Three years ago, the Jets thought they had finally solved their long-standing quarterback problem. Early in a planned rebuild, the Jets won a few more games than expected, but still ended up with the 6th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. Rather than staying put at 6, where they would have had the opportunity to select Pro Bowler Josh Allen behind of division rival Buffalo at 7, the Jets were aggressive and traded away a trio of second round picks a couple months before the draft just to move up to 3 to secure a more preferred quarterback, which ended up being Sam Darnold.
Darnold showed some promise in year one, despite being the youngest week 1 starting quarterback in NFL history, and he was especially good at the end of the year, completing 64.0% of his passes for an average of 7.45 YPA, 6 touchdowns, and 1 interception in his final 4 games of the 2018 season. However, that proved to be the highlight of Darnold’s tenure in New York. New head coach Adam Gase was brought in and, rather than building off his strong finish to 2018, Darnold regressed in each of the past two seasons, finishing 31st out of 39 eligible quarterbacks in 2019 and 28th out of 42 eligible quarterbacks in 2020.
2020 was an overall disaster of a year for Darnold and the Jets. The Jets lost their first 13 games of the season, with Darnold both missing some time with injury and not noticeably being an upgrade over veteran backup Joe Flacco when he was on the field. The Jets’ defense was actually decent last season, ranking 16th in first down rate allowed over expected, but their offense was by far the worst in the league, with a -5.21% first down rate over expected, with even the 31st ranked Broncos being noticeably better at -4.01%.
There was a lot of debate whether Darnold or his supporting cast were most to blame for the Jets’ offensive struggles, but in reality it was both equally, as Darnold was simultaneously pressured at a league high 42.1% rate and had the worst clean pocket passer rating in the league at 81.7, meaning Darnold was not only pressured more than anyone, but even when he wasn’t being pressured, he was still the worst quarterback in the league.
Making matters even worse, the Jets actually managed to win a couple games down the stretch to put themselves out of position for the #1 overall pick, which would have given them the surest #1 overall pick quarterback prospect in years in Trevor Lawrence, who ultimately went to the 1-15 Jaguars, who also were slightly behind the Jets in schedule adjusted first down rate differential (-5.62% vs. -5.85%) because of a much worse defense.
Had Lawrence fallen into their laps, the decision would have been an easy one for the Jets, but even though they only fell one spot to the 2nd overall pick, suddenly they had a lot more options to pick between, as there were 3-4 quarterback prospects who legitimately could have been the 2nd best quarterback prospect in the draft and there was also the possibility of keeping Darnold, only going into his age 24 season in 2021, and trading the pick for additional later picks to build around Darnold. Ultimately, the Jets settled on trading Darnold to the Panthers for a package of picks centered on a 2022 2nd round pick, a far cry from what the Jets gave up to acquire Darnold initially, and then used the 2nd overall pick on BYU’s Zach Wilson.
Wilson is far from the slam dunk option that Lawrence would have been, but it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Darnold and he should be better supported as well, with more talent around him and a coaching staff that can’t do a worse job of developing a young quarterback than Adam Gase’s crew, with new defensive minded head coach Robert Saleh bringing promising young offensive mind Mike LaFleur with him from the 49ers.
With only 2020 4th round pick James Morgan (0 pass attempts as a rookie) and veteran journeyman Mike White (also 0 career pass attempts) behind Wilson on the depth chart, the Jets are not even pretending they will have a quarterback competition and, while a more experienced veteran could still be added, there is no reason aside from injury not to expect Wilson to be under center week 1. Rookie quarterbacks are one of the toughest things to project and it’s possible the Jets could get poor quarterback play once again this year, but Wilson also gives them a much higher upside at the position than they had previously, which gives this team a lot of variance in terms of the range of outcomes of their 2021 season.
The Jets’ biggest off-season addition to help their young quarterback was giving a 3-year, 37.5 million dollar deal to Corey Davis to bring the former Tennessee Titan to New York to be Zach Wilson’s #1 receiver. The 5th overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, Davis never had the big numbers you would expect out of a player selected that high, in fact never surpassing the 1000 yard mark, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Davis had a 65/891/4 slash line in his second season in the league in 2018, averaged 1.83 yards per route run, and finished 30th among wide receivers on PFF, which seemed to predict more from him going forward. However, in 2019, the Titans added #1 wide receiver AJ Brown and committed themselves more to the run, leaving Davis to average 1.48 yards per route run and total just a 43/601/2 slash line while finishing as PFF’s 51st ranked wide receiver, after which the Titans opted to decline his 5th year option, which would have guaranteed him 15.68 million for injury in 2021.
Not much changed on the Titans’ offense in 2020, but, despite the circumstances, Davis still almost surpassed the 1000 yards mark in 14 games, finishing with a 65/984/5 slash line. He ranked 5th in yards per route run at 2.58 and was PFF’s 8th ranked wide receiver overall. He’s a one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level, but he’s averaged a respectable 1.95 yards per route run and 9.07 yards per target over the past three seasons combined and, now going into his age 26 season on an offense where he will almost definitely see more targets, Davis could have a breakout statistical year in 2021. I wouldn’t expect him to be quite as efficient as 2020, but he has a good chance to have his first 1000 yard receiving year as the #1 option in this passing game.
Jamison Crowder led the Jets’ in receiving in 2020 with a 59/699/6 slash line and he did it in just 12 games, while averaging an above average 1.79 yards per route run and finishing 39th among wide receivers on PFF, but he’s mostly just a slot specialist at 5-9 177 and the Jets made him take a significant pay cut down from 10.5 million this off-season for the final, non-guaranteed year of what was originally a 3-year, 28.5 million dollar deal he signed with the Jets two off-seasons ago. He’s averaged a solid 1.59 yards per route run in six seasons in the league and is only in his age 28 season, but he’s run 75.3% of his routes from the slot in his career, including 72.2% last season, and I would expect that number to increase in 2021, with the Jets having more capable outside options.
Corey Davis is one of those options, but the Jets also signed ex-Jaguar Keelan Cole to a 1-year, 5.5 million dollar deal in free agency, then used a 2nd round pick on Mississippi’s Elijah Moore, and they are expecting more out of 2020 2nd round pick Denzel Mims, who was limited to just 439 snaps in 9 games by injury as a rookie. Mims’ 1.45 yards per route run average wasn’t bad, but off-season practice reports show that this year’s 2nd round pick Moore is already ahead of him and, as a result, Mims could find himself buried on the depth chart in a much deeper group in 2021, though he’ll obviously have the opportunity to earn playing time.
Keelan Cole also isn’t guaranteed a starting role, despite his salary. An undrafted free agent in 2017, Cole’s best year was still his rookie year when he had a 42/748/3 slash line and averaged 1.61 yards per route run. He saw his playing time and production drop over the next two seasons, down to slash lines of 38/491/1 and 24/361/3 respectively, and, while it picked back up in 2020 to 55/642/5, that was largely due to volume, as he averaged just 1.11 yards per route run.
Overall in his career, Cole’s yards per route run average is just 1.27 and he hasn’t earned an above average grade from PFF since that rookie season. The Jets also have a good backup slot receiver in Braxton Berrios, who has gotten limited playing time in his career (375 career snaps), but has shown promise with a 2.04 yards per route run average. This is a very deep group and the Jets should be able to find a combination that works pretty well, even if some of the members of this group are a little bit questionable.
Tight end is a lot more questionable, as the Jets didn’t make any significant additions to a group that caught just a combined 41 passes last year. The Jets may be banking on more from fourth year tight end Chris Herndon, but the former 4th round pick’s career has gone south in a hurry. After showing promise with a 1.65 yards per route run average in a part-time role as a rookie, Herndon missed most of 2019 with injury and had a mediocre 31/287/3 slash line in 2020, despite playing 42.2 snaps per game in 16 games.
Overall, Herndon’s yards per route run average has plummeted to 0.86 over the past two seasons, about half of what it was as a rookie, and he’s not a good enough run blocker to make up for it. Still only going into his age 25 season, Herndon has theoretical upside, but we haven’t seen it in two years and, with Herndon now in the final year of his rookie deal, it’s a bit of a surprise the Jets didn’t add competition and/or a future replacement for him.
Without a better option, the Jets will likely turn back to Ryan Griffin as the #2 tight end. Griffin has plenty of experience, but he’s been marginal at best throughout his career, totaling just 179 catches in 105 career games, averaging 1.09 yards per route run, and not impressing as a blocker either. Going into his age 31 season, Griffin is unlikely to get any better going forward and could be coming to the end of his line. He’ll face competition from blocking specialist Trevon Wesco, who has played just 350 career snaps and caught just three passes since being added in the 4th round in 2019, and their one off-season addition, Tyler Kroft.
Kroft is similar to Griffin, in that he’s been in the league for 6 seasons, but has never earned more than a middle overall grade from PFF, while catching just 85 passes in 72 career games. Like Griffin, he would also be an underwhelming option. Barring a breakout year from Herndon, tight ends once again figure to take a backseat to wide receivers in this offense, especially since the Jets have improved their wide receiver group significantly this off-season.
The Jets also made a big addition on the offensive line this off-season, packaging their later first round pick, 23rd overall, acquired from the Seahawks in last year’s Jamal Adams trade, with a couple later round picks and sending them to the Vikings to move up to 14th overall to select USC offensive lineman Alijah Vera-Tucker, who is expected to play guard for the Jets. This team definitely needed offensive line help, ranking 31st in pass blocking grade and 20th in run blocking grade on PFF last season, but it was surprising to see the Jets trade a trio of picks just to move up for a guard when they had many other needs to address as well.
This was the second straight year the Jets selected an offensive lineman in the first round, after Mekhi Becton was selected 11th overall in the 2020 NFL Draft. Becton was easily their best offensive lineman as a rookie, finishing 32nd among offensive tackles on PFF, while playing the always important blindside. The only real problem with his rookie season was injuries limited him to just 691 snaps and when he was out the Jets didn’t have a chance of blocking opposing defensive fronts. Now going into his second season in the league, Becton obviously could keep getting better and he has the upside to develop into one of the top left tackles in the league, though that’s not a guarantee and even if he does develop into that kind of player, that development isn’t always linear and might not include a year two leap.
The Jets also made a big investment at right tackle last off-season, signing ex-Seahawk George Fant to a 3-year, 27.3 million dollar contract, but that move didn’t work out as well, as Fant was middling at best across 14 starts in his first season in New York and likely would have been released this off-season if a portion of his 2021 salary was not already guaranteed. Fant’s addition not working out isn’t all that surprising either, as he struggled mightily in the only extended starting experience of his career in 2016, before tearing his ACL and missing all of 2017, and only showing promise in limited action as a 6th offensive lineman upon his return in 2018-2019. It was very odd to see the Jets guarantee so much money to a player without much track record of success and it predictably has not paid off.
What made the move even stranger is that the Jets used a 3rd round pick the previous off-season in 2019 on offensive tackle Chuma Edoga and, though he struggled across 421 rookie year snaps, he could have played a bigger role in his 2nd season in the league. Instead, he was limited to 235 snaps as the swing tackle behind Fant and Becton. Edoga showed some promise in that limited action though and, even with Fant’s salary, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Edoga push to start at right tackle in 2021, now in his third season in the league. If he can’t take Fant’s job, he will settle in as an above average swing tackle.
The Jets also got disappointing play out of another 2020 off-season signing in Connor McGovern, who signed a 3-year, 27 million dollar deal to join the Jets from the Broncos and proceeded to finish 25th out of 38 eligible centers on PFF in 16 starts. McGovern at least has some bounce back potential because he ranked 9th among centers on PFF in 2019 in 16 starts, somewhat justifying his contract, but the 2016 5th round pick has also been pretty inconsistent across 52 career starts, so he’s hardly a guarantee to bounce back. His salary and lack of competition lock him into a starting role though.
Rounding out this offensive line at right guard, the Jets have a pair of veterans who both saw action last season in Greg Van Roten (752 snaps) and Alex Lewis (544 snaps). They occasionally played together, with Lewis on the left side and Van Roten on the right, but with Vera-Tucker coming in, they will now compete for one job. Neither one played badly last season, but they’ve been middling at best in their careers, across 40 starts in 9 seasons in the league and 39 starts in 5 seasons in the league respectively.
Lewis is slightly higher paid and slightly younger, with Van Roten heading into his age 31 season and possibly on the decline, but Van Roten has also been a slightly better player over the past couple seasons. Whoever loses the right guard job will provide depth on the interior, along with off-season acquisition Dan Feeney, who made 57 starts in 4 seasons with the Chargers (39 at guard and 18 at center), but never earned an above average grade and was PFF’s 2nd worst ranked center in the league last season. There is still some uncertainty in this group, but they have a pair of back-to-back first round pick offensive linemen to give them a high upside and center Connor McGovern has bounce back potential as well.
One position where the Jets could have made a bigger investment this off-season was running back. The Jets ranked 24th with 4.15 yards per carry last season and they did make additions this off-season in what is largely an overhauled group, but they didn’t make any high end additions, instead signing veteran Tevin Coleman to a 1-year, 1.1 million dollar deal in free agency and using a 4th round pick on North Carolina’s Michael Carter.
New offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur comes from the 49ers where they regularly used multiple running backs, including Tevin Coleman, who spent two past seasons in San Francisco, but they had a much better offensive line and this running back group doesn’t have anyone with a high upside. Along with Coleman and Carter, I would expect 2020 4th round pick Lamical Perine to factor into the mix, even though he averaged just 3.63 YPC as a rookie.
Perine and Carter have some upside, but Coleman figures to be the lead back because of his experience. Coleman has never topped 167 carries in a season and has only once played all 16 games in 6 seasons in the league, including a 2020 campaign in which he averaged just 1.89 YPC on 28 carries, but the 2015 3rd round pick is only in his age 28 season and has averaged a decent 4.24 YPC on 693 carries for his career. He’s not much of a receiver though, maxing out at 31 catches in a season, so it’s possible Carter or Perine will steal passing down work from him, in addition to being change-of-pace reserves.
It might have been hard to tell because of how terrible their offense was, but the Jets actually had a decent defense last season, ranking 16th in first down rate allowed over expected. However, that doesn’t mean they didn’t have big needs to address this off-season on the defensive side of the ball. One of those needs is the edge defender position, where the Jets didn’t have a player with more than 3.5 sacks last season and, in fact, have not had a player top 8 sacks since the 2013 season. That could change in 2021 though and the biggest reason for that is the addition of former Bengal Carl Lawson on a 3-year, 45 million dollar deal.
Lawson has only topped that 8-sack mark once in four seasons in the league, but that is in part due to injuries that cost him significant chunks of two seasons and his peripheral pass rush stats suggest he was better than his sack total, as he had just 20 sacks in 51 games, but added 60 hits and a 14.3% pressure rate. He leaves something to be desired against the run, but he’s finished in the top-27 among edge defenders in pass rush grade on PFF in three out of four seasons, including a 11th ranked finish in 2018 and a 8th ranked finish in 2020. Only in his age 26 season, he should give the Jets a much needed top level edge rusher for years to come, provided he can avoid further injury.
Tarell Basham and Jordan Jenkins led this group with 734 snaps and 528 snaps respectively, but both were underwhelming pass rushers and neither is with the team anymore, so this is a completely revamped group. Along with Lawson, the Jets also made some lower level veteran free agent additions this off-season, signing ex-Eagle Vinny Curry and ex-49er Ronald Blair to one-year deals worth 1.3 million and 1.1 million respectively.
Curry doesn’t have a huge sack total in his career, with just 32.5 in 123 games, but he’s always impressed as a situational pass rusher, playing just 27.4 snaps per game total and still posting impressive peripheral pass rush numbers with 66 hits and a 12.7% pressure rate. He’s now in his age 33 season and seems to be somewhat on the decline, but even if he isn’t, he’s not going to be more than a situational pass rusher for this team. He could be valuable in that role if he doesn’t drop off though.
Blair, meanwhile, was a 5th round pick of the 49ers in 2016 and showed some promise in his first four seasons of his career in San Francisco, with his best play coming in the final year of his rookie deal in 2019, but he was always buried on the depth chart on a talented defensive line, averaging just 25.1 snaps per game in 47 games over those four seasons, and his best season in 2019 was ended midway by a torn ACL, which ultimately led to him missing all of 2020 with injury. If he’s past his injury, he’s still theoretically in his prime in his age 28 season and he’s familiar with the system from his time in San Francisco with Robert Saleh, but between his injury and his overall lack of experience, he’s hard to project to a significant role.
The Jets are also moving from a 3-4 to a 4-3 base defense and will be playing John Franklin-Myers, one of their best interior rushers in 2020, almost exclusively on the edge in this new defensive front. Franklin-Myers is a big edge defender at 6-4 288, but it’s likely that Robert Saleh views him as his Arik Armstead in this defense and Armstead plays mostly outside at a similar weight. Franklin-Myers only played about half the snaps last season, but he was very effective as a pass rush specialist, totaling 3 sacks, 10 hits, and a 14.4% pressure rate, despite lining up in the interior on 79.9% of his pass rush snaps. However, that kind of came out of nowhere from him and he’s a complete one-year wonder in terms of playing at that level.
Franklin-Myers was a 4th round pick in 2018 and showed a little promise across 301 rookie year snaps, primarily playing on the edge, but couldn’t make the Rams’ final roster in year two and, after being signed by the Jets during the 2019 season, he got hurt and never ended up playing a snap for them all year, so his 2020 breakout year was unexpected to say the least. It’s possible he’s permanently turned a corner as a player, but I would bet against him matching last season’s level of play, even if he should be able to remain a capable rotational player upfront for the Jets.
Young options at this position who could earn roles include 2020 3rd round pick Jabari Zuniga, who played just 103 snaps as a rookie, 2020 undrafted free agent Bryce Huff, who also saw limited rookie year playing time with 296 snaps, and 2019 undrafted free agent Kyle Phillips, who has played 720 snaps in two seasons in the league, but has largely been mediocre. Zuniga would seem to have the highest upside of the three young players based on his draft status, but his draft status alone doesn’t guarantee he’ll become a contributor. Fortunately, the Jets won’t need to rely heavily on any of them in an improved group overall.
On the interior, the Jets will mostly lose John Franklin-Myers from last year’s group, with him expected to play most of his snaps on the edge this year, and they’ll also be without Henry Anderson, who was solid for them across 549 snaps last season and signed with the Patriots this off-season, but they won’t need quite as many snaps from interior defenders this season in their new 4-3 defense and they also made a significant signing in free agency, signing ex-Saint Sheldon Rankins to a 2-year, 11 million.
Rankins was a former first round pick of the Saints in 2016, selected 12th overall, and at one point it seemed like he would break the bank when he hit free agency, but instead he’ll actually take a paycut from the final year of his rookie deal, in which he got paid 7.69 million, due to the NFL’s shrunken cap this off-season, combined with Rankins having probably the worst year of his 5-year career in his 2020 contract year.
In 2018, Rankins seemed to have broken out as the player he was drafted to be, finishing 25th among interior defenders on PFF across 642 snaps, but the last two seasons have been filled with injury and inconsistency and he’s managed to play just 738 snaps in 22 games combined over those two seasons, while earning middling at best grades from PFF. It’s possible his injuries have permanently sapped his effectiveness and he also missed significant time as a rookie as well, meaning he’s missed 17 games total in 5 seasons in the league, but he’s still a former first round pick with something of a track record who is only in his age 27 season, so he was a worthwhile pickup on a relatively inexpensive two-year deal.
Rankins should start opposite another former first round pick Quinnen Williams, who led this group with 587 snaps played in just 13 games last season, despite only being in his second season. Williams also played at a high level, finishing as PFF’s 13th ranked interior defender and especially excelling as a pass rusher, leading this team with 7 sacks and adding another 9 hits and a 10.3% pressure rate.
Williams was only middling across 512 rookie year snaps in 2019, but he was the 3rd overall pick in 2019 and, not even turning 24 until December, he obviously has a massive upside and could develop into one of the top interior defenders in the league for years to come. Even if he does that, it isn’t a guarantee that he’ll take another big step forward right away in year three, but the future obviously looks very bright for him and his upside elevates the upside of this group significantly.
The Jets also still have reserves Folorunso Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd, who played 507 snaps and 336 snaps respectively last season and should continue seeing rotational roles in 2021. A 6th round pick in 2018, Fatukasi isn’t much of a pass rusher, with a career 4.3% pressure rate, but he finished as PFF’s 5th ranked interior defender against the run in 2020 and he had a similarly strong season on 390 snaps in 2019, finishing 2nd among interior defenders against the run. He might not have much more upside, but he should remain a very useful early down player for this defense.
Shepherd, meanwhile, saw more sub package snaps, but he wasn’t particularly good at anything last season and finished as PFF’s 116th ranked interior defender out of 139 eligible across 336 snaps. A 3rd round pick in 2018, Shepherd has shown more promise in the past, but he hasn’t played a whole lot, averaging just 304 snaps per season in his career. He could be a solid rotational player and he has the upside for more in his 4th season in the league, but he’s the least impressive of the four primary options the Jets have at a position that looks like a strength.
In the linebacking corps, the Jets big addition is actually a re-addition, as expected top off ball linebacker CJ Mosley opted out of the 2020 season and will return for 2021. Mosley was signed to a 5-year, 85 million dollar deal with 43 million guaranteed in free agency two off-seasons ago, but he was limited to 114 snaps in two games by injury in year one and then didn’t play a snap last season. The Jets didn’t have to pay his salary in 2020, but his contract tolls forward a year, meaning that instead of having his last year of guaranteed money on his deal in 2021, he’ll now have it in 2022, when he’ll be in his age 30 season. If Mosley doesn’t bounce back in 2021, the Jets may want to move on from him next off-season, but his contract situation won’t make that feasible.
Obviously, the Jets will be hoping he can bounce back and that’s definitely possible, but he was an overpay on this contract to begin with. He was selected in the first round in 2014 by the Ravens and was always at least a solid starter in his five seasons in Baltimore, a stretch in which he only missed 3 games and averaged 64.2 snaps per game, but he also never finished higher than 16th among off ball linebackers on PFF in any of those seasons. I wouldn’t expect that to change in 2021 after basically missing two straight seasons, but his re-addition should still be a benefit for this defense.
The Jets also added ex-Lion Jarrad Davis on a 1-year, 5.5 million dollar deal. That was a bit of a head-scratching deal because it’s a significant amount of money in an off-season in which most players had to take a below market value one-year deal and, even if Davis proves to be worth his pay in 2021, the deal doesn’t have any upside and the Jets will have to pay even more to keep him next off-season.
Davis’ deal also has significant downside as he was a consistently below average starter across 60.0 snaps per game in 41 games in his first 3 seasons in the league, including a career worst 97th out of 100 eligible across 654 snaps in 2019, and only earned his first average grade from PFF in 2020 when he played just 329 snaps as a reserve. The Jets seem likely to play him more than that and, even though he has theoretical upside in his age 27 season, he is likely to struggle in that increased role like he did early in his career.
None of the Jets’ off ball linebackers played well last season, but the Jets also let pretty much everyone walk, leaving them with little depth behind Mosley and Davis, which is a concern because neither one is a sure thing and, with the Jets moving to a 4-3 defense, they will have to play three off ball linebackers together in base packages on occasion, something they didn’t have to do in a 3-4.
Blake Cashman is their top returning linebacker and he only played three snaps all last season. That lack of playing time was primarily due to injuries and Cashman was a 5th round pick in 2019 who saw a more significant snap count (424) as a rookie, but Cashman struggled mightily in that rookie year action, finishing 83rd among 100 eligible off ball linebackers, and he had that season cut short by injury as well.
Assuming he can stay healthy, Cashman should see a role as the Jets’ third linebacker in base packages and could have to play an every down role if Davis and/or Mosley get injured and/or struggle. The Jets did use a 5th round pick on linebacker Jamien Sherwood and a 6th round pick on hybrid safety/linebacker Hamsah Nasirildeen, but it would be hard to rely on either one as a rookie, so Cashman seems likely to be the third linebacker by default. Even with Mosley coming back, this is a somewhat concerning position group.
Even though the Jets went on a big shopping spree this off-season, the one position they neglected was cornerback. On the contrary, the Jets actually let talented slot cornerback Brian Poole leave this off-season and are going to be embracing a youth movement at the position. Despite that youth movement, the Jets also didn’t spend any premium draft picks on the position, opting instead to use a pair of 5th round picks (Michael Carter, Jason Pinnock) and a 6th round pick (Brandin Echols) on developmental prospects that are unlikely to make an impact in year one.
Given that, the Jets will be depending on young cornerbacks already on this roster taking a step forward, including their top-3 returning cornerbacks Blessuan Austin (681 snaps), Bryce Hall (547 snaps), and Lamar Jackson (453 snaps), who all earned below average grades from PFF in 2020. None of those three were high draft picks either, so it’s tough to project any of them to take a significant step forward.
Austin, a 6th rounder in 2019, showed more promise as a rookie, but it was across just 388 snaps. Hall and Jackson, meanwhile, were just rookies last season, going in the 5th round and undrafted respectively. Javelin Guidry could also be in the mix for a role and he was also an undrafted free agent in 2020. He was probably the best of the bunch last season, but his promising play came in just 174 snaps. Barring more reliable veteran additions, it’s hard not to see cornerback as anything but a position of weakness for the Jets in 2021.
Fortunately, things are better at safety, even after the Jets traded Jamal Adams to the Seahawks for a pair of first round picks last off-season. Marcus Maye was selected in the 2nd round in the same 2017 NFL Draft as the Jets selected Adams 6th overall and, in Adams’ absence, Maye broke out as one of the top safeties in the league in 2020, finishing 4th among safeties on PFF. Needing to keep at least one of their talented safeties drafted in 2017, the Jets wisely gave Maye the franchise tag this off-season and will either extend him before the season starts or make him prove it another year on the tag.
Last year was the best year of Maye’s career, but he’s not a one-year wonder, as he finished 21st among safeties in PFF in 2019 and ranked 11th in 2018 through 6 games before suffering a season ending injury. Still very much in his prime in his age 27 season, he should be relatively safe to lock up long-term. Making him prove it another year is only going to increase his price, especially if they wait until after the Seahawks sign Adams, and is not really necessary, so the Jets should be trying to get him extended long-term, even if they have to pay him at the top of the safety market (14-16 million annually). Either way, barring an extended holdout, Maye should be a big asset for the Jets on defense in 2021, regardless of his contract situation.
At the other safety spot, the Jets used a 3rd round pick on safety Ashtyn Davis in 2020 to essentially be Jamal Adams’ replacement, but he’s not locked into a starting role in year two, after struggling across 402 rookie year snaps, finishing 82nd out of 99 eligible safeties on PFF. He could win an every down starting job for this team, but he’ll face competition from veteran free agent addition LaMarcus Joyner, who signed on a 1-year, 3 million dollar deal this off-season. That’s a steep drop off from the last contract Joyner signed in free agency, when he inked a 4-year, 42 million dollar deal with the Raiders, after spending a year making 11.287 million on the franchise tag with the Rams, but Joyner was so bad in two years with the Raiders that this was the best he could get this off-season.
In some ways, Joyner not being worth that contract wasn’t a surprise, not because Joyner never proved himself as a top level safety with the Rams, finishing 2nd among safeties in 2017 and then 28th in 2018, but because the Raiders tried to use Joyner more as a slot cornerback, where he had early career struggles. Those struggles predictably returned as Joyner returned to his former spot, as he finished 124th among 135 eligible cornerbacks across 706 snaps in 2019 and 97th among 133 eligible across 670 snaps in 2020, basically giving the Raiders no benefit in exchange for the 22 million he was paid over his two seasons in town.
That was really the Raiders’ fault more than anyone though and Joyner has some obvious bounce back potential now back in a more comfortable position at safety, though it’s worth noting he’s 31 now and going on three years removed from his last effective season. He was a worthwhile flyer for the Jets, who are hoping they can find at least one capable starting option out of their competition between him and Ashtyn Davis. It seems like at least somewhat of a safe bet that one of them can be that for them. That would be a big help for a Jets team that will badly need to mask their inexperienced cornerback group.
Special teams were a big part of the problem for the Jets in 2020, as they ranked 29th in special teams DVOA. Their worst aspect was their place kicking and they cycled through three different kickers who combined to make just 20/24 on extra points and 21/28 on field goals, including just 6/11 from 40+ yards. The Jets are starting fresh at the position, but they could easily struggle at the position again, as they will have a competition between rookie undrafted free agent Chris Naggar and Matt Ammendola, a 2019 undrafted free agent who has yet to attempt a kick at the NFL level.
Naggar made 81.0% of his field goals at the collegiate level in 2019, but he didn’t make a field goal longer than 48 yards, he missed three extra points, and he was just a one-year starter. Ammendola, meanwhile, was a three year starter and has converted from 53 yards, but he never surpassed 80% on field goals for a season and he made just 60.7% from 40+ yards. Barring anything surprising from these unproven kickers, I would expect kicker to remain a weakness in 2021.
The Jets’ punting game was also a big weakness in 2020, but that was more on the supporting cast than punter Braden Mann, who earned a middling grade from PFF. Mann was a 6th round rookie last season and has the upside to be better in year two, but that’s not a guarantee and, even if he is, the Jets will still need to be much better around him if they are going to suddenly become an above average punting unit. Mann is the best of the Jets’ kicking specialists, but that’s mostly by default, given their situation at kicker.
Punt returns are the one aspect of special teams in which the Jets finished above average in 2020 and it was just barely. They also didn’t get many attempts, with Braxton Berrios taking their only 10 punt returns for an average of 8.6 yards per attempt, as the Jets didn’t force many punts and called for fair catches on 29 occasions. Berrios has averaged an impressive 10.5 yards per attempt average on 31 returns in his career and seems very likely to keep his job and continue playing at a reasonably high level.
Berrios also took 9 kickoff returns last season, but did not fare well, averaging just 18.6 yards per return. That was a theme for the Jets in general in 2020, as they ranked just 28th in the NFL with a 19.8 yards per kickoff return average, but they did get some help late in the season when they signed Corey Ballentine, who had recently been let go by the Giants, and made him their starting kickoff returner late in the season.
Ballentine averaged 26.2 yards per return on 12 attempts and was clearly their best returner all season. Ballentine has a 24.5 yards per return average for his career across 31 attempts, to go with a 24.8 yards per return average on 47 returns at the collegiate level, so he should continue being an upgrade for the Jets in 2021, this time as a full season starter. Berrios and Ballentine have a good chance to be a solid duo in 2020 and, if their supporting cast is improved, both would likely see their averages improve even more.
The Jets’ supporting special teamers struggled as a group last season, but they also overhauled this group as much as any team in the league. They kept special teams coordinator Brant Boyer for his 5th season with the team, but Matthias Farley (308 snaps), Harvey Langi (239 snaps), Frankie Luvu (236 snaps), Neville Hewitt (186 snaps), Tarell Basham (160 snaps), Bryce Hager (148 snaps), and Arthur Maulet (139 snaps) were seven of the Jets top-9 in terms of snaps played on special teams and none of them will return for 2021. That gave the Jets opportunity to improve this unit significantly, but they actually only added two veteran special teamers this off-season and will likely be relying heavily on significant contributions from their rookie class.
One of those two veterans is Justin Hardee, who was PFF’s 4th ranked special teamer across 214 snaps. Hardee has been inconsistent across his 4-year career, but he has averaged 274 special teams snaps per season and also finished 8th among special teamers across 252 snaps in 2017. At the very least, he should be an above average option across a significant snap count in 2021 and he has the upside to be among the best in the league. On the other hand, however, Sherrod Neasman, their other free agent addition, has been much more middling, across an average of 240 snaps per season over the past 4 seasons. He can be a snap eater for this unit, but not much more.
Daniel Brown (330 snaps) and Ryan Griffin (208 snaps) are their top returning special teamers, but Brown struggled and has never been better than middling in his 4 seasons as a regular special teamer and, while Griffin was one of the Jets’ better special teamers last season, he also has an inconsistent history and might not repeat the best year of his career on special teams again in 2020. Aside from Brown, Griffin, Hardee, and Neasman, the Jets are going to be relying on a lot of unproven players in this group. They could be better than last year by default and they have some upside if they can get good contributions from their rookie class, but this is likely to remain a below average position group.
The Jets should be significantly improved on offense this season. Their have significantly more talent around the quarterback than last season and, while the jury is still out on #2 overall pick Zach Wilson, it wouldn’t be hard for him to be an upgrade over Sam Darnold. However, they were the worst offensive team in the league by far last season, so even being significantly improved would likely have them as a below average unit.
On defense, they were a middling unit last season and they are improved in some areas this season, but their issues at cornerback will likely prevent them from being significantly improved on an already decent group from a year ago. The Jets should be more competitive this season, but it would take a very unlikely rookie season from Wilson to elevate this team into post-season contention in the AFC. This year is mostly just about developing Wilson and hoping to see improvement throughout the season, as the Jets look to compete in 2022 and beyond. I will have a final prediction for the Jets at the end of the off-season with the rest of the teams.
8/8/21: The Jets’ poor special teams play contributed to their struggles last season more than I realized and those struggles seem likely to continue into 2021. The Jets will be significantly better this season than last season and their offense gets even more help from free agent addition right tackle Morgan Moses, but they’re starting from such a low base point, maybe even lower than most realize, that a significant improvement is still likely to result in a well below .500 average.
9/4/21 Update: The Jets will obviously be better than a year ago, but they’re starting from an even lower base point than their 2-14 record last season suggested, as they were lucky to win the two games they won and were blown out in most of their losses. They will have to be significantly better to even compete for a playoff spot and I just don’t think they improved enough, especially with Carl Lawson out for the season and being replaced by a lesser player in Shaq Lawson. Zach Wilson had a promising pre-season, but he’s still a rookie and will have a tough time trying to win games with this roster, even if he can exceed expectations in year one.
Prediction: 4-13 4th in AFC East