Tuesday, August 3, 2010 Updated: August 4, 3:29 PM ET
Mark Sanchez blooming at right time
By John Clayton ESPN.com
CORTLAND, N.Y. -- On paper, maybe the New York Jets have passed the New England Patriots in the AFC East.
While the Patriots still hold the edge because they have Tom Brady, the Jets can make an argument that they have more talent.
While the Patriots are getting younger with 24 draft choices on their roster from the past two years, the Jets have used that same time to assemble a Pro Bowl lineup of stars.
This season, Mark Sanchez (6) might have the best receiving corps he can ever have.
Suddenly, the Jets, a team built on defense, have the offensive weapons to compete against the Pats and the top teams in the league.
A year ago at this time, a construction sign was hanging from the offensive clipboards. First-round choice Mark Sanchez was going day-to-day, showing flashes of brilliance and the stubbles of being a rookie. As much as they tried to hype it, the Jets couldn't field a legitimate three-receiver set. Jerricho Cotchery, versatile enough to play any receiving position, was the split end and Chansi Stuckey, really only a slot guy, was the flanker. Brad Smith and David Clowney weren't legitimate enough to count on for 16 games as the third receiver.
Now, the roles are set and the options are exciting. Braylon Edwards, acquired from the Browns in a 2009 trade, is the flanker, a position in a normal West Coast-type offense that could produce 80-catch, 1,200-yard seasons.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers star Santonio Holmes is the split end, a Pro Bowl-caliber talent who could take over a game going against a lone corner. Cotchery can work well out of the slot, and the weekend signing of Laveranues Coles provides a four-game split end option during Holmes' suspension, allowing Edwards to spend the season as the team's flanker.
Second-year starter Sanchez might not ready to get into shootouts with Brady, but he has the targets to try.
Here are the three observations from Jets camp:
1. Winning as a rookie has allowed Sanchez to mature faster than I've imagined. You can hear it in his voice. You can see it in his body. An offseason of lifting and training has Sanchez looking more capable of handling the rigors of the quarterback position.
"He's changed his body compared to those GQ shots from last year," coach Rex Ryan said.
I've heard Sanchez talk about his technique development since last season. It seems he's ready to take a significant step forward to see if he truly is a playoff-caliber quarterback.
Sanchez understands now what he didn't know last season. A year ago at camp, he'd linger for days on the mechanics of a bad throw. After playing a full season, he knows his mechanics are reasonably consistent and to move on from one bad throw.
Coaches have him working more on passes to his left, which was a weakness in 2009. In many ways, Sanchez needs to take advantage of this season because he might never have as talented a receiving corps the rest of his career.
Holmes and Edwards are on one-year contracts, and there is no way both will be back in 2011. It's not out of the question for both to leave in free agency. Cotchery should be around for years because he's signed through 2012.
At some point, the team has to get around to signing Dustin Keller to an extension. He's one of the best pass-catching tight ends who isn't on the national radar yet.
Sanchez might not be Broadway Joe, but his off-Broadway show has worked its way into Manhattan and is drawing good reviews.
2. The sleeper acquisition of the offseason might be cornerback Antonio Cromartie. The former San Diego Chargers star is like those baseball home-run hitters who strike out 170 times a year. He could hit you 40-to-50 homers or he could end an inning with a swing and miss.
The most encouraging thing about Cromartie is how Ryan is handling him. Cromartie has a bad habit of drawing too many penalties and counts on his incredible quickness too often.
Ryan has told Cromartie that he doesn't have to run at his full speed as a corner because he's going to be faster than most of the receivers he covers. Instead, Ryan just wants him to run at the receiver's speed and stay with him. After playing the right side his entire career, Cromartie moved to holdout Darrelle Revis' spot on the left side of the defense Monday.
While there is no true benefit to having Revis -- the team's best player -- miss camp because of a costly holdout, giving Cromartie the chance to experience the left side is important. Revis usually matches up against an opponents' best receiver, so Cromatrie needs experience on both sides of the field.
As much as Ryan thought he had his deepest cornerback crew last year, he knows Revis, Cromartie, first-round pick Kyle Wilson and dependable backup Dwight Lowery are even better. The No. 1 ranked defense is exceptional at stopping the run, but combine this cornerback crew with a defense that has Jason Taylor and Calvin Pace rushing and the team might get more turnovers, particularly Cromartie.
3. Bad chemistry could be the downfall of this team, but I think this is a together team. The good news for Jets' fans is that the leadership is great. Ryan talks bold, but he wants his players to play with a swagger. As long as the team wins, the Jets shouldn't have any problems.
But there could be a lot of negative reflections if the Jets don't make the playoffs or go on the Super Bowl run that is expected.
Revis is holding out to upgrade his rich rookie contract and trying to get $15 million per year. How does that register with inside linebacker David Harris, who is in the last year of a rookie deal that pays him $550,000? How will center Nick Mangold feel if the Revis holdout turns into a distraction that costs games while he is in the last year of his rookie deal?
How will players look at management if running back Shonn Greene can't shoulder the running load once carried by popular veteran Thomas Jones? What if the Chargers were right in thinking LaDainian Tomlinson was done?
How will players respond if Matt Slauson and Vladimir Ducasse don't work out at left guard after the surprising release of Alan Faneca?
Ultimately, though, I don't foresee all that many problems. This team is talented enough to win. We'll just have to see if they are ready to top the Patriots.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.