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Joe Douglas’ Wide Receiver Risk

Syndication: USA TODAY Danielle Parhizkaran / USA TODAY NETWORK

Note: If Joe Douglas trades for or signs an experienced receiver today, you can disregard the hundreds of words you see below. I will be happy to have wasted my time.

The Jets have yet to add a proven veteran wide receiver in free agency or a trade.

In many ways this reflects Joe Douglas’ operating procedure since becoming Jets general managers. He has generally avoided the big money deals and name chasing in which many of his predecessors engaged. That was a failed approach to team building, and I appreciate the greater restraint in Douglas’ plan.

In a general sense, Douglas’ approach to receiver has a logic to it. You’ve got a veteran starter in Corey Davis who for all of the criticism he receives has a track record of solid play. You’ve got a promising youngster in Elijah Moore. You’ve retained a proven backup in Braxton Berrios who adds extra value in the return game and on manufactured touches in space. A steady, long-term focused approach might call for the drafting of another receiver the year.

Here’s the thing that concerns me. The Jets aren’t operating in a neutral scenario.

Should the focus be more on the long term than on short term gains? It absolutely should be. In most cases this would mean chasing expensive players in their late 20s at a position like receiver should be off the table.

I would argue the context of this situation is a bit more nuanced, though. If the Jets in their current iteration are to be successful in the long run, it’s pretty much a nonnegotiable that Zach Wilson has to develop into a franchise quarterback.

The results from Wilson’s rookie season were disappointing. He finished 33rd in completion percentage, 31st in touchdown rate, 27th in interception rate, 33rd in passer rating, and 32nd in QBR.

I decided to take a look at comparable seasons by looking at completion percentage and yards per attempts. I set out to find every other rookie quarterback since the turn of the century who started 13 games in a season at quarterback and posted Wilson’s 2021 completion percentage of 55.6% (or worse) and Wilson’s 2021 yards per attempt average of 6.1 (or worse).

The other rookie quarterbacks to post seasons like this since 2000 are Chris Weinke, David Carr, Deshone Kizer, Blaine Gabbert, Kyle Orton, and Josh Rosen.

That’s not the type of group of which you want to be a member. Orton was the high water mark. He eventually developed into a low end starter/high end backup and lasted for a decade in the league. None of the other players made much impact.

Sometimes we dismiss rookie results as not mattering, but those results provide a baseline. In this context I think it’s worth asking how much improvement is reasonable to expect from a player. A quarterback can improve a lot from this starting point and still not be very good.

With this in mind, I think we are entering a very important year for Zach Wilson. He’s going to be the starting quarterback in 2022. There really isn't another option. The Jets are going to need him to be an outlier. That begins with a big step forward. He probably won’t morph from a bottom of the league passer into a legitimate starter overnight, but it is essential for him to make big strides in 2022.

Thus I would argue it is important for the Jets to do everything possible to maximize his chances for success. This is the type of offseason where it is impossible to overinvest at the wide receiver position. Given the developmental circumstances, we might need a shock to the system that an overwhelming receiving corps could provide.

Unfortunately the Jets’ current group of receivers is anything but overwhelming. There isn’t a single receiver on the roster who has posted a 1,000 yard season in the NFL. Corey Davis is the only current receiver who even has a 600 yard season to his name.

“Why is JB hating on Elijah Moore?” you might ask.

I am not. I happen to be a big fan of Elijah Moore. I think he has great potential. I think he could conceivably develop into a number one receiver.

That’s very different from me saying that Elijah Moore is a complete lock to turn into the go to guy Zach Wilson needs.

This scenario is possible, but do you want it to be the only option Zach Wilson has to find a go to guy?

The 48.9 yards per game Moore posted as rookie was similar to the 49.3 DJ Moore had, the 47.4 Jarvis Landry had, and the 49.2 Christian Kirk had. You could clearly see that Elijah is on a positive and promising trajectory.

That said, you have to acknowledge that every player does not hit his ceiling. There are scenarios where Elijah Moore doesn’t. Keelan Cole averaged 46.8 yards per game. Another notable name is Will Fuller who averaged 45.4 as a rookie. Fuller has developed into a dynamic player but struggles to stay on the field. There is a scenario where Elijah Moore is equally as dynamic but has injuries preventing him from playing consistently. During his rookie season, Elijah dealt with three different injuries and was limited to 11 games.

Again, we can have great hopes for Elijah Moore, but we have to acknowledge there is a lot of projecting the unknown here.

So it is wise to have a backup plan.

“Just draft a receiver. The Jets have two top ten picks,” is a frequent response to this concern. I agree with it. The Jets should be investing in playmakers to develop. “To develop,” is the key phrase, though. You typically aren’t drafting a player for year one production.

You can hit on a pick at wide receiver and still not get an immediate impact. In fact, that should be the expectation. Two years ago I did research and found that eventual Pro Bowl receivers average under 700 yards as rookies.

We all saw Ja’Marr Chase this last year and now dream about a rookie making an immediate impact and changing everything in this offense. That isn’t a reasonable expectation, though.

In the past ten NFL seasons, only ten rookie wide receivers have eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark. That averages out to one per year.

Now with two top ten picks you might argue the Jets are in a position to score the Draft’s top receiver prospect so there’s no problem. Well that’s not really how it works. Only two of the ten receivers to go over 1,000 (Chase and Amari Cooper) were the first off the board at the position in their respective Draft classes. In the long run, studies have shown that it’s close to a coin flip whether the first player off the board at a given position is better than the third player.

Drafting well in the NFL is more akin to hitting a golf shot onto the green on an approach than getting it in into the hole. The teams that do it well make evaluations that are broadly correct. However, there’s a lot of luck involved if you pick the guy who is great immediately the same way there’s luck if you sink an approach shot.

The bottom line is, yes, the Jets should be looking to pick and develop a receiver in the Draft. A successful pick does not rely on that player being immediately great or even having the best career in the class at the position. Thus any plan that hinges on either of these things has inherent flaws.

Heading into the offseason I saw the logical course as adding a proven veteran receiver either in free agency or through the trade market for those reasons.

Over the last few months I have also thought a lot about comments Boomer Esiason made about his playing days back in December.

In the clips Boomer recalls his time as Jets quarterback in the 1990s. He speaks about how as a veteran quarterback he could remind young receivers of their responsibilities in certain situations in the huddle. He recalls one story of reminding rookie Wayne Chrebet to change his route in the event of a slot blitz, which resulted in a touchdown.

As a young quarterback, Zach Wilson doesn’t have the experience to do that. It makes me think that adding a veteran receiver who already knows how to do these things and doesn’t need to be reminded might be the way to go.

As it always does, the market tightened before the beginning of free agency. Chris Godwin got the franchise tag and then a new deal from the Buccaneers. The same happened for Mike Williams and the Chargers. Calvin Ridley, who seemed to be available on the trade market, got suspended.

Still two accomplished receivers were traded, Davante Adams and Amari Cooper. Now there are always caveats here. You don’t know what’s happening behind the scenes. You also don’t know what the evaluations are. It’s always possible a front office has good reasons to assume a player will decline. In Adams’ case there are clear indications he preferred going to Las Vegas.

There are reasons to believe the Jets would have struck out trying to add a proven premium receiver. But there isn’t any indication they were even interested in trying.

Are the Jets just content to go with what they have and maybe pick a receiver in the Draft?

Maybe you would argue that with the addition of two tight ends in free agency, the wide receiver position matters less. I’m not sure that’s the case.

The Jets might run more double tight end sets than your typical team, but that’s a relative thing. This is a league where 11 personnel (1 running back, 1 tight end, 3 wide receivers) dominates. Sharp Football Stats tracks personnel groupings across the league. Some teams use 11 more than others, but it was the most frequent personnel grouping for every team in the league last year except the Miami Dolphins. (And that seems to be the case mainly because Mike Gesicki was listed on the roster as a tight end while for all intents and purposes he was a wide receiver.)

You can’t expect the Jets to become a full-time double tight end offense. Last year only one team ran 12 personnel (1 running back, 2 tight ends, 2 receivers) more than 30% of the time, and it was Miami with the same Gesicki caveat.

Thus you need three receivers.

Barring an unexpected move, it seems like Joe Douglas is happy with addressing receiver in the Draft.

If the Jets want a go to guy for Zach Wilson, either Elijah Moore will need to grow into it in year two, or the rookie will need to immediately produce.

It’s a great plan...if it works.

I’m using the word “risk” for a reason. Risks can work out well. Frequnetly when we call something risky there is a negative connotation. Risky doesn’t mean bad, though. Risky means risky.

If the Jets get that production out of Moore and/or a rookie, they suddenly have am exciting, dynamic, young, cost controlled receiving corps.

I just wonder whether or not this is the area worth taking a risk. To me part of good management in the NFL is understanding that things don’t always work out as you plan and leaving yourself with as many plausible paths to success as possible. If you get a proven veteran, that guy might decline. In that case, you could have Moore and a rookie as Plans B and C. That’s different from counting on young guys to immediately produce in a big way with no alternative.

Given what is at stake for Zach Wilson and the franchise, I’m not sure this is the place to gamble.