What do the Jets need via NFL free agency and the draft in 2018? Two words: almost everything.
In their fourth year together, general manager Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles face the biggest stage yet in New York’s rebuilding process. The offense needs an overhaul, while the defense will need replacements at core positions on every level.
The good news is the Jets are fueled up for the makeover. According to OverTheCap.com, they are more than $73 million under the NFL salary cap, and that’s before factoring in moves like the release defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson ($11 million cap hit). They also are sitting on eight picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, including two second-rounders from last year’s Sheldon Richardson trade.
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Here’s a look at the Jets’ most pressing needs, plus how they might execute their flight plan of attack in a critical offseason.
With the promotion of Jeremy Bates to offensive coordinator, the Jets are going to a true West Coast passing game after their personnel in 2017 forced them to go more Air Coryell-turned-Air Raid. Now that Josh McCown is a free agent, the top order of business is finding a QB to push New York forward in the new scheme.
Option A is using a chunk of their cap space to sign Kirk Cousins to a lucrative, long-term deal as their franchise QB. Option B is simply sitting back and taking the best QB available at No. 6 overall in the draft.
As tempting as Cousins is to serve as a quick fix, his cost would hamper the team’s ability to get additional veteran offensive skill players for short-term return. The alternative is being a little more patient with a promising rookie and using the extra funds to give him a more experienced support system.
Cousins would represent control of the situation; a chance for the Jets to know exactly what they’re getting in March vs. the uncertainty of the draft in April. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield is a popular first-round mock draft pick to the Jets, but that could change during the scouting process. Wyoming’s Josh Allen or USC’s Sam Darnold could end up being a big slider, or Louisville’s Lamar Jackson could become a big riser. Because of that unpredictability, Maccagnan, Bowles and Bates would need to settle on several would-be rookie solutions knowing their top option might not be an option at all.
The long play of drafting the game’s most important position makes more sense for the Jets to get out of the cycle of overspending on veterans. They have to be confident enough in Cousins for them to make the move, because he also could become another expensive mistake that would handcuff them in their relentless pursuit of the Patriots.
No pressure: It’s just a decision that will dictate the Jets’ next four seasons.
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Matt Forte likely will join Wilkerson as a notable veteran cut. Should the Jets opt for Cousins at QB, they would be well positioned to draft Penn State’s Saquon Barkley, either by staying at No. 6 or making a slight trade up the board. Barkley would still be a luxury pick there.
Bates is a protege of Mike Shanahan, who is aware teams can find effective backs for the zone-blocking scheme in later rounds. The Class of 2018 is extremely deep in the backfield. Behind Barkley, there’s LSU’s Derrius Guice, USC’s Ronald Jones II and the Georgia duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb — plenty of options for Round 2. Oregon’s Royce Freeman could be a steal beyond that.
With the Steelers’ Le’Veon Bell likely to be franchise-tagged or extended, the Patriots’ Dion Lewis is the best feature-back type available. But if the Jets want to add a free agent, they should look to someone more like the Browns’ Isaiah Crowell.
With Forte gone and Bilal Powell older (29) with his share of durability issues, the Jets need to reboot on the ground, and they likely will bring in multiple backs through both avenues.
Robby Anderson has had some off-field issues, but his on-field play as a speedy playmaker in 2017 makes him a keeper for one outside spot. The Jets can’t count on Jermaine Kearse to do much more, and restricted free agent Quincy Enunwa is coming off a scary neck injury.
Should the Jets not go after Cousins, they should hope the Jaguars’ Allen Robinson becomes available. He can give them a bona fide No. 1 and a big red-zone target, as well, stretching the field well to complement Anderson.
Beyond Robinson, there are a bunch of deep threats and slot options in free agency. Anderson lessens the need for the former, and someone like the Dolphins’ Jarvis Landry is too much of a luxury target for the latter. In that vein, going bargain for the Chiefs’ Albert Wilson or going flyer on the Redskins’ Terrelle Pryor is smarter.
In the draft, the Jets should look into the middle tier of prospects. Among the fits for the types they need include Florida State’s Auden Tate, Memphis’ Anthony Miller and Penn State’s DaeSean Hamilton.
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Austin Seferian-Jenkins is a free agent, and despite some flashes as a reclamation project, he is unlikely to be re-signed. This is one of the weakest tight end units in the NFL, and Bates can’t afford to have it remain that way.
It doesn’t make sense to splurge on a luxury free agent such as Jimmy Graham, given he’s 31. Going the veteran route, an upside backup such as the Eagles’ Trey Burton would make more sense. In the draft, Penn State’s Mike Gesecki and Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli would be among the good later picks to address the athletic receiving void.
The Jets weren’t good across all five positions last season. With Bates taking over, the goal should be getting three new starters and improving the athleticism of the entire group. It doesn’t help to go big on quarterback and/or offensive skill players if the Jets can’t significantly upgrade their front.
There are plenty of good fits to improve the interior. The Titans’ Josh Kline, the Jaguars’ Patrick Omameh and the Chiefs’ Zach Fulton top the ideal, reasonable free-agent list. Should the Jets not go QB, RB or defense with No. 6 overall, Notre Dame guard Quinton Nelson would be a can’t-miss pick as an exceptional pulling athlete. A little later, Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn and Arkansas’ Frank Ragnow have appeal because of their pro-position versatility. Auburn’s Braden Smith (guard) and Alabama’s Bradley Bozeman (center) are more position-specific targets.
Finding tackle solutions will be harder, but the Jets can start by considering the Patriots’ Cameron Fleming for left tackle. Between Wynn, Pittsburgh’s Brian O’Neill, Western Michigan’s Chukwuma Okorafor and UCLA’s Kolton Miller, there are intriguing prospects in the draft beyond the early first round.
Richardson is gone, and Wilkerson isn’t far behind him. Nose tackle Steve McClendon is 32 and also might be cut, while end Kony Ealy is a free agent. That sets up one-time Pro Bowl end Leonard Williams and third-year nose Deon Simon to be the Jets’ best returning D-linemen.
That puts the priority on getting guys to fill out the 3-4 end rotation for Bowles. The Bears’ Mitch Unrein and the Titans’ DaQuan Jones, pending free agents, played in that base scheme last season.
In the draft, Washington’s Vita Vea is yet another non-skill consideration for either the No. 6 pick or a slight trade back. Because of Williams’ presence, the Jets could also be OK waiting until Day 2 or 3, as Virginia’s Andrew Brown and Alabama’s Da’Shawn Hand both could serve them well.
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There’s not much to see here in free agency, so this needs to be loaded up in the draft.
Here are two more names to think about at No. 6 — N.C. State’s Bradley Chubb and Texas-San Antonio’s Marcus Davenport, with the latter being more of a natural fit as 3-4 outside linebacker. Some later-round targets for the Jets’ scheme include Georgia’s Lorenzo Carter, Florida State’s Josh Sweat and USC’s Uchenna Nwosu.
Safety was taken care of last year for the long haul with the early drafting of Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. Corner is a whole different mess.
The plan here starts with re-signing free agent Morris Claiborne, who’s still only 28 and coming off a solid first season in New York after his many years in Dallas. The trick is also upgrading on the opposite site.
Yes, the Jets have a first-round consideration here, too, in Alabama’s Minkah Fitzpatrick. There are some parallels with him being the next Darrelle Revis. He would give them a strong all-around corner and budding leader, and he would add to an impressive young back end with Adams and Maye.
Fitzpatrick might be too luxurious of a pick. Given the multiple needs and QB draft options, the Jets might be better off trying to trade out of No. 6. That would give them a chance to trade down to get Auburn’s Carlton Davis, Bowles’ potential Patrick Peterson-like true corner, in the first round. UCF’s Mike Hughes for now is a strong second-round target.
Maccagnan and Bowles are dealing with their version of a 10,000-piece puzzle. But they have an opportunity to come away with a pretty picture that rewards the Jets’ patience in them.