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Four Wide

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New England Patriots v New York Jets Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Recently the fact that the New York Jets are the only team in the NFL with four 800 yard wide receivers has made the rounds. It’s an interesting tidbit, and one that illustrates the excellent depth of the Jets receiving depth chart. The Jets may or may not have a so called “number one” type receiver, but what they do have is better depth at the position than any team in the NFL.

One thing that has gone unrecognized to date is just how rare the Jets current wide receiver depth chart is. Not only is this the only team in the NFL with four 800 yard wide receivers; it is the only team in Jets history, going all the way back to the 1960 Titans, that has ever had four 800 yard wide receivers. That sounds pretty good, right? Wait, there’s more.

It isn’t just that no other team in the NFL has four 800 yard wide receivers this year. No NFL team had four 800 yard wide receivers in 2017 either. Nor in 2016. Nor in 2015. In fact, you have to go all the way back to 2014, when the San Francisco 49ers had Anquan Boldin, Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd, to find another NFL team with four 800 yard wide receivers. For those counting at home, that’s 128 NFL rosters, and 58 Jets rosters, since we’ve seen anything like what the Jets have now at wide receiver.

And it gets better. All of the Jets wide receivers are in their physical primes (assuming injuries have fully healed). All still could very well have their best days ahead of them. All have had their 800 yard season in the last two years, and in the last year they played a full slate of games. That is unlike the 2014 49ers, who had a 33 year old Lloyd, who would never play another game in the NFL after the 2014 season and wasn’t even in the NFL the prior year.

Now you may ask yourself, is this just playing with numbers? I mean, what’s the big deal about an 800 yard receiver anyway? It’s just 50 yards a game for 16 games, right? Well, when you put it that way that kinda takes the wind right out of my sails. Thanks for nothing, Mr. Let’s Keep It Real And Rain On Your Parade.

But, well, 800 yards, as pedestrian as it may sound, really does have some significance. 800 yards means at some point you were at worst the second wide receiver option in an NFL passing attack. Don’t believe me? Last year of the 32 NFL teams not one had a third wide receiver with as many as 700 receiving yards. Only seven teams, less than a quarter of NFL rosters, had a third wide receiver with as many as 500 receiving yards. A majority of NFL teams did not have a third wide receiver with as many as 400 yards receiving.

In 2017 only 27 NFL wide receivers had 800 receiving yards, making 800 yards a low end WR1 last year. In four of the last five NFL seasons 36 or fewer wide receivers achieved as much as 800 yards receiving. Believe it or not, 800 yards makes you a rather high end WR2 in today’s NFL. Of course, there are always guys who achieve a career year by default, due to the lack of other viable receiving options on a particular team. Jeremy Kerley in 2012 comes to mind, when he posted a career year of 827 yards, because the next best option on that 2012 Jets team was, of all people, Jeff Cumberland. Perhaps Terrelle Pryor and/or Jermaine Kearse fall in that category, perhaps not. For now, it’s just pretty great to field a wide receiver group where for once the issue isn’t which bum might have a surprising year because there are no other viable options.

If all the Jets wide receivers are healthy in 2018, the issue, for the first time in recent memory, won’t be that there aren’t enough good options, but that there are too many. With four guys ( and if Chad Hansen lives up to the hype, maybe even five) all in the prime of their careers and all having shown they can be at worst a high end WR2, there just may not be enough targets to go around. In the case of a wide receiver depth chart with perhaps no high end WR1s to be found, but a plethora of low end WR1s/ high end WR2s, perhaps the best way to take advantage of the personnel available is with a wide open passing offense with a lot of four wide receiver sets. Such an attack may or may not produce mismatches at the top of the wide receiver depth chart, depending on the quality of the defensive backs facing them, but it almost surely will create mismatches at WR3 and/or WR4. At the WR3/WR4 positions the Jets would be lining up what would be a high end WR2 on most teams against an opponents’ 3rd or 4th best defensive back. Against all but the deepest secondaries, advantage, Jets. In addition, such an alignment would prevent opponents from rolling help towards the Jets WR1 and/or WR2, potentially freeing them up for a big day against teams with lesser cornerbacks at the top of their depth charts.

All that sounds kinda cool in theory. The trouble is the Jets have voiced a strong preference to increase the emphasis on the running game. In addition, at least in 2018, when Sam Darnold is probably not yet ready to shoulder the burden of a wide open passing attack, the Jets likely do not have the kind of quarterback necessary to run such an offense successfully. The Jets under head coach Todd Bowles have also not shown much inclination to open up the offense that way, almost never running four wide sets in the Bowles era.

This sets up something of a dilemma in roster building. On paper wide receiver is the strongest element of the Jets offense. It makes sense to run the offense through the position of greatest strength. On paper the Jets should seriously consider running a bunch of four wide sets. However, given the coaches, the history and the quarterback situation, it seems pretty unlikely the Jets will actually run very many four wide sets. And that sets up a value problem.

We have seen that NFL teams in general don’t give all that much opportunity to WR3s. The median WR3 in 2017 had less than 400 receiving yards. WR4s of course get significantly less. On the Jets a WR4 has historically put up less than 200 yards. On most teams they are an afterthought, an insurance policy in case one of the top guys goes down. Insurance policies have some value, but probably are best filled with a guy on a rookie contract, not a guy taking up significant cap space. Which brings us to Pryor and Kearse. If everyone is healthy neither Kearse nor Pryor is likely to be higher in the pecking order than WR3, and one of them will be a WR4, at best. Kearse is due to count for $5.6 million against the salary cap in 2018, Pryor $4.3 million. Trading or cutting Kearse saves $5.6 million in cap space; Pryor saves $2.3 million. The question the Jets face, if everyone stays healthy, is one of these guys is going to end up being a WR4 at best on the Jets. We know the Jets aren’t all that likely to use a WR4 much. We know WR4s around the league aren’t used much. We know whoever is the Jets WR4 is very likely to end up being an insignificant part of the offense, likely with less than 200 yards receiving. So what are the Jets going to do?

It’s a nice problem to have, too many mouths to feed. If I were running the Jets I would make it a priority to take advantage of the one area on the offense where the team should be able to create matchup problems nearly every week. That means a bunch of four wide sets. But in an unfathomable oversight on the Jets’ part, I am not running the Jets. And given the history, coaches, and quarterbacks in play, I think it is unlikely the Jets will see fit to run a lot of four wide sets. If they don’t, what will they do with Pryor and/or Kearse, especially if Chad Hansen (or some other dark horse wide receiver candidate) shows he’s ready to step into a more prominent role? Will the Jets trade or cut one of the top four wide receivers? Will they spend $4 or $5 million on what amounts to an insurance policy?

What would you do? Go four wide, open up the offense and start slinging it? Stay conservative and pay significant cap space for a wide receiver that will likely rarely be used? Cut or trade somebody?

It’s really, really nice to have a problem of potentially too much quality depth at a position, any position, for the Jets. It’s been too long since we could say that. But it does present some difficult choices. If Robby Anderson ends up getting suspended to start the year things will get even more confounding. A short Anderson suspension would leave the Jets with just three proven NFL receivers for the length of the suspension. That might be enough incentive to keep everybody. Unfortunately, if Pryor and/or Kearse are on the roster opening day their entire salary becomes fully guaranteed because they are vested veterans. Judicious cap management may conflict with the exigencies of a Robby suspension. On the other hand a strong Hansen training camp could still make Pryor or Kearse expendable, even if Robby is suspended.

Stay tuned. This wide receiver situation promises to be very interesting, and how the Jets deal with it should be very telling of their organizational philosophy going forward.