Lichtenstein: Douglas Must Understand That Big Splashes In Free Agency Won’t Make Jets Soar

Steve Lichtenstein
January 06, 2020 - 1:14 pm
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The Jets should treat the March free agency signing period as if it were competitive platform diving. The bigger the splash, the worse the results.

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This organization often doesn’t abide by that axiom, as certain acquisitions in past offseasons seemed to have been driven more by an attempt to create buzz than from substantive thought about what it takes to win consistently in the NFL. 

Last March was a prime example. The Jets went all out on Day 1 to sign running back Le’Veon Bell and linebacker C.J. Mosley to exorbitant contracts. Mosley played a little more than four quarters over two games due to a groin injury while Bell had his worst season as a pro, making little impact on the Jets’ bottom-ranked offense. The team went 7-9, missing the playoffs for the ninth straight year.

Le'Veon Bell
Eric Hartline/USA TODAY Images

Prior general manager Mike Maccagnan’s best moves that week were less heralded. Slot receiver Jamison Crowder and slot cornerback Brian Poole were signed for a small fraction when compared to the funds allotted to the aforementioned two former Pro Bowlers, yet they proved to be enormously valuable pickups.

Blame Jets ownership for failing to understand the limitations of the Big Bang Theory when it comes to NFL free agency. 

Before he took the gig as Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Woody Johnson instructed/permitted Maccagnan to make a similar splurge in 2015. The Jets were competitive for one season. They then needed to blow it all up after going 5-11 the following year. Brother Chris has been in charge since August 2017 and has been even more clueless. He was also responsible for acceding to the ridiculous, five-year, $72.5 million contract given to cornerback Trumaine Johnson two years ago. 

While Christopher Johnson remains atop the Jets’ organization chart, there’s no chance Trumaine survives into the new league year in March.  The Jets will have to eat $12 million in prorated dead money on their 2020 salary cap, but not paying Johnson’s roster bonus and salary will save them $15 million. 

Oct 27, 2019; Jacksonville, FL, USA; An assistant takes New York Jets cornerback Trumaine Johnson (22) to the locker room during the second quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at TIAA Bank Field.
Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Along with other veterans who could be cut (guard Brian Winters, cornerback Daryl Roberts, and wide receiver Josh Bellamy) with little-to-no dead money cap hit, the Jets are expected to have about $80 million to play with this offseason. The Jets do have 33 pending free agents on their roster, only five of whom are restricted. So, only a portion of that money will be used to bring in outside help.

General manager Joe Douglas, who succeeded Maccagnan after all the damage from last offseason was already done, must enter his first ever foray into the free agent market without star-gazing. Douglas went over the team’s list of needs in organizational meetings at the end of last week. 

It's rather lengthy, the club’s 6-2 run to finish the season be damned. While it was commendable that the Jets didn’t fold the tent for coach Adam Gase, let’s not gloss over all the areas (i.e. offensive line, cornerbacks, wide receivers, edge pass rusher) where they are deficient when compared to even average teams. 

Beware quick fixes. You’re not going to find, for instance, a premium left tackle on the open market.  Instead, as many have said, you’ll be paying filet mignon prices for hamburger quality.  That’s why the best franchises use free agency to complement their core instead of attempting to create one.

Now, the issue here for many years has been that the in-house talent level, due to poor drafting and developing, hasn’t been anywhere near close to snuff.  The last Jets first-rounder to have his rookie contract extended was defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson in 2016, and that turned out to be a huge mistake. They’ve had a “one” in every draft year during the past decade, but only safety Jamal Adams, quarterback Sam Darnold and defensive lineman Quinnen Williams remain on the roster. It’s a pathetic record.

Hence, contrary to others’ opinions, I don’t believe it’s necessary for the Jets to overbid for their own free agents. I hope Poole is an exception, since he had a fantastic year in both coverage and run support. However, if players like wide receiver Robby Anderson, linebacker Jordan Jenkins, and tackle Kelvin Beachum, are offered outsized deals elsewhere, it’s better that the Jets allow them to walk and earn points toward compensatory draft picks.    

Nov 17, 2019; Landover, MD, USA; New York Jets wide receiver Robby Anderson (11) runs after a catch against Washington Redskins cornerback Josh Norman (24) during the first half at FedExField
Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

It's too soon to project who the Jets should go after in the free agency market. Teams still have plenty of time to extend or tag anyone they wish to keep. Baltimore edge rusher Matthew Judon might have climbed out of the Jets’ price range after being honored with his first Pro Bowl berth. I have heard whispers that Washington guard Branson Scherff is on Douglas’ radar. Douglas, a former offensive lineman in college, has stated that he will prioritize the unit this offseason. 

While Douglas should be engaged the moment teams are allowed to negotiate with free agents on March 16, he’d be prudent to wait out all the outrageous bidding for no better than decent players at the market open.  Pounce on the second and third waves for marginal upgrades at positions of need at more reasonable prices.

The draft is where Douglas needs to make his mark, especially with his four picks in the first 80.  He was given a six-year contract for a reason.  And it wasn’t for the expectation that he would transform this franchise in one 24-hour news cycle in mid-March.      

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter: @SteveLichtenst1.

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