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Joe Douglas has been a man of his word in his short time as the Jets’ general manager. He said the Jets needed better weapons, so he went out and got one of the top receivers on the market. He promised he’d spend the abundance of salary cap space the Jets had, so he bought one of the top pass rushers, too.
The $87.5 million he spent on receiver Corey Davis and defensive end Carl Lawson might have been the end of the Jets’ “big” spending in free agency, but it was just the start of Douglas’ offseason plan. He added depth at those positions, plugged several other holes, and added a few players that are better fits for the offensive and defensive systems new coach Robert Saleh plans to run.
And he did it all without saddling the team with potentially burdensome, long-term contracts. He maintained the precious future financial flexibility that he’s always promised the Jets will have.
Did it all make the Jets a better team? It’s hard to imagine they could be worse than the 2-14 mess of last season. Of course, just how much better will be determined more by two questions that weren’t answered during free agency: Who is the 2021 quarterback? And will Saleh be a good head coach?
If nothing else, the quarterback and coach will have a much better team around them. We’ll soon see just how much better, but for now, here’s an early look at what the Jets got right and wrong:
Holes They Filled
Pretty much anything the Jets did in free agency filled a hole on a team full of them, but it was clear after last season that their No. 1 need was offensive weapons. So they got Davis for three years and $37.5 million (with $27 million guaranteed) to become their No. 1 receiver. For a while, it was the biggest free-agent deal by far until the Giants blew that away with four years and $72 million for Kenny Golladay.
But there were some NFL people who believed the 6-foot-3 Davis was the best available receiver on the market – a guy who put up close to No. 1 receiver numbers in Tennessee despite being their No. 2 receiver. And he’ll now have help with the Jets, because they also added underrated receiver Keelan Cole (one year, $5.5 million) and running back Tevin Coleman (one year, $1.1 million). The 27-year-old Cole is a speedy receiver who may thrive outside of Jacksonville. And Coleman is a perfect dual-threat back for the Mike LaFleur offense if he can overcome the injury issues that have plagued him in recent years.
On defense, the Jets transformed their defensive line, knowing that’s the key ingredient of the Saleh defensive scheme. They added Lawson (three years, $45 million, $30 million guaranteed), who was one of the NFL’s best pass rushers even though he didn’t have the sack numbers to prove it. They got veteran Vinny Curry (one year, $1.3 million) for the other end and the underrated Sheldon Rankins (two years, $11 million) to play next to Quinnen Williams in the middle.
Also, they added a true, 4-3 middle linebacker in Jarrad Davis (one year, $5.5 million) as they transition from a 3-4, and an absolute special teams ace in cornerback Justin Hardee (three years, $6.75 million).
Holes Left Unfilled
There are two really big ones left for the Jets. One is along the offensive line, where they are currently poised to return all five starters from last year’s awful unit. They added guard Dan Feeney (one year, $3.5 million) and he could compete for a starting job with Alex Lewis or Greg Van Roten, but that’s hardly an upgrade. The Jets also really don’t have much young talent outside of Mekhi Becton on the line, so this sounds like a key part of the upcoming draft.
The other? Cornerback. Right now their projected starting corners are Bless Austin and Bryce Hall, yet they weren’t caught even nosing around corners on the market. Maybe that’s because they have a second first-round pick this year and there are several top corners available. At this point, it’s hard to imagine the Jets won’t pick one at 23.
Also, since Curry will be 33 in June, the Jets still need a defensive end for future years, who could at least be part of the rotation now.
Douglas entered free agency with $69 million cap space to spend and plenty of ways to create more if needed with easy restructures and painless cuts. He didn’t have to do any of that, though. He also didn’t have to get particularly creative with contracts to fit any of them in.
What he did, though, was smart. He front-loaded the contracts – especially the big ones – so the Jets could take a bigger cap hit now when they could afford it and not have the deals hurt in future years.
Davis’ deal, for example, includes a $2 million signing bonus, a $5 million roster bonus and $7 million in salary this year. Normally, big deals have a low first-year salary to reduce the cap hit, but the Jets kept his at a relatively high number. Also the roster bonus, which already kicked in, is key because it counts against the cap this year. Had it been a signing bonus, the amount would’ve been spread out over the length of the contract (for cap purposes). That alone saves the Jets about $1.67 million of cap space in each of the next two years – not a big deal, but every little bit helps.
He did the same thing with Lawson’s deal, which had no signing bonus, a $7.8 million roster bonus and a $6.2 million salary.
It’s also worth noting that none of the Jets’ deals were longer than three years. Most were just one- or two years. It gives Douglas and the Jets the thing he seems to prioritize with all of his free-agent dealings – roster and financial flexibility for the future. That’s also part of why the Jets gave safety Marcus Maye the franchise tag instead of signing him to a long-term deal.
Best Signing: Carl Lawson
As much as the Jets needed a No. 1 receiver, their need for a dominant pass rusher felt even greater, especially after they hired Saleh. He built the 49ers defense around a strong defensive line and dangerous pass rush, and that defense led the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
With the Jets, he inherited defensive tackle Williams and a line filled otherwise with mostly depth players. Lawson changes that. Forget that he had only 5.5 sacks last year. He had 32 quarterback hits, second in the NFL, and 64 pressures, which ranked fourth. He can absolutely get to the quarterback, which is something the Jets have desperately needed for years.
Biggest Risk: Jarrad Davis
Risk is relative because he only gets a one-year deal, but the fact that the entire $5.5 million is guaranteed shows you the Jets think of Davis as a starter. Since he’s a middle linebacker, that creates a bit of a logjam with C.J. Mosley, who could even be traded if the Jets were able to find someone to take his contract (doubtful). Assuming Davis starts, though, they are really banking on the idea that the Lions misused this former first rounder, because his play didn’t warrant their financial faith. He was not good in coverage, only decent as a pass rusher. The Jets strongly believe he is much better than he showed, but he does create a bit of a mess if he isn’t.
Under The Radar: Keelan Cole
There are people around the NFL who believe this 27-year-old has a chance to thrive outside of Jacksonville, especially if he ends up in a better quarterback situation. Of course, who knows what that will be with the Jets? But the 6-foot-1, 194-pounder has terrific speed and managed to have 55 catches for 642 yards and five touchdowns despite being mostly the third receiver for an awful Jaguars team last year. He’s depth for the Jets, but good depth – much better than the street free agents the Jets had to rely on when their injuries hit last year.
The Jets still have a lot of work to do, and what they do at quarterback is really going to be the key part of their offseason, but they are undoubtedly a much better team after free agency. They have offensive weapons now and a stronger pass rush, and those are good places to start.
It won’t matter much if they can’t fix the offensive line and the secondary, or if they make the wrong choice at quarterback, but there’s still time for all that. The Jets, unfortunately, are still in the early stages of yet another rebuilding project. No one expects them to be a playoff team in the first year under Saleh. But at least the new coach now has a better base of talent from which to start.