NEW YORK (AP) — Jonotthan Harrison entered training camp as the New York Jets' center, eager to establish himself as a reliable starter.
It all changed in a snap in early August when Ryan Kalil was lured out of retirement — sending Harrison to his familiar backup role. That is, until Kalil was placed on season-ending injured reserve in mid-November with a knee injury.
The 28-year-old Harrison has stepped in, as he did last season, and helped solidify a once shaky offensive line. He also might have secured himself a starting role for next year.
“It definitely was a funky season," Harrison said Monday. “Not just mine, specifically. A lot of injuries, a lot of changes, and a lot of that is out of our control. It was an interesting year, but the most professional thing to do is use it as a learning experience and try to grow from it as much as you can."
Injuries have been a painful theme all year for the Jets, who currently have 16 players on injured reserve — a total that leads the NFL. Wide receiver Jeff Smith made his NFL debut in New York's loss at Baltimore last Thursday night, but suffered a season-ending ankle injury and is likely to be added to that lengthy IR list.
Among those on injured reserve are several starters, including Kalil, linebackers C.J. Mosley and Avery Williamson, wide receiver Quincy Enunwa, cornerback Trumaine Johnson, tight ends Chris Herndon and Ryan Griffin, and right guard Brian Winters. Starting left guard Kelechi Osemele was released in an injury dispute earlier in the season.
Backup quarterback Trevor Siemian, running back Trenton Cannon, rookie linebacker Blake Cashman, safety Rontez Miles, wide receiver Josh Bellamy, defensive lineman John Franklin-Myers, cornerback Kyron Brown and and linebacker Albert McClellan are also on IR as the Jets crawl to the finish of the season at 5-9 with two games left.
“Guys are still fighting for jobs," linebacker Brandon Copeland said. “Guys still understand that their livelihoods are at stake and what you put on film is going to determine whether you'll be here next year or not, or be in the NFL next year or not.
“So, while I know it's obviously not as exciting — I won't lie about that — as playing for a playoff spot or home-field (advantage) or anything like that, there's still an opportunity to continue to play in the NFL.”
That has been the strange silver lining in this frustrating season for Adam Gase's group: the ability to evaluate the depth of the roster with so many projected starters and regulars sidelined.
“I think the fact that we've played a lot of guys is really great, especially for our personnel department," Gase said last Friday. “They have a really good idea of who are guys that are going to have a possibility of having a future, if there are certain guys that have eliminated themselves, what guys to re-sign."
Gase specifically mentioned wide receiver Robby Anderson, a potential free agent who has finished the season strong with 22 catches for 370 yards and three touchdowns in his last four games.
But there have been several under-the-radar players who have made a case for being part of the Jets' future by getting unexpected playing time in wake of injuries.
Among those are:
— Cornerbacks Bless Austin and Arthur Maulet. Austin was a sixth-round pick who opened the year on IR while recovering from a knee injury that ended his final college season at Rutgers after just one game. He has started the last five games and played well enough to be considered a potential starter moving forward. Maulet went from making the team, being waived, added to the practice squad and then promoted to start four straight games before a calf injury sidelined him for the last two contests. He's a tough defender who has opened eyes on the coaching staff.
— Linebackers Neville Hewitt and James Burgess. Hewitt went from being a backup to starter when Williamson was hurt in the preseason, and then shifted to Mosley's middle linebacker spot when the veteran was injured in Week 1. Burgess, one of coordinator Gregg Williams' favorites, began the season on the practice squad, was promoted in late October and has been a tackling machine since.
— Defensive linemen Kyle Phillips and Folorunso Fatukasi. Phillips made the roster out of camp as an undrafted free agent out of Tennessee, and has helped make up for the Jets' trade of Leonard Williams to the Giants at the deadline. Fatukasi was a sixth-rounder last year who's developing into a nice rotational backup and, as Copeland says, “has been an animal up front."
— Guard Alex Lewis. He was acquired by GM Joe Douglas from Baltimore in early August and was expected to be primarily a backup. Because of the injury to Osemele, Lewis has started the last 11 games at left guard and could be re-signed.
“We have had a lot of moving parts this year,” Harrison said. “We've had a lot of unfortunate injuries and key pieces missing from the team, but even with all that happening, we're still able to produce and win some ballgames later in the season.
“So, that's definitely a positive and it's showing the professionalism of the depth of this team — that when their number was called, they were ready to perform."