The Jets are starting over yet again. They have a new head coach, Robert Saleh, for the third time since Rex Ryan was fired after the 2014 season. They have a new quarterback, No. 2 overall draft pick Zach Wilson, who will try to succeed where Sam Darnold, Christian Hackenberg, Geno Smith and Mark Sanchez failed — bringing the Jets their first championship since Super Bowl III.
The Jets, coming off a 2–14 season, are a long way from being a Super Bowl contender, of course. But general manager Joe Douglas — hired after the draft in 2019 — has shown some encouraging signs in this latest attempt at a rebuild for a team that last reached the playoffs in 2010.
This season and 2022 will be pivotal for Douglas — in terms of offseason moves and also seeing whether Wilson can thrive. Douglas will have to do a better job of surrounding him with blockers and playmakers than he did for Darnold last year. Otherwise, the NFL’s longest active playoff drought will continue.
It’s all about Wilson — and making him comfortable. He is bound to have rookie hiccups. He’s not a sure-thing prospect, like Trevor Lawrence. Wilson played a relatively weak schedule last season at BYU, and he doesn’t have prototypical size for a pocket passer. Could he get beat up? Douglas took at least a small leap of faith here, as he traded Darnold and picked Wilson, who does not have a large body of work in terms of college success.
So, where do the Jets stand in their mission to give Wilson the support he’ll need?
Well, they hired an offensive coordinator, Mike LaFleur, who runs a quarterback-friendly West Coast system. That’s a start. Wilson played in a similar offense at BYU.
But the Jets’ offensive line remains a question mark — yet again — outside of left tackle Mekhi Becton, who thrived last year as a rookie. Connor McGovern looked shaky at center in 2020. A young quarterback typically needs a reliable center.
The Jets don’t have long-term answers at right guard or right tackle with Greg Van Roten and George Fant. But the blind side should be better, as first-round left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker arrives to replace Alex Lewis and form a nice tandem with Becton. The Jets simply had to upgrade their interior line. Vera-Tucker is a start.
Douglas spent a guaranteed $27 million on wideout Corey Davis, so he’ll need to play like a true No. 1 outside receiver, even though Douglas opted not to spend bigger money on Kenny Golladay. Still, if Denzel Mims (a second-round pick last year) doesn’t make progress at the other outside receiver spot, Wilson will be in trouble.
Two wild-card pieces for Wilson are tight end Chris Herndon and slot receiver Elijah Moore. Herndon has never lived up to the hype — Adam Gase once raved about his “unicorn” potential — but he will be motivated by a contract year. Moore, a second-round pick this year, could challenge Jamison Crowder for playing time.
The lack of a dominant running back could be a concern, but Tevin Coleman came from the 49ers in free agency, so he’s familiar with LaFleur’s offense. Coleman will provide stability if La’Mical Perine (a fourth-round pick last year) takes some time to catch on.
Saleh is transitioning the Jets from a 3-4 system to a 4-3 — with the Cover 3 back-end approach that has been so successful in Seattle. Saleh got his start as a Pete Carroll disciple.
The Jets have been one of the NFL’s most inconsistent pass-rushing teams. That’s why Douglas signed defensive end Carl Lawson to a three-year, $45 million contract. Saleh’s defensive line ought to be formidable, as Lawson teams with Quinnen Williams, a budding star tackle who had seven sacks last season. Williams broke his foot in May but should be ready for the season.
Middle linebacker C.J. Mosley opted out of last season, but he’s back now. He could be a game-changing presence for this defense. The four-man front could give him more opportunities to roam and make plays, rather than having to take on offensive linemen.
This is a huge year for Mosley to show he is worth the five-year, $85 million deal that Douglas’ predecessor, Mike Maccagnan, gave him in 2019, just before Maccagnan was fired. Mosley was limited to two games by a groin injury that year, then didn’t play last year.
But the biggest issue with this defense is in the secondary — and at cornerback, in particular. The Jets have one of the NFL’s shakiest cornerback groups, and Douglas did not address the position in a high-profile way this offseason.
When the Cover 3 defense is at its best — think those glory years in Seattle, with the Legion of Boom — it has a big, physical outside corner, like Richard Sherman. But instead of a star like that, the Jets have two starters with a troubling lack of experience. Bryce Hall was a fifth-round pick last year who has started seven games. Bless Austin was a sixth-rounder in 2019 who has started 16 games.
Saleh is also seeking answers at slot corner. Last year’s starter, Brian Poole, remains a free agent. The Jets drafted Duke safety Michael Carter II in the fifth round this year, and he has slot corner potential. Still, the Jets have no definitive answers at any of the three corner spots — something that could haunt Saleh throughout this season.
The Jets’ best overall player last year, free safety Marcus Maye, is entering a contract year — unless Douglas can lock him up long-term before the mid-July deadline for franchise-tagged players like Maye. If Douglas wants to give Saleh’s secondary a fighting chance in the years to come, he’ll need to get Maye under contract past 2021.
Though Maye is one of the NFL’s best safeties, the Jets have lacked a pure strong safety since they traded Jamal Adams to Seattle last summer. Ashtyn Davis — who is more of a free safety — was forced into that role as a rookie third-rounder last season. And he probably will have to play it again in 2021, next to Maye.
While this defense is Saleh’s, he won’t be calling the plays during games. He wants to have more of a CEO head coach role and hired Falcons linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich to run his defense. Ulbrich had been with another Carroll disciple, Dan Quinn, in Atlanta in 2015. So Ulbrich knows this 4-3/Cover 3 defense well.
Sam Ficken has made just 76 percent of his field goals through two seasons with the Jets, so he could be on thin ice in a training camp competition with Chase McLaughlin, who has made 22-of-28 career field goals with other teams since 2019. Braden Mann finished 30th in the NFL last season in yards per punt, after the Jets drafted him in the sixth round in 2020. So he’s no sure thing to keep his job, either, but is probably in better shape than Ficken. Expect wide receiver Braxton Berrios and cornerback Corey Ballentine to reprise their roles as punt returner and kickoff returner, respectively.
The Jets have a 10-year playoff drought going — twice as long as the next-closest teams (Cardinals, Bengals and Broncos). It’ll surely reach 11 years in 2021. This is not a playoff roster. And it’s crazy to think Wilson will be an immediate savior. Considering how bad the Jets looked last year, a 5–12 or 6–11 season would have to be considered something of a success. But by the end of next season, Douglas needs to have a clearer picture of where things stand with Wilson.
Whenever Wilson starts, he’ll be the Jets’ 35th different starting quarterback since Joe Namath’s final season in New York in 1976. Maybe the 35th time will be the charm.