Free agency is mostly over. In the weeks and months ahead, the remaining players will find new teams. There might be a key player or two added for a given team. There also might be an unexpected cut or trade, but most of the roster movement for experienced players has ended. Now the attention turns to the NFL Draft. This stage of the offseason seems like as good of a time as any to offer a progress report about the moves the Jets have made.
- I think it is important to remember that free agency is one of many mechanisms at a team’s disposal to improve.
A few months ago much digital ink was spilled praising the Bengals’ “all in” approach to free agency a year ago and the way those players helped fuel the team’s Super Bowl run. Cincinnati added Trey Hendrickson, Chidobe Awuzie, Mike Hilton, Reilly Reiff, and Larry Ogunjobi. All five played a role in the Bengals’ improvement. Although Reiff and Ogunjobi were injured for the team’s Playoff run, their contributions helped the Bengals bank wins during the regular season to qualify.
It’s worth noting that the most guaranteed money the Bengals gave to any free agent import was the $16 million received by Trey Hendrickson. Further to this, Hendrickson was the only Bengal who got as much as $8 million guaranteed last year. In 2021, there were seventeen teams in the league that gave out more in guarantees to newly signed players than the Bengals.
The Bengals aren’t exactly alone either. Let’s take a look at the biggest single season turnarounds in the last decade. The 2017 Rams gave out the 13th most guaranteed free agent money the year of their rise. The Texans one year later were 11th. The Texans of four years earlier were 24th. The 2018 Browns were 8th. The 2015 Panthers were 27th. The 2019 49ers were 11th. The 2016 Cowboys were 19th.
The point here is free agency is a useful tool. Smart signings can improve your football team, but lavish spending doesn’t seem to ever be THE driving force behind big turnarounds. Getting those requires combining smart signings with good Drafting, player development, injury luck, favorable schedules, improved coaching, and working the waiver wire.
- It’s interesting to see how narratives can shape perceptions. Through the media, Joe Douglas has cultivated the image of a frugal general manager. His supporters in the fanbase and media call him disciplined and unwilling to go past what he considers fair value. His detractors call him cheap and unable to make things happen.
This might not be the reality, though. Douglas’ 2022 free agency was decidedly unBengalslike. The Jets gave out four contracts with guarantees in excess of $10 million.
The $75.5 million in total guarantees give the Jets the fifth highest total in the league. This came a year after the Jets gave out $86 million in guarantees, ranking third. Jacksonville is the only other team to be in the top five the last two years.
It remains to be seen whether or not this approach is successful, but Douglas’ image certainly does not seem to be a place where perception meshes with reality.
Comparisons with his predecessor also might play into things. What Douglas does not do is hand out market resetting contracts to big names the way Mike Maccagnan did. He is, however, very aggressive at targeting players he wants and willing to spend quite a bit to land them.
- I have already written and spoken extensively on my views regarding the Jets’ need to add a proven receiver and their failure to do so. With that in mind, I’ll spare you a long rehashing. If you are interested, you can click on the links. That said, an offseason evaluation would not be complete without addressing what I believe should be the top priority so I will just give a brief summary. There are paths to success at wide receiver for the Jets, but that this point they involve a bit of luck. A veteran is going to need to unexpectedly hit the trade market, and the Jets will need to be able to execute a deal. If that doesn’t happen, a young player is going to need to perform at a level he has never performed at in the NFL. This seems like a high risk approach to a position where the Jets unequivocally cannot afford failure, and I can’t say I’ve been in love with the process.
- That said, I can’t shake the feeling we will look back at the Tyreek Hill saga years from now as the Jets catching a break. I fully admit this take might age like spoiled milk, but Miami paid a very heavy price. Will a player whose defining feature as speed age gracefully? Will he have the same impact outside of a Kansas City delivery system set up to maximize his touches in favorable situations? These are pretty glaring questions to me relative to the price Miami paid (and apparently the price the Jets were willing to pay).
- One thing I liked about the Jets’ free agency period is their focus on youth. Four of the six major external signings are either 25 or 26. Laken Tomlinson is the only major signing in his 30s, and he plays a position that seems to have a graceful aging curve. Only CJ Uzomah was on the old side, and that signing simply seems like a case of the Jets knowing they needed to do something at tight end.
- I don’t want to spoil future articles I am working on, but I also appreciated the focus on scheme fit for the players the Jets signed. There have been many years in the past where the Jets signed a player, and I had no idea how he fit into the system. Worse, it became clear a few months later that the player didn’t really fit into the system. I see a clear scheme fit with almost every signing the Jets made.
- I find the signing of DJ Reed interesting in that it breaks the mold. In the early stages of the Saleh Era, there was a clear focus on investing in the defensive line and coaching up unheralded late round picks at corner. This could indicate the defense moving in a new direction. Who knows whether the rumors of the Jets potentially selecting Sauce Gardner in the NFL Draft are true? If they do, however, it would signal a shift to defense built around strong cornerback play. Is corner a weakness now? I’d say no, but if you turn it into an area of strength with multiple number one type corners, it opens up a lot of the playbook on defense. Suddenly you can get much more creative with pressure packages.
- Elsewhere in the secondary, safety is a stealth need. Jordan Whitehead should provide an upgrade at one safety slot. However, Lamarcus Joyner is currently penciled in as the other starter. Joyner is 31 years old. He hasn’t played safety regularly in four years, and he was on the field for 13 snaps in 2021. His ability to play 900-1,000 snaps is all that stands between the Jets and Ashtyn Davis once again becoming the last line of defense.
- Should the Jets draft a tackle this year? I say it depends. Your first instinct might be to say no. It isn’t a great need with George Fant around and Mekhi Becton returning. I think the answer is really determined by how you feel about these guys. Fant will be 30 when the season begins and is about to enter the final year of his contract. It’s not unreasonable to wonder whether he’s a long-term player for the Jets. Was last year a sign of an ascending player or a career year that will lead to a regression? Again, the answer might be less clear cut than we want it to be. As for Becton, the views seem to be all over the place among fans. It isn't hard to see why. I’m not sure there’s a single outcome to his 2022 season that would surprise me. If you want to tell me he’ll make the first Pro Bowl of a long and successful career, I could believe that. If you want to tell me this next year is the beginning of the end of his time with the Jets, I could believe that too. Your views on these two probably determine the necessity of drafting a tackle. If you believe both of them will be here and successful for three more years, a tackle doesn’t make much sense in the early rounds. If not, it is a logical place to go.
- So what’s the bottom line? Did the Jets do well in free agency? It’s tough for me to say. I have mixed feelings.
There are years where I’ve completely hated everything the Jets have done. Move after move just made no sense in those years, and there didn’t seem to be a plan. I’m thinking of offseasons like 2012, 2014, and 2019.
I don’t have that feeling this year. Like I said, I see the logic behind all of the moves they’ve made.
Of course as I mentioned before, free agency is only one component of team building so other opportunities to improve await. Free agency grades in March are also incomplete. They are based on past performance. Meanwhile successful signings come because of what happens in the future. The best free agent additions are players who are better fits in their new system and ready to unexpectedly improve. We won’t know for sure until these players hit the field. There’s always room for hope, and hope is what sustains us at this time of the year.