After being burnt in 2016, Mike Maccagnan has staked 2017, and possibly his future as general manager, on another fragile plan.
In the offseason of 2016, Maccagnan made several major decisions that will likely come to define his time here. There are plenty to choose from – Christian Hackenberg’s round two selection and the Ryan Fitzpatrick saga are still fresh in most fan’s minds. Before either of these were made though, he had to set a direction for 2016. Coming off the back of a 6 win positive swing in his first year as general manager, Maccagnan had a choice in which way the “competitive rebuild” would slant. Keep hold of picks, target free agents in a younger age profile, move Wilkerson for draft capital and seriously consider cheap alternatives to Ryan Fitzpatrick – all of these possibilities would have been in the franchise’s best long-term interest. Instead, Maccagnan rolled the dice. Matt Forte, Steve McClendon and Ryan Clady were all starting additions over the age of 30. A 5th round pick was surrendered for what would be a year of Clady’s services. Fitzpatrick’s eventual one-year deal nearly quadrupled the salary he played on in 2015, and with cap constraints Maccagnan ended up putting off nearly half of it to the 2017 season’s cap.
He took risks that were popular with the fan base, but ones that clearly came with risks. His 10-6 team succeeded mostly on the backs of veterans who joined in 2015, and that year had several things in its favor. Health to the major players was mostly kind. Production from these players was either at a career high or close to it. The schedule was light, particularly in terms of pass defenses. And perhaps most key of all, Ryan Fitzpatrick was on the fortunate side of interceptable passes.
As a 2016 plan, keeping it together and building on it was always fragile. It required a handful of veterans to repeat career best performances and miraculous progress from the limited young talent on the roster to bolster a barren middle class. In another year it may have worked, but offseason planning is preparing for a number of possible outcomes. The risk of 2016 capitulating into the disaster it ended up being was always foreseeable given the good fortunes of 2015 and the age of key players. What we got was close to worst-case scenario.
A year later, Maccagnan enters a pivotal year three in which he has presumably gotten the go-ahead from ownership for a “rebuild” year. This is not a #JetsTank year, and it’s important to note this difference. He’s gotten permission to prioritize something other than winning: playing young talent and evaluating where the Jets are after three years of his own draft classes. This is not the same as prioritizing losing in order to get the best possible draft pick (although this is one of several probable outcomes). The tank, while probably in the team’s best long-term interest, is also going to bring intense short-term humiliation.
In releasing almost every veteran of note Maccagnan has effectively put a ceiling on how good the Jets can be. But it is telling that while Maccagnan cut bait almost everywhere along the roster and left money unspent, there were two positions where he decided it was prudent to spend on veteran stopgaps – quarterback and cornerback.
The quarterback decision is obvious, as QBs are the fulcrum of the passing game. While the idea of Josh McCown being any sort of model of consistency is absurd on its face, he’s a veteran the Jets know can be trusted to at least get the ball to their young group of receivers with regularity. This signing was meant to safeguard against an all-time terrible passing offense in the very real scenario neither young quarterback looked ready to start NFL games.
Competent corner play is key to a Bowles defense given how pressure is often manufactured with numbers. Mo Claiborne came off the best season of his career in Dallas in 2016. PFF credited Claiborne with a 64.1 QB rating against, a top ten rating in the league. The idea here is the Jets could replace a player losing his first round talent with a player that is at last showing his. A competent starting cover corner is a solid foundation to bed in the rest of a young secondary, including two rookie safeties and presumably Juston Burris on the outside in nickel.
These two players, in theory, could be key parts in the Jets avoiding the league cellar. Given how poor Revis was last year, Claiborne as a replacement in addition to the young talent creates hope for the pass defense to take a nice step forward as a whole. McCown, even with a laughably bad record as a starter, has shown he can keep bad teams in some close ones. Seven of his eleven Cleveland starts finished with a margin of less than a touchdown.
The Jets still have some of their most promising talent in the secondary regardless, but Claiborne could be the piece that makes the Jets’ pass defense a surprisingly solid unit. The optimistic take is that maybe Petty can surprise after his showing against the Giants in preseason, but McCown at this point remains the buffer between a bad passing attack and a historically bad one.
The risk is that yet again, Maccagnan has backed his chances on a fragile plan. These are players that time and again have proven themselves unreliable, both in performance and staying healthy. The Jets have in fact already had a taste of this, with McCown’s rib scare versus Philadelphia and Claiborne sitting out Week 3. Their performances when healthy aren’t a lock either. McCown aside from half a season buoyed by Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery in their primes is the “crap journeyman quarterback” personified. Claiborne meanwhile was regarded as a massive draft bust prior to 2016 for on-field struggles in addition to health related ones.
When last year’s plan failed, Maccagnan’s reputation took a hit in a way that did not seem possible just a year prior. Just as nearly every move seemed to pay instant dividends in year one, the majority of 2015 became ashes in his mouth and the 2016 additions were mostly bitter disappointments. Despite taking some heat however, he was able to ride that 2015 goodwill into a presumed thumbs up from ownership for a youth movement. This year, such a failure would prove much more damaging. If Maccagnan’s vulnerable strategy goes belly up, it’s not just his reputation in line for some serious damage. It could cost him his job.
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