If you’re keeping score at home, the New York Jets have now rid themselves of their 2016 starters at the following positions: QB, LT, C, RT, CB1, K, WR1. And they might not be done yet.
Last night’s Newsday report that wideout Brandon Marshall will be granted his request for a release cements what had become increasingly obvious of late: This is a complete teardown. And while it’s undoubtedly the right play after the Jets’ most recent attempt at a patchwork rebuild collapsed, it remains to be seen whether the current brain trust is capable of putting this shithouse back together.
There was never a doubt the Jets were going to engage in some kind of roster pruning this offseason. Last year’s 5-11 freefall was due in large part to the rapid, simultaneous aging of their expensive, veteran core:
- Left tackle Ryan Clady, 30, has missed 37 of a possible 64 games the last four years.
- Right tackle Breno Giacomini, 31, barely got on the field in 2016.
- Center Nick Mangold, 33 and so durable for so long, missed half of last season. He also was no longer worth his $9 million price tag for 2017.
- Cornerback Darrelle Revis—an all-time Jet, like Mangold—fell off a cliff and was due $15 million. He’ll be 32 this summer.
- Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, 34, was somehow even worse than his pre-2015 sub-replacement level career had indicated he would be.
- Kicker Nick Folk, 32, is still good, but at $3 million, he was expendable.
Then there’s wideout Eric Decker, who will be 30 in two weeks. Decker missed nearly all of last season with hip and shoulder injuries; the New York Daily News reported that he eventually could be gone, too. Free safety Marcus Gilchrist, 28, is possibly another candidate for dismissal. And barely a week goes by without some trade rumor involving defensive end Sheldon Richardson, who not too long ago was viewed as a foundational young talent.
Marshall, meanwhile, has played for four franchises and never reached the playoffs. He’ll be 33 later this month. He’s coming off his least-productive season since his rookie year, and he and Richardson had more than one dustup go public as 2016 dragged on. But Marshall can still play. He has said repeatedly that Florham Park would be his last stop. But he no doubt saw himself in a locker room full of tykes getting potty trained next season and wanted no part of it. Who could blame him?
And who could blame GM Mike Maccagnan for realizing this time he first needs to clear away the debris instead of trying to salvage these ruins with duct tape and chewing gum. Maccagnan came on board in 2015 armed with $50 million in cap space bequeathed to him by the uber-frugal John Idzik, and he quickly got to work by aggressively pursuing a competitive rebuild. Maccagnan’s moves, at the time, seemed sound: The Jets won 10 games, and optimism abounded. But the foundation, as old as it was, was later revealed to be full of cracks. In 2016, it gave way.
If there’s a positive, it’s that Maccagnan (and even Idzik) didn’t tie the Jets’ hands with bad contracts. Nearly all of the veterans mentioned above were or can be cut loose with minimal cap consequences. The Jets entered the offseason with a cap space deficit; they’ve since created a war chest of more than $33 million that can be put to use once free agency begins next Thursday. They also have four picks in the first three rounds of the draft. But this is precisely where even the most optimistic of Jets fans (assuming such creatures actually exist) will start giving you the side-eye. Because what has Maccagnan done to show he’s capable of remaking this roster out of whole cloth?
Maccagnan was hired because he’s a scouting lifer with a reputation for a sharp eye for talent. But his two drafts have yielded little promise. He’s already used two draft choices on quarterbacks. Two years in, Bryce Petty still has a long way to go, in part because he was a spread quarterback in college who had to learn just about everything about playing the position at the NFL level. In December, this happened to Petty because of an early snap from inexperienced center Wesley Johnson*:
The Jets also have Christian Hackenberg, who spent his entire rookie year safely ensconced in packing peanuts. Which would be fine, were it not for all the alarming reports about what a shitty, inaccurate passer he is. And now Hackenberg has a new quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator to work with.
There aren’t any great quarterback options in this year’s crop of free agents, though the Bills are reportedly ready to set Tyrod Taylor free, and the Jets now have the financial flexibility to make a play for him, should they want. Problem is, QB-thirsty teams like the Browns and 49ers have even more to spend. Maccagnan is a believer in ex-Packers GM Ron Wolf’s philosophy of keep drafting quarterbacks. But Wolf long had the luxury of having Brett Favre to allow for the grooming of an unseasoned prospect like Aaron Rodgers. Maccagnan had Fitzpatrick and Geno Smith, and now he has no one. Finding a quarterback is a Forever Problem for the Jets, but Maccagnan may have yoked his future to having burned a second-round pick on Hackenberg.
What about head coach Todd Bowles? He has a habit of coaching too conservatively, and last year’s reports of locker-room turmoil certainly did little to burnish his bona fides as a disciplinarian. Maccagnan and Bowles both answer directly to owner Woody Johnson. But it’s fair to wonder if Maccagnan has a longer rope at this point.
Which brings us at last to Johnson, who’s always the wild card in any discussion that includes the words “the Jets” and “patience.” Johnson has publicly committed himself to taking the long view, and he’s clearly signed off on what is undoubtedly a tank job. But Johnson’s past impulsiveness has been enough of an impediment for that to mean very little right now. He’s also set to take off for London to be an ambassador—at least whenever President Orange Head gets around to making it official—with brother Christopher Johnson in line to temporarily take the wheel. This Jets reset is going to be painful, and it might take a while for that pain to subside. Jets fans have been numbed by the steady jabs of recent resets past. Are Bowles and Maccagnan the right guys to get this fixed? And will Johnson or his brother give them the time and space to do the difficult, necessary work?