Over and over again at his press conference last week, Jets GM Joe Douglas made his offseason mission clear. He said “I’ve got to do a better job of putting talent around Sam (Darnold).” Clearly there’s not enough there right now.
“I certainly haven’t done a good enough job of surrounding Sam with the weapons he needed last year or this year,” Douglas said. “I’m looking at what I can do better moving forward in terms of making sure that we have the right skill and the right protection for him.”
Considering Douglas spent most of the offseason on the protection part of the equation, it’s clear he meant that adding receivers is next.
And the good news is, Douglas appears willing to spend on what could be a wonderful crop of available receivers in free agency. He expressed regret about misreading Robby Anderson’s market last spring, making it sound like he would’ve been interested if he knew Anderson would only command $10 million per year.
He’ll probably have to pay extra for the more talented receivers he’ll be looking at in March – possibly as much as $20 million per year for the best ones -- but he should be in great position to do that. The Jets are projected to be among the top two or three teams in terms of available salary cap space in March, and they could have more than $70 million after cuts, depending on where the 2021 salary cap lands.
And in an offseason where the cap is likely to drop precipitously thanks to billions in lost revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which could lead several teams scrambling just to get under the cap before free agency starts, there could be a limited amount of big spenders in the next market.
In other words, Douglas will have more than enough ammunition to get one of them – if he wants to pay the price. So who’s available and who might the Jets pursue? Here’s a look at the upcoming bumper crop:
The Bucs finally wised up and used him more frequently last season and the result was him bursting onto the radar as a true No. 1 receiver. His 86-catch, 1,333-yard, nine-touchdown season even overshadowed Mike Evans in Tampa Bay. He’d be on pace for a similar season this year if it weren’t for a hamstring injury and a broken finger. He’s only 24 years old, but the 6-1, 209-pounder can play outside or in the slot equally well. He might have the highest ceiling of anyone on this list. Why he’d want to go from Tom Brady to whomever is quarterback of the Jets is a mystery, but it’s also possible the Bucs won’t be able to afford to re-sign him considering they’re already paying Evans $16.5 million per year.
There are a lot of NFL people who think the Jets are a likely landing spot for this 23-year-old for a variety of reasons. There’s a belief that he wants the New York spotlight after feeling underappreciated in Pittsburgh, and that he could come at a relative bargain rate after a disappointing 2019 (42-552-3 in 12 games). He has the size (6-1, 215), definitely has the speed, and has a dazzling season on his resume (111-1,426-7 in 2018). But he hasn’t been nearly as good since, averaging just 9.8 yards per catch this season (45-439-4). The Steelers have a long history of drafting top receivers then letting them go, and there’s no reason to think it will be different for Smith-Schuster, especially with the emergence of Chase Claypool. If Douglas wants him, he could be the Jets’ best bet.
A true, big-play threat with the kind of size (6-4, 214) every quarterback loves. He has good speed and really knows how to make tough, contested catches. And he showed last season that he can be a dangerous red-zone threat too, with 11 touchdowns (65 catches, 1,190 yards). He’s the complete package, which is why they took to calling him “Babytron” in Detroit – an homage to Calvin "Megatron” Johnson – no matter how much he hated it. There were rumors that the Lions were entertaining trade offers for him at the deadline, anticipating that they wouldn’t be able to re-sign him, so he’ll most likely be a free agent. And he will be fiercely pursued.
His talent is undeniable, considering he caught 98 passes for 1,147 yards and seven touchdowns with Mitch Trubisky and Chase Daniel throwing him the ball last year, and once had 80-1400-14 with Blake Bortles as his quarterback in Jacksonville. The 6-2, 220-pounder might not shake free, though. The Bears have had talks with the 27-year-old on a contract extension and reportedly hope to get one done. He’s also a strong candidate for their franchise tag, which figures to cost about $18 million. The bidding, if he is a free agent, will start north of there.
He has been one of the finest receivers in football for the last decade, but injuries and age have taken their toll. The 6-4, 210-pounder will be 33 at the start of training camp next summer and he’s had just 31 catches for 316 yards in the first half this season, after missing half of last season with injuries. He can play and his size and skills make him valuable. But he’s making $18.1 million as the Bengals’ franchise player this year and he’s just not worth that kind of money anymore. He’d be a good addition for less, but he’s a stopgap, not part of anyone’s future. On a one-year deal he could be a bargain, but only if the Jets can’t sign anyone else on this list.
He’s in the same sinking boat as Green, with injuries and age (he’ll be 31 later this week) signaling that his career is coming to an end. The problem for him is that, at 5-10, 183, he doesn’t have the size to save him. He needs to rely on his speed, and that is always the first thing to go in later years. He has just 22 catches for 251 yards in seven games this season, with no sign that it’s about to get better. Assuming the Jets bring Jamison Crowder (5-8, 185) back next season, they don’t need another guy his size. They need size and youth more than anything else. So Hilton is a hard pass.