2017 New York Jets – The Great Rebuild Experiment

David Aitken breaks down the New York Jets great rebuild experiment and if Woody Johnson will have patience for it…

With the Jets cutting two of the best remaining veterans on the roster, Operation #JetsTank has officially begun. But let’s be honest, you probably already knew they were there. The big question is: will it go according to plan?

On Tuesday, those on the Jets beat with little else to write besides Hackenberg “progress” narratives and “new coach is fiery and also accountable” articles were given a gift. Out of left field the Jets announced plans to move on from the two most popular veterans and key 2015 holdovers remaining on the roster. It was an eventful day filled with confusion, late press conferences, and the most scorching of #StayClassy takes. It has above all been taken as the clearest indication yet the Jets are serious about their rebuild

The moves Tuesday are less shocking as much as it was just weird and embarrassing. In terms of pure football logic, the possibility of releasing Decker and Harris was always on the table at some point in the 2017 offseason. But to do so now, as opposed to months ago, is head scratching.

The backlash for cutting Harris was the unceremonious nature of it – Harris was available in the locker room as it happened and was blindsided. Coach Bowles literally had just finished a practice coaching Harris when he then had to address the media shortly thereafter. Neither he, nor Maccagnan much later, provided any good answers. 

Harris’ 2017 impact was always going to be largely ceremonial – one last hurrah for a life-long Jet. The Decker situation had it’s arguments on both sides. I’m not a big believer in that you can see a whole lot in OTAs in terms of talent evaluation – especially from a couple of rookies that are only getting their first taste of NFL life. These are the players that would presumably be forcing Decker out. Decker still has two years remaining on a relatively manageable deal, and the Jets – unknown injury effects notwithstanding – could have expected to get good years out of him. Still, he’s entering his thirties on a larger contract at a position where the Jets have recently invested in as much young talent as they’ve done at any position group. Coming off a serious injury too, there was a clear argument to be made for parting ways this offseason. 

For Harris it seems strange that of all the catalysts, it was acquiring a former Jet that never inspired confidence in the starting unit that ends up sealing his fate. If starting a player of Demario Davis’ caliber was always acceptable, why not sign a replacement level player in free agency and have cut Harris months ago? The net savings aren’t really that large comparably, as opposed to being able to spend the 6.5 million a few months ago or carrying all it into 2018. 

While Decker could have still been useful, I understand the argument of getting the young talent on the field as early as possible with little standing in their way. The strange bit is that the youth movement didn’t seem to be the rationale behind it. If it was, why contact Steve Smith

It feels like there’s a missing piece here. Rich Cimini suspected in his ESPN article that this has Woody Johnson’s fingerprints over it. If there is something to that, it is not good. The owner should not be involved in any football operations, period. Mike Maccagnan deciding that the extra cap space could be carried into 2018 and that keeping Harris and Decker on the roster this year doesn’t have much value is a football decision. The owner calling the shot, not wanting to pay big salaries in a year deemed inconsequential, is not.

It’s the elephant in the room, the shadow that looms over this supposed “right way” the Jets are doing things. This has never been Woody Johnson’s preference as an owner. Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles have been given a year judged on “progress.” What if progress brings a similar win total to last year? Most fans have accepted this year will not be about wins, but can Woody actually stomach it once the games are played? But that’s just talking about the plan. What if things don’t go as planned? What if there isn’t much progress, and the Jets are as bad as some media think they’ll be?

#JetsTank – Just How Bad Will It Get?

The Jets in 2016 were bad. Despite five teams picking ahead of the Jets in April’s draft, you’d get no argument from me that it may have been the worst team in football based on who the Jets had as starters by season’s end. Indeed, the team finished dead last in overall team efficiency according to Football Outsiders. Breaking it up by game phase, in DVOA the Jets had the 31st passing offense, the 19th run offense, the 31st pass defense, and the league’s best run defense. Heading into 2017, what has changed? You’d like to be able to say the Jets have made additions by subtractions, but there are just more questions rather than bonafide upgrades.

The receiving core may be the least of the worries, but Quincy Enunwa must go from stepping out of Brandon Marshall’s shadow to being Brandon Marshall. It should be noted that despite an obvious down year, Marshall did play 15 games and still carries a reputation with defensive coordinators. Moving on from Darrelle Revis was unquestionably the correct move but his direct replacement is one of the most injury prone players in the league. There’s a good chance the Jets remain one of the league’s worst pass defenses without an edge rusher, 2/3 of the starting corners defined by plaguing injury issues and the slack falling on two rookie safeties.

Perhaps the most insane thing of all, lost in all of the relief of putting the Ryan Fitzpatrick disaster in the rearview, is that the Jets aren’t really all that better for it. Josh McCown is not better than Ryan Fitzpatrick, and for as bad as Fitzpatrick was in 2016, he was the roster’s clear best option ahead of Petty and Hackenberg. 

There should be some improvement expected from the base of young talent across the board – players like Jordan Jenkins, Brandon Shell and Robby Anderson have some solid rookie performances to build on. There are also some more unknown but possible candidates for improvement such as Darron Lee, Juston Burris and Lorenzo Mauldin. The 2017 rookie class will be looked to for a spark as well, with Adams and Maye likely to start day one and several more picks having little resistance toward immediate playing time.

There is similar hope for Christian Hackenberg this year, but what should be considered progress for him in 2017 has been skewed by draft status. The term “project” gets thrown around for young quarterbacks all the time, but often it’s an exaggeration used for a player that is going to struggle early with the pace of the game and the responsibility of being a franchise quarterback. Hackenberg is a project. He came into the league broken, playing poor football two of his three years in college, mechanics all out of whack with a completion percentage that dropped each of his three years. He’s had to start from scratch (and from scratch, again, with a new Jets staff year two). There’s no way to scheme around these limitations. He did not play last year for a reason, and while he should be expected to get better heading into this season, the jump from where he was last year to NFL starter in the space of a season is a ridiculous jump to expect.

Maccagnan stumped up the cash to bring aboard McCown because the bridge role may be necessary. In McCown the Jets have a Ryan Fitzpatrick caliber starter with a more checkered injury history. A scenario where Hackenberg is not ready to play is easy to envision, and yet so is a scenario where McCown is unable to last physically as the starter. And just as Petty was an unmitigated disaster when he was left to play in 2016, prematurely playing Hackenberg will have a similar effect. 

Even otherwise well built rosters find it difficult to play above a poor quarterback situation. The quarterback situation here is arguably the worst in the league, the roster has an extremely limited number of attractive talents league-wide in their primes, and the roster’s youth could arguably be a hindrance in terms of the win/loss column. The breadth of the roster could end up being better than it was last year, but a lack of top-end talent and a potential nightmare scenario at quarterback will have a much greater impact on team performance than marginal improvement in other areas. 

The fear is not that the Jets will fail to be competitive, because fans and the organization alike understand that 2017 is about getting young players on the field. But what happens if the bottom completely falls out? What if the Jets are not 4-6 wins “transitional year” bad, but 1-3 wins “this is an embarrassing football product” bad? There’s a marked difference – Woody Johnson has hesitantly signed up for a year of playing young players to evaluate three years of Maccagnan drafts. But there has to be a sense that we’re starting to see three years of Maccagnan drafts pay off. If year three of a regime ends in the worst season the team has had in 20 years – heads could (and arguably should) roll. 

To Jets fans it’ll probably be seen as a blessing in disguise, or indeed what fans wanted all along, if it ends up putting the Jets in the driver’s seat for a top flight quarterback prospect in the draft. But an attempt to do things the right way threatens to devolve into one of the most embarrassing chapters in Jets history. And for an ownership that already has reservations over approaching team building the right way, the long-lasting effects of a truly disastrous season could be it’s own nightmare.

Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com