7 Biggest Needs New York Jets Have Yet to Address This Offseason
Releasing cornerback Antonio Cromartie and wide receiver Santonio Holmes gave the New York Jets a salary-cap war chest of almost $40 million. These are the team's gains and losses as the 10th day of free agency begins.
- Re-signings and extensions: Cornerbacks Ellis Lankster and Darrin Walls, guard Willie Colon, kicker Nick Folk, outside linebacker Calvin Pace, tight end Jeff Cumberland and defensive end Leger Douzable
- New talent: Offensive tackle Breno Giacomini and wide receiver Eric Decker
- Offensive tackle Austin Howard
- Cornerback Isaiah Trufant
Despite the perceptions of impatient fans, the Jets have gained more than they've lost.
- They replaced Howard with Giacomini, which keeps the right tackle position in the hands of an established veteran. They added Eric Decker, a two-time 1,000-yard wide receiver.
- They retained the services of key backup and special teams personnel, including kicker Folk. Folk even got a multi-year contract after receiving the franchise tag.
- They re-signed starting outside linebacker Pace for two years at $5 million and starting guard Willie Colon for one year at $2 million.
- They still have plenty of cap room. OverTheCap.com conservatively estimates around $27.8 million. That figure incorporates money that doesn't count against the cap during this part of the year.
Here's the problem. These gains amount to treading water. Only the Decker signing represents a possible improvement. The others leave the Jets as they were in 2013.
That's what frustrates the fans. They see the players that got away who might have improved the team. Here are some examples:
- Cornerbacks: Vontae Davis, Captain Munnerlyn, Darrelle Revis, Aqib Talib and Alterraun Verner
- Guards: Geoff Schwartz, Rodger Saffold and Jon Asamoah
- Quarterbacks: Matt Cassel and Josh McCown
- Safeties: Jairus Byrd and T.J. Ward
- Tight ends: Brandon Pettigrew, Dennis Pitta and Scott Chandler
- Wide receivers: Hakeem Nicks and Golden Tate
These aren't all necessarily good fits for the Jets. They just represent a collection of prominent players that Jets fans have watched go elsewhere during the first few days of free agency.
It's beginning to look like the Jets are bypassing free agency in favor of the draft.
Don't think the Jets haven't tried. The amount of attention they've given a position is part of this list's ranking criteria. Here they are:
- Effort: It doesn't look like the Jets have investigated filling some needs through free agency. If no media reports indicate they've looked into filling a position, that makes it more of a need they have "yet to address."
- Result: Effort is commendable; results are essential. The Jets have addressed a few needs through their activity thus far. However, if a need is on this list they need more help than they've obtained.
- Severity: Contributing factors include 2013 performance and available personnel after accounting for free agency and salary-cap cuts.
Before we discuss the Jets' unfinished business, we'll acknowledge the needs they've filled.
NFL free-agent information, draft grades and combine scores via NFL.com
It's only fair to acknowledge the needs that the Jets have filled this offseason. They involve either re-signing one of their own free agents or replacing a lost starter.
Nick Folk was going to be the Jets' kicker in 2014 one way or another. The Jets made sure of that by imposing the franchise tag. They subsequently rewarded Folk for his career-best season with a four-year contract for $12 million with $2.1 million guaranteed.
The Jets re-signed Willie Colon to a one-year, $2 million contract. That signing returns a leader to the locker room and solidifies what could have been a gaping hole. There will be more about guard needs later.
Right Offensive Tackle
The Jets replaced Austin Howard with Breno Giacomini, formerly of Seattle. The four-year contract Giacomini signed was for $18 million with $7 million guaranteed. It was a more economical deal than Howard's five-year deal with the Raiders for $30 million.
The Jets also signed important special teams players in Ellis Lankster and Darrin Walls, as well as key defensive line backup Leger Douzable. Those moves are less glamorous than signing a marquee name, but important for solidifying the roster nonetheless. John Idzik and the Jets deserve recognition for paying attention to these needs.
But by and large, the Jets still need the same things they needed before free agency began.
It's time to take a look.
Before the Jets announced on Twitter that they had re-signed Willie Colon (h/t ESPN's Rich Cimini), their guard situation looked critical. So critical that NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah called the position one of their three greatest needs.
Maybe you still agree. Whether you do or not depends on what you thought of their guards' play last year.
If you thought that Colon drew too many penalties, that Brian Winters showed no potential as a rookie and that the William Campbell experiment is a failure, the Jets need help at guard yesterday. They need not one new starter, but two, along with a backup. You're probably upset that Idzik hasn't made any moves whatsoever. The draft can supply one or two guards at most.
Optimists view Winters' trials last year as rookie growing pains and expect him to emerge stronger in 2014. They either believe Colon will recover from a biceps surgery and regain his 2013 form or that William Campbell's conversion from defensive line to guard is succeeding. They might see the Jets using a late-round pick for a guard or signing someone off the waiver wire. They don't view guard as a crisis situation.
The truth lies somewhere in between. For one thing, Winters had to start more quickly because Vladimir Ducasse was ineffective. For another, they brought back Colon. His leadership would be welcome. Campbell remains a wild card, as we have no regular-season action by which to judge him.
The top remaining free-agent guards are Davin Joseph from Tampa Bay and Travelle Wharton from Carolina. Both player's careers resemble Colon's. Joseph is a former All-Pro trying to revive his career after two years of battling injuries. Wharton is a solid veteran trying to work a couple more years of playing time. They wouldn't fit the Jets' youth movement, but could add a steadying influence to the line. Neither has been linked with the Jets.
But the Jets probably don't need a second elder statesman now that Colon is back. That leaves the draft.
In the draft, the Jets will compete with at least a half-dozen teams that Jeremiah identified as needing help either at guard or at "offensive lineman." They'll compete for a small group of starter-level guards.
Of the 15 offensive linemen who grade as potential starters (5.5 or greater), 10 are tackles and two are centers. Only three are guards. The Jets' best hope may be that one of these tackles converts easily to guard. He'd be doing what Winters accomplished in 2013.
We'll learn a lot about how the Jets view their current guards by how many new faces you see.
6. Outside Linebacker
It looks like the Jets won't be acquiring a speedy outside pass-rusher through free agency. They've stuck with the old and familiar by re-signing Calvin Pace.
That's not a bad move. Pace was an excellent cleanup man. The Jets front seven generated its initial quarterback pressure from the defensive line, then let Pace, Quinton Coples and Antwan Barnes (when healthy) take advantage of blown blocks and good secondary coverage to get their share of the Jets' 41.0 sacks.
Assuming Barnes stays healthy in 2014, the Jets' biggest issue at outside linebacker will be re-signing or replacing Garrett McIntyre, a restricted free agent. If McIntyre doesn't return, his replacement should be available either through a middle-round to late-round draft pick or another team's release.
If would be great if the Jets got an outside linebacker who could be more than a cleanup act. It also could happen, even if they have to wait until the third or fourth round. NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah counts four teams that number outside linebackers among their top three needs. Six draft prospects have earned grades of 5.5 or better, which identify them as potential starters. Three have grades of 6.1 or better.
Given their other needs, it's far from their highest priority. But the lack of competition may help the Jets fill it anyway.
5. Wide Receiver
Eric Decker's signing may be the Jets' most significant achievement of the 2014 free-agent season. Yet wide receiver continues to be a team need. That perception is both an acknowledgement of Decker's limitations and of the Jets' level of need.
The reason NFL.com considers Decker one of 2014's worst free-agent signings so far isn't an indictment of Decker; it's an acknowledgement that "Decker is closer to a No. 2 receiver than a No. 1. In New York, he's currently 1A, 1B and 7F."
In other words, to get the most production out of Decker, the Jets must find their version of Demaryius Thomas. They must give Decker a No. 1 receiver.
According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport (via Jets insider Eric Allen), the Jets are interested in former Seahawk Sidney Rice. They're also, according to ESPNNewYork.com's Rich Cimini, talking with Oakland's Jacoby Ford.
However, the draft still looks like the source of their next No. 1 wideout. They already have big bodies in Decker and Stephen Hill, as well as tight end Jeff Cumberland, so their strategy may focus on adding speed. USC's Marqise Lee ran a disappointing 4.52 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. They may shift gears in favor of LSU's Odell Beckham or Oregon State's Brandin Cooks.
They're certainly doing their homework. Jets personnel have attended the pro days of at least five top prospects. They aim to get this pick right.
They'll have to be extra clever if their first-round priorities change as a result of free-agency failures. They might, for example, have to draft a cornerback in the first round.
That may cause a supply-and-demand issue with wide receivers, even though it's a strength of the 2014 draft. There are 11 wide receivers whose draft grades identify them as potential starters. However, half the teams in the NFL count wide receiver as one of their three primary needs.
Despite Around the League's misgivings, it's probably a good thing that the Jets have at least signed Decker. If their other needs take over the early rounds of the draft, they'll at least have covered one wide receiver spot.
As much as the Jets want to sign a veteran quarterback, it's not a disaster if they don't. They can always use the guy they already have, Mark Sanchez.
The biggest obstacle to using Sanchez is his contract. He represents the Jets' biggest cap hit at $13.1 million. His departure would provide another $8.3 million in cap room.
There's no point paying $11.5 million to someone who isn't an established franchise quarterback. That's why the Jets are seeking other options. But they've already lost one prospect, and may lose another.
Josh McCown had a successful part-time run filling in for Jay Cutler with the 2013 Bears. He will rejoin head coach Lovie Smith with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014, where he'll get his chance to replace second-year player Mike Glennon.
McCown had a solid 2013 season, but there's another option whose style makes him a better mentor for Geno Smith: Michael Vick.
Vick has been a successful starter and has worked with Marty Mornhinweg. Like Smith, both his arm and his legs are potent weapons. However, he won't give up the idea of being the unquestioned starter unless there are no other options. Right now, he has options besides the Jets. Oakland and Buffalo are also interested according to Dan Hanzus and Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.
Vick seems to be sending mixed signals. On the one hand, he is supposed to visit the Jets on March 21 according to Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com. On the other hand, he's reportedly willing to wait until after the draft to commit himself.
The more Vick procrastinates, the better it is for Sanchez. He'll collect a $2 million roster bonus on March 25 if he's still with the team. If Vick remains noncommittal after his visit, Sanchez has a good chance to collect it.
Resorting to the draft is counterproductive. The Jets can rationalize signing a veteran to be Smith's mentor and a competitor. He'd serve as another way to measure Smith's progress. Signing a rookie would be like invalidating Smith's accomplishments. It would, in effect, say that the Jets felt the need to start over at quarterback. That couldn't be a positive message to Smith.
In other words, Vick, Smith and Sanchez will learn something about their futures by March 25.
3. Tight End
Re-signing Jeff Cumberland hasn't solved the Jets' tight end problems. It provided a solid backup, but the team still needs a starter.
The Jets will try to sell Cumberland as their starter. But the facts are these: Cumberland and Kellen Winslow Jr. were a platoon act in 2013. Winslow played in three fewer games because of a midseason suspension. But Winslow caught 31 passes compared to Cumberland's 26 and gained 388 yards to Cumberland's 398. Cumberland failed to separate himself from the crowd.
Jermichael Finley may be the best free-agent tight end left, and he hasn't received full medical clearance to play. When he does, he'll probably join the Seahawks. Then there's the Jets' old friend, Dustin Keller, who missed half of the 2012 season and all of 2013 with injuries. If the Jets sign either of them, they'll probably use a contract similar to LaRon Landry's. That contract doled out half its value on a weekly basis based on Landry's availability to play.
But even if the Jets sign Finley or Keller, they'll probably go to the draft for insurance. They've already been to one tight end's pro day, Texas Tech's Jace Amaro.
Here's the problem. Most of the top tight ends re-signed with their 2013 teams. Dennis Pitta rejoined the Ravens. Brandon Pettigrew rejoined the Lions. Scott Chandler rejoined the Bills. They didn't move to a team that had tight end as a significant need.
If you believe NFL.com analyst Daniel Jeremiah's summary of team needs, that shouldn't be an issue. Only two teams, Atlanta and Seattle, count tight end as a top-three need. There are four draft prospects with starter-caliber grades of 5.5 or better. Amaro ranks just below them at 5.4.
With so few needs met through free agency, the Jets may have no choice but to see if Cumberland's ready for prime time. It might not be so bad. What the Jets need are one, preferably two, game-breaking threats. It doesn't matter if their position is wide receiver, tight end or running back. The important thing is to find them and use their skills to build an offense.
In terms of the Jets' draft strategy, cornerback may be the most significant need that they have not met through free agency. This failure may once again force a defensive pick in the first round.
Did John Idzik consider this possibility when he released Antonio Cromartie? It had to be among his contingency plans. But so many good free-agent cornerbacks were available that it was hard to imagine the Jets would not land one.
The Jets were linked with at least four of the best free-agent cornerbacks. One by one they went elsewhere. Alterraun Verner re-signed with the Titans; Vontae Davis re-signed with the Colts; Darrelle Revis joined the Patriots. Most recently, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie joined the Giants.
Meanwhile, Cromartie isn't waiting for Idzik's phone call. He's talked with the Arizona Cardinals according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. That, plus the Jets' failures thus far, should increase his leverage should he choose to discuss returning.
The Jets have options. The 2014 draft class is rich in cornerbacks. Getting one with starter potential (a grade of 5.5 or more) might mean using their first-round pick. While there are six such prospects, at least a dozen teams, including the Jets, may include cornerback as one of their three greatest needs.
You'll hear the objection that if the Jets pursue a cornerback in the first round, they risk missing a chance to acquire needed offensive help such as a No. 1 wide receiver or tight end. That may be true for tight ends. But this year's draft has 11 wide receivers whose grades show starter potential. Someone should be available in the second round.
They have the following options:
- Re-sign Cromartie. They won't have to pay him the $15 million his last contract required, but his bargaining position should be strong.
- Sign an older veteran like Asante Samuel. He'd be this year's Ed Reed. He shouldn't start. But he would be a useful mentor for whomever the Jets draft or otherwise obtain.
- Use the 18th pick to select a cornerback. Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert is the top-graded cornerback and may be gone. Ohio State's Bradley Roby may be available.
- Acquire another first-round pick. This is the most improbable, as the Jets would have to trade one or more of 2015's high-round picks or multiple 2014 lower-round picks plus players and perhaps cash. If Idzik is serious about building through the draft, he will be reluctant to either deprive himself of a future first-round pick or too many of this year's picks. Granted, in 2014 he traded his fourth-round pick for Chris Ivory and Darrelle Revis for two picks. But he might not want to go to the extremes that Washington did to sign Robert Griffin III.
After watching Dee Milliner's struggles during his rookie year, it's painful to imagine him starting opposite a rookie cornerback in 2014. That likelihood grows more plausible with every passing day of this new NFL year.
The Jets could have instantly upgraded their defense by signing safety Jairus Byrd. They ignored that option, as well as T.J. Ward. Either one would have significantly eased the pressure on Jets cornerbacks.
This lack of action despite an apparent need is why safety is the top need in this list. While cornerback is the key position in a Rex Ryan secondary, safety play is key in both forcing turnovers and preventing big plays.
Perhaps Antonio Allen and Josh Bush are the players of the future. That seems to be the message we're getting. But we only saw brief glimpses of their potential in 2013. Why would the Jets have felt the need to sign Ed Reed and make him a starter if they felt good about safety play?
The problem is, with the best free-agent safeties gone, the Jets must consider the draft. Based on their grades, however, the likelihood of landing potential starters is slim. At least a half-dozen teams may view safety as one of their three principal needs.
Only four draft prospects, Louisville free safety Calvin Pryor, Alabama free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Wyoming free safety Marqueston Huff and LSU strong safety Craig Loston grade out as potential NFL starters. Minnesota free safety Brock Vereen and Washington State strong safety Deone Bucannon come close. There may be slim pickings available by the time the Jets have addressed their needs at cornerback, wide receiver and tight end.
Like it or not, Allen, Bush, Jaiquawn Jarrett and veteran Dawan Landry may get another year to prove themselves.
Follow Philip Schawillie of Twitter: @digitaltechguid.
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