Before the opening of camp, I wrote that Smith could be a pivotal part of the offense and how Chan Gailey implements his quarterback friendly system but the good news is that with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker manning the top spots, the Jets will be able to work around the problem. Before the injury, Smith saw significant snaps with the first team reps three-wide "11" sets. So how does the team replicate his role with the players they have on the roster?
We expect it will be a mix of players who take on the hole left by Smith ... but who are the players most likely to see substantial time there?
Let's take a look.
The Speedster: TJ Graham
Graham was actually drafted to the Bills when current Jets offensive coordinator Gailey was the head coach there. Graham is a burner who can take the top off the defense and beat corners in man coverage with good hands on jams and can eat up cushions and be on top and past them before a corner can react. Overall, Graham's shown flashes of his natural hands and leaping ability on 50/50 balls. But his route-running and lack of overall strength have kept him from developing into a full-time NFL starter. Graham's a deep speed wasn't enough for the Bills to extend further patience, which is how he wound up on the Jets last year.
Thanks to Gailey's knowledge of Graham from their days together in Buffalo, there's potential that Gailey wanted Graham to take on the Devin Smith role before he even had a Devin Smith. In that way, it will be interesting to see how Gailey utilizes (or doesn't utilize) Graham during Smith's absence. My thought is that Graham's flashes of brilliance are enticing, but that the team might need someone with a little more bite in terms of their productivity ... which leads me to ...
The Vet: Jeremy Kerley
Kerley is entering his fifth season with the team. Over the course of his career, he's gone from backup to slot receiver to full time starter and now back to a slot/backup role. Kerley is one of the hardest workers and gets every yard he can out of balls thrown his way, but 2014 was a down year for Kerley for a number of reasons, many of which I would argue weren't his fault. PFF didn't grade him very high, he also suffered one of the worst target rates of all NFL receivers thanks to the poor quarterback play. Check out the drop in efficiency (yards per route) in 2014.
I don't know how Kerley's snaps and targets will look this year, but I would bet that regardless of how much time he sees on the field he will see a regression to his "mean" numbers ... meaning that even if he doesn't get much love from his quarterbacks, he could be a highly efficient player when he does catch the ball which will only help the whole receiver ecosystem for this team.
Kerley can't duplicate the role that Chan Gailey would have intended for Smith, but Gailey can slide Kerley into the slot and utilize Marshall and Decker in a more productive fashion than Smith might have been able to offer. Marshall has seen his totals as a slot receiver steadily increase as has his age, so Gailey will have to figure out where he wants Marshall first before deploying Kerley. This isn't the optimal situation for Chain Gailey, but the group could still be pretty productive if the sort out who gets to man the slot and when between Kerley and Marshall.
While he can be productive, physically, Kerley doesn't have the same gifts that Graham or Smith have, which makes me wonder if Gailey might look to blend productivity and talent with a player like ...
The Freak: Chris Owusu
Owusu came into the league when the sensitivity to concussions was extremely high and even with his incredible speed, he went undrafted despite being cleared play. Owusu was the most physically impressive WR at the 2012 combine (even with Stephen Hill jumping out of the gym) where he ran an official 4.36 40-yard dash, tied for fastest among receivers. Since then, Owusu has bounced around as a member of the 49ers, Chargers, and Bucs before landing with the Jets last year. Going into his senior year, some scouts believed that after playing as one of Andrew Luck's best receivers at Stanford he was a lock to become a second or third round draft pick. Since then he's clearly struggled to transition his physical prowess to the football field, but we saw his potential realized last year against the Dolphins.
When you look at the height/weight/speed numbers for Owusu and Smith, there's a lot of similarities here. If Gailey thinks he can trust Owusu with replicating the Smith role, he might be the closest facsimile.