Folks who expected an outside linebacker in 2013 got a cornerback and defensive tackle instead.
In 2013, the New York Jets stunned the mock draft universe by not selecting an outside linebacker. As the 2014 draft debate begins, the only certainty is that more surprises await us.
Nevertheless, it's time to start thinking about the Jets' strategy. What needs do they hope to fill with draft picks instead of or in addition to free agents? How will they prioritize or rank filling these needs?
Here's an attempt to sort out how the Jets prioritize their needs. The following factors influence these rankings:
- Acknowledged need: There's a strong consensus that the Jets need to upgrade their offensive skill positions, wide receiver and tight end. On defense, they could use safeties with deep coverage skills and who pose more of a takeaway threat. Other potential needs, such as offensive line, outside linebacker, cornerback and running back, will rise and fall in significance depending on salary-cap moves, the free agents they re-sign and the free agents they recruit.
- Depth of the draft pool: For example, there appear to be more blue-chip prospects at wide receiver than at tight end. That may compel the Jets to give tight end a higher draft priority.
- Strength of draft vs. free-agent market: Quarterback, wide receiver, offensive tackle, outside linebacker and cornerback are among the deepest positions in the 2014 draft. The free-agent market may be strongest at cornerback, safety, offensive tackle, running back and kicker.
- Competitors' needs: Part of deciding who to select in each round is determining who will remain available in future rounds. That means being able to project other teams' needs and strategy.
Right now, acknowledged need has the strongest weight in determining ranking, followed closely by depth of the draft pool. Comparison of the draft pool with available free agents is important, but it will be less of a factor as draft day draws near because by then the best free agents will most likely have contracts, which will also change acknowledged needs. Since everything is so in flux right now, competitors' needs receive the lowest weight.
It's also true that, thanks to their free-agent losses in 2013 and the Darrelle Revis trade, the Jets will have more picks than the standard seven. Still in doubt are the position and number of compensatory picks. Including the Revis pick means there could be as many as five extra picks and as few as one. It's probably best to assume the worst until learning differently.
With these criteria in mind, let's try to glimpse inside the minds of the Jets' draft strategists.
Sources (if not otherwise specified):
Seeing prospects like Bridgewater and Manziel go early would make life easier for the Jets and Geno Smith.
This year's draft is supposed to be a banner year for quarterbacks. Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater, the University of Central Florida's Blake Bortles, Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Fresno State's Derek Carr are projected first-round picks. They may join the recent class of 2012 that included Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson as some of the most accomplished rookie quarterbacks in NFL history.
If Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller's mock draft is close to correct, those four will be first-round selections by pick eight. That's a good thing for the Jets and Geno Smith.
Suppose that doesn't happen. Suppose someone like Manziel is still around by selection 18, the Jets' first pick. They'll find themselves between a rock and a hard place as far as public opinion goes. If they take Manziel instead of a wide receiver or tight end, they risk giving their 2014 quarterback the same weaponless offense they offered in 2012 and 2013.
On the other hand, suppose they stick to their guns and draft a wide receiver or tight end. Smith wins the starting quarterback job, but once the season starts, he reverts to the turnover-prone form of his rookie year. Meanwhile, Manziel wins his team's starting job and provides a shot of instant offense, turning his team from a doormat to a playoff contender.
The Monday-morning draft experts will take the field in full force, questioning both the decision to pass on Manziel (or whomever) and the 2013 decision to draft Smith when a better quarterback class was but a year away. They'll point out the wide receivers and tight ends the Jets could have chosen instead.
It's better if the hot commodities at quarterback are gone by the time the Jets select. That way, they can use their early rounds to fill the offensive skill positions without risking future wrath. There will be some if Smith bombs, but it won't be anywhere near what it could have been had they passed on a Bridgewater or Manziel.
That being said, if they find a good "Slash" (in tribute to former Steeler Kordell Stewart) imitation—an off-the-radar guy who can play quarterback, running back and wide receiver—in the later rounds, that might be a useful pick. They'd have someone who could run the Wildcat formation and various trick plays, with the defense being unable to pigeonhole his role. They'd know something was up, but would find it hard to predict the direction in which the ball would travel.
With that exception, the Jets are better off using the draft for other needs.
Releasing David Harris (left) and Antonio Cromartie (center left) would free $14.5 million in salary cap space.
These are the needs the Jets may have to address in the draft depending on which of their free agents and cap casualties they re-sign:
Cutting Antonio Cromartie would free $9.5 million in cap space. Even better, both the free-agent markets and draft pool are full of talent. If, however, the Jets pursue a high draft pick to replace Cromartie, their most experienced starting cornerback will be second-year player Dee Milliner, who is barely showing signs of overcoming his rookie growing pains.
It would be better to pair a veteran with Milliner, whether it be Cromartie (after reworking his contract) or a free agent such as Indianapolis' Vontae Davis, Carolina's Captain Munnerlyn or New England's Aqib Talib.
The Jets must do some soul-searching here. Their first issue is if to re-sign Willie Colon, especially after he tore his biceps in the season finale. Then they must contemplate the long-term prospects of Brian Winters and William Campbell. If they believe Winters has potential despite a rough rookie year and Campbell has potential despite being on the inactive list for all of 2013, they'll stand pat.
They probably won't get a game changer from either the draft or free agency, given the needs they should address in the early rounds.
Demario Davis and a revived David Harris improved this unit's speed in 2013. The problem is Harris and the $5 million in cap savings that cutting him represents. If he leaves and signs elsewhere, the Jets have a hole to fill.
The best free-agent possibility based on a combination of age and ability is the Chargers' Donald Butler. Draft prospects are relatively thin, with Alabama's C.J. Mosley the only first-round possibility. Baltimore will be looking hardest.
Nick Folk has always signed one-year contracts at the veterans' minimum until now. He might want more security after his career year. Even if he goes, the Jets probably won't draft a kicker unless the equivalent of Morten Andersen is available. They'll look at undrafted free agents and others' discards first.
Here's a case of a draft board that's loaded with prospects in a position that could already be solid. It could be, if the Jets give Austin Howard the franchise tag or re-sign him to a multiyear deal. If Howard leaves, all sorts of possibilities present themselves. The first question is Oday Aboushi's ability to replace him.
Baltimore's Eugene Monroe, Oakland's Jared Veldheer and Kansas City's Branden Albert are all viable free-agent candidates. They're all left tackles, but D'Brickashaw Ferguson is in the twilight of his career and might benefit from switching sides.
If the Jets don't re-sign Calvin Pace, they might be in the hunt. It depends on how they view the state of Quinton Coples' development and Antwan Barnes' durability. It's not the deepest position of the 2014 draft, but there are three projected first-rounders and top 100 prospects such as Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu available into the third round.
If Mike Goodson rehabs his knee and avoids jail, the Jets may not need a running back after all.
With Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell on board, the Jets have their first-string back starter and backup positions in place. It's the change-of-pace back, or speed back, position that needs attention. The word is "attention," not "filling," because, until medical and legal teams finalize Mike Goodson's 2014 status, the possibility of a future for him with the Jets still exists.
There is one reason why the Jets should look for a speed back regardless of Goodson's fate. It's the possibility that he could bring life to their kicking and punt return game. Josh Cribbs showed the impact a skilled return man could have on special teams' play, but it's probably time to find a younger, healthier replacement.
The good news for the Jets is that they may not have to waste a draft pick on such a player. Judging from 40-yard dash times, if speed is the most important criterion, they can either wait for the sixth or seventh round to pick Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas. Alternatively, they can sign some of his speedy colleagues as undrafted free agents.
They may look at Dri Archer from Kent State. He's a senior, but his size (5'7", 175 pounds) may keep him off the draft board. His Kent State biography lists him as both a running back and wide receiver.
Archer made All-MAC Conference third team as not just wide receiver but kick returner as well. He has the resume the Jets want for this position.
Free agents such as Green Bay's James Starks or Indianapolis' Donald Brown are a possibility, but their introduction would signal Goodson's exit regardless of medical or legal results. The Jets will use the draft, undrafted free agents or released veterans to fill this role if they consider Goodson's absence temporary.
Safety Ed Reed probably ended his Hall of Fame career as a member of the New York Jets.
Defense statistics for 2013 showed that the Jets failed to recover from the losses of safeties Yeremiah Bell and Pro Bowl selection LaRon Landry. Although Antonio Allen has begun to make a name for himself and LaRon's brother Dawan Landry was OK, the Jets still needed to sign Ed Reed to try to get a takeaway threat into their defense. They tried to do too much with Reed, but once he became a passing down specialist, he fulfilled some of their expectations.
However, Reed will very likely not return and Landry is playing, at 31, the final year of his contract in 2014. The Jets must find long-term replacements who can help with vertical coverage and generate turnovers, the defense's main weaknesses in 2013.
Safety is one position where the free-agent market offers more blue-chip starters than the draft. Buffalo's Jairus Byrd leads a strong field, which includes Cleveland's T.J. Ward, San Francisco's Donte Whitner and Miami's Chris Clemons.
In contrast, free safeties Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix of Alabama, Calvin Pryor of Louisville and Ed Reynolds of Stanford along with strong safeties Deone Bucannon of Washington State and Ahmad Dixon of Baylor are the only safeties considered first-round or second-round prospects. Clinton-Dix stands above the rest.
If the Jets focus on offense in the first two rounds, these players will most likely be gone. Chicago, Denver, Kansas City, San Diego, San Francisco and especially Washington will be looking for at least one safety. The result could be big paydays for the top free agents and a cleaned-out draft board by the time the Jets look to defense.
The free-agent starter, draftee reserve strategy makes sense for the Jets, but in light of the competition things could get expensive.
Kellen Winslow revived his career with the Jets but will probably continue it elsewhere.
The Jets need a game-breaking wide receiver. They'll most likely select one in the first round. Tight end is the most likely alternative. Here are a few reasons why:
- Numbers game: Three of the Jets' current tight ends—Jeff Cumberland, Kellen Winslow Jr. and Konrad Reuland—will be free agents in 2014. The Jets need role players at tight end as well as a starter.
- Search for weapons: Tight ends like Jimmy Graham or Rob Gronkowski can spark an offense, particularly in the red zone. If there's someone out there the Jets see as equally capable, they'll grab him.
- Free-agent backup: The Jets might look to a free agent to be their starter and use the draft to fill reserve positions. The best free-agent tight end, New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, will probably re-sign with the Saints. That leaves Baltimore's Dennis Pitta as the most desirable alternative. Pitta only played four games in 2013 because of a hip injury, but he managed to catch 20 passes for 169 yards and a touchdown. Other possibilities either had health issues or didn't live up expectations. Buffalo's Scott Chandler may be an exception, as he has improved steadily for the past three years.
Tight market: The draft pool for tight ends is thin, with only one consensus first-round pick, North Carolina's Eric Ebron. That's why the Jets might grab him if he's available. Texas Tech's Jace Amaro, Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Notre Dame's Troy Niklas may also go in the early rounds.
RantSports.com's Gil Alcaraz IV projects that two tight ends will go in the first round. He sends Amaro to the Green Bay Packers with the 21st pick and Ebron to the Kansas City Chiefs with the 23rd pick. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller's mock draft makes three first-round picks tight ends. He sends Ebron to Miami with the 19th pick (doesn't sound so good for Dustin Keller), Amaro to Kansas City and Seferian-Jenkins to Washington as the last first-round pick. That means that all tight ends could be available by the Jets' 18th pick.
- Competition: Buffalo, Kansas City and Tampa Bay will be looking as well. Other teams, such as Baltimore, Green Bay, Miami and New Orleans could join the hunt if they don't re-sign their own free agents.
The Jets moves at tight end depend on how they fare in the free-agent market. If they don't sign a top free agent, they'll hope to draft Ebron or Amaro, saving wide receiver selections for the second round. They could conceivably re-sign Cumberland, but expectations are that Winslow will depart.
They may hang on to Reuland as insurance until the draft and free-agent seasons are over, but if they sign a free-agent tight end and draft another, his days in green and white may soon end.
The Jets may replace Santonio Holmes with a rookie in 2014.
Most draft pundits consider wide receiver to be the Jets' biggest need. The team needs its equivalent of Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green or Josh Gordon, someone who can separate from defenders, catch balls that are either over their head or at their ankles, and outrun defenders to the goal line. They need someone who can stretch the field vertically, but who can also run short-range and medium-range patterns proficiently. In other words, they need an all-around threat. Some say they need two.
The Jets are fortunate in that the wide receiver pool this year is deep. Four wide receivers are in this draft's top 25 prospects, starting with Clemson's Sammy Watkins. Texas A&M's Mike Evans, USC's Marqise Lee and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin are the others.
Four other receivers are within the top 50 draft prospects. Fifteen receivers are within the top 100 prospects, so the Jets should be able to find a second prospect in the first three rounds.
That's also fortunate, as free-agent help may not be as good as it looks on paper. Denver's Eric Decker, Green Bay's James Jones, New England's Julian Edelman and Philadelphia's Riley Cooper are all available. The question is if they can reproduce their gaudy numbers away from the quarterbacks or offensive systems that they would leave to join the Jets. For the right asking price, however, they could be of use.
Here's the bad news.
The Jets aren't the only team shopping for wide receivers. Baltimore, Buffalo, Carolina, Cleveland, Kansas City, Oakland, Philadelphia and San Francisco will be in the market as well. That's why, even in a market full of talent, the Jets may grab the best available wideout they can in the first round. If they need to draft a starting tight end, they might have to trade for an additional first-round pick.