Two off-seasons ago, the Jets started a full rebuild. They got rid of most of their expensive veterans, in an attempt to give young players playing time, obtain a high draft pick in a strong quarterback draft class, and clear out cap space to be aggressive in free agency to build around their cheap young quarterback. Last off-season, the Jets got their quarterback, sending a pair of 2018 2nd round picks (one acquired from trading expensive veteran Sheldon Richardson) and a 2019 2nd round pick to the Colts to move up from 6 to select Sam Darnold 3rd overall in the 2018 NFL Draft.
This off-season, they were aggressive in building around him, with among the most cap space in the league entering the off-season. Four of their five highest paid players in terms of average annual value were added to the roster this off-season (middle linebacker CJ Mosley, running back Le’Veon Bell, left guard Kelechi Osemele, and wide receiver Jamison Crowder) and all 7 of their highest paid players signed their deals in the past two off-seasons, including last year’s free agent prize cornerback Trumaine Johnson and a pair of promising young players, wide receiver Quincy Enunwa and defensive end Henry Anderson, that the Jets signed to extensions.
Whether or not this rebuild is successful will be heavily dependent on the development of Sam Darnold. If he can break out as a franchise quarterback at some point during his the final 3 years of his inexpensive rookie deal, the Jets will likely become Super Bowl contenders at some point during those 3 years, unless they really screw up the rest of their cap (always a possibility). With 16 quarterbacks currently making at least 20 million annually, a number that will undoubtedly rise in the next few seasons, having Darnold signed to 4-year, 30.247 million dollar deal will be incredibly valuable to the Jets if he pans out.
Darnold’s rookie year got off to a very rough start, as he completed just 55.0% of his passes for an average of 6.69 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in his first 9 starts, before suffering a foot injury and missing 3 games. Those 3 games on the bench seemed to do him a lot of good though, as he was a completely different quarterback in his final 4 games after his return. In those 4 games, he completed 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception. The Jets also picked up first downs at a 34.18% rate in those 4 games, as opposed to 28.80% in Darnold’s first 9 starts.That’s still not a great rate or anything, as it would have been closest to the 24th ranked Titans over the course of a full season, but it’s solid, considering the lack of talent the Jets had around Darnold.
Four games is a very limited sample size, but it’s a good sign for Darnold going into his 2nd year in the league. Darnold was the youngest week 1 starting quarterback in NFL history last season and still doesn’t even turn 22 until June, so some early growing pains are hardly a surprise from him, especially with an underwhelming supporting cast. He obviously still has a huge upside and could easily take a big step forward in his 2nd season in the league. Whether or not that happens will likely determine whether or not this is a playoff contender, after winning just 4 games a season ago.
Darnold loses veteran mentor Josh McCown, previously the backup quarterback, with the Jets signing ex-Broncos starter Trevor Siemian to replace him this off-season. Siemian made 24 starts in 2016 and 2017 with the Broncos, but was underwhelming, completing 59.3% of his passes for an average of 6.81 YPA, 30 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions. The former 7th round pick is not a bad backup though. The Jets are obviously hoping they don’t need him, but he could probably handle things for a month or so if needed.
The Jets put a big emphasis on adding talent on offense around Darnold this off-season, with 3 of their 4 biggest additions coming on the offensive side of the ball. That makes a lot of sense, as the Jets were competent defensively last season, finishing 15th in first down rate allowed at 36.57%, but finished just 31st in first down rate at 29.56%, even with Darnold’s impressive late season stretch. The biggest offensive move they made was adding running back Le’Veon Bell on a 4-year, 52.5 million dollar deal that makes him the 2nd highest paid running back in the NFL in average annual salary.
It’s a lot of money for a running back, but it’s actually less than he turned down from the Steelers last off-season. The Steelers offered him a 5-year, 70 million extension last off-season after franchise tagging him. Not only did he turn that deal down, but he set out the entire 2018 season rather than playing on a 1-year, 14.5 million dollar franchise tender, in hopes of staying healthy and getting a better deal the following off-season. Bell’s deal with the Jets nominally has more guaranteed money because the first 2 years are guaranteed, while the Steelers’ offered just guaranteed the first year, but it was highly unlikely the Steelers were going to cut Bell after just one season no matter what and Bell’s deal with the Jets pays him over 5 million less in the first 2 years of the deal. Add in the 14.5 million he lost by sitting out the season and it’s hard to argue his decision made financial sense.
Bell is hoping that sitting out last season, rather than having another 350-400 touch season, will keep him in top form longer, but he’s essentially trading a season in the middle of his money making prime for the chance at his extra season in his 30s, when teams are incredibly hesitant to pay running backs. The Jets are obviously hoping sitting out last season will allow him to be fresh rather than rusty in his age 27 season in 2019, as they need him to jumpstart a running game that ranked 29th in the NFL last season in yards per carry with 3.96. Bell averaged 4.54 yards per carry on 20.1 carries per game from 2014-2017.
Bell isn’t just a weapon on the ground either, also totaling 267 catches for 2261 yards and 7 touchdowns through the air in 49 games over that 4-year stretch. He played on a more talented offense in Pittsburgh than he will with the Jets, one that barely missed a beat without him last season, but he’s a true three down back who rarely came off the field in Pittsburgh. Assuming he plays close to as well as he played with the Steelers, he’ll be a huge upgrade for this team and he’ll give them a legitimate weapon that defenses have to scheme against on every play.
Unless Bell gets hurt, the backup running back position won’t matter much, but it’ll likely be a battle of holdovers Elijah McGuire and Trenton Cannon for the #2 job. McGuire was 2nd on the team in carries last season with 92 in just 8 games, but he averaged just 3.00 yards per carry and he averaged just 3.58 yards per carry on 88 carries as a 6th round rookie in 2017. Cannon was a 6th round pick in 2018 and he didn’t show much as a rookie, averaging 2.97 yards per carry on 38 carries, but the 5-11 185 speedster could be useful in a change of pace role. Both backs would likely see action if Bell was to get hurt and they would obviously be a significant downgrade. If the Jets are going to contend for a playoff spot, they’ll need Bell on the field.
Another move the Jets made in an effort to improve on the ground was their trade for left guard Kelechi Osemele, who comes over from Oakland in a swap of 5th and 6th round picks. Osemele struggled through injury in 2018, missing 5 games and being limited in others, and he comes with a 10.2 million dollar salary, but he was one of the better guards in the league from 2014-2017, excelling as a run blocker. He finished in the top-12 among guards on Pro Football Focus in all 4 seasons, before falling to 64th out of 88 qualifying in 2018. Going into his age 30 season, his best days might be behind him, but he comes with obvious bounce back potential and was worth the risk. It wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade on mediocre starter James Carpenter, who he replaces.
They’ll need Osemele to play at a high level because the rest of this offensive line is the same as last year’s mediocre group. Center Jonotthan Harrison could technically be considered a new starter, taking over the job full-time from free agent departure Spencer Long, but Harrison made 8 of the final 9 starts of the 2018 season at center, with Long missing time with injury and eventually moving to left guard. Harrison is experienced, with 32 starts in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s never played that well and finished last season 31st out of 39 qualifying centers on PFF. He’s a nice reserve interior offensive lineman, but will likely be overstretched starting all 16 games for the first time in his career. He’s locked in as a starter for lack of a better option.
The Jets may have a different starting right tackle week 1, if incumbent Brandon Shell is unable to make it back from a December torn ACL by then. A 5th round pick in 2016, Shell has been a capable starter in 26 starts over the past 2 seasons, so he’ll be missed if he misses time. He might not be 100% right away either, even if he does play week 1. In his absence, the Jets would likely start either swing tackle Brent Qvale, who has been mediocre in 14 starts in the past 4 seasons, or 3rd round rookie Chuma Edoga, who is very raw. Edoga could be the long-term starter at right tackle, with Shell going into the final year of his rookie deal.
Edoga could also be a long-term option at left tackle, where Kelvin Beachum is also going into the final year of his deal. Beachum was one of the better offensive tackles in the league in 2014, finishing 10th among offensive tackles on PFF, but he hasn’t been the same since a 2015 ACL tear, earning middling grades in 3 seasons since. Now going into his age 30 season, he’s likely on the downswing of his career, but could remain a capable starter in 2019.
Brian Winters rounds out this offensive line at right guard. He’s experienced, with 70 starts in 6 seasons in the league, and is still in the prime of his career in his age 28 season, but he’s never been more than a middling starter. The Jets need Brandon Shell to get healthy and Kelechi Osemele to have a bounce back year if they are going to have better than serviceable offensive line play, but there is potential here.
The Jets also got Sam Darnold a new pass catcher, signing ex-Redskin Jamison Crowder to a 3-year, 28.5 million dollar deal in free agency to replacement slot receiver Jermaine Kearse, who managed just a 37/371/1 slash line on 76 targets last season. That’s a lot of money for a slot receiver, especially since it effectively guarantees him 18 million in the first 2 years, but teams are using three wide receiver sets more and more and that contract suggests the Jets plan on using a lot of 3+ receiver sets in 2019. At 5-9 177, Crowder is limited to the slot and he’s coming off of an injury plagued season in which he had a 29/388/2 slash line in 9 games, but he’s still only going into his age 26 season and the Jets seem to believe he can improve upon the 64/747/4 average slash line he had from 2015-2017. If he doesn’t, he probably isn’t worth his salary.
The Jets also gave Quincy Enunwa a 4-year, 36 million dollar contract, keeping the 2014 6th round pick off of the open market. Enunwa is worth that salary when healthy, but that hasn’t been the case in recent years. After a 58/857/4 slash line in 2016, Enunwa missed all of 2017 with injury and then was limited to a 38/449/1 slash line in 11 games in an injury plagued 2018 season. Enunwa had 21 catches for 277 yards and a touchdown in the first 4 games of the season and was Sam Darnold’s favorite target, which shows the upside he has when he’s healthy. If he can stay healthy, he could pick up right where he left off as Darnold’s favorite target and he would definitely benefit from Darnold taking a step forward, but he’s an injury risk and this is a more crowded receiving corps now.
In Enunwa’s absence, Robby Anderson led this team with a 50/752/6 slash line in 14 games. Anderson is scheduled to be a free agent in 2020, so he’s also a candidate for a multi-year contract. He has made 24 starts over the past 2 seasons and also had a 63/941/7 slash line in 2017, although he too could see his target share drop in a more crowded receiving corps. He’s a solid starting outside receiver, but might not post big numbers even if Sam Darnold takes a step forward.
The additions of Le’Veon Bell and Jamison Crowder are part of why this receiving corps is more crowded than it was a year ago, but the Jets also have emerging young tight end Chris Herndon. A 4th round rookie, Herndon was second on the team with a 39/502/4 slash line in 2018 on just 56 targets and averaged 1.66 yards per route run, 11th in the NFL among qualifying tight ends. He also got better as the season went on, with 34 catches for 455 yards and 4 touchdowns in his final 11 games, a 49/661/6 slash line extrapolated over a 16 game season. Even in a crowded receiving corps, he could match that slash line in 2018. Pro Football Focus’ 10th ranked tight end overall on 625 snaps as a rookie, Herndon has serious breakout potential in his 2nd season in the league.
The Jets took a tight end in the 4th round this year too, though a completely different kind of tight end, 6-3 267 Trevon Wesco out of West Virginia. Wesco is purely a blocking tight end, but could immediately provide value on run downs and has the versatility to line up as a fullback as well. He’ll compete with Eric Tomlinson for snaps behind Herndon at tight end, though Tomlinson struggled mightily in 2018 and shouldn’t be hard to beat out. Wesco will also likely see about 100 snaps as a fullback, without a true fullback on the roster.
The Jets completely lack proven depth at wide receiver behind the trio of Anderson, Enunwa, and Crowder, but Le’Veon Bell and Chris Herndon both being legitimate receiving threats compensates for that, as the Jets are unlikely to run a lot of 4 and 5 wide receiver sets with those two around. If everyone stays healthy, Anderson, Enunwa, Crowder, Bell, and Herndon should play most passing downs, with Wesco seeing playing time in running situations. They could be tough to defend if Darnold takes a step forward.
Update: Chris Herndon has been suspended for the first 4 games of the season. He has the potential to breakout as one of the better tight ends in the league in 2019, so that’s a fairly significant loss for the first month of the season, especially without a good receiving option behind him on the depth chart.
The Jets got decent play from their defense in 2018, finishing 15th in first down rate allowed, but they still entered the off-season with several defensive needs, including edge defender, which has been a problem for years. They haven’t had an edge defender with more than 7 sacks since 2013. That could remain the case in 2019, as they didn’t do much to address the position. They were unable to sign an edge defender in free agency, after Anthony Barr changed his mind and decided to return to Minnesota, and they didn’t draft one until they took Jachai Polite in the 3rd round. Polite showed first round ability at the University of Florida in 2018 and at one point was expected to go in the first round, but he was only a one-year producer in college and he tested and interviewed poorly before the draft, leading him to slide into the 3rd round. He’s a boom or bust prospect that could exceed his draft slot, but I wouldn’t expect a huge impact from him in year 1.
Polite should still compete for a rookie year role, as the underwhelming trio of Jordan Jenkins (660 snaps), Brandon Copeland (611 snaps), and Frankie Luvu (443 snaps) led the way for the Jets on the edge in 2018. All three players earned below average pass rush grades from Pro Football Focus. Jenkins has the most upside of the group, going in the 3rd round in 2016, but he hasn’t shown himself to be anything more than a serviceable starter thus far in 3 seasons in the league. A breakout is possible, now in his 4th season in the league, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Copeland and Luvu, meanwhile, are former undrafted free agents, 2013 and 2018 respectively. Copeland is a solid run stuffer on early downs and should continue having a role, while Luvu is most likely to see his snaps drop with the addition of Polite. The good news is the Jets are sticking with a 3-4 base defense that fits their personnel better than a 4-3 would have. Most expected new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams would transition them to the 4-3 scheme he’s run in recent years, but credit Williams for being willing to adjust his scheme to fit his personnel. Despite that, unless either Polite or Jenkins have a surprise breakout year, this is likely to remain an underwhelming position group.
Many expected the Jets to take an edge defender with their 3rd overall pick (or to trade down and select one later) and they could have taken Kentucky edge defender Josh Allen, who would have been a perfect fit for their 3-4 defense, but they decided to take Alabama interior defender Quinnen Williams instead. Williams is probably the better prospect and some felt he was the top overall prospect in the draft, but he doesn’t fill nearly as big of a need, as the Jets already have an impressive duo of interior defenders in Henry Anderson and Leonard Williams. The Jets will be able to use all three at the same time in base packages, but that would require playing someone (likely Quinnen Williams) out of position at nose tackle and in sub packages one of them will have to come off the field.
A year ago, Henry Anderson would have been the obvious candidate to come off the field in sub packages, as he’s a great run stuffer, but didn’t break out as a pass rusher until last season, when he had 7 sacks, 10 hits, and 31 hurries on 459 pass rush snaps, an impressive 10.5% pressure rate. He had just 3 sacks in his first 3 seasons in the league prior to last season, but that was in large part due to the fact that he missed 19 games with injury and his peripheral pass rush stats were better than his sack totals, as he added 12 hits and 40 hurries on 683 pass rush snaps (8.1% pressure rate). When the Jets re-signed him to a 3-year, 25.2 million dollar deal this off-season, it looked likely he’d have a similar role to the 668 snaps he played as an every down player in 2018, but the addition of Quinnen Williams complicates things.
It would be tough for the Jets to take Leonard Williams off the field, as he’s averaged 864 snaps per season in 4 years in the league and has excelled. He has just 17 sacks, but his peripheral pass rush stats are much better, as he’s added 67 hits and 122 hurries on 2,065 pass rush snaps (10.0% pressure rate), while playing at a high level against the run as well. Leonard Williams is in the final year of his rookie deal and perhaps Quinnen Williams’ selection is a sign they don’t intend to pay Leonard Williams the top of the market deal he’s likely asking for. It wouldn’t make sense for the Jets to just let a player like Leonard Williams walk and hope to collect a mid round compensatory pick though. He could keep getting better, still only in his age 25 season.
The Jets also have veteran run stuffer Steve McLendon and 2018 3rd round pick Nathan Shepherd in the mix on an incredibly deep defensive line. McLendon was their primary nose tackle in 2018. He finished as Pro Football Focus’ 20th ranked interior defender against the run on 471 snaps and has been a dominant run stuffer for years, but he’s going into his age 33 season and lacks an obvious role on this defense with Quinnen Williams coming in. Shepherd, meanwhile, only played 343 snaps as a rookie and, even though he played well, it’s hard to see him having a bigger role in 2019 unless multiple players get injured. This is a very deep group.
The Jets’ big free agent addition on defense was ex-Ravens middle linebacker CJ Mosley, who signed a shocking 5-year, 85 million dollar deal. That’s the kind of money typically reserved for defensive linemen who get to the quarterback regularly. Mosley is not only the highest paid off ball linebacker in the NFL by a significant margin (2nd highest average annual value is 13.5 million), but he’s also the highest paid back 7 player (2nd highest average annual value is 15.05 million).
In today’s NFL, having good coverage linebackers is more important than ever, but Mosley is much more of an old school thumper than a standout coverage linebacker. His limitations in coverage are part of why he’s never finished higher than 17th among off ball linebackers on Pro Football Focus in a season, despite having the 5th most tackles in the NFL over the past 5 seasons. This deal feels like a team overpaying for a player because they have money to spend.
Mosley replaces Darron Lee, who was PFF’s 22nd ranked off ball linebacker last season, before getting suspended for performance enhancing drugs and eventually getting traded to the Chiefs for a 2020 6th round pick. Given that Lee played pretty well when on the field last season, it’s unclear how much of an upgrade Mosley will even be. Lee could have given them solid play at a much cheaper price and is arguably a better player in coverage, finishing 3rd among off ball linebackers in coverage grade on PFF in 2018, but the Jets decided to splurge on Mosley instead.
Mosley will start inside next to Avery Williamson, who the Jets brought in from Tennessee on a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal last off-season. Mosley and Williamson not a great fit together because both players are much better moving forward than moving backwards. Williamson has finished in the top-10 among off ball linebackers against the run on PFF in 3 straight seasons, but is a mediocre coverage linebacker. The Jets could be very tough to run on this season, especially given their defensive line, but they will likely also have a lot of trouble covering tight ends and running backs on underneath routes.
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson was the Jets’ free agent prize last off-season, signing a 5-year, 72.5 million dollar deal, but he too was an overpay. Johnson and all of the Jets’ free agent additions this off-season were signed by Mike Maccagnan when he was GM. The Jets originally kept Maccagnan at the start of the off-season, despite making a change at head coach, and the Jets let Maccagnan tie up their cap long-term with big contracts and make all their draft picks this off-season, but then they decided to let Maccagnan go after the draft, reportedly due to a rift between him and Adam Gase about some of Maccagnan’s signings.
Trumaine Johnson is not a bad cornerback, but he’s the 3rd highest paid cornerback in the NFL and has only once finished in the top-20 among cornerbacks on Pro Football Focus. Last season, he finished 24th at his position, but he also missed 6 games with injury. Having him healthy for a full season should be a boost to this secondary, but Johnson is not the cornerback the Jets are paying him to be.
Along with edge defender, cornerback was a big position of need going into this off-season, with #2 cornerback Morris Claiborne and #3 cornerback Buster Skrine both going into free agency. Like edge defender, they didn’t really do much to address the position this off-season. They signed ex-Falcon Brian Poole to a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal in free agency to replace Skrine on the slot and will be moving Darryl Roberts, who they re-signed to a 3-year, 18 million dollar deal this off-season, from safety to cornerback to start opposite Johnson.
Roberts also has experience at cornerback and has played pretty well at both cornerback and safety over the past 2 seasons, but he only has 16 career starts in 4 seasons in the league and a projection to a larger role as a season long starter. The 2015 7th round pick is already in his age 29 season and may prove to be overmatched as an every down outside cornerback. Poole, meanwhile, was a decent slot cornerback over the past 3 seasons in Atlanta, but they still decided to go in a different direction this off-season and declined to give him a 2.025 million dollar tender as a restricted free agent. Both Roberts and Poole could hold up alright, but that’s far from certain and they have little depth behind them in case one struggles.
Their top reserve cornerbacks are likely Derrick Jones and Parry Nickerson, 6th round picks in 2017 and 2018 respectively. Jones has played just 1 game in his career, 38 snaps against the Patriots in week 17 last season, while Nickerson struggled mightily on 213 snaps as a rookie in 2018. Neither is a lock for a final roster and both would likely struggle if they had to see extended action. It’s a surprise the Jets didn’t add a cornerback through the draft at all this year.
The Jets lack proven edge rushers, don’t have a good coverage linebacker, and have questions at cornerback, but safety is a position of strength, which will mask their issues against the pass somewhat. Third year safety Jamal Adams is arguably their best defensive player. A true do everything safety, Adams can cover deep zones, he can cover tight ends, he can play the run and stack the box, and he’s an excellent blitzer, with 3.5 sacks, 5 hits, and 13 hurries on just 82 pass rush attempts last season. All in all, he was PFF’s 4th ranked safety in 2018. Adams didn’t play as well as a rookie in 2017, but he was the 6th overall pick and came into the league with a sky high upside, so he could easily continue being one of the top safeties in the league for years to come.
Fellow starting safety Marcus Maye is also going into his 3rd season in the league, taken 39th overall in 2017. Maye struggled as a rookie, finishing 79th out of 94 qualifying safeties on PFF, but he was much better in 2018, finishing 12th among safeties on PFF, though injuries limited him to 6 games. That’s a small sample size, but it’s very possible Maye could continue playing at a high level in 2019. If both Adams and Maye stay healthy all season, they could be one of the better safety duos in the league. They’re pretty thin behind them though, as they are at cornerback. They could move Roberts back to safety if there’s an injury to either Maye or Adams, but that would leave them with a hole at cornerback. This could be a solid group if everyone stays healthy, but their lack of depth is concerning.
The Jets’ roster is better this season, but they need Sam Darnold to take a big step forward if they are going to make the playoffs. They still have issues on the offensive line and, while their defense should play the run well, it looks likely to struggle against the pass. They’re a sleeper team, but ultimately I think Darnold is a year or two away and that there are more talented teams contending for wild card spots in the AFC. I will have an official prediction later in the off-season.
Prediction: 6-10, 3rd in AFC East