As Jets General Manager Joe Douglas enters his first full offseason with the team, it is worth examining the two best teams in the NFL this season, and how their programs were built.
INVEST IN OT EARLY IN THE DRAFTThe most important lesson in team-building to be taken from the Niners and Chiefs is that it is imperative to invest in Offensive Tackle (OT) early in the Draft. The starting OTs on the Niners and Chiefs are all former top-40 picks: Joe Staley was selected 28th overall in 2007, Mitchell Schwartz was taken 37th overall in 2012, Eric Fisher was the 1st overall pick in 2013, and Mike McGlinchey was selected 9th overall in 2018.
Three of these four players were drafted by the team they are currently on, while Schwartz was originally drafted by the Browns and signed to a record-breaking contract (at the time) with the Chiefs in free agency. In the case of Fisher, one can quibble with whether he deserved to be the first pick, but one thing is clear: Fisher has provided stability at Left Tackle for seven seasons so far and has been a cornerstone of the Chiefs offense. This season, Fisher allowed 1 sack in 8 games started, while his counterpart on the other side, Schwartz, allowed 0 sacks in 16 games started. The 49ers’ OTs have similarly impressive numbers: McGlinchey allowed 5 sacks in 8 games and Staley allowed 1 sack in 7 games started.
For Joe Douglas, who has reiterated his belief in building through the trenches many times, this offseason provides an opportunity to use both of the methods that this year’s championship contenders employed in order to bolster the Jets’ OT play. Looking towards free agency, there are two high quality OTs that Jets fans have discussed signing: Anthony Castonzo of the Colts and Jack Conklin of the Titans.
Interestingly, there’s a widespread misconception that Castonzo will actually test the open market. According to local reporting, Castonzo will either re-sign with the Colts or retire after this season, so he should not be relied on as a free agent option for the Jets. Conklin, on the other hand, looks like he will hit the open market and command a high price. Given the fact that good players generally reset market records for their position when they hit free agency, it would not be a surprise to see Conklin get a long-term deal of more than $15 million per year (the current highest paid OT is Lane Johnson at $18 million per year). Regardless of whether Douglas makes a run at Conklin in free agency, I think he should definitely draft an OT at 11.The current perception of the Offensive Tackle class, of three top OTs and then a big drop-off in talent, will likely change given the ascendance of Mekhi Becton (OT, Louisville). Although I’m no seer, it is conceivable than in a few months, after Becton dominates at the combine, the perception of the OT class will shift from a top tier of 3 OTs to one that includes Becton. Having watched his tape against Clemson, Notre Dame, and Wake Forest, I can tell you that he probably has the highest ceiling of any OT in this class.
Regardless, there are numerous ways in which Douglas can follow the blueprint set out by the Niners and Chiefs, the only question is: will he do so?
INTERIOR OFFENSIVE LINE PLAYERS ARE INTERCHANGEABLE
Although the 49ers and Chiefs demonstrate the necessity of investing in OT play, they also show that interior offensive line (IOL) players are relatively insignificant in a functioning offense. If one were to look at the salaries of the Chiefs and Titans’ starting IOL players, one would notice that each team has one well-paid starter and two cheap depth pieces:CHIEFS:
LG – Laurent Duvernay-Tardif ($8.5 million per year)
C – Austin Reiter ($2.25 million per year) *
RG – Stefan Wisniewski ($900,000 pear year) *
Total – $11.65 million
LG – Laken Tomlinson ($6 million per year)
C – Ben Garland ($805,000 per year) *
RG – Mike Person ($2.75 million per year)
Total – $9.555 million
denotes a player who started the 2019 season as a backup
It is important to understand how little the Chiefs and 49ers spend on IOL in the midst of debates among Jets fans about paying IOL players like Joe Thuney and Bandon Scherff $10-15 million in free agency. The reality is that good tackle play is rare, but good IOL play is not.
A TIGHT END IS A QB’S BEST FRIEND
It’s no coincidence that the Chiefs and the 49ers, the two best teams in the NFL, have two of the best tight ends in the NFL. Although the 49ers use George Kittle primarily as a run blocker, while the Chiefs use Travis Kelce mainly as a pass catcher, both tight ends have dual-threat capabilities (catching and blocking). Having a good tight end is important because he provides a large, reliable target for a quarterback. Especially for inexperienced quarterbacks (like Mahomes and Garoppolo), a tight end can serve as a safety blanket and check down.
Fortunately for the Jets, Chris Herndon, despite a disappointing and injury-riddled sophomore season, is a promising candidate to fill this role. Herndon is a capable blocker and pass catcher, and seemed to have a strong rapport with Darnold. Jets fans should have confidence that Herndon can step into this role and be a contributor to the offense year-in, year-out.
DOMINANT PASS RUSH
Gregg Williams has received a lot of praise this season for the Jets run defense, which is the second best in the NFL according to Football Outsiders. However, having a good run defense is significantly less valuable than having a good pass defense. Out of the top ten run defenses in the NFL, only 4 made the playoffs; on the other hand, out of the top ten pass defenses in the NFL, 7 made the playoffs. This is not to diminish the work that Williams has done with the Jets defense–he has done a fantastic job, but the new Jets front office must start to bring in pass rushers, particularly EDGE rushers, through sustainable methods such as the draft. Adding an EDGE rusher with a mid-round pick this year (think: Jon Greenard, Bradley Annae, Josh Uche, Zack Baun, Kenny Willekes, etc) would go along way to bolster the Jets pass rush in a cap-responsible way. This is something that Douglas must address this offseason, and I think it’s more likely that he invests a mid-round pick in EDGE, instead of signing a big ticket free agent such as Yannick Ngakoue or Shaq Barrett (assuming one even hits the market).
Takeaways: Although the Chiefs and 49ers have had different paths to the Super Bowl, they share a few key commonalities that Jets’ GM Joe Douglas must do his best to replicate. Both teams have dedicated premium picks as well as cap space to OT. Both teams value IOL play significantly less than other teams in the league, but manage to win a lot of games (which suggests that IOL play isn’t that important). Both teams have a dynamic tight end and, lastly, both teams can pressure the quarterback. Joe Douglas has a large task ahead of him; he likely won’t fill each of these needs during this coming offseason, but if the Jets manage to find a modicum of success in the future, it will have been because he followed this blueprint set out by the league’s two best teams.