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Lessons From a Decade of Jets Free Agency

Buffalo Bills v New York Jets Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Free agency has not been kind to the Jets in recent years. The team’s struggles in free agency are probably not as big of a factor in the team’s failures as the Draft, but failed signings have nonetheless had a major negative impact.

This led me to wonder whether there have been any consistent themes in the signings that did not work out (and those that did).

I decided to go back a decade and explore every major Jets free agent signing. I then categorized each as either a success or a failure.

How did I distinguish between a major signing and a minor signing? What made a success or a failure?

In all honestly it was highly subjective. I categorized a signing as major if there was a reasonable chance at the time the player was going to play a major role on the team.

For success I tried to determine whether the player had performed that role well for at least half of the term of his contract.

It is more art than science. Even though Darrelle Revis made a Pro Bowl in 2015, and Morris Claiborne never approached that level, I think Claiborne performed far better relative to expecations and salary.

Avery Williamson probably fell short of my criteria, but there were extenuating circumstances. I thought he played well enough to be considered a success. CJ Mosley, on the other hand, missed two full seasons and didn’t play at a top level in the one season he did play.

Some might argue Josh McCown’s 2017 season was a pleasant surprise as he had the best season of his career. Can I really count the starting quarterback of a 5 win team a success just because he threw 17 touchdown passes, though?

You might disagree with one or two of my conclusions on a player. Some are debatable. You might think one player I included wasn’t significant enough to count. You might think I left out a player of significance.

I can appreciate these arguments, but with over 50 players analyzed it is unlikely that a change to one or two would make an appreciable difference in the results.

Note that I also created a special category for Carl Lawson and Corey Davis. While both had unsuccessful first seasons, there is a realistic chance they could bounce back from injury and reverse the current narrative on themselves.

I also broke the players down by position.

Based on the way the league evaluates and pays talent, I deem quarterback, outside wide receiver, tackle, edge rusher, and outside cornerback as the premium positions.

Running back, slot receiver, tight end, guard, center, interior defensive lineman, linebacker, slot cornerback, and safety are the non-premium positions.

I also avoided using raw numbers when examining contracts. Since the cap changes each year, the market value of players also change. Giving somebody $5 million in 2012 when the salary cap was $120.6 million was different from giving somebody $5 million in 2020 when the cap was $198.2 million.

Instead I valued contacts based on the salary cap that year. I used the average annual value of a contract as a percentage of the salary cap and the total guaranteed money in a deal as a percentage of the salary cap in the year deals were signed.

I only used players who were signed from other teams and the initial contract they signed. That’s the focus. If a player was already on the Jets and re-signed, he didn’t count. If a player signed a one year deal from another team and re-signed with the Jets the next season, only the one year deal was examined. Players acquired in trades didn’t count either.

I wanted to focus on players the Jets outbid other teams financially to land. These are players they couldn’t be sure would fit the system and the locker room. How much did they bid, and were the deals worth it?

Here were the players I examined.

2012

Successful signings: LaRon Landry, Yeremiah Bell

Unsuccessful signing: Chaz Schilens

2013

Successful signings: Willie Colon, Dawan Landry

Unsuccessful signings: Mike Goodson, Antwan Barnes, Antonio “Garayed” Garay, Kellen Winslow II

2014

Successful signing: Eric Decker

Unsuccessful signings: Michael Vick, Breno Giacomini, Chris Johnson, Dimitri Patterson, Jason Babin

2015

Successful signing: James Carpenter

Unsuccessful signings: Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Buster Skrine, Marcus Gilchrist, Kellen Davis

2016

Successful signing: Steve McLendon

Unsuccessful signing: Matt Forte

2017

Successful signings: Kelvin Beachum, Morris Claiborne

Unsuccessful signing: Josh McCown

2018

Successful signing: Avery Williamson

Unsuccessful signings: Trumaine Johnson, Spencer Long, Terrelle Pryor, Isaiah Crowell

2019

Successful signings: Jamison Crowder, Brian Poole

Unsuccessful signings: Le’Veon Bell, CJ Mosley, Ryan Kalil

2020

Successful signings: Connor McGovern, George Fant

Unsuccessful signings: Breshad Perriman, Pierre Desir, Greg Van Roten, Frank Gore

2021

Successful signing: Tevin Coleman

Unsuccessful signings: Keelan Cole, Jarrad Davis, Sheldon Rankins, Lamarcus Joyner, Tyler Kroft, Vinny Curry

Currently unsuccessful signings that are too early to write off: Carl Lawson, Corey Davis

What are some of the common threads?

  • Paying top dollar in free agency has brought the Jets nothing but pain. Six players have gotten contracts with at least 14% of that year’s cap figure in guaranteed money. Davis and Lawson are two of them. Things currently don’t look great, but we can give them more time. The other four have gone down as total busts. These players are Darrelle Revis, CJ Mosley, Trumaine Johnson, and Le’Veon Bell. This could double as a list of some of the worst contracts in franchise history. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest the teams that give out the biggest free agent contracts live to regret it. The real stars typically either get extensions with their original team or paid after a trade. Those who get the big dollar deals in free agency typically aren’t worth it, and the Jets are proof of it. The team should think twice before resetting the market.

  • Interestingly, the Jets have been far more successful in the next most expensive category. Six players received contracts with guarantees between 7% and 12% of that year’s cap. I have six of them as successes, Kelvin Beachum, Avery Williamson, Jamison Crowder, Connor McGovern, and Eric Decker. Buster Skrine is the only player from this group I categorized as unsuccessful. Perhaps the lesson is that good players who want to be paid like great players should be avoided, but good players who want to be paid like good players are frequently worth it.

  • The Jets have clearly had an easier time finding players at non-premium positions. Out of seven outside corners, Morris Claiborne is the only one I have listed as a success, and he was nothing more than a credible stopgap. The Jets haven’t found any successful edge rushers. The outside receiver position has also been a gutter ball. Josh McCown and Michael Vick are the two quarterbacks who have signed during this time. Tackle is a bit better with George Fant and Kelvin Beachum, but they also profile more as stopgaps than standouts. I count only four successes in twenty-one players at premium spots. Meanwhile the non-premium positions have fared far better with eleven success among thirty players. The top spot is safety, where the Jets have found three successes in this span. Interestingly, the safety who was by far the most expensive, Marcus Gilchrist, was unsuccessful. In any event, this all seems logical. Other teams have to prioritize. They aren’t going to let great players get away at premium positions, but they might not be able to afford players at non-premium positions. These players hit the market and could be worth signing.

  • The clear exception to the success at non-premium positions is running back. The Jets have signed seven players at the position over the last decade to handle a significant role, and only Tevin Coleman is a success in my book. (And let’s be honest. Coleman was a role player.) Take out the running backs, and the success rate goes up for non-premium positions. The team has consistently brought in big names like Le’Veon Bell, Matt Forte, Chris Johnson, and Frank Gore. Meanwhile the most successful Jets running back of the past decade was fourth round pick Bilal Powell. Another fourth round pick. Michael Carter looks promising. The moral of the story? Jets, please stop spending on free agent running backs. (Follow up note: Given the current system the Jets run, I can forgive them for bringing in a certain type of free agent back. Mike LaFleur’s offense requires backs with a specific skillset that can usually be obtained on the market for a reasonable price. Let’s just avoid throwing money at a name.)

  • Even though positions have radically different aging curves, it was striking to see how significantly age has been an indicator of success. Only four of 25 players age 29 or older have been successful. Meanwhile 11 of 28 players age 28 or younger have been successful. Younger players have been more costly. These successful young players have required an average of 5.4% of the cap in guaranteed money to sign. Older players on the whole average 2.54% of the cap in guaranteed money. It seems like the premium for younger players is worth it. If you have to choose between an aging player trying to show he can still play or a younger, more expensive player in his prime it might be worth spending the extra dollars.

  • If you are looking for a trend on successful one year contracts, think about players coming off injuries looking to show they are healthy again and still capable of playing at a high level. Two-thirds of successful one year contracts were from players who missed at least 5 games in the previous season and half missed at least half of the games the previous year.

  • Leadership can be bought. That’s probably too simplistic, but I think there’s a perception leadership has to come from homegrown talent. However, Steve McLendon, James Carpenter, CJ Mosley, Kelvin Beachum, George Fant, and Corey Davis were all named captains at one point during their Jets careers. This large number of free agent captains is notable because the Jets only have had captains four seasons in the past decade. Rex Ryan didn’t have captains during his final three years, and Todd Bowles didn’t have any until his final Jets season. Just don’t buy the argument that you need to overpay for leadership. The Jets made a big deal when Mosley was signed about paying a premium for his intangibles, but as you can see the team was able to find leadership from several more moderately priced imports.