Camp Confidential: Recent trend bodes well for fortified Jets

Chad Pennington, left, has experience. Kellen Clemens has upside. Which QB will the Jets pick? AP Photo/Ed Betz

HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- Two years ago, many thought Eric Mangini was in over his head.

The wunderkind assistant, who got his start in the NFL as a public relations assistant, had quickly climbed the coaching ranks under Bill Belichick's tutelage and was given control of the New York Jets two days shy of his 35th birthday.

Mangini won 10 games and went to the playoffs his first season. He went from being considered too immature for the gig to being called Mangenius.

Then in 2007 the Jets won four games, only two against teams not called the Miami Dolphins. The Jets were abysmal. They couldn't get production from their quarterbacks. Their line couldn't block. Their defense couldn't stop a purse snatcher.

"Mangenius" was uttered with enough sarcasm to make Bill Murray blush.

"The beautiful thing about the NFL is that every year is so different," Mangini said. "That's what you love about it, and that's what you know is going to be the same."

The Jets enter 2008 with sincere hopes of returning to the playoffs. Since 2003, they've won six, 10, four, 10 and four games. If the trend continues, they'll silence the snickering pundits.

"There is going to be some team that's able to make great strides, and some teams that are established that will take steps back," Mangini said.

"The radical difference between the expectations of the two years just reinforced the point that we talk about all the time. Expectations don't mean anything. What we do means something."

Key questions

1. Will whoever emerges at quarterback be good enough to help the Jets make the playoffs?

For the sake of discussion, let's assume Brett Favre doesn't end up with the Jets. When the Jets were drawing up their depth chart in the spring, there's no way they could have predicted having a shot at him anyway. Their plan was to let Chad Pennington and Kellen Clemens fight for the job.

"They have been competing day after day," said new tight end Bubba Franks, one of Favre's favorite red zone targets in Green Bay. "It's going to be a hard decision, but as long as they keep coming in and working hard we won't have any problems with whomever is in there."

Either way, the winner needs to improve his productivity from last year. Pennington lost his job to Clemens, who was thoroughly unremarkable.

Pennington is 32 but felt compelled to overhaul mechanics that have deteriorated with a pair of shoulder surgeries and last year's ankle injury.

"I'm looking for myself to take the next step to be an upper-echelon quarterback, to start to do some things that set me apart from how I was in the past," Pennington said. "I don't think you ever stay the same. You are either getting better or you are getting worse, period."

Clemens, however, has the advantage of upside. He threw five touchdowns and 10 interceptions, but his most significant stat in his battle with Pennington is his age: 25.

2. How quickly can the offensive line develop chemistry?

Last year, the Jets' offensive line didn't create enough holes and gave up a heap of sacks.

So they landed arguably the offseason's top free agent by signing seven-time Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca. They also signed two-time Super Bowl champ Damien Woody to play right tackle, a position at which he has played only five games.

That gives the Jets four former first-round picks on their offensive line with center Nick Mangold and left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson, both of whom are entering their third seasons. The other grunt, right guard Brandon Moore, has started 57 straight games for the Jets.

On paper, they have the potential to be one of the NFL's elite units -- if there's cohesion.

3. Can outside linebacker Vernon Gholston learn the game fast enough to make an impact?

Gholston's draft stock soared after he tore up NFL scouting combine drills and then did even better at his pro day. While some teams viewed him as a workout fiend who might not translate into the NFL, the Jets took him with the sixth overall pick.

Gholston has been coming along slowly. It's visibly perceptible, and he readily admits the transition has been overwhelming at times.

He played defensive end at Ohio State and has looked uncomfortable starting from an upright stance. His freakish pass-rushing skills are better displayed when he puts his hand down in sub packages.

"He's being hit with a ton of information," Mangini said. "It's all new; the neurons haven't snapped together yet."

4. Will outside linebacker Calvin Pace prove to be worth the investment?

Pace, after five mostly pedestrian seasons for the Arizona Cardinals, became one of the most coveted players in the free-agency pool because he's perfectly suited for 3-4 defenses. The former 18th overall draft choice demonstrated his skill set with an impressive contract year, recording 106 tackles and 6 sacks.

"I've seen all the athleticism we had seen while he was in Arizona," Mangini said. "He's picked up the information quickly, and it's a lot of different things for him. He's got a nice ability to stick it up the field and wrap back around. He's got an excellent burst. When he sees the target, that burst, the ability to just accelerate, he's very good."

5. How much difference will fullback Tony Richardson make to the run game?

Richardson hasn't scored a rushing touchdown since 2002, but he might prove every bit as integral to the Jets' ground success as Faneca or Woody.

Richardson has blocked for six 1,000-year rushers (Priest Holmes three times, Larry Johnson, Chester Taylor and Adrian Peterson) and will be looked upon to open holes for a club that ran for just four touchdowns a year ago.

Market watch

Thomas Jones notched his third straight 1,000-yard season, but it was one of the NFL's more mundane campaigns for a featured back. He scored one rushing touchdown and one receiving touchdown. He averaged 3.6 yards a carry.

How Jones rebounds will depend substantially on the revamped offensive line and Richardson's path-clearing help. But if Jones can't increase his production, the Jets have other options. Leon Washington has looked good in camp, while newcomers Jesse Chatman and Musa Smith have been reliable pinch hitters in the past.

Newcomer to watch

The Jets sent third- and fifth-round draft picks to the Carolina Panthers for Kris Jenkins, a prototypical 3-4 nose tackle. He's a 359-pound run-stuffer who demands two blockers. Mangini said Jenkins "makes it a 3-4."

"I am not a receiver," Jenkins said. "I am not built to be a quarterback. I take pride in doing the dirty work. I feel like it's one of the most important positions you've got on the defense. I get to be the point man, but I still don't get the glory."

Observation deck

This training camp will be the last at Hofstra University. The Jets are moving off Long Island to a glittery new facility in Florham Park, N.J. Jets owner Woody Johnson said he would like to maintain a connection by staging the annual Green & White scrimmage at Hofstra. Jesse Chatman has been working out on the side because of an undisclosed injury, but he looks slimmer than last year with the Miami Dolphins. Weight has been an issue for him. Chansi Stuckey and converted QB Brad Smith are in a fun battle to be the No. 3 WR. Stuckey catches everything. Smith is a natural playmaker. Practice-squad QB Brett Ratliff has outplayed fifth-round pick Erik Ainge for the third-string spot.

Tim Graham covers the NFL for ESPN.com.