This probably won’t be the article for you if you believe Joe Douglas is infallible as Jets general manager and are outraged that anybody would ever question him. This also probably won’t be the article for you if you think Douglas is the worst general manager to ever walk the earth and has zero redeeming qualities.
Often (albeit not always) in the NFL whether we are talking about players, coaches, or executive, there are shades of gray. Evaluations sometimes require a degree of nuance.
A few years back somebody who listened to my podcast sent me constant voluminous e-mails about Douglas’ tenure being a catastrophe. Sometimes I would get more than one a week, and these things went on for paragraphs. This listener also constantly took me to task for saying Douglas was a great GM.
Of course I had not made any such proclamation. This was early in Douglas’ tenure, and I was very much in “wait and see” mode. As far as I could tell, this person saw things in black and white. If I didn't incessantly bash Douglas, I must think he’s phenomenal.
Life isn’t like that. In many ways I remain in the “wait and see” mindset. I don’t think the final book on Douglas has been written. There is still plenty of time for things to go either way. But Douglas has been on the job long enough for us to evaluate some of his strengths and weaknesses. These have the potential to change over time, but I thought it might be worthwhile to think about what we can say Joe Douglas does well and what he doesn’t in this moment.
I have come up with six important categories of general manager work. Some are ongoing. Others are singular decisions that resonate for years. Some are directly Douglas’ work. Others are the product of the people working for him, which still makes them his responsibility.
Here are my current thoughts on Joe Douglas’ job performance.
Finding young, cost controlled talent through the NFL Draft and undrafted free agents is the lifeblood of any NFL team.
What Douglas does well:
Evaluating the cornerback position well stands out above anything Joe Douglas has done in the NFL Draft. As I am sure you are aware, he hit a grand slam picking Sauce Gardner fourth overall in 2022. I know there is a temptation to dismiss Douglas’ success here because Gardner was a top five pick. That should be an automatic, right?
To a degree I can understand the thinking. It definitely is easier to find a top player fourth overall than it is in the third round. You can argue a top five pick is the highest percentage play for finding difference makers in the league.
Still, there are a lot of whiffs that high in the Draft. Additionally, three teams passed on Gardner to take a different defensive player. One team passed on Gardner to take another cornerback. If Sauce was THAT obvious of a pick, why wasn’t he the first corner off the board in his class?
Beyond Sauce, Douglas made an excellent pick by landing Michael Carter II in the fifth round in 2021. That is a quality starter with a day three pick.
And I think it is fair to argue that Bryce Hall and Brandin Echols, while not great, have outperformed expectations for their Draft positions and on paper should provide good depth pieces.
It feels like cornerback is a spot where Douglas’ front office and his coaching staff are very much on the same page. They have the traits they seek down and understand the types of prospects who will succeed in the scheme.
I would also say there is a solid chance that by this time next year we could be listing the secondary as a whole rather than just corner as a spot Douglas succeeds in college scouting. Tony Adams appears to be making a push to earn a prominent role at safety, and safety convert to linebacker Jamien Sherwood could end up being a useful role player.
What Douglas doesn’t do well:
As we might expect from any general manager who learned working as a scout under Ozzie Newsome, Douglas seems to value physical traits above all else in college prospects he scouts. It tends to be traits over production and technical refinement.
This in and of itself is not a good thing or a bad thing. Ozzie Newsome is known as one of the greatest talent evaluators of the last thirty years in the NFL. He built two Super Bowl winners in Baltimore full of incredible athletes who were big, strong, and fast. These philosophies helped the Ravens develop loads of high end talent.
To execute the strategy successfully, however, a general manager needs to correctly identify athletes who have a good chance of developing their physical tools into refined, dominant skillsets. They also need to understand which types of players their coaching staff has a good chance of developing effectively.
Douglas has drafted a lot athletes, but he hasn’t shown a great deal of capability at targeting the correct projects. At the quarterback position, it seems like he fell in love with Zach Wilson’s raw arm horsepower, ignoring other major question marks. In a far less consequential pick, the same was true of James Morgan. Denzel Mims has great size and timed speed, but didn't become more. Ashtyn Davis was a track athlete, not a football player. It doesn’t look like he’ll ever become much of a football player. Mekhi Becton is a bit of a loaded topic because of how injury plagued his career has been. You can’t blame Douglas for failing to foresee two serious knee injuries, but even had Becton stayed healthy, it is difficult for me to imagine him being in Tristan Wirfs’ league. Douglas passed on Wirfs, who was more refined, for Becton, who had more enticing physical tools.
Douglas’ most successful Draft picks, Sauce Gardner, Garrett Wilson, and Breece Hall, are all amazing athletes, but they entered the league with refined skillsets and were ready to contribute on day one. Given what we have seen, Douglas might consider emphasizing technique a bit more going forward.
I think Douglas is actually a bit underrated as a drafter. It is easy for that to happen when you have so many high profile failures. His 2020 class has essentially produced a depth corner in Bryce Hall. His 2021 class has two top 40 picks who can already be labeled failures, including the quarterback he took second overall.
You know what, though? A GM who drafts well has a way lower hit rate than a lot of people realize. Even the great GMs whiff on an awful lot of picks and roll gutter balls for complete Draft classes.
Three draft classes have produced two Rookies of the Year and a third player who was of that caliber. So what if they all came in the same class? Sometimes that’s how it works. A really good GM can have a couple of terrible classes in a row and then knock it out of the park then go back to whiffing. As few as two homerun Drafts can set a team up for a nice 5-7 year window of contention. Douglas has hit on the first of the two he needs.
There is often talk about “trajectory” when evaluating a GM’s drafting ability. Is he getting better as time moves on? I don’t think it’s particularly useful to think in these terms. Drafting is really hard. You’re trying to project how a football player will develop in the next ten years accounting for a new playbook, a new coaching staff, tougher competition, and the overall adjustment to adulthood. It’s a process that was made to produce a lot of errors. You’ll have good years and bad. When you talk about the class of 2022 along with a solid pick with Alijah Vera-Tucker and some late round role players, Douglas has added a really nice base of young talent to this team.
Finding the right fits from other teams can make a big difference.
What Douglas does well:
One area that can tell you a lot about how thoroughly a front office is doing its job is the waiver wire. Are you putting in the work evaluating players across the league to find potential good fits on the bottom of other rosters?
Since Douglas took over as general manager in May 2019, the Jets have been one of the most successful teams in the league at working the waiver wire. In four years, Douglas has found four solid contributors.
They range from role players Braxton Berrios and Nate Herbig to starter Quincy Williams to plus starter John Franklin-Myers.
The saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” rarely applies in the NFL. Most players who are cut never amount to anything, but the Jets have done excellent work finding production from players other teams didn't want.
What Douglas does poorly:
Free agency has not been good to the Jets in a long time, and the Douglas Era has not been an exception. While the general manager has stayed away from the market resetting deals that his predecessor Mike Maccagnan so frequently made with catastrophic consequences, the Jets have been one of the league’s most active teams in free agency over the last few years.
The results have not been there. Connor McGovern is the only Douglas free agent addition to give the Jets quality starting play for more than one season. DJ Reed is the only player who could join McGovern this year.
Douglas definitely has a type in free agency. He likes players with high Draft pedigrees or outstanding athletic testing numbers. Frequently his targets have both. The Jets love giving out moderately priced contracts to early round picks who have been disappointments. If these players only need a change of scenery and live up to their potential, the deals turn into bargains. If the don’t the deals won't destroy the Jets but will be poor value. Douglas has whiffed on these contracts with the likes of Breshad Perriman and Jarrad Davis. Corey Davis, Sheldon Rankins, and George Fant (not an early round pick but big athletic profile) were mixed bags but had long stretches without living up to the hype. This year’s vintage is Mecole Hardman.
As mentioned above, Douglas is aggressive in free agency but doesn’t hand out incomprehensible blank checks the way Maccagnan did. The overall result hasn’t been great, but the Jets won’t have any all-time bust free agents with Douglas at the helm.
Douglas shows a lot of discipline negotiating with free agents. He sets his price and doesn’t budge.
Generally speaking, these are good things. A lot of dumb money is spent in those market setting deals and in caving to demands from agents even for players receiving lower level money.
I do wonder a bit whether maybe Douglas goes a bit too far to the other extreme. Every now and then a player hits the market who provides so much value for one specific team that his true value can’t really be measured by where his salary ranks at his position. Back in 2020 I thought tackle Jack Conklin was a player like that. This past spring another tackle, Orlando Brown, seemed like that type of player.
I don’t want Douglas to get reckless here, and I agree with holding a firm line nine times out of ten. There might be times where he could pick his spots to be aggressive in a calculated way.
Can you convince another team to give you more than you give them? It’s a straightforward way to improve your team.
What Douglas does well:
The same discipline that hasn't produced much in the way of results in free agency has served Douglas very well when he makes a trade. When he ships a player off, he sets a high price and won’t budge even if there is media and fan pressure.
In 2019 and 2020 when Jamal Adams made noise about wanting out, it would have been easy for Douglas to make a panic trade to Dallas for something like a second round pick and Michael Gallup. How do I know this? A lot of commenters here said Douglas should just take this package if offered to get Adams off the team.
Douglas instead waited for a team to pay him the price he wanted. Even if it led to a few unpleasant offseason headlines with Adams bashing the team, a good return would help the Jets far more in the long run than a weak package and fewer short term headaches.
In the end he made a deal that netted the Jets multiple first round picks and a third rounder.
A year later Douglas repeated the feat by landing a second round pick, a fourth round pick, and a sixth round pick from Carolina for Sam Darnold, a quarterback everybody knew the Jets wanted to trade. The feat was even more impressive since Darnold’s first three seasons had gone poorly, and it isn't clear another team was even interested. It seems like Douglas got the Panthers to bid against themselves, and the price was through the roof.
What Douglas does poorly:
Let me start by saying this hurts the Jets way less than the good helps the Jets. With that caveat, Douglas has a tendency to oddly lose his discipline when trying to acquire depth players. He has sent off late round picks for the likes of Alex Lewis, Nate Hairston, late career Demayius Thomas, and Quincy Wilson. Deals for James Robinson and Shaq Lawson made more sense at the time on paper but ultimately failed.
It is likely more than one of these players were on the verge of being cut, and the Jets would have stood a good chance of landing them on the waiver wire.
Not that anybody should cry over a handful of late round picks leaving the door, but this tendency to give up something for nothing is a tad bizarre.
Do people go a bit too far praising Douglas’ trade acumen? Probably, it isn’t like he deserved the effusive praise he got from some circles for landing a late round pick for Blake Cashman or a conditional pick from Denzel Mims.
With that said, the record here is excellent. Even at the time, the returns he got for Adams and Darnold were viewed as huge overpays by the acquiring teams. The lack of success these players have had with their new teams has only made the deals look more lopsided. And the Jets used the picks they got to select Alijah Vera-Tucker, Garrett Wilson, and Breece Hall, three of the core players in a rebuild which has brought the Jets out of the league cellar.
I’m not including the Aaron Rodgers trade in this analysis. That was an unusual deal, and many of the implications are still unknown.
Salary Cap Management
Can you make the pieces of the financial puzzle fit?
What Douglas does well:
I have nothing good to say about Douglas’ cap management. It stinks.
What Douglas does poorly:
The salary cap is one of the most mysterious and misunderstood parts of the NFL. During Mike Maccagnan’s tenure, the GM was consistently praised in the media for excellent cap management. The Jets entered a number of offseasons among the league leaders in cap space. This was no brilliant roster management, though. The Jets simply had few good players worthy of cap clogging big contract. It isn’t hard to have a lot of cap space with a bottom tier roster.
On the same note, I am sure people are going to point to the $16 million in cap space the Jets currently have as evidence Douglas has managed the cap well. The truth is he has employed tactics similar to those of Mike Tannenbaum, who frequently cleared short term cap space by pushing guaranteed cap hits into the future.
That is a valid strategy for a team with a lot of expensive high end veteran talents on its roster. Try and keep as many of them now as possible to win.
Here’s the thing with the Jets. Almost all of their stars are currently on cheap rookie contracts. The only one who isn’t, Aaron Rodgers, is on a deal that pays him roughly 15 to 20 percent below market value.
It’s incomprehensible how a team in this position needs to push $49 million dead money hits to the future in Rodgers’ deal. You shouldn’t need to add void years for the likes of Tyler Conklin or CJ Uzomah to get compliant with the cap. You shouldn’t need to add void years to sign Mecole Hardman to a cheap one year contract. Let’s not even get into how high CJ Mosley’s cap number has become.
There’s this weird view among fans in the media in the NFL that a team has managed its cap effectively unless it is totally decimated to the point it has to cut all of its good players.
In reality that type of situation will almost never play itself out. What bad cap management does is limit flexibility moving forward. You can always make room for priority players. All of the money in the future will likely prevent the Jets from signing another DJ Reed type player or two. Will this be in the end of the world? No, but it will have an impact to put the Jets at a disadvantage. And based on the current composition of the roster, it didn’t need to happen.
The only silver lining here is that cap management alone is seldom the reason for a team’s decline, and drafting well significantly reduces its relevance.
The Jets should fire the guy managing their salary cap or at least send him for retraining, though.
Finding the Right Quarterback
Having a good quarterback doesn’t guarantee success in then NFL, but lacking one almost certainly guarantees failure.
What Douglas does well:
Well, Aaron Rodgers is the current Jets quarterback. That’s pretty good, right?
What Douglas does poorly:
There’s no way around it. Douglas whiffed on Zach Wilson. We discussed some of the reasons in the college scouting section.
Does Douglas deserve blame for this? Yes. Would a number of other GMs have made the same mistake and picked Wilson if the Jets had passed? I think this is almost certainly the case.
I don’t think these statements are mutually exclusive. Douglas has to get some grief for missing on the most important pick of his career, but there were good reasons to think Wilson could pan out. This isn’t like the Jets picking Christian Hackenberg in the second round in 2016. I’m not convinced another team would have picked him until deep into day three of the Draft if the Jets had passed.
Still the pick is on Douglas’ record. And for his part, he ignored some pretty glaring warning signs from Wilson’s 2021 rookie season that this might not work out. Had he brought in more robust competition, the Jets might have made the Playoffs last year.
This brings me to another point, his failures with backup quarterbacks. Three straight seasons he brought in Joe Flacco to be the primary backup, twice by free agent signing and once by midseason trade. Flacco failed to give the Jets a fighting chance in most games he started. Douglas famously scouting Flacco when working for the Ravens, and it seemed like he couldn’t get his emotions go on these decisions.
What is odd is Douglas had an inside view of the value of a quality backup quarterback working in the Eagles front office in 2017 when Nick Foles’ performance in place of Carson Wentz delivered a Super Bowl.
It’s rare to see a general manager survive whiffing on a quarterback with a top two pick, but it looks like Douglas has pulled that feat off. Once Aaron Rodgers retires in a year or two, Douglas will get a second try. That will likely be a career defining pick.
Finding the Right Coach
The right leadership in place isn’t “nice to have.” It is essential.
What Douglas does well:
Relationships matter a lot in this league. People hire people they know.
There is a logic to this. With the stakes so high, you need people you can trust working for you. Everybody needs to be on the same page and buy into the team’s philosophies.
In the NFL this is frequently taken too far. Nepotism plays an outsized role in whom gets a job. If you don’t believe me, just take a look at how many current coaches are the son of a former coach. At its worst, people get jobs based more on friendships than qualifications and are never held accountable for their failures.
Whether Robert Saleh will work out as Jets head coach I can’t say, but it impressed me that Douglas was willing to hire somebody he neither worked with in the past nor had a substantive relationship at the time of the hiring. He went with the guy he thought was the best candidate.
Since Saleh was hired, it seems like the front office and coaching staff have been in lockstep determining players with the traits necessary to succeed in Saleh’s system on the defensive side of the ball.
What Douglas does poorly:
What I just said is nice, but time will tell whether Saleh is actually the right man for the job. That’s ultimately the most important question to answer.
Saleh owns the six game losing streak to end last season. The Jets should have made the Playoffs. They lost games in December and January they should have won. By no means are these losses all his fault, but the man in charge cannot escape blame.
While Saleh still has time to grow, I have developed a handful of concerns. I worry his coaching staff hires and performance evaluations go too far into the friend zone. I also have noted the staff’s struggles connecting with young players, and Saleh in game management which eschew many best practices. Again, I’m not writing him off. I’m not saying he’s incapable of improvement. I’m saying these are concerns.
We will find out a lot more about Saleh going forward. His first two years he has had to deal with talent deficiencies, especially at quarterback. Of course concerns about Saleh are legitimate, but a fundamental truth of the NFL is any coach will look bad when he doesn’t have a quality quarterback.
I expect Saleh to look much better with Aaron Rodgers throwing the ball. Does that mean he will be good enough to lead the Jets to glory? I honestly don’t know. The answer will have significant implications for Joe Douglas’ future.
This actually isn't a conclusion. It’s more of a progress report. This is how I see things as they stand now. My opinions can and almost certainly will change going forward based on the results we see. Whether I view Douglas in a better or worse light is up to him.
For now? I think Douglas is the first competent general manager the Jets have had in some time. He is far superior to his immediate predecessors.
I also don't think he has lived up to the hype. When he was hired, Douglas was touted as a genius and the league’s next great general manager. Clearly he isn’t there at least yet. The mistakes and bad tendencies noted above are why.
Is Douglas the GM to get the Jets back to the Super Bowl? It could go either way.
I sure hope so.