FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- LaDainian Tomlinson looked around quizzically when asked if this year's New York Jets were the NFL's version of a dream team.
Tomlinson, who restructured his contract to help the Jets sign more players, then laughed and said the obvious:
"We don't have LeBron, D-Wade or Chris Bosh on the team."
Still, LT wasn't dismissing the notion the Jets are among the Super Bowl favorites as the most unusual preseason in NFL history begins following the 4½-month lockout. Nor was Jets coach Rex Ryan, who called this the best roster he's had since coming to New York, holding back.
"In my mind, there's a great opportunity for us to win and that's the No. 1 thing, in my mind to be somewhere where we have a chance to win the Super Bowl," Tomlinson said Monday after the team's first workout, a slow-paced walkthrough in 90-degree temperatures. "I have said it all along (about restructuring) and this was my (way of) being able to prove the words I've said."
As usual, there were lots of words escaping rapidly from Ryan and his players. Re-signed receiver Santonio Holmes echoed Ryan's previous bold proclamations when the Jets were reaching the last two AFC title games, and new receiver Plaxico Burress seconded the notion that this is a team on the rise.
"I'm pretty sure Coach will tell you the same thing that I'd probably tell you -- we are the team to beat," Holmes said. "But that's for us to feel like, and that's what we're supposed to feel like when we go into any game, that no matter who steps on the field, you have to come and beat us because we know we're tough."
Added Burress, who hasn't played since 2008 and spent much of the last two years in jail on a gun charge:
"I looked at what these guys have here. They have a great coach that everyone wants to play for in Rex. I want to be able to show loyalty from the other side and help take them to a championship."
Ryan, sporting a new tribal-style tattoo on the side of his right calf, reiterated his belief this is the Jets' year to win their first NFL title since Super Bowl III. He also issued a challenge to 30 other teams.
"I think we need to find someone else besides the Jets to beat the New England Patriots," Ryan said, noting New England won the division the last two seasons, forcing the Jets to play all their playoff games on the road. "Are you good enough to beat the New England Patriots? I'm challenging the league."
New York beat New England twice in 2010, including in the divisional playoffs. To enhance their chances of overtaking the Patriots and making that final leap into the Super Bowl, several Jets reworked their contracts, allowing them to keep Holmes and cornerback Antonio Cromartie, grab Burress and even be in the sweepstakes to sign cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha until he landed in Philadelphia.
Cromartie signed a four-year contract Monday. He said there were no hard feelings about the Jets' pursuit of Asomugha before they turned back to him.
"We both went out and searched our options and I don't feel like Plan B at all," Cromartie said. "This is a business and you try to get the best guys in the building to try to win a Super Bowl."
Not that he won't be a little more motivated after the Jets' flirtation with Asomugha.
"Just know that I have a real big chip on my shoulder," he said, "and expect something really big this season."
Other than Burress, the Jets' core is relatively the same as in 2010. Ryan expects further growth from his key players, particularly Mark Sanchez, who he now calls "our leader" after making the quarterback a team captain.
"Part of it is based on what I think our leader is going to do, the strides I see him taking," Ryan said.
Sanchez, 4-2 in playoff games, all on the road, says he welcomes the responsibility. Of course, what else would he say?
"As a third-year quarterback and team captain, it's time to step up and convey to them what it means to be a Jet and to play like a Jet," Sanchez said, mentioning the Yankees' Derek Jeter as "the best captain you can think of in New York."
"My improvement determines any kind of ceiling this team can have and our potential," he added. "It's time for me to step up my game."
Notes: Ryan said recently re-signed Eric Smith will be a starter at safety opposite Jim Leonhard, replacing the departed Brodney Pool. ... Burress will wear his old number, 17, a further indication WR Braylon Edwards won't return ... In their flurry of weekend moves, the Jets signed cornerback Donald Strickland, who played for the team in 2009 but went to San Diego last season as a free agent.
Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press