When a team dismantles its roster in the offseason, it is usually done with an eye on the future. With every veteran piece that goes, there is a trade-off: production for cap space. This past offseason, no team has been a better embodiment of that than the New York Jets. After swinging for the fences with QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Matt Forté, WR Brandon Marshall, and CB Darrelle Revis a year before, the Jets went into this offseason with aging assets, a losing roster, and little money to improve anything. However, after dropping Marshall, Revis, WR Eric Decker, K Nick Folk, and LB David Harris, the Jets’ roster is markedly weaker, but at least the team now has the money to improve.
This past free agency class was undoubtedly impressive. Headlined by elite-level offensive linemen in T.J. Lang, Andrew Whitworth, and Kevin Zeitler, the class also featured multiple 1000-yard wide receivers in Alshon Jeffery, Kenny Britt, and Terrelle Pryor, former star running backs Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles, and even a potential starting quarterback in Mike Glennon. With so much talent to go around, it would have been an opportune time for the Jets to spend. However, next year’s class blows it out of the water. Featuring much of the stacked 2014 NFL Draft class, the 2018 free agent collective includes big names like wide receivers Sammy Watkins and Allen Robinson, RB Jeremy Hill, CB Malcolm Butler, and QB Jimmy Garoppolo. As a rebuilding team, the Jets are extremely fortunate to have the second-most cap space in the league, with almost $56 million to spend in 2018, going into an offseason like this. So, what holes might the Jets try to fill?
With Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg, and Bryce Petty, the Jets likely have the worst quarterback room in the NFL. Furthermore, with none of the three offering tremendous long-term upside, the Jets could look to free agency for a solution. At age 39 next year, and testing free agency for the first time since 2006, Drew Brees makes for an intriguing option. However, with the Jets being 3+ years away from really contending, Brees is too much of a risk, especially at his top market value. Kirk Cousins and Sam Bradford are also options, being top-15 players at their position, but both carry major red flags. Both are up there in age (at 29 and 30, respectively), so it’s hard to tell how long they will stay in their prime. Cousins has also never played without Washington’s tremendous supporting cast, so there are concerns as to whether he will translate to the Jets, while Bradford carries tremendous injury risk.
The three to really watch out for are Jimmy Garoppolo, A.J. McCarron, and Teddy Bridgewater. Garoppolo played well in limited action for the New England Patriots, which could mean success going forward. As a talented touch passer with solid running ability, Garoppolo features a similar skillset to Deshaun Watson and Jared Goff, two top picks in the past two years. At only 26 years of age, Garoppolo could develop into a long-term starter for the Jets. McCarron offers the least upside of the three, but has also shown some success in a limited role, putting up 66.4% completion and a 6:2 TD:INT ratio while filling in for Andy Dalton. As a “game manager,” he fits the mold of the modern quarterback with interceptions at an all-time low in the NFL. Bridgewater, meanwhile, is unquestionably the most talented of the three. With a tremendous mental process and solid accuracy to all levels of the field, Bridgewater has everything it takes to be successful. However, with the knee injury he suffered last offseason, he may never realize his full potential. Likely to be the cheapest of the three, Bridgewater could serve as a pure “upside” signing for the Jets, allowing them to gamble on his talent while also taking another signal caller high in the draft.
2. Defensive Back
As weak as the Jets’ defense is as a whole, their secondary might be the weakest unit of all–especially if CB Morris Claiborne leaves next year in free agency. Though the Jets did add safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye high in this past draft, there is still work to be done, especially at corner and nickel. The headliner of the 2018 free agent group is CB Malcolm Butler. Since being signed post-draft by the Patriots in 2014, Butler has developed into one of the league’s top press-man corners. After being shopped this past offseason to the New Orleans Saints, and with Stephon Gilmore added as a potential replacement, Butler could look to spite the Patriots by signing with a rival. Kyle Fuller is another possibility. Though he is raw, Fuller is strong at playing the ball and could thrive if the Jets’ pass rush improves.
Another option is to add veteran leadership. By adding an older contributor like CB Jonathan Joseph, CB Brent Grimes, or FS Reggie Nelson, the Jets would be adding a strong locker room presence that could elevate the rest of the roster. Grimes in particular could be especially valuable. After struggling in Miami, Grimes seemed to experience an awakening in his first season with the Buccaneers, which could be a positive sign despite his advanced age (currently 33). If the Jets choose to move on from Buster Skrine, Grimes would be a major upgrade at the nickel spot. Another option for that role is nickel/safety hybrid Kenny Vaccaro, who has been somewhat miscast during his tenure with the Saints. If the Jets decide to adopt the “Big Nickel” concept, which includes having three safeties on the field and defensive backs in hybrid roles, Vaccaro could be a perfect fit.
3. Wide Receiver
Once the cream of the 2014 draft crop, that wide receiver group is now the top prize of the 2018 free agency. Sammy Watkins, Allen Robinson, Martavis Bryant, Marqise Lee, and DeAndre Hopkins are all available, and each will only be 26 or younger–just entering his prime. Although only Watkins, Robinson, and Hopkins have recorded 1,000-yard seasons, all five of these players have the potential to do the same and more. If, as the narrative goes, the Jets get the first pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and plan to use it on USC quarterback Sam Darnold, look for them to offer long, lucrative deals to Hopkins and Robinson. Darnold has almost mechanical precision on the intermediate level, so pairing him with a strong, physical “hands” receiver like Robinson or Hopkins would make for a deadly pair on crossing routes. Furthermore, adding a big-time No. 1 option would allow the Jets to relegate Robby Anderson to a pure deep-threat role while kicking Quincy Enunwa into the slot, allowing for an offense that maximizes each player’s fit.
Though the real treasure is the group of youngsters, even among veterans, there is serious value. Larry Fitzgerald, Mike Wallace, Victor Cruz, Andrew Hawkins, and Danny Amendola all have expiring contracts, and would be invaluable to have in a locker room as rife with youth as the Jets’. Fitzgerald and Wallace are especially notable, as both will likely remain top players at their position for at least a few years to come. Fitzgerald in particular should remain a top player well into his thirties, as his game relies more on route running, hands, and strength as opposed to explosiveness and athleticism. This style of play is highly sustainable–think Jerry Rice–and would make him a tremendous playmaker for the Jets if he does not retire.
Though the 2018 free agency will be highlighted by quarterbacks and wide receivers, there are numerous other places where the Jets could (and perhaps should) spend their cash. For instance, there are multiple quality linebackers that the Jets could put alongside Darron Lee. If they are willing to take the risk, they could pick up one of the leagues savviest coverage linebackers in Vontaze Burfict. Besides Burfict, there are multiple veterans that could add leadership to a young, confused locker room: Thomas Davis, Paul Posluszny, and Jonathan Casillas, just to name a few. Pass rushers are also fairly deep, especially off the edge. Akiem Hicks and Ezekiel Ansah are both proven contributors, and should be expensive but affordable. If the Jets choose to go cheaper and gamble on upside, Aldon Smith, Jayrone Elliott, and Marcus Smith should be available for a fraction of the cost. There are even options at running back for the Jets to pair with Bilal Powell. Although Jeremy Hill has hit somewhat of a wall in Cincinnati, he is still an exceptional goal-line back that could thrive as the “thunder” to Powell’s “lightning.” With so much of the flashy 2014 draft class featured, and heaps of money to throw at it, the Jets will have a world of possibilities in 2018.