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The Jets Changed the Entire Complexion of This NFL Draft

After a slow start to the free-agency period, general manager Mike Maccagnan and the Jets sprung to life, handing out a flurry of deals and trading for the no. 3 overall pick. Not only did New York make its plan pristinely clear—it may have started a domino effect at the top of the draft.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Last week’s initial flurry of free-agent signings probably felt like yet another slow descent into football hell for Jets fans. As big names like Kirk Cousins, Allen Robinson, and others started to fly off the board, the Jets and their gobs of salary-cap space stood pat. Thankfully, for the general well being of Gang Green, that caution was thrown out the window in a hurry.

By the time the first wave of free agency ended Friday, the Jets had doled out nearly $85 million guaranteed in new contracts. The biggest catch was cornerback Trumaine Johnson, whose $45 million guaranteed and $14.5 million average annual value both rank among the top three at his position. General manager Mike Maccagnan also nabbed inside linebacker Avery Williamson, running back Isaiah Crowell, and center Spencer Long as probable 2018 starters at positions of need. To (temporarily) solve their quarterback problem, the Jets signed both Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater after falling short in their courtship of Cousins. Maccagnan’s team was among the most aggressive in all of free agency, and it turns out his wheeling and dealing didn’t end there.

On Saturday morning, the Jets sent picks no. 6, no. 37, and no. 49 in this year’s draft, plus a 2019 second-rounder, to the Colts in exchange for the no. 3 overall selection in April. The move not only affects the first three picks in the 2018 draft, but could also change the entire complexion of the top 10.

In five days, the Jets did more than any team in football to shake up this offseason. Now that the dust has settled, it’s time to examine how the Jets’ moves set them up to build around a quarterback of the future and how their choices could affect the next month in the NFL.

Johnson may have been the Jets’ big-ticket item last week, but their QB moves, both actual and presumed, grabbed the headlines. The one-year, $10 million deal for McCown seems pricey for a 38-year-old stopgap starter. It’s also the going rate given that the Dolphins signed Jay Cutler at the exact same price in 2017. The difference is that Miami’s deal was a panicked signing on the eve of last season, while McCown’s came on the first day of free agency. The market shouldn’t be set by a move born of desperation — just like the trade market for competent veteran quarterbacks shouldn’t be set by the Vikings’ frenzied 2016 decision to part with first- and fourth-round picks to land Sam Bradford — yet here we are. Context should matter in these cases, but it rarely does.

Bringing McCown back for one year to keep the chair warm for a rookie quarterback made sense. Choosing to sign another relatively expensive passer to a one-year deal did not. The initial reports of the Jets’ one-year, $15 million deal for Bridgewater seemed baffling on the heels of the McCown news, but the rationale has become easier to understand since details of the contract have trickled out. Bridgewater’s deal contains only $500,000 guaranteed and a likely $1 million to be earned before training camp. Even if Bridgewater does stick on New York’s roster for the entire season and earn his $5 million base salary, getting to $15 million would require him to hit a handful of hard-to-reach bonuses. Bridgewater will earn $250,000 for every game in which he plays 50 percent of the offensive snaps, up to a maximum of $4 million. He has escalating passing-yard bonuses (which cap at $1.25 million if he throws for more than 3,000 yards) and passing-touchdown bonuses (21 or more will net him $1.25 million). If Bridgewater plays half of the offense’s snaps and leads the Jets to the playoffs, he’ll pocket an additional $2.5 million.

The Jets constructed the Bridgewater deal to mitigate their risk given the concerns about his health. The only way they would pay a combined $25 million for a pair of one-year deals is if they make the playoffs, which makes this combination of contracts much more palatable.

The rest of the Jets’ moves, namely on offense, can be seen as Mccagnan’s attempt to create a hospitable environment for whichever quarterback he drafts with his newly acquired first-round pick. Long’s four-year, $28 million deal (the full details of which have yet to be reported) places him near the middle of the pack among center salaries. Given the premium teams are willing to pay for free-agent offensive linemen, the leaguewide struggle to develop young linemen, and New York’s need for an upgrade at that position, it’s hard to criticize the deal. The Crowell contract is tougher to defend, as finding proficient running backs isn’t nearly as difficult. On one hand, the Jets finished 26th in Football Outsiders’ rushing DVOA last year and committed no guaranteed money to Crowell beyond this season; on the other, there’s little reason to believe that Crowell will be any more effective than a back Maccagnan could have taken in the middle rounds of this year’s draft and retained for four years at a similar price to what Crowell will make in 2018 alone.

Regardless of whether the moves are prudent, the Jets did need to address their holes at center and running back in some capacity. By making these signings, they’ve shored up the weak spots of a unit that was surprisingly competent for stretches last season, and built an infrastructure that will give the team’s eventual franchise quarterback a chance to thrive. Now comes Maccagnan’s more difficult task: deciding who that quarterback will be.

In a draft class supposedly replete with quarterback options, the Jets’ decision to give up three second-round picks to jump from no. 6 to no. 3 may seem steep, but it speaks to the uncertainty surrounding teams’ plans. Since the draft order was finalized in December, Indianapolis had been pegged as the team most likely to trade down. With Andrew Luck already in place and a barren roster in desperate need of an injection of young talent, Colts GM Chris Ballard made accruing picks his top priority. By moving up, the Jets ensured they can get one of the top three passers in the draft, and in a way, only added to the intrigue surrounding the top five.

The Colts-Jets trade now makes the Giants’ no. 2 pick even more valuable. It’s possible that GM Dave Gettleman wants to use this rare chance at the top of the draft to secure Eli Manning’s successor. If he doesn’t, it’s a safe bet that at least one team will eye a trade.

Armed with plenty of draft capital and a glaring hole under center, the Bills seem to be the most logical trade partner. (AJ McCarron signed a two-year, $10 million deal with Buffalo last week that indicates he’s not the long-term answer.) Even if they try to swing a deal with the Colts to move from no. 12 to no. 6, that would still leave four teams — the Browns, Giants (or whichever franchise ultimately owns the second overall pick), Jets, and Broncos — that could potentially grab quarterbacks before Buffalo comes on the clock. And that doesn’t even account for the possibility of a surprise team trading for the Browns’ pick at no. 4. Remember, the Eagles weren’t necessarily pegged as looking to make a splash in the 2016 draft before they went all in and traded up to take Carson Wentz. The Chiefs weren’t known to be in the QB market last spring before they traded up to select Patrick Mahomes II. The Cardinals, Dolphins, or a team no one has really considered could feasibly get into the mix by the time the draft begins.

Maccagnan’s move to no. 3 also clouds the outlook for some of the draft’s top non-quarterback prospects, potentially to the delight of other clubs picking in the top 10. The Jets’ ploy only increases the likelihood that Penn State running back Saquon Barkley will be available at no. 4, theoretically paving the way for Cleveland to nab both its QB of the future and the consensus best player in the draft. If the Colts stay put at no. 6, it’s possible that NC State defensive end Bradley Chubb — who would have been worth drafting third overall — may be available at their new spot. Current Bears (and former Notre Dame) offensive line coach Harry Hiestand would be thrilled if his former pupil, Quenton Nelson, were on the board when Chicago picks eighth. The Jets’ trade with Indianapolis threw a roaring chainsaw into the draft landscape, and it’s possible that the chaos extends far beyond the seemingly inevitable run on quarterbacks.

While the Jets’ plan over the next 40 days has come into focus, the rest of this year’s draft has become unpredictable. Maccagnan and Co. may have had a slow start to free agency, but their collection of moves over the past week potentially set in motion a series of deals that could rock the NFL.