The stakes for the Jets are higher than usual in 2019. After last year’s deeply disappointing season, management – primarily the now-departed general manager Mike Maccagnan – made a series of high-risk, high-reward gambles in free agency and the draft before being dismissed in May – to the surprise of Maccagnan, the fanbase, and the rest of the league. New GM Joe Douglas is now in the odd position of managing a team that was almost entirely assembled by someone else, with limited opportunity to shape the roster until the 2020 free agency period and draft.
By December, Jets fans are either going to feel elated and confident for the future, or they’re probably going to feel a lot more cranky than usual, as Maccagnan’s last gift to Jets fans will be yet another series of high-risk bets that didn’t pay off.
The single biggest risk is head coach Adam Gase. Either he’s the right coach to get the Jets back into the playoffs or he isn’t. It’s hard to begrudge fan skepticism, based upon the mixed-at-best results he generated in Miami. Gase hasn’t even had a year off in the non-coaching wilderness, going on some walkabout and reexamining his decisions in Miami to see what worked and what didn’t and what he can learn from the experience. This does not appear to be a wiser Adam Gase, humbled by hard-learned lessons. This is pretty much the same guy who was on the sidelines in Miami last year, just one year older.
Still, Gase is supposed to be a quarterback guru, and if he can bring out the best in Sam Darnold, his coaching tenure will be justifiably perceived as a success. But the clock is ticking. It’s year two of Darnold’s rookie contract. According to OverTheCap, Darnold’s cap number is $6.8 million this year and gradually increases to $9.6 million in 2021. After that, re-signing Darnold will probably cost the Jets in the high $20 millions into the $30 millions per year – which is what the top ten quarterbacks in the NFL are making this season.
Starting in 2022, the Jets are likely to stop having all of that cap space they’ve enjoyed in recent free agency periods. In fact, the cap problems might start as early as next year — C.J. Mosley’s cap number for 2020 is $17.5 million, Le’Veon Bell’s is $15.5 million, Trumaine Johnson’s is 15 million, Kelechi Osemele’s is $11.5 million, Jamison Crowder’s is $10 million. All of those players might look like bargains at those prices, and there’s some reason for optimism about each of those players. But free-agent veterans are hit-and-miss. Not so long ago, Jets fans had high hopes about free agent veterans like Ryan Fitzpatrick, Brandon Marshall, Spencer Long and Isaiah Crowell.
Le’Veon Bell might be the best Jets free-agent running back since Curtis Martin; if Bell duplicates what he did in Pittsburgh, the Jets will probably be going to the playoffs. But it is fair to wonder if Bell looks like his old self running behind an offensive line that was “meh” at best in 2018, ranking 25th in the league. For perspective, James Conner ran behind Bell’s old offensive line in Pittsburgh and accumulated 973 yards in 13 games. Bell isn’t simply a creation of the Steelers’ line, but how good will he be behind the Jets line? Ninety percent as good? Eighty percent as good? Two-thirds as good?
The line will be better if Osemele stays healthy after suffering toe and knee injuries last year. And if Brandon Shell’s knee injury doesn’t act up again. And if Kelvin Beachum doesn’t get called for nine penalties again. And if – cringe — Jonotthan Harrison somehow makes a dramatic improvement to be the starting center. (You notice the “ifs” are starting to add up.) The Jets have a lot more talent at the skill positions than they did last year, but that talent can only shine with decent run-blocking and giving Darnold enough time to throw.
If Bell looks hindered behind an unreliable offensive line, does signing Bell start to look like putting the cart before the horse?
Then there’s the defense – plenty of talent and high draft choices with some glaring weaknesses. Adams is a rock star, and Marcus Maye looks like the perfect partner, if he stays healthy. (Another big “if.”)
But this is where Maccagnan’s free agency and draft decisions really look odd. Perhaps Mosley really does turn the Jets defense into a fearsome, top-ten unit. But was inside linebacker really the glaring weakness on the Jets last year? Avery Williamson was arguably the Jets’ best addition and Darron Lee was uneven but mostly okay from week to week. Mosley’s a far better player than Lee, but will his impact be noticeable play after play? Will the Jets get opposing offenses off the field quicker?
Rookie defensive tackle Quinnen Williams seems like a terrific kid and an absolute beast. But does his upgrade over the never-that-bad Steve McClendon represent a bigger improvement than, say, drafting outside linebacker Josh Allen to replace Jordan Jenkins or Brandon Copeland? Maybe Quinnen Williams and Jachai Polite turn into a one-two punch of pass rush. They had better, considering how the Jets, with glaring weaknesses at center and cornerback, continued to invest more picks in their front seven.
A subpar group of cornerbacks is an extremely difficult weakness to overcome. The hard lesson of Darrelle Revis’ years with the Jets was that you can still lose games with a Hall of Fame cornerback on one side if there isn’t solid coverage from your second and third-best corners and if your linebackers can’t stop running backs from catching passes out of the backfield. There’s a nagging feeling that Jamal Adams might be another excellent defensive back who simply can’t cover every receiver. Cornerback Trumaine Johnson was the Jets’ biggest disappointment in 2018. Is Daryl Roberts really going to be starting on the other side, as it currently appears? Brian Poole looks okay, a lateral move from the underwhelming Buster Skrine. After that, the Jets depth is… Parry Nickerson and Derrick Jones? Sixth round pick Blessuan Austin?
Keep in mind the Jets don’t have a ton of time to figure who’s capable of covering the other team’s number two or three receivers. They open the schedule up against Josh Allen, Baker Mayfield and Odell Beckham Jr., Tom Brady, Carson Wenz, Dak Prescott, and then Brady again. Feeling confident, Jets fans?
There’s one last wrinkle: How many teams let two-thirds of their Pro Bowlers sign elsewhere? Jayson Myers had the most lights-out antifreeze-in-the-veins season of any Jets kicker since Pat Leahy, and Andre Roberts was the Jets first player to make the All-Pro team since 2011. Maccagnan let them both walk. New (old) kicker Chandler Catanzaro is… probably fine? Trenton Cannon might be good enough on kick returns? Two of the team’s rare strengths from last year are now another pair of significant risks.
This could all work out well. Down the stretch, Darnold looked like the real deal, and maybe his mobility helps mitigate any weaknesses from the line. Robby Anderson is showing he can do more than run fast. With Jamison Crowder, Quincy Enunwa, Christopher Herndon (sigh, after the first four games) Ty Montgomery and Bilal Powell, Darnold will have an abundance of options with good hands. If that line holds, the Jets offense should be the most exciting and high-scoring in years.
And on the other side of the ball, if Trumaine Johnson and the other cornerback can cover, the gobs of talent elsewhere should be generating a lot of sacks, forced fumbles, and interceptions. Gregg Williams is just the right man to bring a new aggressive style and varied strategies to this side of the ball.
All over this roster you see potential. But almost every fanbase of every team can talk themselves into optimism when training camp starts. The team is a giant pile of “ifs” – and that means that if the Jets are good, they’re going to be surprisingly good, but if the Jets are bad, they’re probably going to be very bad. These factor tend to feed on each other – if the offensive line is solid, then Jets have long drives and score more, which means the defense isn’t gassed late in the game, which means the offense gets the ball back quicker… Momentum will either drive or destroy the Jets this year.
If the Jets are a mess, Joe Douglas will have his work cut out for him – starting with sorting out what problems stem from Maccagnan’s blindfolded dart-throwing style of roster management and which problems stem from Gase. The head coach and Douglas are buddies, and no one in the organization or fanbase wants Gase to be a one-and-done. (For that to happen, the Jets would have to finish, what, 4-12? 5-11?)
Perhaps the biggest risk facing the Jets in 2019 is the intense desire for Gase to be the right guy turning into an unjustified faith that Gase is the right guy. Business strategists talk about the concept of “failing fast” – that is, don’t be afraid to try something new, but if it doesn’t work, quickly accept that it didn’t work and move on to another idea. Again, Gase might simply be a good, creative coach who ended up in a bad situation in Miami and who will thrive with the Jets. But if Gase doesn’t appear to be thriving after this season, the Jets will face yet another difficult decision. They can either hope that Gase somehow spontaneously gets better after his third consecutive losing season, or dump him and start over – yet again, for the second time in two years, the third time in five years.
Jim Geraghty is the senior political correspondent of National Review and has been rooting for the Jets since 1985. His jersey collection includes Al Toon, Wayne Chrebet, Keyshawn Johnson, and (sigh) Neil O’Donnell.