season with the Tennessee Titans, the once-great running back starts over with the Jets, attempting to prove he's still CJ2K. His surgically repaired knee, which sidelined him for the spring, will be a hot topic throughout camp. The last thing the Jets will want to do is tax Johnson, so look for a modified practice schedule -- a "pitch count," as Rex Ryan likes to call it. It doesn't matter how many rushing yards he accumulates in the preseason; the objective is to make sure he's in peak condition for the Sept. 7 opener.

Top storyline: Chances are the Jets will take a backfield-by-committee approach, which underscores the importance of defining roles. Who starts? Who's the third-down back, Powell or Johnson? Is Ivory the short-yardage back? Who gets the rock in the four-minute offense? It will be a balancing act for the coaches as they attempt to navigate four weeks of camp and three preseason games. (We're not counting the last game, which is useless.) There aren't as many practice reps as the not-so-old days, when teams had two practices per day. Every rep counts.

Training camp will be a success if ...: Every back is healthy and fresh for the start of the season. Injuries can change the landscape, as we saw last summer. Because of a spate of injuries, Powell was overworked in training camp, which is probably the reason he ran out of gas during the season. It will be easy to fall into that trap again, considering Johnson's limited schedule and Ivory's penchant for nagging injuries. Remember, he finished minicamp with a sore ankle; let's see if there are any residual effects.

Wild card: Richardson. He was acquired on waivers in May, but missed the rest of the offseason as he recovered from a turf-toe injury that ruined his 2013 season with the St. Louis Rams. He's a change-of-pace back who showed promise as a rookie in 2012, averaging 4.8 yards per carry. The Jets are eager to get him on the field to see if he has the same explosiveness he showed in '12. He'll need to show his old form to make the roster.

By the numbers: Weird stat on Johnson -- his per-carry average last season for the Titans was slightly better with eight defenders in the box (3.83) than seven in the box (3.79), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Only Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore ran against more eight-man fronts than Johnson, who rushed 48 times for 184 yards and one touchdown. It shows that opponents still respected him despite a down year.

Training camp preview: Quarterback

July, 13, 2014
Jul 13
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Breaking down the New York Jets' roster, unit by unit, in preparation for training camp, which starts July 23.

Position: quarterback

Smith
Projected starter: Geno Smith.

Projected reserves: Michael Vick, Tajh Boyd.

Notable on the bubble: Matt Simms.

Player to watch: Obviously, it's Smith. He'll be under a daily microscope, with everyone -- coaches, media, fans -- looking to see if he has improved as much as the Jets said he has throughout the spring. He'll get about 70 to 75 percent of the first-team reps in practice, which means two things: The coaches are planning to structure training camp in a way that will allow Smith to claim the starting job if he performs at a competent level. But instead of giving him the typical share of starter reps (roughly 90 percent), they're hedging their bet, trying to get Vick ready in case Smith flops. It's a delicate balancing act, but there shouldn't be any issues as long as Smith doesn't blow it.

Top storyline: The Smith-Vick dynamic will be a fascinating watch. Smith has a great deal of respect for Vick, certainly more than he had for Mark Sanchez, but he also knows Vick represents a legitimate threat to his job. Vick already is popular among his new teammates, and his candid style will make him a media favorite as well. How will young Geno handle that?

Training camp will be a success if ... Reporters aren't asking Rex Ryan before the final preseason game why he hasn't named a starting quarterback. If they are, it means the Jets are waffling. Worse, it could mean there's an injury to consider (shades of last summer). The best-case scenario, from the team's perspective, is that Smith plays so well that the announcement is anticlimactic. If that's the case, Ryan could reveal his choice before the third game. Technically, Smith hasn't been named anything even though he has 16 starts on his résumé.

Wild card: General manager John Idzik. We know how he feels about competition. We also know how that backfired last preseason -- i.e., Sanchez's pointless injury. Idzik should have a minimal role in the quarterback decision, leaving it up to the coaches.

By the numbers: Smith has to do a better job under a heavy pass rush. When pressured, he completed only 28.7 percent of his passes (27-for-94) with one touchdown, five interceptions and a 28.5 passer rating, which ranked 38th in the league, per ESPN Stats & Information.

Jets' top play winner: The Butt Fumble

July, 11, 2014
Jul 11
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Mark SanchezWilliam Perlman/USA TODAY Sports
Score: New England Patriots 49, New York Jets 19
Date: Nov. 22, 2012. Site: MetLife Stadium

The people have spoken. The voters picked the Butt Fumble as the New York Jets' most memorable play. My take? Give yourselves a round of applause.

"Memorable" doesn't mean the best, it means something that will be remembered. If the objective was to determine the best play, it would've been Joe Namath-to-Don Maynard in the 1968 AFL Championship Game or Ken O'Brien-to-Wesley Walker in the 1986 classic against the Miami Dolphins. Those were tremendous plays displaying great skill and poise under pressure. We could probably add a few more to a great-play list. Truth be told, the franchise's most iconic image is that of Namath, flashing the No. 1 sign as he trots off the field at Super Bowl III -- a picture that transcends a simple photo caption.

But like I said, we're talking memorable plays here, folks.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Jets' history?

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Discuss (Total votes: 37,787)

The Butt Fumble will be talked about for years, decades probably. It will have a permanent place in blooper lore. Who knows? Maybe some day you will see it featured on an ESPN Films "30 for 30" documentary. The play contained the necessary ingredients to endure the test of time. You had a big-name player (Mark Sanchez), a slapstick moment (Sanchez crashing into the buttocks of guard Brandon Moore), a significant outcome (a fumble recovery for a touchdown), a national stage (Thanksgiving night, 2012) and two bitter rivals, the Jets and the New England Patriots.

The ramifications of the Butt Fumble were significant. It fueled an epic meltdown in the second quarter, which led to an embarrassing loss, which all but ruined the Jets' playoff hopes and led to the demise of general manager Mike Tannenbaum.

Oh, did we mention the hilarity of the play?

In many ways, the legend of the Butt Fumble was enhanced by the social-media landscape. It blew up on Twitter and YouTube, and ESPN contributed by playing it over and over and over. It topped the "Not Top 10" list for 40 consecutive weeks before it was mercifully retired. Of course, the fans voted, so don't place all the blame on us. The point is, if Namath had run into Randy Rasmussen's rear end in 1968, the fallout wouldn't have been anything close to the Butt Fumble.

I was there for the other two nominees, Dan Marino's fake spike in 1994 and Jumbo Elliott's improbable touchdown catch in 2000. The impact of Marino's play can't be overstated because it shattered the psychologically fragile Jets, who never won again that season, costing Pete Carroll his job. I was happy for Carroll when he won the Super Bowl last February at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, where the fake spike occurred in the old Giants Stadium. Elliott's touchdown was a terrific moment, no doubt, but I don't consider it an all-timer.

Anyway, the fans got it right. It had to be the Butt Fumble. Anything else would've been a butt ... well, you know.

Jets players select funniest moments

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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Taking a break from X's and O's and related topics, we decided to lighten the mood by asking several players on the New York Jets to desribe the funniest moment of their career -- high school, college or pro. Here's what we found:

Alex Green: "I was in high school and I got tackled, but the guy tackled me from behind, and pulled my pants down. But it was wet and I was soaked, so when I got up [they] were still down. I couldn’t get them up. I was trying to pull them up for like two minutes, had to call a timeout and run to the sideline. It was one of the most embarrassing moments, and it was on camera, too. My mom recorded it and everything."

Bilal Powell: "In 2010 [at Louisville], I was actually running out for a route and tripped over my own shoestrings and the other sideline, the whole sideline was laughing at me. I was digging, and I just ate the dirt, everything."

Sheldon Richardson: "Come on, man, it's when I missed that tackle against Buffalo -- the only big run they had probably all season. [He stopped and celebrated, thinking the runner was stopped behind the line.] Hilarious. I mean, we won the game and they didn't score on that drive. When we watched it on film, we were laughing."

Jeremy Kerley (formerly of TCU): "We were playing against UNLV in college and we were up pretty good, and this guy on defense, he wasn’t even worried abut the game. He was just like, ‘Where can I get a mix tape from in Texas? I heard your music is pretty good,’ the whole rest of the game. It was funny. He was really worried about a mix tape."

Breno Giacomini (formerly of Louisville): "In college, when I was a tight end, I fell going in motion ... twice. At the time it wasn't funny, but when you go back and watch it, it's pretty funny, especially me being so big and goofy. It just looked really funny on film. I think that's when my offensive line career began. I was a blocking tight end, so I didn't have to move a lot."

D'Brickashaw Ferguson: "Recently, it was when I got my shoe caught in someone's helmet and the ref was tugging. He had the helmet and I had the shoe, and we were tugging. It was a play against the Patriots. It was some DB. I was going out on a screen. I don't know how it happened, but I had my heel in his helmet. I had to take my shoe off. It was kind of funny."

-- Jane McManus contributed

Jets' biggest key to success

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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Joe Namath won Super Bowl III 45 years ago, but he remains the most recognizable name and face in New York Jets history -- a testament to his star power and a commentary on the quarterback position. Nearly a half-century later, they're still looking for the next Namath, a true franchise quarterback who can elevate the franchise to a championship level.

Smith
That is the biggest key to the Jets' success over the next three seasons. The current hope is Geno Smith, who may or may not be the answer. He's 8-8 as a starter and shows intriguing arm talent and mobility, but he has yet to prove that he can be a consistent winner in the league. The Jets expect (hope?) him to take a giant step in 2014, surrounding him with better talent than last year. A lot is riding on Smith, because if he flat lines or regresses, they will be back to square one, looking to draft Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston or another young gun next spring -- along with a handful of other quarterback-needy teams.

Everything is set up for Smith to succeed, right down to the Jets' salary-cap plan. With only $1.9 million in quarterback money committed to 2015, a big reason why they have a ton of cap room in future years, they have the flexibility to give him a mega-contract in 2016. If it's justified, of course. That would complete general manager John Idzik's grand rebuilding plan. He already has a good, young defense with a handful of potential stars, and there are a few skill-position players that make you think the offense can improve. The missing piece is the quarterback.

Call it a curse. The Jets thought they had their franchise quarterback a decade ago, but Chad Pennington's career was ruined by shoulder injuries. After one year of Brett Favre, a move that showed their desperation, they drafted Mark Sanchez. He was anointed as the new golden boy, but his career veered off the rails after two promising seasons. That brought them to Smith, who carries the torch for the quarterback-starved franchise.

NFL Nation Buzz: Jets' top plays

July, 10, 2014
Jul 10
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video 
ESPN.com New York Jets reporter Rich Cimini discusses the finalists for the team’s most memorable plays.

Jets' top plays: The Butt Fumble

July, 9, 2014
Jul 9
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Mark SanchezWilliam Perlman/USA TODAY Sports
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three plays nominated as the most memorable play in New York Jets history. Previously, we featured Dan Marino's infamous fake spike against the Jets in 1994 and Jumbo Elliott's improbable touchdown catch in 2000. Please vote for your choice as the Jets' most memorable play.

Score: New England Patriots 49, New York Jets 19
Date: Nov. 22, 2012 Site: MetLife Stadium

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Jets' history?

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    14%
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    31%
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    55%

Discuss (Total votes: 37,787)

The mere mention of the play -- "The Butt Fumble" -- causes people to smile. You can't help it; it just sounds funny -- unless, of course, you're a diehard Jets fan. Or Mark Sanchez and Brandon Moore.

On Thanksgiving night, before a national TV audience, the Jets staged a botched play that became an instant YouTube sensation, a blooper for the ages. After all, how many plays have their own Wikipedia page?

It was supposed to be an inside handoff to the fullback, Lex Hilliard, but Sanchez turned the wrong way as he stepped away from the center. Trying to salvage something, he tucked the ball and ran toward his right side of his offensive line. When the hole closed, Sanchez did the right thing: He slid. Incredibly, he slid into the rear end of right guard Brandon Moore, who was trying to fight off the Patriots' massive defensive tackle, Vince Wilfork.

Sanchez crashed into Moore's buttocks with such force that it jarred the ball loose. Naturally, Moore fell on top of Sanchez, almost completing the slapstick moment. But there was more: The ball bounced up for Patriots safety Steve Gregory, who made the scoop-and-score, returning it 32 yards for a touchdown. Sanchez later said the entire play was like "a car accident."

The short- and long-term ramifications were significant. The Jets entered the game with a 4-6 record, hoping to jump back into the race with a win against their top rival. It was scoreless after one quarter, but the Butt Fumble helped fuel an epic second-quarter meltdown. Gregory's touchdown made it 21-0, and it became 28-0 seconds later when the Patriots' Julian Edelman recovered a mid-air fumble on the ensuing kickoff and returned it for a score.

By halftime, it was 35-3. It was so embarrassing that "Fireman Ed," the Jets' celebrity fan, walked out on the game and his beloved team at the half. He has yet to return to the stadium for a game. The loss ruined the Jets' playoff chances, prompting owner Woody Johnson to fire general manager Mike Tannenbaum at the end of the season. Some people feel the Butt Fumble game sealed Tannenbaum's fate.

The play defined a lost season and the Jets' long and hapless effort to overtake the Patriots. It remained in the national consciousness, thanks to ESPN's "SportsCenter." Voted by fans online, the play led the "Not top-10" blooper reel for 40 straight weeks before it was mercifully retired.
Jumbo ElliottCorey Sipkin/NY Daily News Archive/Getty Images
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in New York Jets history. Previously, we featured Dan Marino's infamous fake spike against the New York Jets in 1994. Coming next is the unforgettable Butt Fumble on Thanksgiving night, 2012. Please vote for your choice as the Jets' most memorable play.

Score: Jets 40, Dolphins 37, OT
Date: Oct. 23, 2000 Site: Giants Stadium

Your first inclination is to ask, "What's the big deal about a lineman catching a touchdown?" After all, it happens every so often, a team scoring near the goal line on a tackle-eligible play. But Jumbo Elliott's catch ... well, it was the game, the night, the circumstances and the reaction that made it so memorable. And, of course, the opponent. Crazy things happen when the Jets and Dolphins play.

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Jets' history?

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Discuss (Total votes: 37,787)

For the record, Elliott caught a game-tying, 3-yard touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde with 47 seconds left in regulation. The Jets won in overtime, 40-37. Those are the cold facts. What happened before Elliott's improbable touchdown made it one of the wildest games in NFL history. It will forever be known as "The Midnight Miracle."

Playing before a national TV audience on Monday night, the Jets embarrassed themselves by falling behind 30-7 at the start of the fourth quarter. Testaverde got hot and threw four touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, surprising the Dolphins with a gadget pass to the 6-foot-7, 325-pound Elliott. With his hands heavily taped, Elliott -- a backup at that stage in his career -- made a bobbling, falling-down catch in the end zone.

"I caught it several times," he likes to joke. "I think I was the leading receiver that night."

There was a relay review and, when the call was upheld, there was Elliott's face -- with a big, goofy grin -- on the stadium's JumboTron. His reaction, some teammates said, was just as memorable as the catch. It took only five seconds out of a 14-year career, but it became his signature moment. To this day, he still gets stopped by strangers that ask him to autograph pictures of the play.

It was the first and last catch of Elliott's career. On TV, comedian-turned-analyst Dennis Miller cracked that the Jets "had their hands team in" and that opposing defenses "couldn't keep him down forever." More than anything, it sustained the Jets' historic comeback. The game finally ended at 1:20 a.m. in a half-empty stadium.

The wacky play overshadowed the importance of the game, as the Jets improved to 6-1 under first-year coach Al Groh. In retrospect, it was the pinnacle of the season. The Jets stumbled to a 9-7 record and Groh left the team to coach his alma mater, Virginia. For one night, though -- one crazy night -- they were unbeatable, thanks to a big, little catch by a man named Jumbo.

Geno thinks Jets are Super contenders

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
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Last month, Michael Vick said the New York Jets are capable of getting to the Super Bowl this season, with Geno Smith at quarterback.

Apparently Smith agrees with him.

"I feel good about our team making a Super Bowl run," Smith told the NFL Network on Sunday, at a youth football camp he's hosting in Florida.

The QBs like the Jets' chances, but they're probably in the minority. Bovada currently gives Gang Green 66/1 odds to win Super Bowl XLIX, ahead of only the Buffalo Bills (75/1), Oakland Raiders (100/1), Tennessee Titans (100/1) and Jacksonville Jaguars (200/1).

And an anonymous survey of 26 NFL insiders, the results of which were published last week by ESPN.com, graded Smith as the worst starting quarterback Insider in the league.

But early July is the time to be optimistic, right? Training camp is still two weeks away, and the real games are two months away. Reality will set in soon enough.

Jets' top plays: Marino's fake spike

July, 7, 2014
Jul 7
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Dan MarinoSimon Bruty/Allsport/Getty Images
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. In the next two days we'll feature: Jumbo Elliott's improbable touchdown against the Miami Dolphins in the 2000 "Midnight Miracle" and the infamous Butt Fumble on Thanksgiving night, 2012. Please vote for your choice as the New York Jets' most memorable play.

Score: Dolphins 28, Jets 24
Date: Nov. 27, 1994 Site: Giants Stadium

SportsNation

Which is the most memorable play in Jets' history?

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    14%
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    31%
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    55%

Discuss (Total votes: 37,787)

It was a once-in-a-lifetime play and it took the Jets nearly a lifetime to recover -- or so it seemed.

With 22 seconds remaining in a critical AFC East game, Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino fired an 8-yard touchdown pass to Mark Ingram for the go-ahead score -- but this was no routine touchdown. Marino used a sleight of hand to trick the Jets. Behind center, he called for a "clock" play, giving the spike motion. The Jets relaxed, thinking Marino was going to fire the ball into the ground to stop the clock. That's what 20 players expected -- all except Marino and Ingram, both of whom performed their own ad lib. The ball was snapped and, against an unsuspecting defense, Marino found Ingram in the end zone for the game winner. They picked on rookie cornerback Aaron Glenn.

For the Jets, it was devastating on a few levels. For one, they lost a game they should've won. They should've finished the day in a first-place tie, but they blew a 24-6 lead in the final 16 minutes. In one of the most memorable games of his legendary career, Marino tossed three late touchdowns to rally the Dolphins. The psychologically fragile Jets never recovered, losing their final four games to finish 6-10. Their coach, Pete Carroll, was fired after only one season. The losing didn't stop, as they dropped 28 of 32 games under Rich Kotite, a sorry era that made the Jets a national laughingstock.

The Fake Spike was one of the turning points in team history, a demarcation point that separated hope and hopelessness. Finally, after two-plus years in the dark, the Jets got it right, hiring Bill Parcells, who resurrected the franchise. But the Fake Spike lives on, haunting those who were duped by Marino's chutzpah and creativity. Carroll still is asked about the play, and he doesn't particularly care to reminisce. He vanquished the demon last February, winning the Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, the site of the old Giants Stadium -- wonderful symmetry. Sure enough, the Fake Spike came up in the Seahawks' post-celebration.

"Is this vindication for the 'spike' play?" Carroll asked rhetorically at his news conference.

Looking into the cameras, he continued, "Hey, Marino, you got a lucky freaking play, all right? It happened. That was a long time ago."
video Eric Decker gets the money and Michael Vick gets the headlines, but Chris Johnson is the key newcomer on the New York Jets' offense. If healthy, he's the one player who can change the way opponents look at the Jets. He gives Rex Ryan something he has never had -- a home-run threat in the backfield.

Forget about Ground & Pound. If Johnson is anywhere close to his "CJ2K" level of 2009, it'll be Ground & Hound -- as in greyhound.

Johnson, 28, is the Jets' most accomplished skill-position player since LaDainian Tomlinson, a rare talent who transcends the "what have you done for me lately?" principle. Johnson was just ordinary last season for the Tennessee Titans, but a player of his stature gets the benefit of the doubt. His past is good enough to impact the present. He will command respect, and that gives the Jets a legitimate X factor.

"That guy, he's one of the best," Titans cornerback Jason McCourty said last week. "A lot of people have talked about how he's lost it. I think he'll get out there and prove he hasn't lost a step and can still play."

Obviously, the Jets think so, signing Johnson to a two-year, $8 million contract when he was unceremoniously fired by the Titans after five 1,000-yard seasons and one 2,000-yard season. It's a cold business, the NFL.

Anticipating his release, the Jets did a lot of tape study on Johnson. What they saw was a still-gifted back who was restricted by a bum knee and a mediocre offensive line in Tennessee. Doctors took care of the knee, repairing a torn meniscus with an arthroscopic procedure in January. Now it'll be up to the Jets' line to take care of the blocking.

You don't have to be Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight to detect the downward trend in Johnson's career. His production dropped significantly in two of the past three years, underscored by his 3.9 yards per rush last season, a career low.

[+] EnlargeChris Johnson
Noah K. Murray/USA TODAY SportsChris Johnson joined the Jets after six seasons in Tennessee, where he never failed to reach at least 1,000 rushing yards.
On the flip side, he has never failed to reach the 1,000-yard mark and he has never missed a game due to injury, extraordinary durability for a running back. McCourty said he can't recall Johnson missing more than five practices over the past five years.

The Jets kept their pre-owned Ferrari in the garage during the offseason, taking no chances. Johnson was limited to light work on the field, but he should be ready for training camp. The goal is to make sure he's humming by Sept. 7, the season opener.

Barring a setback, Johnson will change the dynamics of the Jets' rushing game. For years, they've been a predictable, five-hole attack, with the likes of Chris Ivory and Shonn Greene pounding away between the tackles. Because of his speed to the outside -- the man once raced a cheetah on TV -- Johnson can stretch a defense horizontally. That will soften the belly of the defense.

"He's unique because, at any moment, he can score," Hall of Famer Curtis Martin said.

Martin knows great running backs. On his personal list, he lists Jim Brown, Barry Sanders and Adrian Peterson as the best in history. Martin said Johnson "had a chance" to challenge the big three. He spoke of Johnson in the past tense, but that doesn't mean Martin thinks he's washed up.

"With things even across the board -- the blocking is the same, quarterback is the same -- I still think he's one of the best running backs in the league," Martin said. "I'll say this: He has as much talent as anyone in the league."

Johnson has 12 rushes of 50-plus yards since 2008, second only to Peterson (17), according to ESPN Stats & Information. Johnson didn't break any long highlight-film runs last year -- who can forget his 94-yard touchdown against the Jets in 2012? -- but his mere presence forced opponents to crowd the line of scrimmage. Only two backs, Peterson and Frank Gore, ran against more eight-man fronts in 2013.

"He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer," Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said.

You put Johnson with a mobile quarterback, whether it's Geno Smith or Vick, and you're putting stress on a defense. You're forcing the defense to bring down a safety, creating opportunities in the passing game. You're doing something the Jets haven't done in a long time: putting a player out there who actually scares a defense.

Decker is a solid receiver, but he's not a game-changer. Vick, if he's playing, isn't that guy anymore. Johnson still has a chance.

"Oh man, he's that one-shot, home run guy," McCourty said.

McCourty didn't want to get into his former teammate's bitter divorce from the Titans, and how Johnson has criticized the organization for mistreating him. But McCourty knows this: Johnson's fire is raging. As Tomlinson showed in 2010, a once-great runner with a chip on his shoulder can be dangerous.

"When a team releases you and there are doubters, people saying stuff, it definitely gives you that kick in the ass that you need," McCourty said. "I look forward to watching him and I hope he has an amazing year. I hope he crushes every team he faces -- except us."

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- AFC East

July, 3, 2014
Jul 3
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video
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick has job security. His three counterparts in the AFC East? Not so much.

Rex Ryan landed a contract extension this offseason, but don't let that fool you. He will have reason to be nervous if the New York Jets miss the playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. The Buffalo Bills' 6-10 record last season wasn't ominous for Doug Marrone -- that was just his first year on the job. But with an ownership change on the horizon, a failure to improve in 2014 might not bode well for Marrone.

Then there is Joe Philbin of the Miami Dolphins. He survived a bullying scandal that took place in his locker room and on his practice field. A late-season collapse that cost Miami a playoff berth couldn't sink Philbin, not when you consider the adversity the team fought through just to be in contention. But now Philbin enters his third year, when a lot is expected of a regime. He is likely out of second chances.

The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East hot seat and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which AFC East coach enters camp on the hottest seat?



Rich Cimini: Doug Marrone's seat is lukewarm and Rex Ryan's is warm. Joe Philbin? Let's just say his tush is feeling extreme heat. Frankly, I'm a bit surprised he survived last season's debacle. Not only did the Dolphins collapse down the stretch to blow a playoff spot, but they became a national punchline because of the bullying scandal. The mess cost general manager Jeff Ireland his job, but Philbin emerged as the Teflon Man. He has now run out of mulligans. Philbin is working for a new GM, Dennis Hickey, and it's hard to imagine him returning in 2015 if the Dolphins miss the playoffs again. Philbin is an offensive-minded coach, but his offense -- quarterback Ryan Tannehill, in particular -- has shown no improvement. ... We would mention Bill Belichick's seat, except it's really not a seat. In this division, it's a throne.

Mike Reiss: Is it possible for someone to go from a Coach of the Year candidate last December to the hot seat in late July? It shouldn't be, but that is the situation in which Dolphins coach Joe Philbin finds himself. I thought Philbin deserved a lot of credit for keeping things together last season, and after the Dolphins beat the Patriots in mid-December many were singing his praises. But the team sputtered the final two weeks of the season and now Philbin, entering his third season, could be viewed as having the hottest seat among AFC East coaches. Crazy business, this NFL.

Mike Rodak: This is a close race between Rex Ryan, Doug Marrone and Joe Philbin. Ryan faces the tough scrutiny of the New York market, and if the Jets' combo of quarterbacks Geno Smith and Michael Vick doesn't pan out, Ryan could be gone, despite his contract extension this year. In Buffalo, a pending ownership change naturally puts Marrone's future in doubt. I don't think CEO Russ Brandon or general manager Doug Whaley would fire Marrone even if things don't go well this season, but their voices might not matter if a new owner wants sweeping changes. In Miami, new GM Hickey has given Philbin his vote of approval, but how long will that last? If I had to pick one situation where the head coach's job is most in question, it's Philbin with the Dolphins.

James Walker: Miami's Joe Philbin has the hottest seat in the AFC East. After going a combined 15-17 his first two seasons, this year is really playoffs or bust for Philbin. He was fortunate to survive last year's late-season collapse and major locker-room issues with the bullying scandal that embarrassed the franchise. General manager Jeff Ireland and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman and others lost their jobs, but Miami owner Stephen Ross offered Philbin one more opportunity to prove he's the right coach for the team. The key for Philbin will be winning within the division. He is 4-8 against AFC East teams, and that won't cut it this season.


Second Down

Which of your team's positional battles intrigues you the most?



Cimini: No question, it's the quarterback situation even though Geno Smith versus Michael Vick isn't a true open competition. No matter, it's still a compelling story, one that will create many headlines in training camp. It's Smith's job to lose, but I'm curious to gauge his development now that he has had a full season and a full offseason to immerse himself in the offense. More than anything, he should be better at seeing the field and reading defenses. How will he handle the pressure of knowing there is a capable replacement if he falters? Let's be honest, he never had to deal with that as a rookie. If Smith is outplayed by Vick, it will put the coaches in a delicate position. Clearly, they want Smith to be the starter, but they also have to consider the possible message it sends. If the best guy isn't playing, it's bad form. One position, so many fascinating subplots.

Reiss: Receiver looks like the Patriots' most compelling position battle. They are counting on big-time improvement from second-year players Aaron Dobson (second round), Josh Boyce (fourth round) and Kenbrell Thompkins (undrafted), while big 2013 free-agent signing Danny Amendola will be looking to prove he can stay healthy and recapture the magic we saw in the 2013 season opener. Veterans Julian Edelman and Brandon LaFell are also expected to play significant roles, and can slippery-quick seventh-round pick Jeremy Gallon be a sleeper? Lots of questions to answer.

Rodak: The starting spot that seems most up for grabs in Buffalo this offseason is at safety. Who will start opposite Aaron Williams? The Bills lost Jairus Byrd and didn't address the loss in free agency or the draft, instead putting their faith in two of their draft selections from last season -- Duke Williams (fourth round) and Jonathan Meeks (fifth round) -- as well as a more experienced veteran, Da'Norris Searcy. With Aaron Williams recovering from shoulder surgery for most of organized team activities, we didn't get a great feel for which player had the best shot to win Byrd's old job. In the few times that Williams was on the field, it was Searcy lining up with the first team, but Duke Williams and Meeks also got reps with the first unit throughout OTAs. It's a battle that will continue into training camp.

Walker: The Dolphins have a few good position battles, but I am most intrigued by the competition to be the slot receiver because of the immense depth at the position. The Dolphins have Brandon Gibson, Rishard Matthews and rookie second-round pick Jarvis Landry all competing for one spot. In addition, these receivers have different styles. Gibson is more detailed and cerebral. He gets open with his route-running. Matthews is the biggest and most physical receiver of the bunch. Landry is sort of a combination of the two, but he lacks blazing speed. I think all three are capable of handling the position. It's just a matter of who performs the best and which style the coaching staff prefers.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?



Cimini: For several reasons, it should be Quinton Coples. After two nondescript seasons, it's time to turn potential into production -- and he knows it. The talent is there. With Coples, whose work ethic was questioned when he came out of North Carolina, it is a matter of want-to. Does he want to be great? The former first-round pick was slowed last season by a position change ("rush" linebacker) and a fractured ankle in the preseason, which cost him three games. Now he should be comfortable at the position and he dropped weight in the offseason, which should help his quickness on the edge as a pass-rusher. Coples has the ability to turn a middling pass rush into a very good one.

Reiss: With the Patriots bolstering their secondary with Darrelle Revis, a player like third-year defensive end Chandler Jones could be a primary beneficiary of better coverage. He had six sacks as a rookie and followed that up with 11.5 last season. Could he hit 15 this season? As long as he stays healthy, it wouldn't surprise me.

Rodak: There was no shortage of breakout performers for the Bills last season, especially on defense. Defensive end Jerry Hughes, cornerback Leodis McKelvin, safety Aaron Williams and defensive tackle Marcell Dareus all enjoyed the best seasons. This season, I see two strong candidates for breakout performances: wide receiver Robert Woods and cornerback Stephon Gilmore. Woods had a strong start to last season -- he was a candidate for NFL rookie of the month in September -- but a revolving door at quarterback and a late-season ankle injury hampered his progress. If quarterback EJ Manuel bounces back from his up-and-down rookie season, Woods could stand to benefit. I would give him the edge to break out over Gilmore, a former first-round pick who was limited by a wrist injury most of last season but is among the better cornerbacks in the division when healthy.

Walker: Last season the Dolphins saw significant returns from a second-year defensive end, Olivier Vernon. He led the Dolphins with 11.5 sacks and really came on strong in 2013. So I'm going to stick with the same position and the same experience level and go with current second-year defensive end Dion Jordan. The Dolphins got little return for their No. 3 overall pick last year -- he had just 26 tackles and two sacks. But I like what I saw from Jordan during organized team activities and minicamp. Jordan hit the weight room hard this offseason and bulked up about 17 pounds. He's much stronger, which is key because Miami's coaching staff was concerned about Jordan's ability to stuff the run. Jordan should put up better numbers and be an all-around better player. His biggest issue is getting playing time behind Vernon and Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake.


Fourth Down

How many years do you think Tom Brady has left?



Cimini: No doubt, Jets fans will celebrate the day Brady decides to call it quits. Statistically, he's in a two-year decline, but he played with such a patchwork receiving corps last season that it's hard to say he is going south. Brady, who turns 37 in August, should have at least two more Brady-like seasons. I'm basing that on recent history. After all, John Elway won his second Super Bowl at 38 -- and promptly retired. It's rare in the modern era for a quarterback to play well beyond 38. Brett Favre had a great year at 40, and Warren Moon enjoyed a good year at 38, but the examples are few and far between. The Patriots drafted Jimmy Garoppolo in the second round for a reason. Brady is signed through 2017, but I'd be mildly surprised if he's still around at the age of 40.

Reiss: I'm not going to be the one who bets against Tom Brady. I still see him playing at a high level through the completion of his current contract in 2017, and based on the way he takes care of his body, the dedication to his craft, and the desire to play as long as possible, I could see him going the Warren Moon route and playing into his 40s. It's all contingent on good health, but will Tom Brady still be slinging passes and winning games in the year 2020? Yup.

Rodak: I would peg Brady's window at 3-4 years. In the past, he has spoken about his fear of the "abyss" that will follow his playing career. Yet we've also seen him in the public eye as a father in recent years and I think he would embrace that role in retirement. The bigger question is whether Bill Belichick would ever "move on" from Brady or simply allow him to play -- and start -- as long as he'd like. Belichick is markedly unemotional when he makes personnel decisions, so I don't think he would necessarily let Brady dictate when his career ends. Even if Belichick's final season coincides with Brady's, I think Belichick would want to leave the organization in a good spot. That could mean handing over the reins to a younger starter if the situation calls for it.

Walker: I covered Brady for two seasons as ESPN.com's AFC East reporter. To me, he has always come off as a player who wished he could play football forever. You would be surprised how many NFL players are not that way. Brady isn't motivated by money or fame. I think there is a genuine love for the game and thirst for competition that will be hard for Brady to let go. That is why I expect Brady to hold on for as long as he can. I expect two or three more quality seasons, but I wouldn't be surprised if Brady tries to go longer. I think Brady is too competitive to walk away on his own. Father Time might have to pull him away from the NFL.

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Chris Johnson can rev up Jets' offense

July, 2, 2014
Jul 2
10:00
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video
ESPN.com New York Jets reporter Rich Cimini says a healthy Chris Johnson is the one newcomer who can take the offense to another level.

Looking for the next 'Snacks'

July, 1, 2014
Jul 1
8:00
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The great thing about football -- and sports in general -- is that occasionally a player comes along that wasn't supposed to make it. We're talking about the guy that confounds the draft experts and the scouts, the guy that arrives through the back door and never leaves the party.

The New York Jets had a player like that last year, nose tackle Damon Harrison, who made the team as an undrafted rookie in 2012 and won a starting job a year later. At this time last year, no one knew anything about him other than his classic nickname -- "Big Snacks."

Will there be a "Big Snacks" in 2014? We examine five possibilities:

Rontez Miles, safety: He was undrafted out of California (Pa.) in 2013, spending last season on the practice squad. Miles is a poor man's Calvin Pryor, a vicious hitter with keen instincts. He underwent hip surgery after the season and he's just starting to round into shape. Look for him to make a move in training camp.

T.J. Barnes, defensive tackle: At 6-foot-7, 360 pounds, he's so big that you need a GPS to find your way around him. Barnes, undrafted out of Georgia Tech in 2013, spent most of last season on the practice squad after getting cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars. He worked with the second-team defense in minicamp.

Colin Anderson, tight end: He made a couple of plays in minicamp. At 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, he's definitely more of a receiver than a blocker. He came out of Furman, undrafted, and was cut by the Minnesota Vikings. He spent last season on the Jets' practice squad. Anderson is a direct descendant of Gen. Robert C. Anderson, who was captain and in command of the Union forces at Fort Sumter at the start of the Civil War.

Dalton Freeman, center: Another former practice-squadder, Freeman won't play unless something happens to Nick Mangold -- and that wouldn't be a good thing. Freeman is smart and durable, and it doesn't hurt that he was a free agent from Clemson, where Rex Ryan's youngest son goes to school.

Jeremy Reeves, cornerback: Dude is small, only 5-foot-8, 156 pounds, but he can cover. He went undrafted out of Iowa State in 2013 because he tore a pectoral muscle a month before the draft, but he performed at the school's 2014 pro day and impressed the Jets' scouts. As the lottery folks say, hey, you never know.

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