by Greg DePalma
New York Jets (5-11)
When G.M. Mike Maccagnan and Head Coach Todd Bowles took over in 2015, they made the unwise and snappy decision to add several over-priced aging players to the roster through free agency (Darrelle Revis/Antonio Cromartie) and trades (Brandon Marshall). Unfortunately for them, the team would win 10 games that first year and narrowly miss out on a playoff berth, giving them the false impression that their decisions were correct and as long as they stayed on course the organization would continue to improve. But by the following season, everything began to fall apart and they found out the hard way that the direction they originally took couldn’t have been more off-base.
Where did they go wrong? To start with, they missed all the underlying signs that were present in that first locker room. They tried and failed to hit instant pay dirt by loading up the roster with more seasoned, over-priced players instead of taking time to rebuild a roster full of young, more high-character type players. And their biggest mistake was failing to realize that the deep-rooted Jets fan had been used to a lifetime of disappointment and failure and therefore were far more capable of accepting a patient approach to winning than most other big market fans were. So by completely missing the pulse of their new base, the aging roster they assembled had become a ticking time bomb that would eventually implode and postpone an early opportunity for long-term success.
Clarity finally did arrive though at Florham Park, albeit a year late, and the process of turning over the roster as well as the culture of the franchise would begin to take shape. Unable though financially to make any drastic moves to upgrade the roster around this time last year, Maccagnan did use the time to cleanse it first by dumping salary and making several shrewd trades. From now on, any players who didn’t buy in to the new mantra would be shown the door. All new arrivals would have to check several fundamental boxes that include words like ‘character’ and ‘leadership’.
Thanks to their newfound vision, Maccagnan and Bowles were recently granted a mulligan by ownership - even following consecutive 5-11 seasons - to continue transforming the identity of the organization the way in which they should have when they were first hired two years ago. And with another $80 million in cap space to shop with yet again, their success or failure will ultimately come down to whether they can stay the course and finish what they started. Or should I say, re-started?
Key Free Agents
CB Morris Claiborne
ILB Demario Davis
PK Chandler Catanzaro
QB Josh McCown
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
WR Quincy Enunwa (RFA)
Cap space ranking/amount
QB…Jets fans are desperate to land a franchise player here so they can finally move on from Joe Namath. Namath will always have a special place in their hearts, but 50 years is 50 years. It’s time to move on.
The first big decision that needs to be rectified is whether to spend a huge chunk of their cap space on Kirk Cousins. If they sign Cousins, the rest of this section becomes mute. If they fail or pass on signing him, the next obvious move is to find your franchise QB in the draft. More on that later.
As far as last year’s starter is concerned, Josh McCown will be 39 when the 2018 season begins and is coming off his best season yet which included a career-best 67.3 completion percentage. McCown is the perfect bridge quarterback who can help a young one understand how to prepare and perform in this market. If the Jets decide against signing Cousins, it would be a shock if McCown wasn’t re-signed.
Both Bryce Petty - who regressed under former coordinator John Morton - and former 2nd-round pick Christian Hackenberg, are expected to compete for the third-string job in camp as they hope to receive one last chance to prove they belong with the team and even the NFL.
RB…The Jets are in good shape here with the underrated Bilal Powell and last year’s 6th-round pick Elijah McGuire. Powell is a very young 29 thanks to only 904 career touches (711 rush/193 rec.). He can be a game-changing player if given the opportunity as he proved this past season with nine rushes over 20-yards, three over 50 and a 75-yard score against Jacksonville. Not coincidentally he received the most carries of his career with 178. He’s also an excellent receiver with 128 since 2015. Unfortunately for Powell and the Jets, carries were stolen away by the aging Matt Forte. Unlike Powell, Forte has seen years of wear and tear (2,910 career touches) reveal itself since signing with the Jets in 2016. He’s endured back-to-back career-low rushing average seasons (3.7) along with an embarrassing 381 total rushing yards last year. The Jets need to send him packing while saving $3 million on top of it. McGuire is an even younger, fresher player who needs more touches next season after a solid rookie campaign. He has a very similar skill set to that of Powell’s including as a receiver and in pass protection. McGuire was ultra-productive as a four-year starter in college where he gained over 4,300-yards on the ground for Louisiana-Lafayette including 129 career receptions. He led all Jets RBs in yards-per-reception with 10.4.
The Jets need to continue with the veteran purge by dropping Forte while adding a physical free agent runner like Orleans Darkwa or Rex Burkhead in free agency. They could also pick-up a player with size in the draft like Kalen Ballage from Arizona State.
TE…Labeled as a ‘boom-or-bust’ talent by Dan Shonka before the 2014 draft, Austin Seferian-Jenkins was well on his way to becoming the later after 2 ½ disappointing seasons in Tampa Bay. But Seferian-Jenkins would make some serious changes to his lifestyle, his health and overall state of mind prior to the start of the 2017 season with the Jets that included sobriety and a refocused dedication to the sport. All that translated to Seferian-Jenkins reaching career-highs in receptions (50) and yards-receiving (357) last season. As Shonka also noted that year, Seferian-Jenkins has ‘unquestionable talent’, meaning there is still much more untapped potential to his game that needs to come out. I don’t expect he’ll cost the Jets a whole lot to bring him back and after the way he handled himself this past season both on and off the field it would be a win-win situation for both parties that he return in 2018.
The Jets were fortunate to land former Clemson Tigers TE Jordan Leggett in the 5th-round last April, but he never made it to the playing field in the regular season following a pre-season knee injury that lingered all year. If he comes back to full health in ‘18, he’ll be a good prospect to monitor and a valuable insurance plan behind Seferian-Jenkins.
WR…Maccagnan has built a solid core here in a short period of time beginning with the signing of 2016 rookie free agent Robby Anderson. Maccagnan then used two middle-round draft picks last year on ArDarius Stewart (3rd-round) and Chad Hansen (4th-round) and then traded for former Seahawk Jermaine Kearse just before the 2017 season. The Jets also get the hopeful return of their leading receiver in 2016, Quincy Enunwa, who never played a down last year following a season-ending neck injury early in training camp.
Anderson is the central figure for this unit thanks to a breakout season that included 17 receptions of 20+ yards while leading the team in receiving yards (941) and TDs (7). But the former Temple product has major maturity issues and is coming off a second arrest since the end of the 2016 season. And while there’s no denying Anderson is a dynamic down-field threat, he simply will never be anything more than a complimentary weapon for a winning club. An Alvin Harper-type, so to speak. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with having a player like that on your team, especially an inexpensive one at that. But please be serious when touting him, as some have, as a potential No. 1 down the road. His weak 54% career catch-percentage is a good indicator as any about his overall game, not to mention his serious maturity issues. Maccagnan and Bowles have some serious soul searching to do with what to do about Robby Anderson.
Like Anderson, Kearse entered the league as an undrafted free agent and is also coming off a career-year after leading the team with 65 receptions following the Sheldon Richardson trade with Seattle. Kearse is entering the prime of his career and is an excellent No. 2 receiver.
The rookies were expected to get more playing time in 2017, but when veteran Jeremy Kerley was brought back to the organization a few days after Kearse was acquired, those plans were put on hold. Kerley was eventually suspended at mid-season for a PED violation and then waived which opened the door for more playing time for the two rookies. Hansen was the one who would became the main beneficiary of the additional snaps. He showcased a strong pair of hands in the limited amount of touches he received which bodes well for his chances of even more playing time next season. Hansen came from nowhere in college, I mean Idaho State to be exact, to lead California in 2016 with 92 receptions and over 1,200-yards receiving including 11 TDs. He was a bargain selection in the fourth-round and he has the tools to be around for a long time. Stewart, meanwhile, has more explosive play-making ability than Hansen and played in many big games with Alabama, but he’s very raw and will need more time to develop as witnessed last season.
This is a promising unit with or without Anderson. But the team still needs to find a clear No. 1 to make opposing coordinators feel sleepless at night. Right now there are three potential free agents that fit that bill if the Jets want to go that route in Jarvis Landry, Allen Robinson and Sammy Watkins. I don’t expect the Jets will use a high pick on this position in April because it’s simply not near their most pressing need, but if they do see a bargain and the timing is right, keep an eye on players like DJ Chark from LSU, Michael Gallup from Colorado State and Allen Lazard from Iowa State.
OL…One of the key decisions made by Todd Bowles in the new rebuild following the 2016 season was making big changes to the coaching staff. Unfortunately for the offensive line he waited a year late to fire line coach Steve Marshall and replace him with Rick Dennison. Better late than never I guess.
The biggest issue up-front is at center where Wesley Johnson failed to successfully replace longtime stalwart, Nick Mangold. That’s why the Jets 2018 center isn’t currently on the roster. A matter of fact, his name is probably Ryan Jensen. The Jets could out-pay for Jensen’s services tenfold with Baltimore currently in serious cap trouble. I’d be surprised if the Jets didn’t try real hard to sign him.
It appeared the Jets were in decent shape at both guard spots coming into 2017 with LG James Carpenter and RG Brian Winters. But Carpenter might be coming off his worst season since signing a four-year deal with the Jets in 2015 and Maccagnan can save close to $5 million by letting him go a year early if they’re concerned Dennison can’t fix him. Winters was starting to turn the corner following the 2016 season which precipitated a four-year extension last January. But he injured his abdomen in a Week 2 game at Oakland and was never quite healthy enough to contribute at full strength until he was placed on season-ending IR with two games remaining in the season. His return to form, like Carpenter, will be a big lift for the Jets next season.
The Jets actually fared better than expected at both tackle spots and there’s hope both players can continue to make progress. LT Kelvin Beachum was signed from Pittsburgh while RT Brandon Shell continues to show promise. Both players were solid in pass protection, but they have a ways to go in the ground game. A matter of fact, the Jets primary focus along the line of scrimmage is to get more push by their ‘big uglies’ and become a better run blocking unit across the board.
Chances are if the Jets sign a center like Jensen, he’ll be the only new addition to the starting unit. The rest of the upgrade here will need to come from the new scheme and coaching of Dennison. That doesn’t mean there won’t be new faces here on the depth chart. I’d expect at least three new players will be added including a priority rookie free agent from last year who spent the year on the practice squad, Ben Braden.
DL…As noted in our cap section, the Jets have about $80 million in cap space. But once they let former Pro-Bowl DE Muhammad Wilkerson go, that number jacks up to near $100 million. Wilkerson will cost the team $9 million in dead cap space and it will be well worth it, not just for the savings of course, but because Wilkerson is one of the final veteran players who failed in a leadership role and his presence has become a distraction. With Sheldon Richardson traded last September that will leave Leonard Williams as the last ‘top-dog’ standing. Following a seven-sack 2016, many expected Williams to breakout in a huge way last season. But his stats sunk to career-lows in every key category including sacks with just two and many felt he underperformed. That just wasn’t the case. Williams is an excellent player who will soon take over as one of the franchise’s cornerstone talents for years to come. The Jets have nothing to worry about with Williams. The Jets though do have to find Wilkerson’s replacement. They could bring back both Kony Ealy and David Bass before turning their attention to the draft. Ealy had his moments including a whopping 9 PDs from the defensive line! Bass played well in the rotation at times too and ended up with 3 ½ sacks which actually tied him with Wilkerson for second on the team in that category.
On the inside of the line the Jets have some serviceable players including Steve McClendon, Mike Pennel and Xavier Cooper. Cooper is the most intriguing player after he was signed in late October following a release in San Francisco. He was a third-round pick by the Browns in 2015, but apparently failed to make an impact there. Cooper had an exceptional college career with Washington State and it’s possible he needed to find the right coaching staff to get the most out of his talents because he played pretty well in his limited opportunities with the Jets.
LB…Another season has come and gone without the Jets fielding a difference-maker at the vital edge-rush area. Since the Jets moved to a full-time 3-4 defense in 2010, they’ve been searching for a stud sack-master to strike fear upon the opposition. A matter of fact, not since the John Abraham/Shaun Ellis days from the old 4-3 defenses have the Jets been so lethal in that department.
The rest of this unit though is actually starting to come around and they could be ready for a breakout season soon. That really depends though on the development of former first-round pick, Darron Lee. Lee still has time to become the player the Jets thought they were getting because the man’s only 23. But there’s no denying how poorly he’s been against the run and especially in coverage, a main reason he was chosen so early in 2016. One has to wonder if Lee is playing in the wrong scheme. He was a special player in college as a 4-3 outside linebacker for mighty Ohio State. There he showed the type of big play ability that’s been missing from his game in the NFL so far. His inside partner is the unquestioned leader of the unit, Demario Davis. Davis returned to the Jets after a year in Cleveland following another successful trade by Maccagnan last off-season. When he played for the Jets under Rex Ryan, Davis was immature and reckless, but after just one season away from New York, Davis returned a completely different player who transformed into a leader both on and off the field. He led the team with 135 tackles, five sacks and nine tackles-for-loss. There is no doubt the Jets will re-sign Davis when the time comes.
On the outside, Jordan Jenkins is doing what the Jets expect him to do. He covers well and is a very good run defender. His game stepped up a notch last season and he should only continue to get better. Josh Martin did a solid job on the opposite side of Jenkins and is a valuable rotation player who defends the run well and participates on special teams. There was hope at one time that Lorenzo Mauldin could be the disruptive edge rusher the Jets have been looking for after he was selected in the 3rd-round back in 2015. Mauldin produced a solid four-sack rookie season, but was unable to take it to the next level in year-two and went down with a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the last five games of 2016. He then suffered a back injury during camp last August and was placed on season-ending IR. His future with the team is up in the air at this time. Rookie 5th-round pick Dylan Donahue is a favorite of LB coach, Kevin Greene. But Donahue had his season end prematurely after injuring his elbow after four games.
CB…This is clearly one of the top team issues that will be addressed over the next few months. First of all, free agent Morris Claiborne will be re-signed. He signed a one-year show-me deal last March and passed the test with flying colors. It might not have been his best season, but Claiborne was able to stay relatively healthy by playing in 15 games for the first time since his rookie season in Dallas and was a major factor in helping to lead the youthful secondary including a pair of rookie safeties. The big piece that’s missing is the role opposite of Claiborne and if the Jets can sign either Trumaine Johnson or Malcolm Butler they’ll be in great shape here moving forward. Johnson was coached by Jets current DB coach Dennard Wilson prior to Wilson joining the staff this past season. Wilson was part of those key coaching hires we talked about who did a terrific job with the young unit and could be a future NFL head coach one day. A Butler signing would also be a big deal and would stick it to the rival Patriots and after what transpired at the Super Bowl. Butler couldn’t find a better team to make a statement back in New England. Another reason why the Jets could be in great shape here next season has to do with how much better Buster Skrine played late in the year. Skrine still has issues with too many holding calls, but he did a great job in the box including against the run. He will fit perfectly as the top slot back once the Jets add their outside corner in free agency.
Darryl Roberts did a decent job and will be much better off as the team’s No. 4 while 2016 4th-round pick Juston Burris continues to have all sorts of issues finding his niche as a pro. The biggest surprise has been his inability to use his size and make plays in the run game. If Wilson can figure out how to get Burris’ head in the game, he could be a player to watch down the road. Maccagnan traded a 5th-round pick to the 49ers at the deadline to acquire Rashard Robinson. The former LSU Tiger has started 14 of 28 games since being drafted earlier than expected (4th-round) in the 2016 draft. But so far Robinson has been completely lost on and off the field as evidenced by his rash of penalties and most recent drug arrest. Both Burris and Robinson are no more than long-term projects at this stage of their careers. Speaking of projects, the Jets also added a pair of 6th-round corners last year in Derrick Jones and Jeremy Clark. Both players have excellent size and cracked the roster late in the season but failed to receive any defensive snaps.
The bottom line with this unit has to do with youth and depth. If they can add a premiere corner and Wilson can coach-up a few of the pups, there is certainly a chance for a big turnaround here.
S…As long as Marcus Maye can continue to develop opposite Jamal Adams the Jets are in great shape at safety for years to come. Adams was everything the Jets could have hoped for after being taken 6th overall last April. He’s only going to get better and has stardom written all over him. Maye started alongside Adams for all 16 games and displayed more power to his game than most expected, but he did have a typical up-and-down rookie campaign that was unfair to judge him opposite Adams. Maye will never be the impact player Adams is, but he’ll turn out just fine. Rontez Miles and Terrence Brooks round out the unit. Brooks has the most upside after he was acquired from Philadelphia late in the pre-season for CB Dexter McDougle. Brooks was taken 79th overall in 2014 from Baltimore and is another versatile player that Bowles likes to surround himself with on defense.
The kicking game made huge strides in 2017 with punter Lachlan Edwards and place-kicker Chandler Catanzaro.
Edwards struggled as a 7th-round rookie in 2016, but made a big leap forward last season in all three key categories. His overall average rose from 28th (43.1) to 11th (46.6), his net average from 30th (37.3) to 19th (40.5) and most of all his punts inside the 20 made the biggest jump from 17th to 3rd (33 of 94 punts).
Free-agent Catanzaro signed a one-year deal following a poor season in Arizona. Catanzaro was reliable from inside 39 (11 for 11) and also connected on both kicks over 50. He should be back for 2018.
While the kicking game was a success last season, the return game continues to be a sore spot. The top WR-KR prospect is Dante Pettis from Washington. Should he be available at some point the Jets should definitely consider him.
If I were the Jets G.M.
The first key question that needs to be answered is the obvious decision on whether or not to go hard after QB Kirk Cousins. Personally I would not go down that path. I don’t see Cousins as a difference-maker worth potentially 1/3 of my cap space. Instead I see a player who reminds me of a much younger version of the 2017 edition of Josh McCown. Cousins can help you win a championship at some point in the same way Nick Foles did for the Eagles as long as he’s surrounded by really good coaching and talent. But that’s not the type of player I want to break the bank for at this stage of the Jets rebuild. If I felt the Jets were a Kirk Cousins away from a Super Bowl trip then I would consider it more. But the Jets are not at that stage and they need to use their allotted cash and draft picks over the next few seasons to continue to build their team the right way as they’ve already begun to do. Keep in mind Cousins will be 30 this season. The Jets need to develop and grow with a quarterback who has 7-8 more years of shelf-life. That’s why as I’ve been saying since October, a player like Baker Mayfield would transform the organization more powerfully than any other QB in this draft class and on top of that, he’s the most NFL-ready too.
Tune in to the Ourlads’ Football Radio Network for more in-depth details of every team on free agency and the draft with special guest analysts including Ourlads’ G.M. and National Scout, Dan Shonka, on such programs as Ourlads’ Guide to the 2018 NFL Draft.