Coming off of a 5-11 season that was universally considered an over-achievement, the Jets didn’t have much irreplaceable talent to fear losing on the open market. However, they did lose a pair of starters in Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Demario Davis – two players I previously endorsed bringing back.
Here’s how I think the Jets will approach replacing each of those players – and why I think the team raised the potential of both positions by moving on.
It was an outlier for sure, but Davis’ 2017 season was by all means a tremendous one. He finished the year with 15 quarterback hits (most among inside linebackers), 135 tackles, and 5 sacks while grading as Pro Football Focus’ 8th-best linebacker.
However, Davis is 29 years old and hasn’t yet proven he could sustain that level of performance. It seemed likely that in the future, Davis would perform at a level somewhere between his 2017 season and his early Jet career.
So, how do the Jets seek to replace Davis? Enter a glorified replica – but three years younger. Avery Williamson.
Williamson’s profile matches that of Davis nearly to a tee. While not known for his coverage ability, Williamson is a disciplined, fundamentally sound run defender who can make an impact as a blitzer and cover a lot of ground from sideline to sideline. Williamson was similarly efficient to Davis last year – grading as PFF’s #10 linebacker while posting 92 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 forced fumbles, and 2 passes defended.
The question mark with Williamson is the fact that he only played 60% of Tennessee’s defensive snaps last year – coming off the field on 3rd downs and passing situations. If he is going to take Davis’ old role, which seems to be (and really should be) the case based on his contract, there is definitely a degree of projection involved in asking Williamson to replicate his performance level in nearly twice as many snaps.
However, Davis thrived the way he did in 2017 because the Jets schemed to his strengths. He assumed few coverage responsibilities – as many of those were tossed to Darron Lee. If the Jets throw Williamson into a highly similar role to the one Davis played in 2017, then I am confident Williamson will not only consistently match the 2017 version of Davis, but outperform the aging Davis that the Jets would have paid top-dollar to bring back. I won’t even rule out Williamson becoming even better. From watching his tape, I saw plenty of coverage upside from him. He has all the athletic tools to become a strong cover guy. Let’s see if he can round out his game and turn into a complete force – I have the confidence he can do it.
Let’s be honest – ASJ’s production level in 2017 should not be hard to replicate. Despite ranking 15th in targets at the tight end position, he placed only 26th in yards with 357. His yards per reception average of 7.1 was stunningly poor, lowest of any qualified tight end. That contributed to his paltry 4.8 yards per target average, also worst among qualified tight ends. He was dead last in Football Outsiders’ DYAR.
Now, I’m not here to beat ASJ into the ground. His turnaround story is truly inspiring, and on the field, I thought he improved as a blocker and saw his production opportunities limited by a huge helping of short routes designed for him. Despite that, an inefficient 357 yards is an inefficient 357 yards. He seemed to be overrated by the fanbase a bit since the Jets literally did not have a tight end over the past few seasons. The bar is not set high for the 2018 Jets tight end core.
So, after not making a single addition at the position, where do the Jets turn next? Eric Tomlinson is a very solid blocker, one of my favorite underrated players on the roster, but is no TE1. He showed he can unleash the occasional big passing play on a surprise release downfield, but isn’t capable of anything more.
I think the Jets are confident in their in-house options, which Todd Bowles mentioned to the media recently. Neal Sterling, only 26 with limited regular season burn, posted 74 yards at New England in his only start as a Jet – doing it with Bryce Petty quarterback. Seferian-Jenkins never reached that mark this season, with a season high of 67.
Jordan Leggett also received a vote of confidence from Bowles. A fifth-round selection of the Jets in the 2017 draft, Leggett slipped because of motivation concerns but was always considered one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the class. Flashing immense size at 6’6 in addition to huge, but soft 10⅜” hands, Leggett had some nice moments in the preseason as he caught 5 of 7 targets for 68 yards.
Though the bar to clear is low, the Jets are definitely gambling by entering the year without a single established receiving tight end. Both Sterling and Leggett could possibly prove incapable of Seferian-Jenkins’ role; leaving the Jets feeling the old 2015 vibes and not possessing a worthy tight end. It’s definitely a disadvantage to not have that behemoth of a target to create mismatches with in the passing game; and the Jets are at risk of not having one.
Despite that risk, moving on from ASJ and giving Sterling and (more specifically) Leggett shots at the job raises the upside of the position. With much less money invested in the group than would be the case if ASJ were re-signed, there is little to lose from a value perspective. In addition, ASJ has already showcased a limited ceiling. While the floor is lowered by moving on from him to this new and unproven group, there is also the opportunity to discover a ceiling higher than ASJ probably would have found as he moved into his fifth season with only one 70+ yard game under his belt (same total as Sterling).
Final Takeaways: While the Jets are taking a little bit of a risk at both positions, with dependence on Avery Williamson stepping up from a 60% snap rate and banking on an unproven tight end group, I think the increased upside at both positions far outweighs the risks of moving on from the aforementioned former Jets at the price tags they received.
Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com