The initial wave of free agency is behind us, but the New York Jets still have a lot of work ahead of them if they are going to field a competent offense in 2014.
Quarterback Geno Smith struggled in his rookie year, completing 55.8 percent of his passes with a 66.5 passer rating, finishing in the bottom three among starting quarterbacks in both categories. He improved down the stretch, completing 58.6 percent of his throws with a passer rating of 83.6 in the final four games of the season.
He was on a good trajectory at the end of the 2013 season, but in order to continue on that path, he will need the Jets to put more pieces around him. They retained tight end Jeff Cumberland before free agency began, they brought in some outside help in the form of former Denver Broncos wide receiver Eric Decker and the team announced it re-signed guard Willie Colon on Wednesday afternoon.
Even with those three moves, there's still much more work to be done.
Top tight end
The Jets signed Cumberland to a three-year, $3.7 million contract before free agency began. His deal, and the fact that he was eager to sign it, likely indicates two things:
- The market was not strong for his services; why not wait the three remaining days to the start of free agency?
- The Jets do not view him as a full-time starter; his per-year average ranks 37th among all tight ends.
"When you play this game, or any sport, you've just got to be patient and go with what they give you," Cumberland said, according to Randy Lange of NewYorkJets.com. "But this is my fifth year in the league now. I've been very patient. This year I feel I should be able to show the ability I know I have."
Cumberland got off to a good start in that regard, ranking third among all tight ends in yards per reception with 15.3 (minimum 20 receptions), as Lange points out. Cumberland also caught 65 percent of the passes in his direction, third best on the team for any player with 10 or more targets.
Source: Pro Football Focus
The Jets could make out like bandits on Cumberland's contract if he continues his ascent, and with veteran tight end Kellen Winslow presently out of the picture, that could mean more targets for Cumberland. It seems like the Jets prefer him to contribute fairly evenly in both the running and passing game, though.
A true pass-catching tight end is one of a few tools this offense needs. There are plenty of free agents still available to help address that need. The Houston Texans recently released veteran tight end Owen Daniels, who isn't as spry as he used to be but is a well-versed route-runner and has good hands.
Maybe the Jets are open to a reunion with tight end Dustin Keller. The former Jet of five years (2008-2012) spent the 2013 season with the Dolphins but was shelved early after tearing the ACL, MCL and PCL in his right knee.
The draft is moderately deep at tight end, but the cream of the crop is UNC tight end Eric Ebron. At 6'4" with 33.25" long arms, Ebron has the long frame to give him a wide catch radius, and he has the speed and quickness to threaten all parts of the field.
He finished in the top five in the 40-yard dash (4.60 seconds) and broad jump (120"), which are both indicative of his explosiveness off the snap. He also finished in the top 10 in the vertical jump (32") and the bench press (24 reps of 225 pounds).
The Jets have some options here, but long term, Ebron looks like the one.
One more wide receiver
Adding Decker is a start, but the Jets still have work to do at wide receiver. There has been some debate as to whether Decker is a "true" No. 1 or a No. 2 receiver. That's an oversimplification—on the field, the receivers play different positions, known as "X" and "Z".
The X receiver lines up on the line of scrimmage and on the open/weak side of the formation (opposite side of the tight end). The Z receiver lines up slightly off the line of scrimmage. This is because, usually, the X receiver is better at getting away from press coverage, whereas the Z receiver gets some cushion to help them build speed before the jam. X receivers also run more downfield routes, while Z receivers run short and intermediate routes, relying more on yards after catch.
As I wrote after the signing, Decker has most of the traits of an X, but his lack of elite speed leads some to believe he's best suited as a Z.
In offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg's West Coast system, the Jets will need receivers capable of carrying out multiple roles. There can be multiple progressions for each individual play (who is the first, second or third read), depending on the situation. The more versatile the receivers, the more creative the Jets can get with their play calls and progressions.
It's fair to wonder about the team's investment in Stephen Hill. Head coach Rex Ryan has said that he thinks Hill can be a productive player, but only after acknowledging that Hill—after two years in the league—still remains a raw talent. Plenty of receivers have stepped up in their third year; could Hill be the next? It would certainly come as a surprise to many.
The Jets can't afford to bank on it, and it doesn't look like they are planning on it.
Former Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice is coming off a torn ACL, and he has missed 25 games in the past four years due to injury. At 6'4" and 202 pounds, though, he has the size to play on the boundary but lacks the quickness of a Z receiver and would be primarily a downfield target (14 receptions on 26 targets at least 20 yards down field since 2012).
One intriguing option is Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson.
He has good size, at 6'2" and 220 pounds, but he is not a dominant athlete. His lack of top-end speed may drop him out of the first round, but he is a great route-runner and knows how to use his frame to win jump balls and box out defenders in the red zone.
There is reason to believe that the pairing of Decker and Geno Smith can be dynamic. Not only was Decker one of the most efficient deep receivers in the NFL in 2013, but Smith was one of the season's most accurate deep passers, according to Pro Football Focus:
Top WRs on Deep Passes in 2013 pic.twitter.com/FdjkHBDfoj— Pro Football Focus (@PFF) March 19, 2014
But Decker won't be enough on his own. With two solid outside-the-numbers threats in Decker and Robinson, and a top-notch slot receiver in Jeremy Kerley, the Jets have the foundation for their own trio of pass-catchers.
Depth in the backfield
Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell were a solid one-two punch for the Jets in 2013, combining for 1,530 rushing yards and 4.27 yards per rush attempt on the season. One thing the Jets still lack, though, is a back who can contribute in the passing game.
The Jets wouldn't even have to break the bank for a running back. Across the NFL, teams are allocating a higher percentage of their money to guards (5.61 percent of cap dollars) than to running backs (4.95 percent), according to Spotrac (premium content). The only running backs to sign a contract averaging over $3 million per year are Giants running back Rashad Jennings, Chargers running back Donald Brown and Jaguars running back Toby Gerhart.
Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno is still on the market, and after being left out of the initial wave of free-agent signings, it's beginning to look like interest in Moreno is not as strong as he had hoped. Moreno gained a lot of valuable experience in the passing game in his first healthy year since 2009, catching 60 passes from Peyton Manning for 548 yards and three touchdowns. He has improved in pass protection, but it's a work in progress.
This year's running back class is not considered top-heavy, but there is some depth. One draft prospect to watch could be West Virginia's Charles Sims.
He is a bit taller than the average running back at 6'0", which hurts his pad level, and he is not seen as a tough-nosed back with regards to breaking tackles, but in the open field, he can be dangerous. He totaled 203 receptions for 2,105 yards (10.37 yards per reception) and 11 receiving touchdowns in his career at Houston (2009-2012) and WVU (2013).
The Jets can continue to get by with Ivory and Powell, and their running game probably will not suffer for it (unless Ivory gets injured), but they could round out the offense and introduce the element of a dynamic screen game by adding a talented pass-catching running back.
Make a decision on Mark Sanchez
This really could go somewhere near the top, because if this is the first domino that falls, everything else could fall into place much more smoothly.
The Jets can finally get out from under the massive and foolish contract given to Mark Sanchez in 2012 in the wake of the Jets' short-lived courtship of Peyton Manning. Sanchez is set to count for $13.1 million against the 2014 salary cap, but according to Spotrac, the Jets can unload $8.3 million of that by unloading Sanchez.
They would have a dead-money charge of $4.8 million, but the benefits outweigh the drawbacks.
Besides, it appears the Jets have their sights set on a different quarterback to be Geno Smith's backup.
Report by http://t.co/55LMJJvotx: Michael Vick to visit Jets this weekend. Vick & Jets seem to share deliberate pace in free agency.— Kimberly Jones (@KimJonesSports) March 19, 2014
What's holding them back from getting that process under way? If the Jets are already thinking about their alternatives, Sanchez's release is clearly the first thing that should happen. Perhaps they just want to make sure they have all their bases covered and don't want to be left without a viable backup quarterback for 2014.
The Jets are currently around $30.6 million under the salary cap, so Sanchez's contract is not holding them back from making other moves. If nothing else, though, the Jets can take the money saved from Sanchez and add it to their rollover to the 2015 offseason, when there will be a litany of pass-catching talent on the free-agent market.
Advanced statistics courtesy of Pro-Football-Reference unless otherwise noted.
Combine stats courtesy of NFL.com's results tracker.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases. All salary cap and contract information provided by Spotrac.