Ready … Set … Geno Smith heads into season opener primed to take off

By on September 7, 2014

Geno Smith had an up-and-down rookie season that included 21 interceptions, but head coach Rex Ryan expects to see a lot of growth in Year 2, which begins Sunday.Rich Schultz/Getty Images Geno Smith had an up-and-down rookie season that included 21 interceptions, but head coach Rex Ryan expects to see a lot of growth in Year 2, which begins Sunday.

The Jets believe in Geno Smith’s potential so much that this summer they elected to violate the 11th commandment: Thou shalt have training camp competition.

The team knows that any marginal upgrade in playing Michael Vick doesn’t outweigh the long-term benefit of the possibility that Smith could turn into a franchise QB, and so they gave Smith the majority of first-team reps and basically handed him the starting job.

The Jets hope the second-year quarterback, who will start Sunday’s season opener against the Raiders at MetLife Stadium, will be the first offensive star drafted by the team during Rex Ryan’s tenure. The Jets have their elite players on offense — Nick Mangold, D’Brickashaw Ferguson, Eric Decker, Chris Johnson — but none of them was drafted by Gang Green in the last five years. While Ryan believes the team has developed players on that side of the ball, he admits that no top-tier talent has emerged from drafts while he’s been here. He also thinks Smith can buck that trend.

“It hasn’t been the superstar, so to speak,” Ryan told The News. “I think Geno Smith’s going to be a guy that I think is going to turn some heads.”

Ryan has an unflappable belief in his own players; it’s part of the reason why they love him in return. Last season, when cornerback Dee Milliner was getting picked on by every quarterback and receiver he faced, Ryan pounded the table in the rookie’s defense. The coach said that by the end of the year Milliner would be the best cornerback in the draft class. So does he hold the same conviction for Smith? “Well, in his class that he came out in? Absolutely I’d say so,” Ryan said.

Granted, there’s a lot less competition for Smith. He’s essentially in a head-to-head battle with EJ Manuel for the (perhaps lowly) title of best quarterback in the draft class of 2013. But beyond just being better than Manuel, Ryan thinks Smith can be a star.

“I think so. I do. And again, I don’t want to put undue pressure on the young man,” Ryan said. “He’s got a phenomenal work ethic, and that’s going to give him a chance to be special.”

Smith is coming off a rough first season in the NFL. The surprise starter at the beginning of the year following Mark Sanchez’s shoulder injury, Smith started all 16 games for the Jets, compiling a 66.5 QB rating. He had a particularly brutal stretch in the middle of the season when he simply looked lost, but he also showed flashes of high-level play, like in the team’s late win in Atlanta. By the end of the year Smith looked better, and led the Jets to three wins in their final four games.

Despite the uptick in performance at the end of the year, an ESPN poll of NFL insiders this summer ranked Smith as the worst starting quarterback in the league.

When Ryan was asked what kind of quarterback Smith would become if he fulfilled his potential, the coach said, “A pretty darn good quarterback. One who’s not going to be ranked 32nd but, by the way, he won’t be ranked 32nd at the end of this year either.”

Smith looked good, though not fantastic, this preseason, but many of his snaps came against backups. The real first test for the second-year quarterback will come on Sunday against the Raiders, when the Jets will be expected to handily swat away one of the worst teams in the league heading east for a 1 p.m. game. Considering the Raiders are throwing out rookie QB Derek Carr, it’s about as ideal a matchup as the Jets could have asked for. But it also, like virtually all of the Jets games, will hinge on Smith limiting mistakes.

Perhaps more than anything, given the strengths the team has elsewhere, the Jets want to reduce the turnovers from their QB. He threw 21 interceptions last season, and Ryan expects that number to go down.

“I think that’ll be the most noticeable thing when you look at it,” Ryan said. “And I think the wins. That’s what we want. We want less turnovers and more wins.”

It starts now.

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Ready … Set … Geno Smith heads into season opener primed to take off

Rich Schultz/Getty Images Geno Smith had an up-and-down rookie season that included 21 interceptions, but head coach Rex Ryan expects...

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