This is the first in a series of stories reviewing Jets' 2007 season and previewing 2008, position by position.
Just how would you accurately assess the Jets' wide receivers last season? They ran routes for two different quarterbacks who oftentimes had little time to throw the ball. There were great catches, glaring drops and critical injuries to a group that — much like the team itself — was inconsistent.
"I think we were fair," said Jerricho Cotchery of the pass catchers. "I would say the entire offense was fair. We didn't perform up to our capabilities — the entire offense didn't."
Cotchery, whose 82 catches and career-best 1,130 yards led the club, has had an interesting four-year career. He was a reserve on a playoff team as a rookie and then saw the Jets' fortunes reverse when they won only four games in 2005. The Jets returned to the playoffs in '06 and Cotchery experienced a professional breakthrough, hauling in 82 balls and six TD receptions. But the Jets fell back again last fall, dropping 12 games for the second time in three years.
"That was my second year going through a season like that. It was tough because we had a lot of things in place and we didn't have that many injuries," he said. "A lot of guys were beat up, but we didn't have any serious injuries and we still didn't get it done last year. It was a tough year for me."
Not one to make excuses, Cotchery didn't point to injuries. But the receivers had their share and it took its toll on the group.
Laveranues Coles had his impressive streak of 104 consecutive regular-season NFL starts come to an end when he sat out the Washington game with a concussion he suffered late in Game 8 vs. Buffalo. Following the bye, Coles got hurt again after catching a fleaflicker against the Steelers on the second offensive play from scrimmage. That ankle, which he would later aggravate in December at the team hotel up in New England, would eventually force LC to injured reserve on Dec. 22.
"I have never been one to like being in the training room and I have probably spent more time in the training room this year than I have my whole career combined," Coles said. "It has been very frustrating."
Coles' six receiving TDs led the Jets and he collected 55 receptions in a career-low 12 games. He made only 10 starts, so Cotchery became the team's go-to guy late in the year.
"It was something I had to adjust to," he said. "I hadn't been in that position for probably like four years and it happened fast for me. Teams started focusing on me a little bit more, so I had to study a little bit more and I had to get creative as a wide receiver and rely on the things I did at N.C. State. After the first couple of games, I think I got adjusted pretty well."
With Coles out of the lineup, Cotchery (playing through a finger injury) saw more bracket coverage. Teams wanted to take him out of the picture and make Justin McCareins, Brad Smith or Chris Baker beat them.
"The experience will help me out drastically because it's different bracketing in college than in the NFL. These guys know what you're doing up here, they know your tendencies and they study a lot," Cotchery said. "Being able to get adjusted to that and being able to be efficient against the bracket coverage and the double teams and stuff helped out a lot."
After starting six games in '07, the Jets released McCareins in February. His production tailed off in each of the last three seasons (56 catches in '04 to 43, 23 and 19) in New York and most fans unfortunately remember a J-Mac drop in Week 2 in Baltimore that likely prevented the Jets from forcing OT against the Ravens.
Both Brad Smith and Wallace Wright are expected to return. Smith, a former college quarterback, hauled in 32 passes in his second pro season and scored twice. Wright, who had six receptions, is one of the Jets' top special teams performers.
The wild card in '08 might be Chansi Stuckey. The 6'0", 196-pound displayed good quickness and sticky hands last summer before an ankle injury put him on IR. Stuckey could be a perfect fit for the slot, creating mismatches on the inside for the Green & White.
"I definitely want to see what he can do. I always get excited about the guys after their rookie season. They get to go through the whole off-season with the vets instead of just working with the rookies," Cotchery said. "They can get more familiar with the vets and that's where they can really earn their stripes."
It has yet to be determined who will be behind center on opening day, but either Kellen Clemens or Chad Pennington will have more time to throw the ball in the fall. The free-agent signings of G Alan Faneca and T Damien Woody have solidified the line and FB Tony Richardson will also help in the backfield. If the Jets' run game is more effective, then the play-action passing game should get a boost.
In Cotchery and Coles, the Jets still have one of the toughest, surest-handed combos in football. While neither is a burner, they both can run after the catch and they set a great tone for their meeting room. They are workers who lead by example and you never get the feeling that they're satisfied.
"We can do a whole lot better that what we did," Cotchery said, "and this off-season we're just going to have to turn it up a notch in every aspect of our game and get better so we can help out this offense more than we did last year."