Plenty of analysts have already pointed out how several of the 49ers’ pending free agents could be good fits for the 2021 Jets. If new head coach Robert Saleh wants Joe Douglas to raid his old team, then players like Richard Sherman, Kyle Juszczyk and Ronald Blair would seem like logical targets.
However, there are also some players who will be available on other teams that Saleh has coached in the past. Let’s review some of these to determine whether there are any likely candidates for them to go after.
Experience and mentorship
In Robert Saleh’s first season, you can be sure he’ll be keen to lock in some experienced players who can help the rest of the team get used to his system. These may be short term moves, but could still provide a longer-term benefit, while also helping legitimize the team as more competitive than in the past few seasons.
Three pending free agents in their thirties that could entertain a move to the Jets are linebackers KJ Wright, Malcolm Smith and Bruce Irvin. All three played for Seattle where Saleh was a defensive quality control coach from 2011 to 2013.
Of the three, Irvin is the biggest longshot, since he’s said in the past he will retire if Seattle doesn’t bring him back. Then again, Douglas managed to talk Ryan Kalil out of retiring, so maybe he could repeat the trick. Irvin is two years older than Smith and Wright at 33 and tore his ACL in September but has been a productive and durable pass rusher in the past.
If Seattle lets Wright walk, he could be an ideal target. Wright’s coverage skills are exactly what the Jets need to make Saleh’s scheme effective.
Smith, who was also with the 49ers for Saleh’s first two seasons, also has decent coverage skills and played well in 2020 with the Browns. He’s probably more of a specialist than a three-down linebacker at this stage of his career and is unlikely to be expensive.
Three pending free agents who previously started games in Saleh’s defense in San Francisco are Elijah Lee, Cassius Marsh and Adrian Colbert.
The linebacker Lee, who is 25, spent three years in Saleh’s defense and started five games and racked up 65 tackles in 2018. However, he only played four defensive snaps in 12 games with the Lions and Browns last season.
Marsh was with the 49ers for two seasons, starting three games and racking up 5.5 sacks off the edge in 2018. He played in eight games for three different teams last year but did not register a sack. Marsh is still only 28.
Colbert started 12 games over his first two seasons with the 49ers before moving on to Miami in 2019 and the Giants last year. The 27-year old started seven games over the past two seasons.
None of these three would be brought in to start but could provide some veteran depth at a low cost in each case.
Potential cap casualties
There are three veterans who played on teams with Saleh on the coaching staff who are currently still under contract for 2021 that could be released - or perhaps traded for a low pick.
Saleh was in the last of his six seasons with the Texans in 2010 when Kareem Jackson was drafted in the first round. The Broncos have until the start of the new league year to decide whether to exercise his option for the 2021 season. If they do, he’ll have a cap hit of over $12 million which is a risky move for a 32-year old even though he’s been very good since moving to safety a few years ago. If the Jets can sign him to a more reasonable deal, he’ll be able to mentor their safeties AND their cornerbacks.
After leaving Seattle, Saleh was a linebackers coach in Jacksonville from 2014 to 2016 and the Jaguars signed Malik Jackson to a big money deal in the last of those three seasons. The cap-strapped Eagles have already restructured Jackson’s current deal to enable them to release him in the new league year. While the Jets are strong on the defensive interior, the only experienced veteran they have is Henry Anderson, who may himself be a cap casualty. After missing most of the 2019 season, Jackson was solid, if unspectacular, in 2020 and may still have something left in the tank at 31.
Kwon Alexander was with Saleh in San Francisco in 2019 and 2020, but they traded him last November. He finished up the year with the Saints, but they probably can’t afford to retain him, especially after he tore his Achilles late in the year. Alexander was due to earn about $25 million over the next two years. Again, his coverage skills would make him a good fit for Saleh’s system, whose trade to the Saints was ironically because the 49ers were anticipating their own cap issues.
The reclamation project
Former first round pick Reuben Foster is still only 27 and set to hit the open market. His career so far has been beset by off-field issues and injuries.
Despite his talent, Douglas is likely to steer clear of this move. The 49ers released Foster in his second season due to off-field concerns, citing trust issues. It seems unlikely that Saleh will sign off on bringing him in as he tries to establish a new culture, even though it would likely be a low-risk deal.
The big-money move
The Jaguars drafted Yannick Ngakoue in Saleh’s final year in Jacksonville and he established himself as a top pass rusher over the next few seasons. After his trade to Baltimore, the Ravens will probably have to decide whether to re-sign him or Matt Judon with the Jets sure to show interest in whoever they let walk.
Ngakoue, who would fit well in Saleh’s wide-nine front, has five straight seasons with eight or more sacks, during which time no Jet has exceeded eight sacks. Jordan Jenkins had exactly eight in 2019.
We’re well aware that moves for older veterans are often unpopular among the fanbase, but a few such moves from the examples cited here would seem to make sense. Hopefully this wouldn’t be the same situation as a player like Frank Gore coming here last season and taking playing time from younger players who are equally capable of contributing.
With a new coach and new defensive system being put in place, this is a good time to bring in some older players to ease the transition, much like Rex Ryan did in 2009 with Marques Douglas. The Jets already have plenty of young players who could benefit from some good veteran leadership and there seems to be a bit of a void in that area, so it makes sense for Joe Douglas to bring in some players like that, especially if Saleh is familiar with them.