EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ — The final pre-season game is upon us, which means the regular season opener is rapidly approaching. The starters of this Jets team might as well kick their feet up and spark a stogie. But for the rest of the players, this is the game where they can prove their worth to their teammates and coaches, earning themselves a spot on this 53-man squad, as Chris Nimbley pointed out in his preview article for tonight’s game.
To the fan’s this game often seems boring and unnecessary. But an argument can be made that this game, the fourth and final game of the pre-season, is the most important of all. Position competitions are settled, depth charts are rounded out and hopes and dreams are made and broken by the sounding of the final whistle. By this time tomorrow, player’s will either have met their goal of playing in the National Football League or will have to go back to the drawing board and re-work their game.
Here are five players/match-up battles to keep an eye on tonight as the pre-season comes to close after the Eagles and Jets close out their exhibition series.
- Joe McKnight vs. Bilal Powell, Running Back — Second-year RB McKnight seemed to have exercised his rookie demons this year and is out to prove that he is not only a player in the league, but can outshine his peers in the process. To this point this pre-season, he has done exactly that: leading the Jets in rushing and averaging over four yards per carry in the process. He’s even getting the attention from QB Mark Sanchez: “We have a great group being in that three-wide personnel (package) with Dustin at tight end and LT (LaDainian Tomlinson) or Shonn (Greene), or even Joe McKnight. We have a tough group to stop.” Powell is trying to supplant McKnight for that third running back slot, and the team has given him plenty of chances to do so, leading the team (along with McKnight) is attempt this pre-season. A bruiser between the tackles, Powell has shown the power to be a force around the goal line. Expect to see healthy doses of both Powell and McKnight tonight, but also expect McKnight to win this head-to-head match-up — possibly challenging an aging LaDanian Tomlinson as the team’s third-down back.
- Matt Kroul, Offensive Lineman — Kroul, who was trying to beat offensive lineman last year, is trying to do the same this year, only this time for a spot on the offensive line. He’s been on the defensive line since his high school days, but that hasn’t stopped him from making the change to help the team and help himself in the process, in hopes of making the roster. He has a history of wrestling, so the art of blocking is not too far out of reach for him. In Monday’s game against the New York Giants, he block helped spring Powell’s 1-yard TD run, that secured the win for the Jets. With the injury to Rob Turner and the inconsistency surrounding second-year lineman Vlad Ducasse, a little insurance on the offensive line is ideal and may be easier for Kroul to find his niche on this team. After all, Brandon Moore found his after making the same transition.
- Nick Bellore, Inside Linebacker —Bellore, a rookie out of Central Michigan has impressed Rex Ryan early on in training camp. Bellore had a standout game against the Giants on Monday night, recording a sack and having a knack for winding up where the ball is. Playing behind defensive mainstays like David Harris and Bart Scott makes breaking in to a starting role nearly impossible — barring an injury, but I believe Bellore has shown enough in training camp and pre-season to solidify a roster spot on this team. Ryan always loves the hunger, unheralded players, just ask Scott about that.
- Garrett McIntyre vs. Aaron Maybin, Outside Linebacker — One was undrafted and written off. The other is a former first pick and written off as a bust. Both McIntyre and Maybin have something to prove. As of the current moment, it’s McIntyre’s spot to lose as he’s listed ahead of Maybin on the depth chart and will be starting in place of Calvin Pace in tonight’s game against the Eagles. Maybin needs to have a career game, a Penn State-esque game, to make this team. Otherwise he may find himself on the outside looking in, again. Maybin has shown flashes of brilliance in practice and in his pre-season reps at rushing the passer, but his lack of time to know the system is his glaring disadvantage at this point to the second-year outside ‘backer out of Fresno State.
- Kyle Wilson, Cornerback — We all know his name at this point. A New Jersey native and first round pick out of Boise State, he was bogged down with high expectations and rushed into a bigger role, due to injuries to Darrelle Revis. The pressure mixed with a tough rookie transition led to a lack of self-confidence, something that is necessary in this league — particularly at a position that’s as one-on-one as the cornerback position is. This year, he has shown up to camp with a renewed sense of self-confidence yet humbled by the events of last year. He feels comfortable at the nickel back position and it showed in Monday’s game against the Giants, making a huge 3rd & 1 stop on the goal line to set up an eventual stuff on a 4th & goal play — one of the bigger moments in that game. His spot is secured but keep an eye on him tonight as he will be supplanting Revis as the team’s number one corner tonight, going up against the 6-3/222 lb. Ridley Cooper for the Eagles.
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