New York Jets 2020 NFL Season Preview

Quarterback

The Jets had a clear plan when they began rebuilding during the 2017 off-season: clear cap space in the short-term, acquire a high pick in the 2018 NFL Draft to get a potential franchise quarterback on a rookie deal, and use that freed up cap space to be aggressive in building around that quarterback in free agency while the quarterback is still cost controlled. They’ve more or less stuck with the plan, but it has yet to yield results, in part because neither the quarterback they drafted nor the veterans they’ve added around him have been as good as expected yet.

I’ll get to the disappointing veteran signings later, but the quarterback, former 3rd overall pick Sam Darnold, still has plenty of time to change things, as he’s still only turning 23 this summer. Darnold was considered raw coming out of USC and was the youngest week 1 starting quarterback in NFL history when he won the job in training camp as a rookie, so it’s not a surprise he’s had growing pains. He still has a high ceiling.

Darnold especially struggled to begin his career, completing 55.0% of his passes for an average of 6.69 YPA, 11 touchdowns, and 14 interceptions in his first 9 career starts before getting injured and missing 3 games. When he returned, he appeared to be a different quarterback, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception in the final 4 games of the season, which gave the Jets a lot of hope for his second year.

Instead, Darnold ended up getting sick early in the year, costing him 3 games, and when he returned he didn’t seem to be 100% and couldn’t regain his late rookie season form, finishing with 61.9% completion, 6.86 YPA, 19 touchdowns, and 13 interceptions to give him a QB rating that was less than 7 points higher than his rookie year rating and that ranked just 26th in the NFL out of 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus’ graded him similarly to his statistical production, giving him the 31st highest grade out of 39 qualifying quarterbacks.

Even as underwhelming as Darnold was, the Jets still had a winning record when he was in the lineup at 7-6 and they finished the season on a bit of a roll, winning 6 of their last 8, but they benefited one of the easiest schedules in the NFL. None of their 7 wins came against a team that finished with a winning record until they beat the Bills’ backups in a meaningless week 17 game. Aside from the Bills, the combined record of the teams they defeated was 35-61 and just two of those wins came by more than a touchdown. Even during their 6-2 stretch, they lost by multiple scores to a Bengals team that won 2 games all season and against the one better than average team they faced they were blown out in Baltimore. Despite one of the easiest schedules in the NFL, the Jets finished 26th in first down rate differential at -3.61%.

Part of that is simply how bad the Jets were without Darnold, as they managed a pathetic 18.01% first down rate in the 3 games Darnold missed, but the 31.28% first down rate they had in Darnold’s 13 starts would have ranked just 30th in the NFL over the full season and they had a negative first down rate differential in those starts (-1.42%), despite a winning record. The Jets’ schedule goes from one of the easiest in the NFL last year to one of the hardest this year, so Darnold is going to have to take a big step forward in his third year for the Jets to keep winning games.

If Darnold misses time again, as he has in both seasons he’s been in the league, the Jets are hoping they have a better backup situation after both Trevor Siemian and especially Luke Falk were awful in Darnold’s absence last season. With both Siemian and Falk not under contract for 2020, the Jets looked elsewhere for a backup this off-season, bringing in former Ravens and Broncos quarterback Joe Flacco. 

Flacco is going into his age 35 season and, if his play over the past few seasons is any indication, he’s done as a starting caliber quarterback in the NFL, but he has plenty of experience (171 career starts) and you could do a lot worse than Flacco if you need to go to a backup. The issue is Flacco is still recovering from a neck injury that ended his 2019 season prematurely, so he might not be ready to be the backup at the start of the year, potentially leaving only raw 4th round rookie David Morgan behind Darnold on the depth chart for the start of the season, meaning they’d be in trouble if Darnold missed time early in the season again.

Grade: C+

Offensive Line

The Jets weren’t able to be as aggressive in free agency this off-season as they were in 2018 and 2019, when they guaranteed 102.8 million (2nd in the NFL) and 124.5 million (1st) respectively to outside free agents, but they still ranked 9th in the NFL with 51 million in guarantees to outside free agents this off-season. The offensive line was their focus and rightfully so, as they were Pro Football Focus’ 3rd worst ranked run blocking offensive line and 5th worst pass protecting offensive line last season, which is a bigger reason why they struggled than anything wrong with Darnold’s game. We saw it last year when Darnold was out; this offense didn’t have a chance with him, partially because of who was backing him up, but in large part because of the supporting cast and offensive line.

Seemingly inspired by the Bills’ moves on the offensive line last off-season, the Jets went for quantity over quality this off-season. With several pending free agents on last year’s troubled line, the Jets were able to completely retool their offensive line by signing 3 free agents, using a pair of draft picks, and re-signing incumbent left guard Alex Lewis. Those players will compete with holdover right guard Brian Winters and holdover right tackle Chuma Edoga for starting jobs on this new look line.

Whether these additions will be worth the investment the Jets made is questionable, particularly top free agent signing George Fant, who comes over from the Seahawks on a 3-year, 27.3 million dollar deal that was one of the more head-scratching contracts of the off-season. Undrafted in 2016, Fant struggled mightily as a rookie in what to date is still the only extended starting experience of his career, making 10 starts at left tackle and finishing as PFF’s 83rd ranked offensive tackle out of 86 qualifiers. He then missed all of 2017 with a torn ACL, and, while he’s been better in 2 seasons since, he’s been limited to 843 snaps and has primarily played as a blocking tight end/6th offensive linemen on obvious run plays in the Seahawks’ run heavy offense. Of the 843 snaps he’s played over the past 2 seasons, 438 of them have come at tight end, as opposed to 263 at left tackle and 142 at right tackle.

It’s one thing to have success as a 6th offensive lineman who plays almost exclusively on run plays, but as a starter he’ll need to hold up in pass protection as well, something he struggled with in his first stint as a starter. It’s also worth noting that despite having poor right tackle play throughout Fant’s tenure as the 6th offensive lineman, the Seahawks never gave him a chance to be a regular starter, which is saying something coming from the team that had him for 4 years.

Even though he’s a projection to a starting role, the Jets are paying him close to top-5 right tackle money on an annual basis and they already had an intriguing right tackle on the roster in Chuma Edoga, a 2019 3rd round pick who struggled in 8 rookie year starts, but who still had long-term upside. For a while, it looked like both Fant and Edoga would start, but the selection of Louisville’s Mekhi Becton with the 11th overall pick likely means that Fant will start on the right side, with Edoga as the swing tackle and Becton on the blindside. Fant was an overpay any way you look at it.

The Jets also signed ex-Bronco Connor McGovern and ex-Panther Greg Van Roten this off-season, bringing them in on deals worth 27 million and 10.5 million respectively over 3 years. McGovern’s salary locks him in as the starting center, where he made all 16 starts for the Broncos last season. Originally a 5th round pick in 2016, McGovern began his career at right guard, where he made 5 starts in 2017 and 15 starts in 2018, but he struggled, including a 56th ranked finish out of 88 qualifying guards on PFF in 2018, before moving to center in 2019. McGovern seemed much more comfortable with his new position, finishing as PFF’s 9th ranked center on the season. His contract only makes him the 11th highest paid center in the league and is less than Fant’s, so it’s a much better value, even if he is only a one-year wonder.

Van Roten, meanwhile, will compete with incumbent guards Alex Lewis and Brian Winters. Van Roten has made 27 starts over the past 2 seasons, but he has earned middling grades and those are the only starts of his 8-year career, so he’s probably best as a reserve. His contract is more in line with being a backup though, which is what he’ll most likely be, so he was a solid signing. Lewis’ 3-year, 18.6 million dollar contract likely locks him back in at left guard, where he made 12 starts last season. Lewis earned middling grades as well, as he did in 18 starts in 3 seasons with the Ravens, but the Jets apparently liked what they saw, paying him 6 million for 2020.

Winters’ 7.3 million dollar salary seems to suggest he’ll keep his starting job, but none of that is guaranteed, so the Jets could still move on without penalty if Van Roten beats him out in camp. Winters has been a capable starter over the past few seasons, making 79 starts in 7 seasons in the league, all with the Jets, but his salary is a little oversized and he’s been pretty injury prone as well, only once making all 16 starts and being limited to 7 games last season. Fourth round rookie Cameron Clark could also be in the mix for playing time at some point, but almost definitely not until later in the season. This is a retooled offensive line and should be improved over last year’s group, but that could be largely by default, as they lack a standout offensive lineman and heavily overpaid for their biggest offensive line signing George Fant.

Grade: B-

Receiving Corps

The Jets also made a significant external signing at wide receiver, bringing in Breshad Perriman from the Buccaneers to replace free agent departure Robby Anderson as their top outside receiver. Perriman’s 1-year, 6.5 million dollar contract is less money than Anderson’s 2-year, 20 million dollar deal with the Panthers, but Perriman has the upside to be better than Anderson who, in four years with the team, topped out with a 63/941/7 slash line and a 42nd ranked finish among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2017.

A first round pick in 2015 by the Ravens, Perriman’s career got off to about as bad of a start as possible. He missed his entire rookie year with injury and was limited to 43 catches for 576 yards and 3 touchdowns over the next two seasons, while averaging 1.06 yards per route run. As a result, he was let go by the Ravens and forced to take a minimum deal with the Browns for the 2018 season. He barely played early on, but caught 16 passes for 334 yards and 2 touchdowns on 2.54 yards per route run over the final 8 games of the season, which earned him a bigger one year deal with the Buccaneers for 2019. 

In Tampa Bay, he again didn’t make much of an impact early in the season, but mostly because he had Mike Evans and Chris Godwin playing above him, dominating targets. Both Evans and Godwin suffered injuries late in the season and Perriman responded to the additional playing time by topping 100 yards receiving in each of the final 3 games of the season. He finished with a career best 36/645/6 slash line and a 41st ranked finish on PFF. Still only going into his age 27 season, Perriman could easily have his best statistical year yet in 2020. He doesn’t quite fit the system as well as he did in Tampa Bay with Jameis Winston and Bruce Arians’ aggressive downfield attack, but he’ll get a much bigger share of the targets and Darnold has plenty of arm to hit him deep, as he did with Anderson (15.0 yards per catch over the past 2 seasons).

Anderson wasn’t the only wide receiver the Jets needed to replace this off-season, as fellow starting wide receiver Demaryius Thomas also had his contract expire, but he’s not tough to replace, as he had just a 36/433/1 slash line in 11 games. The Jets opted to replace him in the draft, dipping into a deep wide receiver class and getting a great value with Baylor’s Denzel Mims at 59 overall. Mims should see playing time immediately as a starter in three wide receiver sets, with no real competition for playing time. He’ll likely have growing pains as a rookie, but brings an explosive element that the veteran Thomas didn’t have anymore.

Jamison Crowder remains locked in as the primary slot receiver and could easily end up leading this team in receiving for the second straight year, after doing so with a 78/833/6 slash line in 2019. The 5-9 177 pounder is only a slot receiver, running 75.8% of his routes from the slot in his career, and he’s likely maxed out in terms of his abilities, but he’s averaged a 66/769/4 slash line per 16 games for his career and, still only going into his age 27 season, could easily continue being a solid slot receiver for several more years. Depth is a problem behind the Jets top-3 receivers though, as Vyncint Smith has been underwhelming on 496 snaps in 2 seasons in the league, while free agent acquisition Josh Doctson is a journeyman who has never topped 532 yards receiving in a season despite ample opportunity. 

The Jets didn’t make an addition at tight end this off-season, but they do get Chris Herndon back from injury, which could be a big boost. As a fourth round rookie in 2018, Herndon showed a lot of potential, totaling a 39/502/4 slash line and averaging 1.66 yards per route run (11th among qualifying tight ends), while finishing as PFF’s 10th ranked tight end overall on 625 snaps, but injuries and suspension limited him to 18 snaps and one catch in his second season in the league. The Jets remain high on his upside, so he could easily have his expected 2019 breakout year a year late in 2020, still only in his age 24 season.

In Herndon’s absence, Ryan Griffin led all tight ends with 662 snaps played and posted a 34/320/5 slash line in just 13 games. He’s best as a #2 tight end, as he’s never topped 442 receiving yards or earned more than a middling grade from PFF in 7 years in the league and that’s what he’ll be when Herndon is healthy. Griffin’s usage in the passing game as a limited talent just shows the potential that a talent like Herndon can have in this offense when he’s healthy. This receiving corps lacks a true #1 receiver, but it’s not a bad group when everyone is healthy.

Grade: B-

Running Backs

Without a true #1 wide receiver, the Jets could really use a bounce back year from feature back Le’Veon Bell. Signed to a 4-year, 52.5 million dollar contract, Bell was the prize of the Jets’ off-season last year and was expected to take this offense to another level, but instead he led the way for a team that had a league worst 3.28 yards per carry on the season. Bell carried the ball 145 times, but didn’t produce one carry of more than 20 yards and averaged just 3.22 YPC, worst in the NFL among backs with at least 160 carries.

It wasn’t just that he wasn’t busting the big carries either, as he ranked 40th out of 45 qualifying running backs with a 42% carry success rate, struggling to keep this offense on track. Blocking was a big issue and Bell’s peripheral numbers suggest he wasn’t the main problem, as he averaged 2.67 YPC after contact and broke 41 tackles on the season, but he ranked just 21st among running backs on Pro Football Focus overall, a far cry from his top form and the back that the Jets thought they were getting when they signed him to a massive contract.

At his best, Bell was one of the top dual threat running backs in the league, averaging a 322/1462/9 slash line on the ground and a 87/738/2 slash line through the air per 16 games in his final 4 seasons in Pittsburgh. However, his average dropped to 4.02 yards per carry in his final season with the Steelers and he didn’t do himself any favors by taking the 2018 season off because he was unhappy with being franchise tagged by the Steelers. It was expected his numbers would take a hit with a worse supporting cast in New York, but few expected him to be arguably the least efficient running back in the NFL. Bell has bounce back potential with a better supporting cast in 2020, but he’s going into his age 28 season with 1,852 career touches, even though he took a whole season off and has only once played all 16 games due to a combination of injury and suspension, so it’s very possible his best days are behind him.

Bell has also had issues with head coach Adam Gase, who in a bizarre organizational move was given total control of the roster in his first year with the team, after the Jets let former GM Mike Maccagan spend significant money in free agency. Gase reportedly didn’t agree with the decision to bring Bell in and, after an underwhelming first season in New York, that doesn’t seem to have changed. With a guaranteed 13.5 million dollar salary for 2020, the Jets were unable to trade him this off-season, but they did bring in something they didn’t have last season, which is another back that Gase can give some of the work, as veteran Frank Gore was signed to a 1-year deal.

Gore is remarkably entering his 15th year in the NFL at the running back position, but seemed to be running out of gas last season, averaging 3.61 yards per carry and ranking 36th out of 45 qualifying with a 45% carry success rate. Gore ranks 3rd all-time in rushing yards with 15,347 and has somehow topped 100 carries in every season of his career, but the history of running backs who have been productive at age 37 or later is basically non-existent. If he carries the ball more than 13 times he’d join Marcus Allen and John Henry Johnson (1966) as the only backs to do that at 37 or older and he has a decent shot at breaking Allen’s record for 124 carries in a season after age 37. 

Gore has the trust of Adam Gase, who worked with him in Miami in 2018, so he should steal at least some of Bell’s work, even if he isn’t all that effective. The Jets also used a 4th round pick on Lamical Perine, but he’s not likely to get much of a chance if any until 2021, when Gore could be retired and when Bell will likely be let go ahead of a 11.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary. It’s not a bad backfield, but the Le’Veon Bell of his prime Pittsburgh days could be gone forever and Gore could be totally over the hill.

Grade: B

Interior Defenders

Despite the Jets having an underwhelming season overall, they actually finished 4th in first down rate allowed, although that’s a little misleading. Not only did they face one of the easiest schedules in the league, but they also were closer to the 17th ranked Cowboys than the 1st ranked Patriots with a 32.66% first down rate allowed. The biggest reason why they had success defensively last season was the 3-man defensive line on the interior of this 3-4 defense, which was a big part of the reason why the Jets ranked 2nd with 3.34 yards per carry allowed. They traded pending free agent Leonard Williams at the trade deadline, but they’re so deep on the line that it didn’t really matter and, aside from Williams, the Jets return their top-5 in snaps played on this defensive line for 2020, so expect more of the same from this group.

Quinnen Williams has the most upside of the group, as he was the 3rd overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft and is still only going into his age 23 season. His rookie year wasn’t as good as it could have been, as he missed 3 games with injury and was limited in others, but he still earned an average grade from Pro Football Focus on 512 snaps. Now going into his 2nd year in the league, he’s an obvious candidate for a breakout year and a bigger snap share. He has the ability to play anywhere on the interior of this defensive line in any situation. He was better as a run stuffer than a pass rusher last season (5.4% pressure rate), but he has the upside to be a high level player in both aspects.

Williams still led the position in snaps despite the injuries and missed time, as the Jets like to rotate the rest of these linemen. Steve McLendon had the 2nd most snaps with 465 and was arguably the best of the bunch. Not only did he excel in a primarily base package role, earning PFF’s 10th highest run stopping grade among interior defenders, he also showed some pass rush in the limited opportunities he got to rush the quarterback, with 2.5 sacks and a 7.6% pressure rate. That’s higher than his career 5.4% rate, but he’s consistently been a solid base package run stuffer and has finished in the top-26 at his position in run stuffing grade in 3 straight seasons. He’s never played more than 488 snaps in a season though, so his upside is capped, and he’s going into his age 34 season, so he comes with significant potential downside if his abilities fall off.

Henry Anderson figures to remain the other starter in base packages, as he started all 13 games he played last season and had the 3rd most snaps on this 3-man defensive line with 446. Unlike McLendon, who is a pure base package player, Anderson has the versatility to play in all situations and stay on the field for obvious passing downs. A third round pick in 2015, Anderson has a career 8.4% pressure rate, while being an above average interior run stuffer. 

Anderson is coming off the lowest PFF grade of his career though and, while that was likely due to playing through some injuries, he’s had injury problems throughout his career, missing 22 of 80 possible games and only once playing a full 16 game set. He’s only in his age 29 season, so he should have at least another couple seasons left as a solid starter, but he’s likely to miss at least some time at some point. Even if he does, he could exceed last year’s snaps total, but given how much the Jets like to rotate defensive linemen and how much depth they have at the position, there’s a cap to how much he’ll play on a per game basis.

Folorunso Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd remain as the top reserves. A sixth round pick in 2018, Fatukasi had a mini breakout year last year as a run stuffer, after playing just 3 snaps as a rookie. He only played 390 snaps last season, but he finished as PFF’s 5th ranked run stopper. He barely breathed on the quarterback with just a 3.3% pressure rate, but he played 52.6% of his snaps on run plays, as primarily a base package player, so he isn’t needed much as a pass rusher. He might not be quite as good as a run stuffer in 2020, but he should at least have another solid season in a situational role.

Shepherd, on the other hand, is more of a pass rusher, with a 8.5% pressure rate in 2 seasons in the league. He’s been limited to 575 snaps total, in part because he missed 7 last season, but the 2018 3rd round pick could easily set a new career high in snaps this season and take another step forward in his third season in the league. This remains a deep defensive line and one that should continue playing well, especially against the run.

Grade: B+

Edge Defenders

While the Jets are strong on the interior, the same is not true on the edge, so it’s a bit surprising they didn’t add an edge defender as part of their off-season shopping spree, for the 3rd off-season in a row, opting instead to only use a 3rd round pick on Jabari Zuinga to try to improve the position. Zuinga enters the league very raw, but still should compete for a significant role as a rookie, given the Jets’ issues at the position.

The Jets did hand out one new contract at the position, bringing back Jordan Jenkins on a 1-year, 3.75 million dollar deal. Jenkins isn’t a high level player, but he’s been a capable starter in 4 years with the Jets since being added in the third round in 2016, so it’s a bit surprising he didn’t have more of a market, especially since he’s still only going into his age 26 season. The Jets have to be happy to have him back at that price, as he’s been their best edge defender by default over the past 2 seasons and should continue doing so in 2020. He should also be considered the favorite to lead this team in sacks for the third straight season, after doing so with 7 sacks in 2018 and 8 sacks in 2019.

Holdovers Tarell Basham and Kyle Phillips will also be in the mix for snaps, after playing 590 and 549 respectively last season, but neither look likely to emerge as the edge defender they need opposite Jenkins. Basham has the most upside of the two and is coming off a better season as well. Originally a third round pick in 2017 by the Colts, Basham played just 231 snaps in 16 games in a year and a half with the Colts before being let go and ending up with the Jets. In his full first season in New York in 2019, he finally started to show why he had been drafted relatively high. 

Basham only managed 2 sacks last season, but had a solid 11.9% pressure rate overall, suggesting he should have had a few more sacks. He’s a one-year wonder as even a solid rotational player, but he has the upside to keep getting better, only in his age 26 season. Phillips, meanwhile, is a second year undrafted free agent who was solid against the run, but didn’t get any pressure on the quarterback, with a 5.8% pressure rate. After struggling in a larger role, he should be limited to situational work going forward, even in a thin position group.

One option for the Jets on the edge would be to go after free agent Jadeveon Clowney, who remains unsigned despite his high level talent because of a questionable injury situation and a significant salary demand. Clowney is reportedly willing to come down on his ask a little bit and the Jets should be interested if Clowney is willing to play for the Jets, as he’s the kind of player who can elevate this whole defense when healthy and he’d fill a tremendous need. The Jets don’t have a ton of cap space left with about 14 million, but they could release expendable veterans like guard Brian Winters if they needed to free up space for Clowney, who would provide significantly more value. For now, this is a very underwhelming edge group.

Grade: C+

Linebackers

The Jets had a ton of injury problems last season, actually leading the league in adjusted games lost to injury. Most of the players who missed time with injury are either insignificant, no longer with the team, or still injured, so the Jets aren’t going to be getting nearly as much help from players returning from injury as you’d think, but one position where they should be significantly better in 2020 due to better health is linebacker. Not only did expected starter Avery Williamson tear his ACL before the season started, costing him his whole season, but his expected running mate CJ Mosley was limited to 114 snaps in two games by a groin injury. In their absence, Neville Hewitt, James Burgess, and Blake Cashman played 762, 662, and 424 snaps respectively and all three struggled mightily, finishing 95th, 70th, and 83rd respectively among 100 qualifying off ball linebackers on PFF.

Mosley was the bigger loss, as, along with Le’Veon Bell, he was the prize of last off-season’s free agent spending spree, coming over from the Ravens on a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal that makes him the second highest paid off ball linebacker in the league. It was an overpay, but there’s no denying he’ll make them a better defense if he can stay on the field. A first round pick in 2014, Mosley has been an above average starter basically since the word go, starting every game he’s played in his career and earning an above average grade from Pro Football Focus in every season in the league. His salary is an overpay because he’s never finished higher than 16th among off ball linebackers on PFF, but he’s miles better than what the Jets had at the position last season. He’s also still young, only going into his age 28 season, and, perhaps most importantly, doesn’t have a significant injury history, missing just 3 games in 5 seasons prior to last year.

Williamson, meanwhile, had only missed 1 game in 5 seasons in the league prior to last year, so he doesn’t have any significant injury history either and he’ll be a full year removed from the injury by the start of the season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he returned to form, only in his age 28 season. He’s not as good of a player as Mosley, but he’s started 75 of 79 career games, averaging 55.9 snaps per game, and he excels as a run stuffer, finishing 4th, 2nd, and 9th among off ball linebackers against the run in 2016, 2017, and 2018 respectively. He’s not as good in coverage, but Mosley will be the primary coverage linebacker. There’s been talk that the Jets might move on from Williamson and his 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary, but considering how bad the Jets’ linebackers were in his absence last year, they would be better off moving on from someone else like Brian Winters if they need to free up cap space. Assuming they’re together and healthy, Mosley and Williamson should be a strong duo in the middle of this defense.

Grade: B+

Secondary

Cornerback is another position that the Jets didn’t really address significantly this off-season. They made the obvious choice to move on from free agent bust Trumaine Johnson and the rest of his 5-year, 72.5 million dollar deal, immediately saving 11 million in cash for 2020 in the process, and they moved on from the also disappointing Darryl Roberts and his 5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary as well, but they didn’t do much to replace them, only signing veteran free agent Pierre Desir to a one-year deal and using a 5th round pick on Virginia’s Bryce Hall.

Desir is only set to make 3.75 million this season, but he looks likely to be a starter outside by default. Desir signed a 3-year, 22.5 million dollar deal with the Colts just last off-season, after a career best year in 2018 when he finished as Pro Football Focus’ 19th ranked cornerback, but he fell to 91st out of 135 qualifying in 2019 and was cut ahead of a 6.5 million dollar non-guaranteed salary this off-season. It’s possible Desir could find his 2018 form again, but he’s never come close to being that good in any of his other 5 seasons in the league and he’s already going into his age 30 season, so he’s an underwhelming starting option.

Young cornerbacks Arthur Maulet and Blessuan Austin will compete to start at the other outside spot, with Austin likely having the edge. Despite only being a sixth round pick, Austin flashed a lot of potential as a rookie, finishing as PFF’s 31st ranked cornerback on 388 snaps. He didn’t play a single snap until week 10, but was a starter down the stretch and has earned a chance at being the starter long-term. Maulet also saw starts down the stretch last season, but was not as effective and he has played just 442 underwhelming snaps in 3 seasons in the league since going undrafted. He’s best as a depth cornerback.

The Jets did re-sign slot cornerback Brian Poole to a 1-year, 5 million dollar deal this off-season, which could prove to be one of the best value signings of the off-season, as Poole was easily the Jets’ best cornerback last season and was arguably one of the slot cornerback in the NFL, allowing just 0.57 yards per route run on 417 slot coverage snaps, tied for lowest among qualifying cornerbacks. Also a capable run stopper and blitzer, Poole finished last season as PFF’s 8th ranked cornerback overall. He’s a bit of a one-year wonder in terms of being a high level player, but he was a capable slot cornerback in 3 seasons with the Falcons prior to joining the Jets and he’s still only going into his age 28 season, so it’s surprising the Jets were able to keep him so inexpensively. He should remain their top cornerback in 2020, even if he isn’t quite as good as last year’s career best year.

Safety is a much stronger position than cornerback for the Jets, with Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye being one of the best safety duos in the NFL. Adams gets all the attention and rightfully so, as the 2017 6th overall pick has finished 3rd and 4th among safeties on PFF over the past 2 seasons respectively and doesn’t even turn 25 until later this season, but Maye was a 2nd round pick in that same draft and finished 21st among safeties this past season. He wasn’t as good as a rookie, but neither was Adams and Maye showed signs of his eventual 2019 breakout season during an injury plagued 2018 season, when he was PFF’s 11th ranked safety on 393 snaps in 6 games. 

Assuming both stay healthy, they should remain a high level safety duo and one or both could easily take another step forward. The Jets used a 3rd round pick on Ashtyn Davis to give them strong depth at the position as well, but unfortunately his addition could be a sign that the Jets aren’t planning on re-signing both Adams and Maye when their rookie contracts expire. Adams’ name has already been thrown around in trade talks with two years left on his deal and, while his price tag is expected to be high (a first round pick and more) it wouldn’t be a surprise if a team decided that was worth it and made a move. For a team that has largely unsuccessfully spent their money on outside free agents over the past few off-seasons, it would be a huge mistake to let any of the few talented homegrown players on this roster leave. For now, the Jets have a great safety trio that boosts this whole secondary, but that might not be the case for long.

Grade: B+

Conclusion

The Jets finished last season on a nice run, but their schedule gets significantly tougher this year, so they’ll have to improve if they want to continue being competitive. They have the potential to do that, but much of that relies on quarterback Sam Darnold taking a step forward, as this is still an underwhelming roster around the quarterback position. They Jets spent a lot of money in free agency and should have better injury health this year than last year, but they didn’t sign any high level players and, outside of CJ Mosley, Chris Herndon, and Avery Williamson, they aren’t getting much in terms of injury reinforcements, as many of the players who missed time last season are irrelevant, gone, or still injured. Barring a big breakout year from Sam Darnold, this team looks unlikely to take the next step and become a playoff contender. I will have an official prediction closer to the start of the season.

Final Update: The Jets lost one of their best players to an opt out, with CJ Mosley sitting out the season, and then traded away safety Jamal Adams. I still have them slightly ahead of the Dolphins, but their tougher schedule that includes the Browns and Colts instead of the Jaguars and Bengals may land the Jets in last place.

Projection: 4-12 (4th in AFC East)

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