Brian Poole (34) has been a more than adequate slot cornerback for the Jets but closing speed and … [+]
The first wave of NFL free agency is over. Although a few big names still remain on the board, the time has come for teams to re-trench, re-assess and figure out if any of the players left can fill some of their needs.
And that brings us to the New York Jets, who have been fairly active through the first four days of NFL free agency. Again, general manager Joe Douglas has eschewed the blockbuster signing in favor of tactical moves. His report card eventually didn’t look so good by the end of 2020, by his own admission.
As always, it is too early to judge this year’s moves by the Jets. But what is possible is to try to figure out where these players fit in the new schemes being installed on both offense and defense, what their arrivals mean for certain incumbents and what moves might be next on Douglas’ agenda. Plus, how much salary-cap room will be left to execute those potential signings?
Offense. Douglas, new head coach Robert Saleh and the Jets have yet to make their choice of a 2021 starting quarterback, at least not publicly. But that hasn’t prevented them from signing two unrestricted free agent wide receivers.
The biggest name is former Tennessee Titan Corey Davis, written about more extensively here. The 6-3, 205-pound Davis is expected to be a help in both the passing and running games because of his physicality. The deal is for three years and $27 million guaranteed, per overthecap.com. Essentially, much like many such contracts, the third year of it functions almost like an option year for New York, which could cut Davis with only $666,668 of dead money and a cap savings of $10.5 million.
On Thursday, the Jets added to their wide-receiver corps by reportedly signing Keelan Cole, formerly of Jacksonville. The fine print on the contract has yet to come out, but per ESPN’s Adam Schefter, it is a one-year, $5.5 million deal. Cole, who had 55 catches for an 11.7-yard average and five touchdowns last season, is an intriguing pickup, because he can play both outside and in the slot. With Davis and rising second-year player Denzel Mims, a second-round pick in 2020, already penciled in as the outside receivers, Cole either projects as the No. 4 receiver or as a potential replacement for slot receiver Jamison Crowder should the Jets decide to move on.
Crowder is an excellent receiver, but has missed 11 games due to injury over the past three seasons, and the Jets would save $10.375 million against the cap by releasing him. It’s possible they could ask Crowder, in the final season of a three-year deal, to restructure. Signing Cole gives them the flexibility to bargain with Crowder on their terms.
The Jets also re-signed wideouts Vyncint Smith and Jeff Smith (no relation), who were set to become restricted and exclusive rights free agents, respectively. They likely will battle for a reserve roster spot, and both could factor into the kick return game, as could Cole, who had a 91-yard punt return for a touchdown last season.
Breshad Perriman, who missed four games last season because of various injuries, reportedly signed a one-year, $3 million deal with Detroit. JuJu Smith-Schuster is re-signing with Pittsburgh, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter. There was speculation that the Jets might be interested in reuniting the free agent with his old USC teammate, the embattled quarterback Sam Darnold.
The Jets added Buffalo tight end Tyler Kroft on Friday evening on a one-year deal, according to a tweet by his agent, Mike McCartney. Kroft averaged 9.9 yards on 12 receptions last season and scored three touchdowns. For his career, he has averaged 10 yards on 85 catches in six seasons with Cincinnati and Buffalo and has 12 touchdowns.
The Jets also re-signed restricted free agent running back Josh Adams. The 24-year-old averaged 5.4 yards on 29 carries last season, with his duties limited because then-coach Adam Gase insisted on feeding the ball to aging Frank Gore, who averaged 3.6.
Their offensive line was ranked 29th by Pro Football Focus, but the Jets were unable to land either of the two most coveted offensive linemen on the market, guard Joe Thuney and center Corey Linsley. Instead, on Thursday, they signed former Los Angeles Charger Dan Feeney. Per Over The Cap, it is a one-year contract for $3 million guaranteed, counting $3.5 million against the cap. But make no mistake, Feeney doesn’t project as a starter, even though he played every snap for the Chargers last season after starting center Mike Pouncey was lost for the season with a hip injury.
Nonetheless, Feeney received a woeful 48.2 grade from PFF. Feeney, who also has played guard and started 57 games in four seasons for the Chargers, projects as a swing backup. The Jets already have let Pat Elflein, who started the final six games of 2020 at left guard, leave for Carolina via free agency. The deal with Feeney likely means that backup Josh Andrews, a UFA, won’t be brought back by New York.
The market for free-agent guards has thinned out. Unless the Jets allow Feeney to seriously compete with left guard Alex Lewis, who sat out the final six games of last season after a dispute with Gase, or right guard Greg Van Roten, they likely would have to find a new guard via a trade or in the draft.
Defense. The biggest splash the Jets made so far on this side of the ball is the signing of former Cincinnati 4-3 end Carl Lawson, an edge rusher who the Jets hope will add some punch to their perennially moribund pass rush. Lawson’s contract, per Over The Cap, calls for $30 million in fully guaranteed money, all but $333,333 of it in in the first two years of the contract. The Jets also signed middle linebacker Jarrad Davis to a one-year, $5.5 million deal, all of it fully guaranteed.
More on those signings here.
Lawson’s arrival led to the departure of Tarell Basham, who signed with Dallas.
The Jets also parted ways with defensive end Henry Anderson, a poor fit in the 4-3. He signed with New England, which used a 3-4 scheme.
On Thursday, the Jets reportedly signed former Las Vegas Raider defensive back LaMarcus Joyner, who had been unhappy as a slot cornerback with that AFC West team but projects as a safety in the system of Saleh and new coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. That is interesting because the Jets already have Marcus Maye, whom they franchise-tagged last week, and third-round 2020 pick Ashtyn Davis.
With Maye and Joyner both projecting as free safeties, perhaps the Jets could move Davis, who often struggled in coverage, to strong safety. The Jets and Maye have until July 15 to reach a long-term deal, a process perhaps complicated by the fact that Denver’s Justin Simmons, who had just been franchise-tagged for a second-consecutive year by the team, reportedly signed a four-year deal Friday with the Broncos. The contract is worth $61 million over four years with $35 million guaranteed, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. That certainly complicates things for the Jets with Maye, as it makes Simmons the league’s highest-paid safety in terms of yearly average.
On special teams, the Jets signed gunner Justin Hardee, who helped New Orleans allow only 2.3 yards per punt return last season. Hardee will make $1 million in guaranteed money, all up front this year. Bringing him in is a sign that Douglas and special teams coordinator Brant Boyer, who now has been retained by two new coaching regimes, believe in sixth-round 2020 pick Braden Mann. Mann averaged 43.9 yards gross, but only 37.2 net, second-lowest among qualifying punters. Mann often outkicked his coverage and twice was forced to make touchdown-saving tackles himself. The addition of Hardee should mean Mann’s tackling skills won’t come into play as often.
So what might come next? Inside linebacker Neville Hewitt was the Jets’ leading tackler last season, but he didn’t make a lot of impact plays. In 2020, the Jets used both 3-4 and 4-3 formations, although the 4-3 was more common. But with them switching exclusively to the 4-3, there is less of a need for inside linebackers, and Hewitt is not a good fit on the outside.
Slot cornerback Brian Poole remains unsigned. Poole has been effective in two seasons with the Jets, both on one-year contracts, but he has missed nine games because of injury the past two seasons. However, many slot corners have come off the board. Still available is San Francisco’s K’Waun Williams, who would provide the bonus of helping his new teammates learn the system.
Not counting the Cole and Joyner deals, the Jets have just over $34 million in cap space left. Remember, that money also will be used to pay their draft picks.
I have 30 years of experience writing for daily newspapers, and I covered the Jets from 2007-16 for The Record of Bergen County, N.J. As the beat writer, I covered every