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|FLORHAM PARK Marcus Allen Jersey , N.J. (AP) — All eyes will be on Sam Darnold when the New York Jets open their season against the Detroit Lions.
But the five big guys lined up in front of him will play a major role in the success — or failure — of the rookie quarterback and his offense Monday night.
“It’s super important developing that trust and chemistry with your teammates,” Darnold said. “That’s mostly what football is. We’re on that field together, we’ve got to communicate. We’ve all got to be in sync together, so that’s really what it is, just communicating.”
That has been a point of emphasis all offseason, but is particularly important this week as the 21-year-old quarterback continues to try to build a rapport with an offensive line that struggled with consistency last season.
It’s still a work-in-progress, though. When left tackle Kelvin Beachum, left guard James Carpenter, center Spencer Long, right guard Brian Winters and right tackle Brandon Shell trot onto the field in noisy Ford Field, it’ll mark the first time all five will be together for a snap in a game.
“I’m very optimistic,” offensive line coach Rick Dennison said. “I think they’ve worked hard and done a good job. Obviously, it’s the start of the regular season and there’s a little bit of the unknown, but I feel good about the guys.”
Beachum didn’t play in the preseason because of a sprained right foot that kept him out of team drills for most of training camp. He has been a full participant in practice this week and appears to be a full go.
Same for Winters, who dealt with tightness in his back this summer and sat out the second preseason game against Washington.
“We’ve been around each other quite a bit during this whole process, so we can’t get into this excuse-making that people on the outside are trying to bring into the locker room right now,” Beachum said. “For us, we’ve got to go out and perform. We’re professionals. Every one of us across the offensive line has played games in the National Football League. When our number is called upon, we know we’ve got to execute and perform.”
The Jets are facing a tough task off the bat with Ezekiel Ansah roaming the Lions’ defensive front. He had 12 sacks last season and has been lining up on the right side of new coach Matt Patricia’s defense Roger Craig Jersey , but is athletic enough to move all around the line.
Beachum is fully expecting to face him quite a bit Monday night. The two last squared off in 2016 when Beachum was with Jacksonville. Ansah had four overall tackles in that game, but no sacks.
“He’s a very disruptive pass rusher,” Beachum said. “I would say one of the best in the league. The NFC North presents a number of different animals on the edge. He’s one of those different animals in the NFC North. I’m excited to play him again. I know it’s going to be a great test to start the year.”
The game will also mark Long’s debut with the Jets after he signed with New York as a free agent in the offseason. He replaces Wesley Johnson, who struggled last year in a full-time role as the center after the Jets released Nick Mangold.
Long, who spent his first four seasons with Washington, has impressed his new teammates with his cerebral approach to the game.
“He’s been great, real good,” Winters said. “He’s a good communicator, a physical player. He’s in the books a lot. He’s a ‘mind’ guy and he kind of reminds me a little bit of Nick. Nick was real smart when it came to the breakdown of the game.”
Added Shell: “He analyzes everything and it’s like he knows what’s going to happen, so he puts us in the right position with calls. I’m just grateful to have him on the line.”
As the center, Long is responsible for calling the signals along the offensive line and making sure the guys on either side of him are seeing the same thing.
Since offseason workouts, he has been working closely with his linemates on the field and in the film room, trying to develop the type of chemistry that will be key on gameday.
“It goes as he goes,” Winters said. “He makes the calls and we’ve got to abide by it and listen to it. Whatever he says, goes. He’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders, but we all trust in him.”
And, Darnold will need to have faith in all five linemen, who’ll be trying to keep him upright while also giving him time to throw or busting open holes for the running backs to run through and get the offense moving consistently.
“He’s done a great job of being able to communicate and understand what the defense is presenting him, and then putting us in a better position to either pick up a blitz or slide a different way Brandon Fusco Jersey ,” Beachum said of Darnold. “He’s done things the right way to put us in a better position.
“At the end of the day, we have to make sure that we protect him.”
Since Jon Gruden last coached in the NFL a decade ago, the league has undergone a youth movement. Thanks to a collective bargaining agreement that limits salaries for players in their first four years and a more spread out game that places a greater premium on speed, teams have relied more than ever on young players.
Gruden still is showing the same kind of preference for experience that he did when he first took over the Raiders back in 1998, signing 11 players this offseason who are already in their 30s.
"We've added a veteran presence," Gruden said. "Some people don't like it, but I like Derrick Johnson, I like Marcus Gilchrist, I like guys that know what the heck is going on."
That's the opposite direction most teams have gone since Gruden last coached in Tampa Bay in 2008. The youth movement hit high gear following the 2011 collective bargaining agreement and the average snap weighted age for NFL players fell to 26.46 years last season, according to Football Outsiders, the lowest since the website began tracking that number in 2006.
The average age has been falling gradually each year since 2008, with players about a half-year younger now than they were a decade ago.
But Gruden is bucking that trend, signing players like Johnson, Jordy Nelson, Frostee Rucker and Leon Hall.
"Heck yeah that's a positive," tight end Jared Cook said. "It helps the maturity of this team. When you got young guys, especially nowadays, these young guys just don't get what the NFL is about. Even something as simple as veteran presence and veteran leadership, they don't understand that. Veteran respect Tyus Bowser Jersey , they don't necessarily get that. So, having vets in the locker room and having vets around you that know the role, know how things go and that hold other people accountable ... is huge. You can't buy that anywhere, because vets know how it's supposed to be done, and they're going to get it done the right way it's supposed to be."
Gruden took a similar tack in his first stint in Oakland, bringing in players like Eric Allen, Jerry Rice, Rich Gannon, Andre Rison, William Thomas, Trace Armstrong and Anthony Newman to help turn the Raiders from a losing team into a playoff participant his final two seasons.
Several of the older players have ties to either defensive coordinator Paul Guenther or special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia, giving the coaching staff some proven players who are able to help teach the new systems.
"It's very important," Guenther said. "I always say this, but it's a player's game. So when you have guys that really understand the details of everything. Obviously, we haven't been through a season with some of the guys who were here last year. Some of the things that come up, whether it be in the locker room or in the meeting room. I may say, 'Hey, remember when this happened two years ago against Atlanta?' We recall those things. So it's very helpful to have guys that are in the infantry line there to help us out."
The Raiders made an effort to add players like that in every position group on defense with Rucker on the defensive line, Emmanuel Lamur at linebacker Kenny Young Jersey , and Reggie Nelson and Leon Hall in the secondary all familiar with Guenther's defense and able to serve as sounding boards for their teammates.
Rashaan Melvin said he frequently turns to Hall, who spent nine seasons in Cincinnati when Guenther was a defensive assistant or coordinator.
"Any time we're putting in a new defensive scheme or whatever it might be, he's been in the system for a long time," Melvin said. "If it's a nickel position, he knows it. If it's the corner position, he knows it. So, whatever questions we might have to ask or to ask coach, he's like another coach for us in the room."
But as much as the older players were brought in for their knowledge, it won't matter at all if they still can't play at a high level. They need to be much more than unofficial coaches on the field.
The next few weeks will show what these veterans still have left. The 33-year-old Nelson, who has already impressed his coaches and teammates, is trying to prove that his dropoff last season had more to do with Aaron Rodgers' injury than his advancing age.
"The thing that you hear about that he can't run anymore, that's false," quarterback Derek Carr said. "I can tell you, he's one of the fastest skill guys that we have still. He can run. You see that by his route running. If he can win on underneath routes that means DB's are scared about what he can do over the top. He's still Jordy Nelson, that's for sure."
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