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Top 5 young players who need to excel in 2017

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 23: Leonard Williams #92 of the New York Jets celebrates against the Baltimore Ravens at MetLife Stadium on October 23, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - OCTOBER 23: Leonard Williams #92 of the New York Jets celebrates against the Baltimore Ravens at MetLife Stadium on October 23, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
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EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 23: Leonard Williams #92 of the New York Jets celebrates against the Baltimore Ravens at MetLife Stadium on October 23, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 23: Leonard Williams #92 of the New York Jets celebrates against the Baltimore Ravens at MetLife Stadium on October 23, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The long, hard painful youth movement of the New York Jets means that a few young guns really have to develop in 2017. Here are the top five that need to excel so all hope is not lost.

Last week’s “Green and White” scrimmage — the public’s first peek at the 2017 season — raised more questions than answers for the New York Jets.

Standing on the MetLife turf during 7-on-7 drills, it was obvious that the intensity and energy are there.  But it was frightening to observe in full view Quincy Enunwa‘s career threatening (and organizationally devastating) neck re-injury.  His shocking fall to the turf looked benign compared to promising rookie Xavier Coleman’s, whose end zone tumble saw him carried off the field, in a sad-ending to training camp’s feel-good free agent story.

This tough rebuild means that every player really needs to elevate their game because there is competition at every position.  Young hustlers, overachievers, and dreamers will get their shot. The Jets had the lowest-rated roster talent in the 32-team league before the Enunwa injury.

The problem this season will be with the offense, which could be historically bad.  The evolving (and questionable) offensive line can’t deliver much if things play out as expected.  With Enunwa’s NFL future in jeopardy, last-chance tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and slot receiver Jalin Marshall suspended the first few games, and gray-bearded Matt Forte already nicked up, there’s no place to run and no place to hide.

The $2.75 billion question (based on the franchise’s current value) remains:  How much will this beleaguered fan base support a year of Josh McCown swing passes to Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire, and short slants to Charone Peake, ArDarius Stewart and maybe even Chris Harper?

The scrimmage proved that Christian Hackenberg has stepped up his game — pun intended, with his revamped footwork under quarterback coach Jeremy Bates — but he is clearly at least a year away.  The event also proved that Bryce Petty hasn’t been the same since last season’s smackdown in Miami, where he got double-stuffed by Ndamukong Suh and Cameron Wake.

It would’ve been nice to see field time from the injured Jamal Adams, who rolled his ankle a few days earlier but returned to camp on Monday.  What was evident on the field was that if Adams can deliver as advertised, he and Marcus Maye have the potential to develop into the league’s best young safety tandem.

Here are five young players from last year’s roster who really need to show something this season, and develop into foundational players if the Jets are to compete in 2018 and beyond.

Next: 5. Young and amazing

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – DECEMBER 17: Robby Anderson #11 of the New York Jets runs a 40 yard touchdown pass against Bacarri Rambo #30 of the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on December 17, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – DECEMBER 17: Robby Anderson #11 of the New York Jets runs a 40 yard touchdown pass against Bacarri Rambo #30 of the Miami Dolphins during the first quarter of the game at MetLife Stadium on December 17, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

5. Wide Receiver Robby Anderson

Especially now with Enunwa’s season-ending second neck injury in months, last year’s training camp’s feel-good has much to prove in 2017.  But it would be a huge mistake to simply hand “Young Amazing” (his Twitter handle) a starting receiving slot.  The former UDFA out of Temple had a solid rookie season, in a trial by fire, with 42 receptions for 587 yards.

However, most weeks he was invisible.  Much of that had to do with the fact that he’d developed zero chemistry with last year’s brooding Harvard-schooled starting quarterback.  But in many games, the skinny 6’3” kid simply got manhandled.

Robby Anderson has added 10 pounds of muscle, and he is saying and doing all the right things thus far.  But you can’t love his off-season transgression, getting arrested after brawling with security at a concert back home in Miami.  Then there’s the issue of this season’s fourth-rounder Chad Hansen, who basically plays Anderson’s position, and should be ready to contribute in 2018.

There will be one or two wide receiver roster spots still available at camp.  The recent signing of unlucky Dallas receiver Lucky Whitehead will greatly impact that decision.  The smartest move would be to keep Whitehead as that deadly return-game weapon.  But the former All-Conference USA receiver out of Florida Atlantic has already displayed explosive speed, faster than Anderson.  Plus, there are 13 receivers in training camp (!!), and the coaching staff really like what they see in ex-Patriot Chris Harper and former Giant Myles White.

The good news last season was that Anderson looked impressive with some monster receptions from gunslinger Petty.  The bad news for Robby is that if the third-year Baylor gunslinger will likely never see the field — and if he does, it will truly be a worst-case scenario.

Brandon Marshall said last season that Anderson reminded him of himself in his own rookie year.  It’s up to Robby if he wants to take it to the next level, beginning in 2017.

Next: 4. Shellz

4. Offensive Tackle Brandon Shell The nephew of NFL legend Art Shell was a 2016 draft-day acquisition from the Washington Redskins.  The plan was to “red-shirt” Brandon Shell, so as to allow the 6’6” 325 lb. behemoth rookie from Goose Creek, South Carolina to hit the weight room and absorb the speed of the game.  But he was pressed into late-season action after Breno Giacomini‘s year-ending back issues and excelled in his four games at right tackle.  It was one of the feel-good stories of a feel-bad season.

Last season proved that the Jets‘ offensive line has simply not recovered from the sudden retirement of D’Brickashaw Ferguson.  Brick’s decision came a few weeks after he and his family saw the film Concussion.

The three-time All-Pro’s replacement recently retired Ryan Clady, did not exactly work out as envisioned (the former Denver Bronco was no longer a first-round talent road-grader, even before his year-ending shoulder surgery).  So the organization is banking heavily (three-years, $24 million) that Kevin Beachum, this year’s post-surgery free agent signing, to cover their quarterback’s blindside, and will help anchor the line at left tackle.

If Shell doesn’t hatch into the long-term NFL starter that he seemingly can be, this line will be stretched thin with Ben Ijalana and/or Brent Qvale on the field.  But the blend of a surgically rebuilt Beachum and a maturing Shell, along with arguably the league’s top guard duo in James Carpenter and Brian Winters — all joined by last season’s lone bright spot in Nick Mangold’s replacement, converted center Wesley Johnson — can provide Morton ample cover for his rapid-fire West Coast Offense of short passes and running bursts.

Next: 3. An up and coming outside linebacker

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – AUGUST 11: Luke Joeckel #76 of the Jacksonville Jaguars blocks Jordan Jenkins #48 of the New York Jets in an NFL preseason game at MetLife Stadium on August 11, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – AUGUST 11: Luke Joeckel #76 of the Jacksonville Jaguars blocks Jordan Jenkins #48 of the New York Jets in an NFL preseason game at MetLife Stadium on August 11, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)

3. Outside Linebacker Jordan Jenkins

In the 2016 NFL Draft, general manager Mike Maccagnan followed the selection of Darron Lee in the first round with Jordan Jenkins in the third.  To date, the Georgia backer — with a mature skill set similar to fellow former Bulldog, 90s Jets great Mo Lewis — is on the faster track to becoming a foundational player for the Green and White.

This year, expect the team’s run-setting backer to also be the team’s sack leader.  And while it’s not his fault, everyone will want Jenkins to make up for the Gang Green’s lousy history of draft-bust edge-rushers that date back to the bad ol’ days of Vernon Gholston and Quinton Coples.

And speaking of underproductive blitz machines, this is a make-or-break season for 2015 third round outside linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin — who showed considerable promise in 2015, looked overwhelmed in 2016, has begun 2017 with an assault charge, and likely faces a 2018 multi-game suspension.  Those footsteps Mauldin hears are coming from high-motor fifth-round selection Dylan Donahue, pet product of the Jets new linebackers coach, Pro Football Hall of Famer Kevin Greene.

Judging by the recent scrimmage, the team’s strongest front at outside linebacker would rotate Mauldin and Donahue with starter Josh Martin on one side, and station Jenkins on the other.

Next: 2. D-Lee

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 02: Darron Lee #50 of the New York Jets tackles Luke Willson #82 of the Seattle Seahawks in the first half at MetLife Stadium on October 2, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ – OCTOBER 02: Darron Lee #50 of the New York Jets tackles Luke Willson #82 of the Seattle Seahawks in the first half at MetLife Stadium on October 2, 2016 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)

2. Outside Linebacker Darron Lee

Last year’s No. 1 draft pick really needs to step up, and fast. Outside linebacker Darron Lee is definitely stepping up big-time this preseason in a vocal leadership role.  But the former Buckeye in his ankle injury-impacted rookie season did not display those lethal defensive playmaking skills, and his pass coverage left much to be desired.

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In his 13 games (9 starts), the 84th ranked of 87 linebackers (according to Pro Football Focus) has shown few signs of being that smash-mouthed seek-and-destroy wrecker of tight ends/running backs tryin’ to cross over the middle — which this team has lacked since the glory daze of “Madbacker” Bart Scott.

To be fair, Lee was supposed to spend 2016 on the bench, but he was forced into action after Erin Henderson‘s relapse. Bowles certainly must see Lee as that Deone Bucannon safety-inside linebacker hybrid — which the coach used so effectively in Arizona that it won him the job of head coach with the Jets.  If so, Gang Green just haven’t shown such fronts to date.  If not, then what is the 230 lb, inside linebacker’s true position?

2017 will be a career-defining season for Lee.  He (and the seemingly revitalized Demario Davis) must quickly replace the veteran leadership and signal-calling prowess of future Jets Ring of Honor inductee and current New England Patriot David Harris.

Next: 1. J-Dot

1. Cornerback Juston Burris

It’s painful to hear defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers admit he now regrets letting promising young cornerbacks like last year’s fourth-rounder out of NC State and Darryl Roberts stand on the sidelines most of the season.  That decision was made so as not to insult the former greatness of Darrelle Revis — who dogged it so badly in 2016 that interest in the future Pro Football Hall of Famer is lukewarm at best (at press time, he is playing hard ball with the perennially cornerback-less Eagles).

Cornerback Juston Burris is a grinder, and when he finally got on the field last year, he was relentless.  Some times he succeeded, other times he got scorched.  The ballhawk particularly soared in an ugly Christmas Day game against the New England Patriots.  The week before, he got toasted by Kenny Stills in a brutal home loss to the Miami Dolphins.  All part of the learning curve for an NFL baller.

With Buster Skrine giving the team good reasons to shed his $8.5 million salary hit, Burris has his chance to shine this fall.  A cornerback unit of Burris and Roberts with Morris Claiborne and Marcus Williams, along with promising rookie Derrick Jones, may provide Bowles with the secondary tools he needs in order to man-up against the game’s elite receivers.

Must Read: Top 5 training camp hopefuls that can make final roster

As much as Leonard Williams and Jamal Adams, Burris has the requisite bruising skill set and unrelenting attitude to spearhead Gang Green’s defense moving forward.  It is up to Bowles to prevent another consecutive locker-room mutiny, if he wants the opportunity to develop such prized young talent — and remain the head coach of the Jets.

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