New York Jets: Living and Dying by Maccagnan’s Scouting Background

David Aitken with an analysis of Mike Maccagnan through three years…

Three offseasons in charge of this Jets team, it’s time to dive deep and ask: is Mike Maccagnan showing he can handle this job?

Fans like scout types when their team is in the market for a new general manager. The scout GM candidate typically comes from an organization lauded for recent drafts. To go from the bottom rung in a scouting department to a major position implies there’s a natural eye for talent. As a visible face in charge of the team’s football operations, fans are comfortable placing trust in the scout being a “football guy.”

The scout is a talent evaluator and teams looking for new general managers are usually struggling to find talent. But a general manager’s eye for identifying players is not as important as his ability to understand what it takes to build a quality balanced and sustainable roster, and an understanding of how to achieve value when you work under the constraints of finite resources. It’s understanding that your role as GM will sometimes require making difficult short-term decisions in order to benefit the long-term health of the franchise. The general manager is a visionary. He must always be focused on the big picture.

Three years into Mike Maccagnan’s tenure here, it’s time to ask some questions as to whether or not this is something he is bringing to the table.

The Draft

This was an important draft for Maccagnan. After a two-year false start known as the “competitive rebuild,” the signs this year have pointed to owner Woody Johnson allowing Maccagnan to take a less aggressive, youth movement focused 2017 approach. Old players were dumped, few holes were plugged in free agency, and there seemed to be a rare mutual understanding amongst the organization, ownership and fans that 2017 was going to be a low expectations year and that’s ok. In fact, there was a good case to be made that the Jets entered the draft with the league’s worst roster. But this was a deep draft at a number of positions of need and the Jets had four picks in the first three rounds. His first four picks brought… two safeties and two wide receivers.

In a vacuum the picks the Jets made were mostly fine. There’s an argument to be made that they’re all pretty good value. But it demands asking questions this organization’s ability to understand a team building mechanism and how best to use it. Yes, the draft is about identifying and drafting good players. But that also needs to be filtered through knowing what is best in terms of maximizing value and building a roster.

The draft started off well enough. Grabbing Jamal Adams at sixth overall is a no complaints pick. Chicago’s surprise trade seemed to kill any momentum for a possible trade back, and the Jets were left to make a pick locked in at six. In a draft devoid of blue-chip talent, Adams was one of the few players billed as one.

Then the Jets doubled down. In terms of the player and where he was drafted, Marcus Maye can be considered a nice pick in round two. But taking Adams in the top ten the night before raises some questions here. By taking a combo safety in a similar mold to Adams this highly, the Jets passed on several immediate impact front seven players, corners, high upside tight ends, big play running backs, and even a safety that was a more natural foil to Adams than Maye (Marcus Williams). The second is that the Jets have set themselves up yet again to be loading up on premium investments down the line at a defensive position that’s neither edge nor corner. Granted, some teams make it work – but this is year three of Maccagnan’s project. He’s taken two third round edge players, a fourth round corner (plus two 2017 project sixth rounders), and two safeties in the top 40. There should be little faith the Jets have internal answers here outside of Jordan Jenkins,who is more an edge setter, and perhaps a little optimism for Juston Burris. When you’re building a defense essentially from scratch, this is a strange model.

Receiver was a position no one could have blamed the Jets for ignoring altogether, although in light of the Devin Smith injury taking one within the next two picks made some sense.  But again, opportunity cost and doubling down are the issues here in navigating this draft. Stewart and Hansen both are solid value as prospects, and the Stewart pick in particular I’ve grown on. But with maybe the worst roster in the league, and already a few young receivers showing some promise, two more receivers at such an important part of the draft is questionable. At the point the Stewart selection was made, the Jets were positioned to squeeze through the window of starting quality edge prospects right before it closed. The depth at corner was still decent. The depth at running back back was solid and Antonio Garcia in particular was an offensive tackle that would have been a nice fit. And arguably, there were even better wide receivers.

The decision to move back numerous times from the end of round three to the end of round four and top it off with another receiver felt particularly defeating in light of the Stewart pick. It was a move that gave the Jets a few more picks but at the tail end of the draft, but there comes a point where late picks are essentially shots in the dark. Teams are taking guys that are already fielding calls about signing as an undrafted free agent. I get that this is where a scout prides himself on being able to turn around a team, but are you really playing the odds?

Take a look here at Chase Stewart’s excellent take on an updated draft value chart using Pro Football Reference’s approximate value metric. It does a good job of highlighting the average talent spread of a typical draft. Notice how little the distribution changes from picks 150 to the draft’s end. There are seven rounds of an NFL draft, but there are not seven rounds of 53-man roster talent in the NFL. Moving back basically an entire round from the compensatory third to late fourth round was a decision that threatened to leapfrog over the last strong round of draftable players. Stewart and Hansen are nice prospects at their draft slots, but were they the right two for this roster?

Maccagnan’s “let’s just take guys we like” strategy led to some fine moves over the weekend – getting Adams in round one and Leggett in round five are highlights, and his mid-round trade backs picked up an extra 5th rounder next year. But on the whole this draft feels like a wasted opportunity, rooted in similar questions about obtaining value and team building that have built up to the point where we can no longer consider things coincidences.

In particular, waiting until round six to dig into the corner class feels like a failure. This is one of the most important position groups in modern football and one of particular importance to how Todd Bowles likes to play defense. It was arguably the weakest group on the team last season and outside of a one-year flyer on the oft-injured Mo Claiborne, no significant attention was paid over the offseason. Remember in 2014 how John Idzik waited until day three to target a receiver, and failed to get Rex Ryan talent at corner to work with? Maccagnan basically combined the two here.

 Same Old Mistakes

These concerns aren’t new. Missteps here go beyond the “growing pains” excuse by year three. The Muhammad Wilkerson situation was a major warning sign, handled terribly with an overvaluation that ended in a last-minute mega deal that never really seemed like the plan. Maccagnan only deferred the problem to Sheldon Richardson a year down the line, and here we are still waiting to pawn him off. Interestingly enough Maccagnan has yet to pull off a player-for-pick trade. He’s certainly done a few of the inverse though, trading a a handful of mid-to-late round picks over the last few years to plug holes. None of those players (Brandon Marshall, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Ryan Clady, Zac Stacy, DeVier Posey) remain on the roster.

We all remember the Fitzpatrick situation – bidding against nobody to the tune of $12 million because Fitzpatrick *had* to be the guy to return. The one-year contract was large enough to the point where Maccagnan had to defer $5 million in dead money to 2017. Forte, one of the surviving veterans this year based mostly on the fact that his contract currently makes him worthless to cut, was signed after a visit partly due to a fear he’d otherwise sign with the Patriots. This past offseason the desperation to land a journeyman quarterback with some starting experience led to the Jets offering Josh McCown four million more than anyone else.

A few of these moves tie in with key past draft strategy in a way that feels as if the Jets are making little progress. The net value of taking Leonard Williams in 2015 was always going to be tied with being able to move Wilkerson or Richardson. The poor handling of the situation has the Jets not actually any better three years down the line from a top ten pick investment. Williams while an instant hit has not taken to another level a position that already was quite strong, and a lack of a trade means no cap space or draft capital was used to make the team better elsewhere this past offseason or the one before.

Forte had a nice start to the year but it coincided with the annual question of where Bilal Powell was and why wasn’t he getting enough touches? Like clockwork, Powell finished the year strongly as the most productive player in the backfield and once again there’s the call for him to be the most featured runner on offense – just as it was in late 2015.

Maccagnan’s most defining draft selection thus far, Christian Hackenberg last year in round two, feels born of no clear plan either. There is no argument to be made that Hackenberg was anything other than a project. He was no threat to see the field in 2016, and there shouldn’t be an expectation that he’ll actually be ready to start in 2017 either. Having scouted him and spent a lot of time with him, Maccagnan should be aware of this. Yet when he was drafted, Maccagnan had no actual starter on the roster. It was as if Maccagnan naively figured that Fitzpatrick would be back all along and that the Fitzpatrick/Marshall/Decker era was going to have a longer shelf life than it did. Left with that plan in heaps, Maccagnan had to resort to Josh McCown as a stopgap in the event Hackenberg is ready – a plan doomed to fail.

And what of roster structure last year? In one of the most bizarre roster management decisions across the league last year, the Jets carried four quarterbacks and four tight ends into the regular season last year and offered no semblance of hope throughout 2016 that either position was any better for it.

Identifying and grooming a quarterback, knowing how to get value and make smart decisions in the trade market, knowing how not to let a player take leverage in a contract situation – these are all key qualities of being a GM that go beyond identifying young talent. Nobody should feel comfortable with the regime as it relates to any of that at this point.

Taking Stock

In evaluating Maccagnan several offseasons into this regime, there is a sobering truth that the “scout” reputation implies Maccagnan has found more pieces to build around thus far than he actually has.

Leonard Williams stands out as an obvious success (tempered by the aforementioned lack of trades), Robby Anderson looks like a steal, and there is reason to be optimistic about a handful of other players growing into bigger roles in 2017. But mostly there are a lot of questions. The majority of the 2015 haul looks in serious jeopardy of sticking on the roster long term, and there is a great deal of pressure on the 2016 draft’s first two picks to be much more important players than they’ve yet shown they can be. There’s some cautioned optimism that the mid-round picks from last year can develop into decent starters, but that is all based on limited exposure.

The Jets can get better under Maccagnan, but with little assurances in his ability to make difficult decisions or build a roster methodically, his ability to identify talent has to be at a superior level to other organizations and we need to start seeing results. Because if the Jets are as bad as some analysts are expecting in 2017 after three years of Maccagnan drafts, what then is his regime really offering?

Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com