New York Jets Five Things: Offseason Primer

David Aitken with an offseason primer on the most important issues surrounding the New York Jets…

The return of the Mac, 2018 expectations, free agent strategy and more. David Aitken goes over some key talking points going into the 2018 offseason.

A Slow March Toward Respectability 

It was announced at the end of the season that Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles had both been penned to extensions through 2020. On the surface it comes off as a major vote of confidence and commitment to several more years of the tandem, though the cutthroat reality of the NFL guarantees only one more season. Still, the 2017 offseason and regular season were a trial for both of them, and interim owner Christopher Johnson considered the year a passing grade.

Head coaches often get judged by the same binary measure quarterbacks tend to get – can he lead you to a Super Bowl? And yet in between your Tom Bradys and your Tom Savages are your Josh McCown and Tyrod Taylor types. In this respect Todd Bowles gets a bad rap. Give him a semblance of an NFL roster – see 2015 and this year’s Jets before Bryce Petty, and he has a team prepared and reasonably competitive week to week. His offensive coordinator selections have been pretty sound. His impact on team culture is a much welcomed improvement over his predecessor.

But through three years his flaws are also apparent, and there hasn’t been any sign of it changing. Todd Bowles coaches with an inherently conservative mindset in a league that has evolved to favor offense and risk taking. There have been a number of times where the Jets have entered half time taking knees or running out the clock when an opportunity for a two-minute drive was available. The offense will lack urgency when down multiple scores late. And worst of all, certain games have been approached with a legitimately defeatist view. The Jets’ trips to Foxboro apparently have a new tradition of kicking field goals deep into the second half when down by multiple scores. Have a team well prepared weekly and a good team over sixteen games can get to the playoffs. But in the playoffs where the margins are so small, these Bowles issues will be magnified and can make a noted difference.

Mike Maccagnan’s work here to date has been, to say the least, a mixed bag. In his first season he won Executive of the Year, but the award tends to reward short term impact moves rather than an executive that is having success as a result of years of methodical team building. This was the case in 2015 where several high paid veterans came through with career years before crashing down to earth in 2016.

The good? Two of the long term signings of 2015 – James Carpenter and Buster Skrine – have been solid contributors. Through three drafts thus far, it’s safe to say he’s added a good player in round one in at least two of them. Finding a 1,000 yard receiver as an undrafted free agent (yes I’m calling Robby Anderson a 1,000 yard receiver, he was on pace for it when McCown went down, deal with it) is a promising display of his scouting credentials,as is to a lesser extent the finds of Elijah McGuire and Brandon Shell. Some under the radar waiver wire pickups like Austin Sefarian-Jenkins and Kony Ealy have had nice impacts. His work in the trade market this past year – getting Jermaine Kearse and a 2nd rounder for Sheldon Richardson as well as Demario Davis for Calvin Pryor – was particularly shrewd.

The bad? His pro personnel decisions his first two seasons were unwisely marked by an attempt to squeeze short term success out of an old, top heavy roster. There are major issues in his first two draft classes – Leonard Williams could very well be the only 2015 draft pick left on the 2018 opening roster, and the 2016 draft class thus far has a very disappointing first two rounds. The key issue though is his early track record at drafting quarterbacks. Bryce Petty’s struggles as a fourth rounder could be overlooked in isolation, but Christian Hackenberg in round two is eyeopening. He’s arguably the worst quarterback selection made in the past ten years. An extension of that, the Jets have no cornerstones at the league’s premium positions – QB, tackle, edge and corner.

What exactly does a Mike Maccagnan player look like? He’s drafted old rookies, he’s drafted young rookies. He’s drafted a productive spread quarterback, he’s drafted an unproductive pro style quarterback. He’s drafted tough, #intangibles prospects, he’s drafted raw athletes. Some of his high draft picks have been “safe”, others have been incredibly risky.  The only consistent thus far is a tendency for Power 5 conference players until late in the draft, but given this is where the highest concentration of college talent is, it may well be coincidental. In terms of draft strategy, Maccagnan as a “football guy” works on the simple model of drafting a board and sticking to it. It should serve the team well early in the draft, but it also limits the potential of maximizing it as a team building mechanism (position X is overvalued in the NFL, position Y is deep in this draft so we can wait, etc.).

Flaws and all, they’ll get another chance to take a step forward. Is it settling for mediocrity? Possibly. But they’ll get the Jets in the right direction to a degree and regardless of when they leave the team should be in a healthier spot than when they first arrived. We’ll call it the slow march toward respectability. 

Square One Part Two

The 2017 Jets didn’t finish with a better record than the year before, but nevertheless there is a feel good factor going into next year. That feeling is partially based on the investment expected into the team through free agency and draft picks. But the optimistic take goes something like this – the Jets were supposed to be “worst team in ten years” bad, but they were far from it. This is proof that the Jets have young pieces to build around, have developed into a well-knit and hard working unit, and are headed in the right direction. It’s a validation of the work Bowles and Maccagnan have put in here over three years.

Are the Jets really heading in the right direction? Yes, with some qualifiers. The performances of the 2017 team as a whole is not purely a result of a team led by a young core, given the Jets had two stopgaps – Josh McCown and Mo Claiborne – playing well (for most of the season) at key positions. Strip away the stopgaps and look at the core, and the Jets are basically at the second edition of square one. The Jets will enter year four under Bowles and Maccagnan with some stark similarities as to when they entered year one: with the 6th overall pick, an immense amount of cap space, and holes at football’s most important positions.

There is a better spread of young talent this time around (as opposed to being almost exclusively on the defensive line in 2015), and there’s less of a task in regards to overhauling the offensive line. In fairness to Maccagnan the core of the team he inherited was a mess – not just plenty of immediate needs, but also veterans on the decline. The bleeding has stopped in that sense, but the hardest work is still yet to come.

Free Agency Favors the Brave

It’s a sobering truth that the Jets have been one of the worst drafting teams of the last ten years. But as the Jets prepare to enter free agency with about 75 million in cap space prior to any cuts (likely looking at close to 100m after), these draft struggles produce a silver lining. With no major extensions to plan for in the near future, the Jets can be aggressive in free agency and take risks.

Free agency is not a perfect pool of talent. Just because a team saves up cap for a spending spree doesn’t mean the FA pool is going to offer “slam dunk” solutions to your needs. Jump back to 2015 for example. The Jets desperately needed to overhaul their corners, and so they targeted the best ones. Big money was spent on Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Buster Skrine. Cromartie was released a year later, Revis two years later, and only Skrine remains. Revis and Cromartie are considered disappointing signings in hindsight. And yet, what was the alternative? The other big name CB on the market, Byron Maxwell, didn’t fare better.

Were the Jets really punished cap wise for these failures? The spree in 2015 meant that the 2016 offseason was frugal in comparison, but the Jets also held onto veterans by choice. As soon as the Jets decided these players were no longer worth keeping, they were able to cast them aside the following offseason.

The Jets can be players at all levels of the market and should not be afraid of taking gambles. Having to be careful and choosey in free agency is mostly a good team problem. It’s an approach for teams that need to worry about keeping homegrown talents or can only benefit from signing a small number of players. This is not to say use every last dime of cap space. But the Jets can feasibly spend roughly 70 million in cap space and still have nearly 30 million left over – a very large sum to roll into the following year.

Be smart, but also be aware that spending sprees don’t require laser precision. Before the Jaguars knocked it out of the park with some of their business the past two years, there were some bad ones. Zane Beadles, Julius Thomas, Jared Odrick, and Kelvin Beachum came in on big deals and were dumped just after a year or two. But again, that’s the point – NFL contracts are often not worth what they’re written on. The question of where and why to spend money is one of opportunity cost, and in the near future there is little downside for the Jets doing so. Spend big on a host of players, and the odds are not all of them are going to be successful. And that’s ok.

How Do the Jets Approach Quarterback?

This was supposed to be the year the Jets roster was bad enough to get the quarterback position answered for the next decade. Instead, the Jets finished with the sixth pick – no man’s land.

Nonetheless the fan base’s desire for a viable long term option rightly remains unchanged. The Jets can’t settle for half measures. Free agency has a once in a decade opportunity in the form of Kirk Cousins, and the draft has a handful of options worth considering in round one of the draft.

But Jets fans should be prepared for anything, particularly now that the offense’s direction is open ended with John Morton’s dismissal. History tells us two things regarding Maccagnan – he doesn’t want to be forced to take a certain position at a particular point in the draft and he has no problem plugging holes with stopgaps until he can get a long-term option. And in between Kirk Cousins and the draft’s top options (of which at 6th overall there’s no guarantee you’re going to get without a move up), there are a number of placeholders Jets fans should expect to see on the radar.

It’s a fair assumption the Jets will go after Kirk Cousins. But if they’re unable to land him, expect one of these names: Alex Smith, Josh McCown, Case Keenum or Sam Bradford. And none of those names besides Cousins should mean the Jets aren’t taking a quarterback highly – just that Maccagnan may not feel compelled to. He wants to stick to the board.

The Growing Drought

With the Bills and Titans making the playoffs this past year, the Jets now have the third longest playoff drought in the league – only Tampa Bay and the Browns have been waiting longer. How long is enough?

Give a regime four years and a playoff appearance at least once should be the minimum expectation. In the last four seasons, 25 of the league’s 32 franchises have made the playoffs at least once. The league is built for quick turnarounds, and a team like this past year’s Jets should be a prime candidate to jump forward with the current state of the AFC. The league is built with a handful of well-oiled machines and a few disastrously run franchises, with everyone else in the middle positioned to be the beneficiary or victim of schedule, injury and in-game luck. Building a consistent contender is something that can take half a decade when starting from scratch, but on the way you can ride the ebbs and flows of the league to short term success.

In fairness you could argue that 2015 “should” have been that year already for Maccagnan and Bowles. The Jets were 10-6 with a DVOA in the top 5 for defense and top 15 for offense. Yes, a Bowles coached team blew it in a win-and-in situation. But while they were given a must-win game and didn’t must-win it, Bowles was already a little unfortunate. 10-6 gets you in to the postseason way more often than it does not.

And in a similar vein, playoffs shouldn’t be an absolute requirement.  But with significant investment will come increased expectations, and there’s no reason why this team cannot at least be competing for a wildcard spot in the AFC.

Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com.