The Jets had a surprise 10-6 season in 2015, but it looked unlikely they would repeat that season in 2016. Not only did they enter the 2016 season with one of the oldest starting lineups in the NFL, but they also had a bunch of veterans coming off of career best seasons who were unlikely to repeat those seasons. As a result, they declined in a big way in 2016, finishing at 5-11 and dead last in the AFC East. Their 5 win drop was big, but their decline is even worse than that suggests as they fell from 5th in first down rate differential at +5.11% in 2015 to 29th at -4.30% in 2016. That was the biggest decline in the NFL, just ahead of the Carolina Panthers. In 2015, the Jets finished 15th and 1st respectively in first down rate and first down rate allowed, but they fell to 28th and 18th respectively in those two metrics in 2016.
One of those veterans coming off a career best season was quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who completed 59.6% of his passes for 6.95 YPA, 31 touchdowns, and 15 interceptions in 2015. An aging journeyman, Fitzpatrick wanted to cash in on his big season as a free agent last off-season and he and the Jets played hardball into training camp, before he eventually re-signed on a 1-year, 12 million dollar deal. Once he finally returned to the team, the Jets probably wished he hadn’t, as he completed just 56.6% of his passes for an average of 6.73 YPA, 12 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions in 2016. No eligible quarterback finished the season with a worse QB rating.
Missing off-season work likely had something to do with it, but the fact is he’s an aging journeyman who was unlikely to repeat his 2015 season regardless. Fitzpatrick was actually benched on two separate occasions last season. He was first benched for backup Geno Smith, but then Smith tore his ACL, which forced Fitzpatrick back into action. Then, after the team fell to 3-8, Fitzpatrick was benched for 2nd year quarterback Bryce Petty, who made the first 4 starts of his career, before suffering an injury of his own and forcing Fitzpatrick back into action once again for week 17.
None of the Jets’ three quarterbacks even resembled a capable starting quarterback in 2016, as the Jets finished dead last in the NFL with a 67.6 QB rating. Not only was that the worst QB rating in the league last season, but it was the worst by any team in a season since the Jets in 2013. Fitzpatrick, now going into his age 35 season, and Smith were both not re-signed this off-season, as they signed with the Buccaneers and Giants respectively as pure backups. Bryce Petty returns, but he was abysmal in his 4 starts, completing 56.4% of his passes for an average of 6.08 YPA, 3 touchdowns, and 7 interceptions. Only a 4th round pick in 2015, Petty doesn’t even look like a long-term backup.
The Jets also return another young quarterback, 2016 2nd round pick Christian Hackenberg, but he didn’t throw a pass last season, despite all 3 quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart struggling. There’s a good reason for that as Hackenberg didn’t look remotely ready for game action in the pre-season, completing a comical 36.2% of his passes for an average of 3.38 YPA, 1 touchdown, and 2 interceptions in 2 games, even though he was playing against 3rd and 4th stringers, many of whom didn’t even make a final roster in 2016.
Hackenberg was a high pick, but could go down as one of the biggest reaches in recent history. Hackenberg was a top recruit coming out of high school and showed promise as a freshman at Penn State, but completed less than 55% of his passes over the next 2 seasons with just 28 touchdowns to 21 interceptions. The Jets took a flier on his upside and it already seems to have backfired. Wildly inaccurate with horrendous pocket presence, Hackenberg wasn’t even given a draftable grade by Pro Football Focus before the draft and it’s very telling that he couldn’t get on the field even in a lost season in 2016.
Both Petty and Hackenberg will likely see action at some point in 2017, but the Jets are expected to start the season with veteran journeyman Josh McCown under center, after the Jets signed him to a 1-year, 6.5 million dollar deal this off-season, passing on more expensive veterans like Mike Glennon, Colin Kaepernick, and (before his retirement) Jay Cutler. Those other three players would have been better options, but the Jets seem to be expecting a lost season in 2017 and didn’t want to spend a lot of money on the quarterback position.
The Jets didn’t seem to want to spend a lot of money in general, releasing several highly paid veterans and not signing any high priced free agents. Rather than pushing forward with a mediocre, expensive veteran roster, the Jets smartly seem to be embracing the rebuild, building up cap space and letting young players play, though the immediate results on the field could be very ugly. The Jets didn’t draft a quarterback, but 2018 is a much better quarterback class and this is going to be much more than a one-year rebuild, so it was smart of them not to reach for someone in this year’s draft, especially with needs all over the field.
McCown will more or less be the sacrificial lamb as they need someone to start games under center for them this season. McCown does have experience with this kind of thing, starting 11 games for the 2-14 Buccaneers in 2014 (#1 pick), 8 games for the 3-13 Browns in 2015 (#2 pick), and then 3 games for the 1-15 Browns in 2016 (#1 pick). Over those 3 seasons, he’s completed 58.7% of his passes for an average of 6.91 YPA, 29 touchdowns, and 24 interceptions and is 2-20 as a starter. That’s not all his fault, but that record is unlikely to improve much this season.
Prior to that, McCown flashed in 5 starts in place of an injured Jay Cutler with the Bears in 2013, completing 66.5% of his passes for an average of 6.75 YPA, 13 touchdowns, and an interception, which is probably why he’s continued to get chances, but prior to 2013 he made just 2 starts from 2008-2012 and didn’t have a QB rating higher than 70 since 2005. Now going into his 16th season in the NFL, the fact that he’s still in the league is a testament to what he provides in terms of leadership and intangibles, but he’s never had a good arm and that’s highly unlikely to change going into his age 38 season. He also has not been able to stay healthy over the past couple seasons, so Petty and Hackenberg will both likely have opportunities to play by the end of the season. The Jets have the worst quarterback situation in the league.
Two of the highly paid veterans the Jets parted ways with this off-season were wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. An example of how quickly things can change in the NFL, Marshall and Decker one of four wide receiver duos in 2015 to both top 1000 yards, but the rebuilding Jets decided to let both of them go this off-season, rather than paying them 7.5 million and 7.25 million respectively in their age 33 and age 30 seasons respectively.
Marshall finished 3rd in the NFL in receiving yards and first in receiving touchdowns in 2015, totalling 1502 yards and 14 touchdowns on 109 catches, but fell to 59/788/3 in 2016 and caught just 46.1% of the targets thrown his way. Quarterback play was a huge part of the problem, but he still fell from 15th among wide receivers on Pro Football Focus in 2015 to 67th out of 115 eligible in 2016. Decker, meanwhile, had a 80/1027/12 slash line in 2016, but missed all but 3 games with injury last season. Now neither are with the team anymore.
Fortunately, Quincy Enunwa did have a solid year in Decker’s absence, though he’ll likely be overmatched as a #1 receiver. He’s also a one year wonder who caught just 22 of 46 targets (47.8%) for 315 yards and 0 touchdowns in 2015, finishing 103rd out of 108 eligible wide receivers on 522 snaps in the first significant action of his career. Last season, the 2014 6th round pick was much better in a bigger role, catching 58 passes for a team high 857 yards and 4 touchdowns on 106 targets (54.7%) and finishing slightly above average on Pro Football Focus, but, even at his best, he’s only a competent #2 receiver.
Not only is Enunwa overmatched as a #1 wide receiver, but the Jets have no depth behind on the depth chart. Robby Anderson finished 3rd on the team in snaps played among wide receivers with 717 last season, and the undrafted rookie was predictably was overwhelmed, catching just 42 passes for 587 yards and 2 touchdowns and finishing 108th out of 115 eligible wide receivers on Pro Football Focus. He’s unlikely to be much better this season, but he’s the early favorite to start opposite Enunwa. He’ll be pushed for snaps by 3rd round rookie ArDarius Stewart, the early favorite for the #3 receiver job. Fourth round rookie Chad Hansen and 2016 7th round pick Charone Peake, who struggled on 324 snaps as a rookie, will also be in the mix for snaps in the league’s thinnest wide receiver group.
Things aren’t any better at tight end either. Former offensive coordinator Chan Gailey never used the tight end in the passing game, so the Jets never addressed their need at tight end. In 2 seasons under Gailey, the Jets completed just 26 passes to tight ends, easily the fewest in the league over that time period. Gailey is no longer with the team, but their lack of tight end depth remains. In fact, 5th round rookie Jordan Leggett, an unremarkable prospect, is currently the favorite to be the week 1 starter. That could change after week 3, when Austin Seferian-Jenkins returns from suspension, but Leggett will have a significant role as a rookie regardless.
Seferian-Jenkins had first round talent coming out of the University of Washington, with great pass catching and run blocking ability at 6-5 262, but fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2nd round because of concerns about his alcohol use. Those concerns have proven to be legitimate, as ASJ has struggled with discipline and conditioning throughout his career and was arrested for DUI last September, which led to the Buccaneers releasing him. He was also arrested for DUI in college. He’ll serve a 2-game suspension to start 2017, but reports have been very positive about him and his maturity this off-season. Still only going into his age 25 season, there’s time for him to turn it around and turn into a productive player in the league if he can be disciplined and stay out of trouble, but that’s far from a guarantee. With Josh McCown throwing to this receiving corps, it’s a mystery how the Jets plan on moving the ball through the air.
In addition to Marshall and Decker, the Jets also got rid of a couple highly paid offensive linemen who were going into their age 30+ seasons, center Nick Mangold and left tackle Ryan Clady. Mangold, the Jets’ first round pick in 2006, started 164 games in 11 seasons with the Jets, but was no better than average over the past 2 seasons and was not worth his 9.075 million dollar salary to a re-building team in his age 33 season. Mangold will be replaced by Wesley Johnson, who made 8 starts when Mangold was injured last season. The 2014 5th round pick struggled mightily in the first significant action of his career in 2016 though, finishing 33rd out of 38 eligible centers on Pro Football Focus. He’s a very underwhelming replacement.
Unlike Mangold, Clady has only been with the team for one year and didn’t play well, finishing 62nd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in just 9 games in an injury shortened season. That made it an easy decision to cut him, rather than paying him 10 million in 2017. Clady once had a promising career, but it has been completely derailed by injuries. After making all 80 starts in the first 5 seasons of his career, Clady has played just 27 games over the last 4 seasons and remains unsigned as a free agent. Going into his age 31 season, he could just be completely done physically.
The Jets did spend some money on offensive linemen this off-season though, signing ex-Jaguar Kelvin Beachum to a 3-year, 24 million dollar deal and re-signing Ben Ijalana and Brian Winters to deals worth 10.25 million over 2 years and 29 million over 4 years respectively. Beachum is expected to take over for Okung at left tackle. He struggled mightily in 15 starts at left tackle in Jacksonville last season, finishing 63rd out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus, but wasn’t healthy all season in his first year back from the torn ACL that ended his 2015 season after 6 games.
In 2014, he finished 5th among offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus and looked on his way to another strong season in 2015 before the injury, so he has obvious bounce back potential, still only going into his age 28 season. However, it’s worth noting that Beachum finished below average in his first 2 seasons in the league in 2012 and 2013 as well, so he’s a bit of a one-year wonder. The Jets are essentially guaranteeing him 16 million over the next 2 seasons, so it’s a risky deal, but he could easily be a capable starter with upside.
Ijalana saw time at left tackle last season when Okung was hurt, but he’ll likely move back to right tackle with Beachum coming in. Ijalana struggled mightily on the blindside, but didn’t play well on either side last season, finishing 60th out of 78 eligible offensive tackles on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts. Those 13 starts were actually the first of his career, as the 2011 2nd round pick struggled mightily with injuries early in his career and didn’t play an offensive snap in 2013, 2014, or 2015. Given that and his struggles last season, it’s very puzzling why the Jets decided to give him decent money on a two-year deal. He was a high pick, but he’s already going into his age 28 season, so it’s not like he’s some hot young prospect anymore. He figures to struggle on the right side.
Winters’ deal made a little bit more sense, as he finished 31st among guards on Pro Football Focus in 13 starts at right guard last season, a rare pleasant surprise for this team. However, the 2013 3rd round pick is a complete one-year wonder who struggled mightily in his first 3 seasons in the league (28 starts). Prior to 2016, his best season came in 2015, when he finished 58th out of 81 eligible guards. Still only going into his age 26 season, it’s possible he’s turned a corner and will continue to be a solid starting guard for them going forward, but he’s the 15th highest paid guard in the league in average annual salary, so the Jets are risking a lot of money to find out.
Rounding out the offensive line at left guard is James Carpenter, who has probably been their best offensive lineman for the past 2 seasons, finishing 17th among guards on Pro Football Focus in both seasons. A 2011 1st round pick by the Seahawks, Carpenter was largely a bust in Seattle, making 39 starts in 4 seasons, but never finishing above average in any of them. However, the light seems to have clicked for him in 2 seasons with the Jets. Still in his prime in his age 28 season, Carpenter should have another solid season again in 2017 on an overall weak Jets offensive line.
One veteran I’m surprised the Jets didn’t let go of in their off-season purge is Matt Forte, who is going into his age 32 season. Forte’s 4 million dollar salary is now fully guaranteed, but the Jets had a window at the start of the off-season to let him go before the salary became guaranteed and decided against it. Signed to a 3-year, 12 million dollar deal in free agency last off-season, the ex-Bear was once one of the best all-around backs in the league, excelling as a runner and a pass catcher, but he was outplayed by the younger Bilal Powell in both aspects last season. Forte averaged just 3.73 yards per carry on 218 carries last season and caught just 30 passes, while Powell averaged 5.51 yards per carry on 131 carries and caught 58 passes. Given his age and that he has 2,770 career touches, Forte is at the point where he could just be done as an effective back.
Powell will be the starter this season in his age 29 season, while Forte will be the backup in what could be his final season in the league. Powell has never had more than 212 touches in a season in 6 seasons in the league, so there will still be a role for Forte, but Powell is the better back at this point. He has a career 4.37 YPC average on 533 carries and has caught 105 passes over the past 2 seasons, including 58 last season, tied for 2nd most on the team. Running back is the one position on the offensive depth chart where the Jets aren’t completely devoid of talent.
The Jets also tried to part ways with defensive end Sheldon Richardson and his 8.069 million dollar salary this off-season, but they couldn’t find any takers in a trade and cutting him wouldn’t have made any sense because he is still talented and could get a significant deal in free agency next off-season if he has a strong year in 2017, in which case the Jets would get a 3rd or 4th round compensation pick. It’s been a swift fall for Richardson, who was the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2013, when he finished 5th among 3-4 defensive ends on Pro Football Focus, after the Jets drafted him #13 overall in the first round out of the University of Missouri.
Richardson finished 2nd at his position in 2014, but was arrested the following off-season and also failed a drug test. Richardson was suspended for the first 4 games of the season in 2015 for the failed test and then for the first game of the season in 2016 for the arrest. He still played at a pretty high level in 2015 and 2016, but not as high of a level as 2013 and 2014 and reports came out that the Jets were not happy with his discipline, conditioning, and focus. That’s likely a big part of why no one would trade for him this off-season, even though he’s theoretically still in his prime, going into his age 27 season. Perhaps he’ll be more motivated in his contract year this season and return to his 2013 and 2014 form.
Another reason why the Jets tried to move Richardson this off-season is because they already have a pair of 3-4 defensive ends in Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson ahead of him on the depth chart. Williams is probably the Jets’ best player on either side of the ball, finishing 6th and 4th among 3-4 defensive ends in two seasons in the league, since going 6th overall in 2015, while Wilkerson is also a former first round pick (2011) and was re-signed to a massive 5-year, 86 million dollar deal last off-season. Williams, Wilkerson, and Richardson played 896, 845, and 762 snaps respectively in 2016, so the Jets find ways to get all 3 on the field at the same time, but that usually requires playing someone out of position. Not only do the Jets have little talent on either side of the ball, but their most talented players all play the same position and are not as effective together as they would be apart.
Wilkerson actually struggled mightily in the first year of the huge contract the Jets gave him last off-season, finishing 90th out of 127 eligible interior defenders on Pro Football focus. That’s very out of character for him, considering he was a top-15 3-4 defensive end in 4 straight seasons prior to last season. Part of it was that he did play out of position on the outside more than he was used to and part of it was that he was coming off of a broken leg that he suffered at the end of the 2015 season and was never fully healthy, but Wilkerson also reportedly had issues with discipline and focus in 2016, which is very concerning, considering how much money the Jets gave him. Owed a non-guaranteed 17 million in 2018, the Jets might just cut their losses and move on from him next off-season if he doesn’t bounce back in 2017. Now healthier, he does have some bounce back potential, but Wilkerson could also struggle to stay motivated on what should be one of the worst teams in the league.
Steve McLendon is the Jets’ nose tackle when they use a pure nose tackle, which isn’t often because he played just 381 snaps in 2016. The 6-3 310 pounder has finished above average as a run stopper in 6 straight seasons, but has never finished above average as a pass rusher and has just 8.5 sacks in 7 seasons in the league. He’s also never finished above average overall in a season in which he played more than 355 snaps. Going into his age 31 season, his best days are probably behind him, but the Jets don’t need him to play a big role and he’s still a useful player in base packages. The Jets’ defensive line is easily their best unit.
In addition to their strong depth at the 3-4 defensive end position, another reason why guys like Wilkerson and Richardson line up outside frequently in base packages is because they have very little talent at the 3-4 outside linebacker position. A pair of recent 3rd round picks, Jordan Jenkins (2016) and Lorenzo Mauldin (2015) led the position in snaps played last season with 513 and 353 respectively. Jenkins showed promise in pass rush situations and finished about average overall, but both players struggled mightily against the run and Mauldin finished the season just 82nd out of 109 eligible edge defenders. They’ll both likely play a bigger role in 2017, so the Jets will need at least one of them to take a step forward this season, but that’s far from a guarantee. They also really lack depth at the position, as Freddie Bishop, a former CFL star who struggled in the first 151 snaps of his NFL career last season, will be their primary reserve. Fifth round rookie Dylan Donahue could also be in the mix for snaps.
The Jets will also need Darron Lee, their 2016 1st round pick, to take a step forward in his 2nd year in the league. Lee struggled mightily as a rookie, finishing 3rd worst among middle linebackers on Pro Football Focus on 641 snaps. Lee was primarily a coverage specialist and sub package linebacker as a rookie, but will have to play every down this season and could be a major liability against the run. The 6-1 232 pounder is a great athlete, but has had issues with tackling dating back to his collegiate days and was considered a major reach by Pro Football Focus in the first round. He has upside and could be improved in his 2nd year in the league, but he could be largely improved by default and may never develop into the player the Jets were expecting him to when they drafted him.
David Harris played every down at middle linebacker last season, but he was part of the veteran purge this off-season, being let go ahead of a 6.5 million dollar salary in his age 33 season in 2017. Harris might have only had a couple years left in the league, so it makes sense for the Jets to part ways with him as part of this rebuild, but he was still a solid player last season and won’t be easy to replace. The Jets will attempt to replace him with a familiar face, Demario Davis, who they acquired in a trade from the Browns for safety Calvin Pryor this off-season.
Davis spent the first 4 seasons of his career in New York, after they drafted him in the 3rd round in 2012, and finished 15th among middle linebackers in 2014, but fell to 77th out of 97 eligible linebackers in 2015 and had to settle for a cheap two-year deal with the Browns last off-season. Davis continued to struggle with the Browns, finishing 59th out of 87 eligible linebackers and barely played by season’s end, playing just 144 snaps over the final 5 games of the season. Even though he’s making a reasonable 3.8 million this season, he likely would have been cut by the Browns if they couldn’t trade him. With the Jets, he’s a cheap replacement for Harris, but an obvious downgrade. 2014 remains the only season in his career in which he finished above average. Like the rest of the Jets’ roster, their linebacking corps leaves a lot to be desired.
Calvin Pryor, who was sent to Cleveland in that trade for Demario Davis, was a first round pick by the Jets in 2014 and started 38 games over the past three seasons, but, after two solid seasons to start his career, he fell to 74th out of 90 safeties in 2016 and fell out of favor with the coaching staff. If the Browns didn’t trade for him, the Jets might have just cut him outright at final cuts, even though he was owed just 1.58 million. The Jets also got rid of Marcus Gilchrist, their other starting safety last season. Gilchrist was a solid player in 2016, but suffered a torn patellar tendon late in the season that will likely sideline him for all of the 2017 season, so the Jets decided against paying him 6 million non-guaranteed.
Instead of Pryor and Gilchrist, the Jets will start a pair of rookies Jamal Adams, the 6th pick in the draft, and Marcus Maye, a second round pick who went 39th overall. Adams was one of the best players in the draft and was an easy choice for the Jets when he fell to them at 6. He’ll make an instant impact and compete for Defensive Rookie of the Year. Maye, meanwhile, could struggle as a rookie, but has the tools to be a long-term starter. Both were good selections by the Jets.
The Jets also parted ways with Darrelle Revis this off-season. Revis was once one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, but he was a massive bust on a 5-year 70 million dollar deal that the Jets signed him to after he won a Super Bowl with New England in 2014. Revis fell to 30th among eligible cornerbacks in 2015 and then 65th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016. Even though they still owe him 6 million guaranteed this season, it was an easy decision for the rebuilding Jets to cut him and get out of the 9 million non-guaranteed that he would have been owed if they hadn’t. The 39 million that they guaranteed him total was a sunk cost and it was smart of them to cut their losses, with Revis unlikely to bounce back in his age 32 season in 2017.
Buster Skrine was also signed to a significant contract by the Jets two off-seasons ago, as the Jets gave the ex-Brown a 4-year, 26 million dollar deal. Skrine still remains on the team, but hasn’t been worth that deal at all, finishing 94th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2015 and 87th out of 111 eligible cornerbacks in 2016. A 2011 5th round pick, Skrine has 58 career starts in 6 seasons in the league, but hasn’t finished above average in any of those 6 seasons. Skrine is probably locked into one of the starting jobs, but figures to struggle once again.
The Jets signed ex-Cowboy Morris Claiborne this off-season and he figures to start opposite Skrine. The Cowboys traded up to get Claiborne 6th overall in 2012, but he didn’t do anything of value for the Cowboys last season. He finished below average on Pro Football Focus in each of his first 4 seasons in the league, but shot up to 12th last season, though he was limited to 406 snaps in 7 games by injury. Claiborne has always had the talent, but he struggled to adapt to the NFL early on and then suffered a huge setback when he tore his patellar tendon in the 2014 season.
Injuries have always been a huge issue with him, as he’s missed 33 of 80 games in 5 seasons in the league and he obviously comes with a lot of risk, but he wasn’t a bad signing on 1-year prove it deal worth 5 million. He proved his upside last season and is still only going into his age 27 season. He could be a good starter if he can make it through the whole season, but he could also regress or get hurt, so he’s kind of boom or bust. The Jets are in a position where they can afford to take risks like that in hopes of striking gold.
Marcus Williams finished 3rd on the team in snaps played among cornerbacks last season with 455, behind Revis and Skrine, and is expected to remain the 3rd cornerback behind Claiborne and Skrine in 2017. Williams wasn’t bad in 2016, but finished below average in the first significant action of his career. The 2014 undrafted free agent is unlikely to be better in 2017. He rounds out a secondary that has potential with Morris Claiborne and Jamal Adams coming in, but that should also struggle once again in 2017.
The Jets have probably the worst roster in the NFL and maybe one of the worst rosters in recent years. Like the Browns last off-season, the Jets are purging veterans and going all in on a rebuild. Next off-season, they could have a good amount of cap space and a high pick to rebuild with, but, like the Browns last season, the Jets are going to be very bad in the interim and will take at least 2-3 years get back into playoff contention. The Raiders are a good example of a team that purged veterans and built a much more competitive roster from basically scratch very quickly, but it doesn’t always go that way. Finding a quarterback will be key. In 2017, it’ll be a struggle for them to win any games, but they should pull out a couple wins simply because it is very tough to go 0-16.
Prediction: 2-14, 4th in AFC East