When a general manager loses his job in the NFL, it usually happens for a predictable reason. Considering the lack of patience billionaire owners typically have in the building and rebuilding of their teams, newly installed general managers are usually taking control of a machine that is fundamentally broken. There are a few archetypes of NFL failure. For the Bare Cupboard Archetype, look no further than the past three years of New York Jets football.
The roster that recently deposed GM John Idzik inherited in early 2013 was bloated. Idzik’s first set of necessary moves trimmed contract fat just to get his team under the cap before free agency began. Longtime veterans Bart Scott, Calvin Pace, and others were lost in the purge.1 It was a clear example of a GM having to right old wrongs — in this case, Mike Tannenbaum’s capricious spending — before going forward with his own vision for a franchise. Newly installed GM Mike Maccagnan doesn’t have a cap room problem. Including the rollover that Idzik accrued last season, Maccagnan has more than $50 million to spend, and that takes into account Percy Harvin’s $10.5 million salary, which remains on the Jets’ books for now. There’s plenty of money to spend, and that’s a good thing. Because when breaking down the Jets roster, it’s easier to start with which positions aren’t needs. This is a team riddled with holes, and outside of a few key spots, Maccagnan and new coach Todd Bowles are faced with a blank slate.
Pace was re-signed by the Jets that offseason at a considerably lower salary.
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Get a Quarterback, Any Quarterback
Who’s playing quarterback is rightly going to dominate Jets conversations for the next two months. Geno Smith had a few promising moments in Year 2, but he also had some of the worst starts in the league. The first quarter of the Jets’ 43-23 loss to Buffalo in late October was actually hard to watch. It was the low point of Smith’s career — he went 2-for-8 with three interceptions in the first quarter — and horrific enough to get us a month of Michael Vick. Moving on from Smith this year would make sense, considering this new regime has no ties to him. But how Maccagnan and the new coaching staff feel about Smith isn’t the only factor in determining whether he’ll get another shot.
If the Jets are smitten with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and he’s available with the sixth pick, they should take him. But it’s realistic to think that a team (Philadelphia or otherwise) picking later in the first round could fall in love with Mariota and offer a slew of picks to move ahead of the Jets. Given the (lack of) hype surrounding this quarterback class after Mariota and presumptive no. 1 pick Jameis Winston, the Jets could be left without one they like in the first round. That wouldn’t preclude them from taking one in the second or third round and making him the starter immediately — the Raiders’ selection of Derek Carr last year is one instance of how well that plan can go. But with the two elite options gone, Maccagnan may opt to use this draft just to compile as much non-quarterback talent as he can.
To prepare for that scenario, it’d be smart to throw some of his massive cash pile at a free agent. No one’s going to be running through the streets celebrating a Matt Moore signing, but he’s exactly the sort of quarterback Maccagnan could lean on for a year or two as he uses other resources to build up the roster while waiting for a chance to draft the guy he wants to hand his franchise to for the next 10 years. The Jets aren’t simply a quarterback away from having an even remotely dangerous offense. And that’s part of the problem.
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It seems like this team has been in a skill-player vortex since Curtis Martin retired, and an eventful 2014 hasn’t done much to change that feeling. They snagged Eric Decker on a reasonable deal; he’s a net gain for any offense at that price, and if the Jets do upgrade at quarterback, it would be fair to assume that last season will end up as his worst in New Jersey. Harvin is trickier to figure out. His production didn’t line up with his cap number last year, and Maccagnan has a real decision about whether he’s worth keeping around for $10.5 million. We know the Jets aren’t short on money, but the space carved out for Harvin could also go toward a few different plans. If Harvin is released, they’d need someone in the slot. Randall Cobb is the expensive option, but more affordable players like Harry Douglas will also be available. If the Jets want to split the difference, Maccagnan could target Jeremy Maclin.
All the answers don’t have to come in free agency, either. Alabama’s Amari Cooper may be gone by the time the Jets pick, but West Virginia’s Kevin White might not be. The early word on this year’s wide receiver class is that it looks a lot like last year’s deep and productive crop. So even if Maccagnan goes in a different direction at no. 6, there are likely to be receiving options later on. No matter how they do it, this team needs at least one more receiving threat for whoever’s under center.
Rebuild the Running Game
As the Jets sort through their options for the aerial attack, there are tweaks to be made on the ground. When the Jets made back-to-back trips to the AFC Championship Game, it wasn’t strictly because of Rex Ryan and Darrelle Revis. Propping up Mark Sanchez was one of the most punishing ground games in the league, led by one of football’s best offensive lines. Some remnants of that line are still around. Even at 30 years old, Nick Mangold was an absolute animal last season, and he’ll be back in the middle. I’m not sure how, but D’Brickashaw Ferguson will be 32 this year, and he remains a stable presence at left tackle. If Harvin does go, those two would actually be responsible for the biggest cap hits on the roster. But Mangold and Ferguson are fixtures for the franchise, and for good reason.
Breno Giacomini will be back at right tackle after signing a multiyear deal last offseason, but there’s less certainty at the two guard positions. Brian Winters — a 2013 third-round pick — started the season at left guard before tearing his ACL six weeks in. Winters was struggling even before getting hurt, and with 2014 right guard Willie Colon hitting free agency, the Jets are starting the year with questions at both spots. Oday Aboushi, a 2013 fifth-round pick, had a solid season filling in for Winters, but he may not be the long-term answer either.
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There are options in free agency. The Niners’ Mike Iupati is the obvious name, with the Broncos’ Orlando Franklin right there with him as the best players available. But Clint Boling shouldn’t be overlooked. Boling was solid if underrated in his four seasons with the Bengals after coming into the league as a fourth-round pick. He’s two years younger than Franklin and Iupati, and he’ll likely cost a fraction of the price.
The other name getting thrown around in connection with the Jets running game is C.J. Spiller. Before the Bills traded for LeSean McCoy, Spiller reportedly turned down an offer worth $4.5 million a year. That shouldn’t scare the Jets off. They paid Chris Johnson half that to be a lesser version of what Spiller could be for them this year. Spiller may be fragile, but he’s still just 27. There’s also a coaching connection here; Spiller’s 2012 season, the one that turned him into a fantasy darling, came with new Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey as his head coach. Gailey knows how to make the most of the shifty back, and a healthy Spiller would add an entirely new dimension to the Jets offense.
Find Some Men Who Can Live on an Island … Revis Island
In some respects, the defense Bowles will have with the Jets looks a lot like the one he had as the defensive coordinator in Arizona. The front seven Bowles had with the Cardinals was led by a versatile defensive end — Calais Campbell — who could line up everywhere from the edge to nose tackle and be a force as a rusher and in the run game. In Muhammad Wilkerson, he’ll have a very similar player. And as a bonus, he also gets Sheldon Richardson. Like Ryan, there’s no limit to Bowles’s creativity in finding ways for his best linemen to exploit mismatches.
What the Cardinals were missing last year, without retired defensive end John Abraham, was a player who could consistently create pressure off the edge. The Jets have been missing that player for years. Former first-round pick Quinton Coples hasn’t developed into that kind of rusher, and that’s a position Maccagnan should consider addressing in the next couple of months. Jerry Hughes is an interesting option in free agency. His role in Buffalo when Mike Pettine was the defensive coordinator is similar to the one he’d likely have with Bowles — a hybrid of defensive end and linebacker, depending on the front.2
This is a good moment to mention that the solution to the needs at these positions isn’t throwing a huge deal at the best player available at each of them. But with the amount of money the Jets can spend, a combination of one or two of these names could serve as the foundation of Maccagnan’s plan in free agency.
Arizona’s pass defense could succeed without a high-end pass-rusher because Bowles had a simple way to disrupt quarterbacks — just throw more bodies at them. The Cardinals blitzed on 43.1 percent of opponents’ dropbacks last year, the third-highest rate in football. Bowles was able to do that because, with Patrick Peterson and Antonio Cromartie at corner, there was no hesitation about leaving his defensive backs alone outside. The Jets don’t have that luxury. A high volume of blitzes was actually part of Ryan’s strategy early last season. Through five weeks, the Jets had the fifth-highest blitz rate in the league — 40.9 percent of dropbacks. Over that same stretch, opposing quarterbacks were also casually tossing up an 84.0 QBR when New York blitzed.3 Philip Rivers’s firebombing of the Jets secondary in Week 5 — 20-of-28 for 288 yards and three touchdowns — was enough for Ryan to chill on the blitzing.
Compared to 76.4 when the Jets didn’t. It’s not that much better, but hey, it’s a little better!
The secondary is by far the Jets’ most pressing need this offseason. They have to be hoping that Dee Milliner will finally be healthy and can slide in at cornerback, but that still leaves two spots that badly need upgrades. Kyle Wilson, who manned the slot during his underwhelming stay in New York, is a free agent, and Darrin Walls probably isn’t the answer opposite Milliner. And that’s just at corner. Dawan Landry, who played reasonably well as a stopgap at free safety last year, is also a free agent.
If he’s released by the Patriots, Darrelle Revis is the quick fix here, and the Jets would be smart to lure him back. But this is about more than one — albeit huge — name. Bowles’s squads in Arizona featured a stable of six or seven defensive backs that he could shape into unique lineups capable of making up for the deficiencies the Cardinals had elsewhere. Arizona had so many safeties that Bowles could get away with playing Deone Bucannon at linebacker. The Jets have no flexibility. Beyond the possibility of Revis, adding as much reasonably priced cornerback talent as possible should be a priority.
The other big-money splash worth considering is another member of the Patriots secondary: Devin McCourty is only 27, and pairing him with second-year strong safety Calvin Pryor would be perfect. McCourty is one of the best center-field safeties around. He can help transform an entire defense. Oh, and he’s from New York and went to Rutgers, which might help.
However he does it, Maccagnan has to add a bunch of new blood to this secondary. Bowles has been able to conjure success without a star-laden roster before, but he’s done it by using a glut of one resource to make up for not having another. With the shape the Jets roster was in when he found it, Maccagnan doesn’t have a glut of talent anywhere. The good news: He’s got plenty of cash to go out and find it.