After the Jets stunningly cut LB David Harris, WR Brandon Marshall, C Nick Mangold, and K Nick Folk, and others–former starters on all sides of the ball–it became almost a foregone conclusion that the team was tanking.
Through five games, however, this season has been a widely different story. Thus far, both New York teams have combined for a 3-7 record, and, surprisingly, the Jets have accounted for all three of the wins. Granted, these wins came against the Cleveland Browns, Jacksonville Jaguars, and seemingly hapless Miami Dolphins, but this still far exceeds the 2-14, 1-15, and 0-16 predictions that were thrown around all offseason.
So, what exactly happened? Were these offseason cuts truly as regrettable as they seemed at the time, or does the 2017 performance of Marshall, Decker, Folk and the rest tell a different story?
Coming off of season-ending shoulder injury in 2016, it was difficult to know what to even expect from Decker this season. After Decker was released, he was promptly signed by the Tennessee Titans. While the Titans had had receiver issues for years, they finally retooled this offseason, drafting Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor to add to a receiving corps that already featured deep threat Rishard Matthews and TE Delanie Walker.
So, Decker was not meant to be any sort of lifesaver, but he was at least expected to be a strong-handed possession receiver and a reliable third-down option for QB Marcus Mariota. Through five games, though, it is hard to say that Decker has accomplished even that.
With Davis out, Decker is entrenched as a starter for the Titans, but thus far, he has played behind Matthews, and age and attrition have taken an obvious toll. Primarily, it has shown in Decker’s explosiveness, or lack thereof.
While never being a burner, at one point, Decker did have the ability to break off a big gain. Whether it be due to his proficient route running ability in the vertical stem or his ability to savvily turn upfield off a short crosser, Decker would torch a defense from time to time. Now, however, he is visibly slower. Against the Seahawks in Week Three, Decker gave Mariota almost no open looks to work with, at one point resorting to a push off at the top of his route, which was rightfully called. Another area where Decker has been lacking this year has been in his ability to win at the catch point.
While on the Jets in 2015, Decker was a premier red zone target, hauling in twelve touchdowns. A large part of this had to do with his ability to come down with jump balls, which originated with Decker’s ball skills, body control, strong hands, and leaping ability. Now, Decker still plays the ball instinctively, but his ability to get over corners is not what it used to be, and his hands simply aren’t as quick or as powerful.
Of course, this apparent deficiency on jump balls is likely compounded by Decker’s inability to consistently separate, but it still remains that Decker is not the contested catch monster that he once was, as evidenced by the fact that he has yet to score a touchdown this season.
This is not to call Decker a complete disaster–far from it. Numerous parts of his skill set are still as strong as ever. Namely, Decker is still an excellent route runner with phenomenal ball skills. While it may not always show through, Decker knows how to get open, and it is especially evident on out routes and crossers.
All year, Decker has had a tremendous gauge for how corners would react to his cuts, and has timed his breaks flawlessly, giving Mariota and backup QB Matt Cassel numerous easy short completions. Decker is also adept at attacking and positioning himself for throws, a football instinct that has given him a distinct advantage against younger corners. While matched up against rookie Cordrea Tankersley of the Miami Dolphins, Decker beat Tankersley to the ball on a short curl, picking up a key first down early in the game.
Decker’s ability to find the first down markers during his routes has added has been another trait that has stood out consistently, and has made Decker the steady third down workhorse that he was billed to be for the Titans. Overall, though, as his total of just 138 yards over five games shows, Decker has found somewhat of a role, but has been largely underwhelming.
Even with Eric Decker being as much of a non-factor as he has been, he has still shown enough of his past skill set to warrant a niche role with the Titans. The same, however, cannot be said for Brandon Marshall on the New York Giants.
For most of his prime, Marshall was a similar player to Decker: a big, strong-handed receiver that makes his money on crossers but can also occasionally stretch the field. The key difference, however, is that Marshall has always relied more on his athleticism, while Decker has always been able to get open due to quickness and strong route-running.
While Marshall used to be proficient on more physical routes, which made him deadly on rubs and curls–much like DeAndre Hopkins of the Houston Texans–this still does not make for a skill set that would age well into his thirties.
So, in short, Marshall has not really had a way to fit with the Giants.
Like Decker, he has been too slow to separate from corners, which has nullified his ability to stretch the field. During the Giants’ Week One matchup with the Cowboys, Marshall was absolutely blanketed by CB Anthony Brown, so much so that he could not even jump to make a play on the ball at times.
This is another issue in and of itself: not only has Marshall lost a step, but he does not seem like the same receiver when the ball is in the air, either. This has led teams to play more off-man coverage on Marshall, which only further handicapped the Giants’ offense.
Against the Eagles, Eli Manning tried to exploit this coverage by audibling into multiple unblocked screens, putting the ball in Marshall’s hands and allowing him to make plays after the catch. While one such play went for a big gain, it was only due to a flagrant overplay by CB Rasul Douglas, and the vast majority of these screens have gone for next to nothing. Marshall has not looked like a fluid mover in space at all this season, so throwing screens to him has been mostly detrimental.
So, lacking the quickness that Decker seems to have retained, and without the route-running ability to make up for a deficiency in speed, Marshall’s only real value this year has come from his football I.Q. Much like Decker, Marshall has an excellent feel for the sticks, which has made him an asset on multiple third downs. Marshall also knows how to take a tackle and fall forward for extra yards. While this seems unimportant, the one to two yards that this contributes per catch adds up to a fairly significant figure by the end of a full season.
All in all, however, Marshall has struggled to find any role at all with the Giants (as his meager 154 yards in five games indicate), and, unfortunately, this will likely only continue to worsen with Marshall now out for the season following his recent surgery.
David Harris, Nick Folk, Darrelle Revis, and Nick Mangold
The reason that these four players are grouped together is because none have made any noise at all since being released.
The most surprising of these is Harris. When he was cut, he was viewed as somewhat obsolete–a big, instinctive run stopper as opposed to the leaner, faster, coverage linebacker that today’s NFL favors–but still definitely worthy of a starting role. So, when he was signed by the rival New England Patriots, it came as a major disappointment for Jets fans. However, thus far, Harris has played just seven total defensive snaps.
He has not made any special teams contributions, either, as he lacks the speed to effectively cover kicks, so it looks as though the Jets did not lose any value, especially with LB Demario Davis looking rejuvenated in his return to New York.
Folk, meanwhile, started out strong, taking the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ kicking job from Roberto Aguayo. Since then, though, he has promptly fizzled out. His last game, coincidentally against the Patriots, was the straw to break the camel’s back: Folk went 0-3 from the field, including a bad miss on a chip shot late in the game, and is now due to be replaced by Patrick Murray.
As for Revis and Mangold, neither has been signed yet. Whether it is due to a lack of interest from teams due to age, or a lack of a desire by Revis and Mangold to take backup roles, or both, neither has even seen the field this season.
So, for all the talk of tanking, as ridiculous as it sounds, it seems like the Jets may have actually gotten better since the end of last season. Safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye have brought a youthful spark to the defense, with Maye in particular making a clutch, potentially game-saving red zone interception against the Browns.
On offense, newly acquired WR Jermaine Kearse has meshed well with WR Robby Anderson in the intermediate passing game. Meanwhile, the supposed contributors that the Jets cut ties with–Harris, Folk, Decker, and the like–have struggled to even find starting roles.
With that in mind, the Jets may not have just saved cap space with their stingy offseason, but potentially actually done so sacrificing virtually no contributors at all.