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CORTLAND, N.Y. -- Embattled incumbent Mark Sanchez is batting leadoff in the New York Jets' quarterback competition.
Saying "it seemed like the natural thing to do," Rex Ryan announced Tuesday that Sanchez will start the preseason opener Friday night at the Detroit Lions. Rookie Geno Smith will get a chance to work with the first-team offense in a relief role, according to the coach.
Ryan called it an "even competition," explaining that he picked Sanchez because he's the incumbent.
Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg suggested that Sanchez received the starting nod because he has outplayed Smith in camp. "He's earned it," Mornhinweg said. "He's had an outstanding camp."
Presumably, Smith will start the second game, but Ryan didn't reveal any plans beyond Friday night.
"The preseason doesn't end after this first preseason game, OK?" Ryan said. "We'll take it through as much as possible. We said this would be an equal competition and it's going to be a competition. That's exactly what it is."
Smith, drafted in the second round, has looked sharp in training camp. In fact, he didn't throw his first interception in team drills until Tuesday -- on his 79th pass attempt. His last two practices were spotty, but he has outplayed Sanchez in camp, statistically.
Mornhinweg said Smith got off to a terrific start in camp, but "he has dipped just a little bit, so he has to recover."
The two quarterbacks have been alternating first-team reps in camp, rotating every third day. Ryan said he went into camp thinking Sanchez would likely start the opener, adding that the final decision was based on "a logical progression."
Center Nick Mangold, who said in June that Sanchez "gives us the best chance" to win, didn't sound as convinced.
"I think Mark can still win it," he said. "The competition they've had going has been fantastic. It's making them both better. We want to win, so whoever gives us the best chance to win, we want out there."
In June, Mangold said the sense he got was that Sanchez was the preferred candidate among the players. That came after a lackluster minicamp performance by Smith. The former West Virginia star has elevated his game in camp. Publicly, no one is giving an edge to either player.
"He's done a good job since coming back [for camp], understanding the playbook and the calls," Mangold said. "He's a rookie, so there will be little things that happen along the way, but he's learning from it. The good part is, he rarely makes the same mistake twice, which is a good sign."
Neither Sanchez nor Smith was available Tuesday -- it wasn't their day to speak to the media -- but both have spoken confidently in recent days about their ability to lead the team.
Interestingly, the preseason opener is on the road, with the second game at home. Sanchez incurred the wrath of Jets fans last season, committing 26 turnovers for the second straight year. He heard boos Saturday night after throwing an interception in an intrasquad scrimmage in Cortland.
Ryan made headlines Monday with comments about the fans' treatment of Sanchez. While he supported the fans' right to boo, Ryan also said "we need to move forward" and give slack to Sanchez.
Sanchez won't have to worry about boos Friday night, only the Lions' defensive line.