The New York Jets entered the 2017 season with the lowest expectations in the NFL. This led to them clearing a low bar with a 5-11 record and too much excitement about being six games below .500 and out of the playoff race in a mediocre conference by November. After an active offseason and the soon to be acquisition of a new franchise quarterback, how have the team’s expectations shifted heading into the 2018 season?
ESPN’s Rich Cimini recently laid out a roadmap for this iteration of the Jets rebuild:
As a result, the Jets’ nest egg is big enough to hatch a T-Rex. Right now, their projection for 2019 is a league-high $109 million in salary-cap space, according to overthecap.com. The only big contract extension on the horizon belongs to Leonard Williams, who is signed through 2019 (including his fifth-year option)…
…The Jets’ rebuilding plan is starting to crystallize, and it looks like they’re in the middle of a three-year project that started last year.
- Year 1: Rip it apart and start over.
- Year 2: Get the quarterback.
- Year 3: Hit the ground running, with the quarterback surrounded by a team that should be bolstered by three drafts and two years of big spending in free agency.
This sounds good on paper but may be a touch too perfect and revisionist. We spent the majority of last year hearing how much salary cap space the Jets had to attack this offseason (it ended up being roughly 95 million). The Jets made one big splash (Trumaine Johnson) but outside of that focused on predominantly mid to low level spending, which is fine but should be a reminder of the potential limitations of free agency. Most teams in the NFL have cap space and maintain flexibility with the contracts they hand out.
Tired of seeing teams get praised for structuring FA contracts so they can “get out” after 1 or 2 years. Virtually *every* FA contract is structured like this. It’s not “smart” & it’s not an edge. Everyone does it.
— Evan Silva (@evansilva) March 13, 2018
It is good the Jets have not hamstrung themselves long term with many, if any, contracts but it is not unique.
Planning for a monster free agent class can be a dangerous proposition as most teams will work to keep their top internal talent. Kirk Cousins was an exception because of Washington’s dysfunction but look around at other “big” names supposed to be in this class: Le’Veon Bell, Drew Brees, DeMarcus Lawrence, Zeke Ansah and Lamarcus Joyner all stayed put. If players don’t hit the market, there is going to be plenty of teams with cap flexibility to battle with. You need more than money to recruit. We saw teams with a young quarterback in place like San Francisco and Chicago add multiple critical pieces this offseason. We also saw teams on the cusp of a Super Bowl be active for major additions like Minnesota and Jacksonville. Despite all their money, it wasn’t easy for the Jets to pitch against the Vikings when pursuing Kirk Cousins or the 49ers when pursuing Weston Richburg or Jerick McKinnon.
Fortunately, the Jets pivoted after missing on Cousins to proactively move up in the NFL Draft to get their quarterback. The presence of a promising young player behind center should be a valuable recruiting tool as the centerpiece of a “team on the rise,” but to give that perception, the Jets need to move beyond their suddenly routine 4 or 5 win seasons and they need their young quarterback to show promise.
It is unfair to expect the Jets to be a playoff team in 2018. They are either going to be playing a 39 year old who has never sniffed the playoffs in his career, a quarterback who hasn’t taken a meaningful snap since 2015 or a rookie. Hopefully, the overwhelming majority of the season is dedicated to the rookie so he can work through his growing pains and have the team ready to compete in 2019. It does nobody any good to play Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater 11 games and then a rookie 5 games en route to a losing season. All that does is set up a 2019 narrative where the Jets still have questions around their quarterback and a built in excuse that they don’t have a playoff mandate in 2019 because it will be “his first full year as a starter.” At a certain point, waiting for a front office’s plan to blossom becomes like Waiting for Godot.
The goal this year should be to field a competitive team that hovers around .500 on the back of a promising rookie quarterback playing most of the snaps under center. Nobody cares if the Jets win games with Josh McCown. If Teddy Bridgewater is playing well in the preseason, he is likely going to be traded. If he does play well in the regular season, the Jets have a good problem on their hands but unless he is at an All-Pro level (not his 2015 level), all roads are still steam rolling towards the #3 pick playing sooner rather than later.
Plans in the NFL are fluid. The Jets plan was to spend big this offseason, until it wasn’t. Their plan was to groom Christian Hackenberg as a future starter, until it wasn’t. Now, their plan is to make 2018 all about their new quarterback so 2019 is all about him having a beefed up roster to compete with, like the Eagles in year two with Carson Wentz or the Rams in year two with Jared Goff.
The Jets aren’t going to light the world on fire with their 109 million in cap space if they go 5-11 three straight seasons and show nothing from their rookie quarterback. Considering how weak the AFC is, they need to progress by avoiding embarrassing no shows like they had in Tampa Bay and Denver last season. They need to progress by being better than 1-7 on the road. They need to progress by doing better than 2-4 in the AFC East. They need to play a meaningful game or two in December and give off the perception of actually being “close.”
The Jets have been in irrelevancy purgatory for tw0-thirds of Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles’ tenure. 2018 needs to be a year they actually appear to be moving towards the light, otherwise we’ll spend 2019 talking about how 202o is the year because the Jets have so much cap space and their quarterback finally has enough experience. Unfortunately by that time (or fortunately depending on how you feel), there may be a new GM and/or HC who have no interest in this quarterback and want one of their own.
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