Most NFL coaches would harbor some concern about an attempt to replace players who last season accounted for 40.4% of their team's receiving yards with men whose program bios include such details as "37 years old" or "stayed fit by running sprints in upstate New York prison yard." Jets head coach Rex Ryan, though, says, "I think, overall, it's a phenomenal receiving corps." As with most of his statements during his two-plus seasons in New York, Ryan is both brash and, more or less, correct.
The Jets focused their off-season energies on re-signing former Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes, their 27-year-old No. 1 wideout—which they did in late July, for five years and $50 million. The problem for New York was that it lost playmaker Braylon Edwards (now a member of the 49ers), multipurpose threat Brad Smith (now with the Bills) and reliable possession receiver Jerricho Cotchery (released last Thursday). All told, the trio combined for 1,381 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2010. In their place the Jets now have former Ravens wideout Derrick Mason—the 37-year-old—and soon-to-be 34-year-old Plaxico Burress, formerly of the Giants but most recently of the Oneida Correctional Facility. Were New York counting on either Burress or Mason to be a focal point, as both have been for most of their careers, this might be a problem. With Holmes drawing most of the double coverage, however, each will assume the role of complementary player, and that is a role in which each should excel.
"I've never played with a guy of Tone's ability through all my years," Burress says of Holmes. "It's going to be fun. I'm just curious to see how teams play us. I hope teams do double him and leave me one-on-one—oh, my gosh, I would love it."
Though Burress reports that he went undefeated in his prison-yard sprints, he almost certainly lost some foot speed during his time away. He believes, however, that his time off has left him with less wear than other players his age. "Actually, I feel better than I did before I went in, just being able to rest," he says. Speed has always been less important for the 6'5" Burress than for most receivers. "His game is about positioning, coming out of his routes, his breaks, and I think he'll be able to do it," says Ryan. "He's a guy, when he's covered, he's open."
Burress should be motivated ("I spent the past two years knowing that my day would inevitably come, that I would be released and be able to go back to my family, get back to playing football, and at a high level," he says), and he'll provide a viable red zone target for a quarterback who could desperately use one. Mark Sanchez's completion percentage inside the 20 last season was 47.7%—32nd among quarterbacks with more than 15 red zone pass attempts—and he was even more abysmal inside the 10, where he completed just 7 of 26 throws. The presence of Burress, who can soar over everyone when the field gets crowded, should help. "You can put it anywhere within 10 yards of Plax, and he's going to go get it," says tight end Dustin Keller.
Even if Burress falters, or if Mason cannot transition into a secondary role, the Jets still have options: Keller caught five touchdowns in last season's first four games while Holmes was serving a suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, and 5'9" rookie slot receiver Jeremy Kerley has been the talk of camp. ("He's one of those Wes Welker types—you put him in the slot and you can't cover him one-on-one," says Burress.) The Jets' receiving corps will mirror the rest of the team: unconventional, and very good.
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AL PEREIRA/NY JETS (BURRESS)
WITH COMPLEMENTS Ryan introduced Burress (left) to his new sidekick Holmes (far right) and backup QB Mark Brunell last week.
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