Entering the offseason, the New York Jets were an intriguing team to monitor. With issues all over the roster and a treasure trove of cap money and draft picks to throw at them, this past spring was a make-or-break period for the future of the Jets’ organization.
The most glaring weakness was, still, New York’s quarterback room. Although veteran Josh McCown had just experienced a career year under new quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates, the Jets were still desperate for younger, longer-term solutions at the position. On top of that, the Jets had to replace an aging Matt Forté, fill out their linebacking corps, and bolster their secondary around cornerstone safety Jamal Adams.
While it is much too early to make sweeping judgments, as it stands now, general manager Mike Maccagnan was successful in addressing almost all of those needs. By complementing high-profile additions with under-the-radar value signings, Maccagnan has positioned the Jets to be out of the NFL’s cellar as soon as next year. Here are the best five moves of what turned out to be a busy, impactful offseason in New York:
5. Signing RB Thomas Rawls
Although the Jets did make several splashy, headline-catching moves, many of their moves this offseason followed the same general line of thinking: low-risk investments into assets with high upside, but fallen present value.
The biggest eyebrow-raiser of the bunch is the Rawls acquisition.
Despite going undrafted in 2015, he emerged in a fiery display for the Seahawks following Marshawn Lynch’s devastating hernia injury. Averaging 5.6 yards per carry over seven unprecedented starts, Rawls displayed ferocious power to go with blinding lateral quickness akin to the Chiefs’ Kareem Hunt, and ran with such a reckless abandon that he went over 100 consecutive carries without ever willingly stepping out of bounds.
While Rawls has since succumbed to a windfall of injuries, mustering up just 2.7 yards per rush last season, he is only 24, and still has the potential to recover. While he may never recapture the All-Pro (yes, All-Pro) potential that he once had, he should still serve as a valuable spark-plug backup next season behind fellow Jets debutante Isaiah Crowell.
4. Signing QB Teddy Bridgewater
Another low-risk, high-reward signing, Bridgewater brings the promise of a highly-touted 2014 first-round pick who was once seen as a franchise cornerstone for the Vikings before missing almost two full seasons with a devastating knee injury.
Although he was unable to find playing time last season, throwing just two passes while backing up Case Keenum for most of the season, Bridgewater’s earlier achievements speak for themselves. In 2014, Bridgewater completed 64.4% of his passes, the highest of any first-round rookie since Robert Griffin III.
The following season, during which Bridgewater made his first and only Pro Bowl, that figure rose to 65.3% thanks to his advanced football mind, consistency, and surgical accuracy on short and intermediate passes.
While questions still remained about other aspects of his game, including his arm strength, which one offensive coordinator described as “very average,” Bridgewater was still widely seen as a franchise quarterback in the making before his career was thrown into disarray on that catastrophic August afternoon. Now, while the Jets’ quarterback of the future looks to be Sam Darnold, their quarterback of the present could very well be Bridgewater.
After a phenomenal spring, Bridgewater is pushing to start, potentially making him a valuable trade chip at next year’s trade deadline. Furthermore, even if he does not win the starting gig, he should still make a perfect locker room mentor for Darnold. As former coach Mike Zimmer put it, “It’s hard not [to] be pleased with Teddy because he’s such a hard worker,” a valuable quality that could rub off on the youngster.
3. Signing LB Avery Williamson
After the Jets traded embattled box thumper Calvin Pryor to the Browns to reacquire LB Demario Davis, reactions were generally lukewarm.
Although the Jets had a hole to fill at linebacker, Davis was seen as a low-upside option and somewhat of a coverage liability. As the season played out, however, that trade turned out to be highway robbery for New York.
Pryor never even made Cleveland’s opening day roster, while Davis went put together a Pro Bowl-caliber season, finishing sixth in the NFL in tackles (135) with 5.0 sacks to boot. On top of that, according to Pro Football Focus (PFF), Davis improved tremendously in the passing game, finishing with a top-20 coverage grade (79.7). This breakout campaign earned Davis a sweet three-year, $24 million contract with the Saints, putting the Jets at a shortage of linebackers once again.
In his replacement, Avery Williamson, the Jets may have not just matched, but in fact eclipsed Davis’s value. Although Williamson offers even less in coverage than Davis, having recorded just two career interceptions, Williamson also experienced somewhat of a breakout season in 2017 for the Titans. Finishing as PFF’s tenth-highest graded linebacker, Williamson showed the ability to be an speedy, athletic run-stuffer with power, making him well worth his three-year, $22.5 million deal.
While there are concerns surrounding his fit next to fellow explosive ‘backer Darron Lee, considering that both have been inconsistent in coverage throughout their careers, the Jets seem to be gambling on the continued development of both. Williamson is only 26, so he should remain in his prime until the end of his contract, meaning that there is still potential for substantial strides to be made.
2. Promoting quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates to Offensive Coordinator
When the Jets fired then-offensive coordinator John Morton in mid-January, it came as a major surprise.
Despite having been seen as “tanking” before the season began, the Jets surpassed all expectations. They won five games, including three against playoff teams, and made visible strides offensively, going from averaging 0.274 points per play in 2016 to 0.303 last year.
Much of the credit can be given to Morton, as he made do with an aging Matt Forté and a piecemeal receiving corps that was missing its most prolific weapon (Quincy Enunwa). Moreso, under Morton, the Jets saw the emergence of young wideout Robby Anderson, who established himself as a dynamic downfield jump ball threat with a near-1000 yard campaign.
However, after details emerged that some Jets players may have been unhappy with playing time and play calling under Morton, the dismissal became more understandable. Then, one his replacement was made known, it more than made up for the loss.
While Morton deserves credit for the way that the Jets’ offense exceeded expectations last season, the true mastermind behind the success was then-quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates.
Under Bates, the Jets saw a breakout year from veteran quarterback Josh McCown, during which he completed a career-high 67.3% of his passes and set another career mark with 18 passing touchdowns. Ultimately, this became the key to the Jets’ offensive progress. All five of the Jets’ wins came with McCown under center, and, in the twelve games that McCown was able to start and finish leading up to his Week 13 injury, the Jets never once failed to score double-digit points, suggesting that the Jets could have won even more had he not gone down.
Considering that McCown was expected to a significant offensive liability prior to the season, much of the credit for his emergence has to go to Bates, making him well worth the promotion. Now, with two new, young talented signal-callers in the fold, having Bates fully in control of the Jets’ spread offense could do wonders for their development, and should catalyze the team’s eventual transition into a contender.
1. Trading up to draft QB Sam Darnold
What came as the Jets’ greatest gamble of the offseason ultimately paid off on draft night, and should continue to pay dividends in the future.
Granted, the price was steep: trading three second-round picks to move up just three spots is a major risk, one that may well have cost the Jets several quality starters in the future. However, with the way that the draft played out, the Jets never really had an alternative.
Having identified three qualities passers in the draft, the trade secured the opportunity to land one of that group. With the Browns locked in on a quarterback at #1 overall, the Giants rumored to be mulling over several quarterbacks, the rival Patriots supposedly eyeing up Oklahoma product Baker Mayfield, and the Broncos discussing a trade up as well, it is entirely possible that all three of the Jets’ top prospects–Darnold, Mayfield, and UCLA’s Josh Rosen–would have been all gone by the time the Jets got a chance to pick at their original sixth slot.
On top of that, according to a report by Albert Breer of Sports Illustrated, Darnold seemed to be the Jets’ favorite of the three, with Jets’ Vice President Brian Heimerdinger described as “giddy” at the opportunity to draft Darnold, with general manager Mike Maccagnan incredulously stating, “He just fell to us.” Had the Jets stayed put, rather than jumping up from #6 to #3, Darnold would have most likely gone to the Broncos one pick earlier, and the Jets would have been forced to settle for an inferior prospect that they were less comfortable with.
To me, Darnold was the second-best quarterback in the class, and one of two bona fide franchise quarterbacks alongside Baker Mayfield.
Combining athleticism, escapability, anticipation, a knack for feeling pressure in the pocket, and tremendous deep ball touch, Darnold plays like a clone of Buccaneers’ former #1 overall pick Jameis Winston, but without the off-field baggage. While Josh Rosen will also likely be successful at the next level, I have concerns over his ability to make plays out of structure, which could limit his upside, creating a fairly substantial drop-off from Darnold. Had the Jets never traded up, the absolute, best-case scenario for them would have likely been taking Rosen, but, thanks to Maccagnan’s bold move, they never had to settle.
Moreover, securing a franchise quarterback, no matter who it may be, is a massive step forward in the right direction.
If Darnold develops quickly, the Jets would be afforded tremendous cap flexibility while he is still on his cheap rookie deal. With Jared Goff and Carson Wentz both on inexpensive deals, the Rams and Eagles have both been able to add several veteran stars, including CB Marcus Peters, CB Aqib Talib, DE Michael Bennett, and S Rodney McLeod, which has opened contention windows for both franchises and propelled the Eagles to their first Super Bowl championship.
On top of that, the presence of a top-tier young quarterback has been a massive draw for free agents in recent years. In 2017, the presence of Wentz served as somewhat of a pull factor in recruiting WR Alshon Jeffery to the Eagles. Then, this past offseason, having Mitchell Trubisky as their established young passer may have helped the Bears land WR Allen Robinson.
So, adding Darnold helps the Jets in a variety of ways.
They were able to acquire a top prospect at the position, one that they had especially coveted. On top of that, they gained enormous cap flexibility for years to come, and an upper hand in adding big-ticket free agent weapons around Darnold.
This could especially be a factor next offseason, with superstar running back Le’veon Bell likely to hit the market for the first time. If Darnold reaches his potential, this trade and pick could put the Jets into contending form for the foreseeable future.
- Signing CB Trumaine Johnson: while I am wary of Johnson’s lucrative contract, especially since he is a larger corner that is reliant on physicality, and will like no longer be in his prime in the closing years of his deal, the move gives the Jets their most dominant secondary piece since Darrelle Revis, and a potential anchor for seasons to come.
- Drafting CB Parry Nickerson: although he is somewhat undersized (5’10), Nickerson is extremely athletic (4.32 40) and plays with a certain edge, which could make him a valuable slot corner at the next level. For a sixth round pick, this is excellent value.
- Signing WR Terrelle Pryor: yet another low-risk, high-upside signing. Following an unprecedented 1000-yard campaign for the Browns, Pryor floundered with Washington before going down with a season-ending injury, which depressed his market value. However, he still has the size and athleticism to be a quality fourth or fifth option for the Jets.
- Signing TE Bucky Hodges: like Pryor, Hodges is a quarterback convert that showed off inane athleticism in the receiving game after his position change. As a rookie last season, Hodges failed to catch on with both the Vikings and Panthers due to his struggles as a blocker. While he may not make the final roster, he is still well worth bringing into camp, especially if he can be converted to a large wide receiver in the mold of Devin Funchess.
- Re-signing CB Morris Claiborne: with Johnson being the big-ticket secondary addition, it was crucial for the Jets to maintain continuity around him, and bringing back Claiborne as his “Robin” did just that. After struggling early in his career with the Cowboys, Claiborne made strides last year with the Jets, matching a career high in pass deflections (8). Being only 28, Claiborne still has potential to grow on his second consecutive one-year deal.