If I’m at a restaurant and I’m really hungry, I always eat the bread. I get fixated and start overthinking it. Is this bread better than the bread at other restaurants? What’s my ideal bread? What pagan god do I sacrifice this bread to so my entree comes faster?! When my food arrives, I feel slightly embarrassed about how much time I thought about bread, and then I never think about it again.
That’s the Jets’ offseason. For all of the hoopla about the Jets’ free-agent signings—Trumaine Johnson getting the third-largest deal in Jets history; signing Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown; adding help at running back, center, and linebacker—these signings are bread. The only thing that matters is landing the long-term franchise quarterback Jets fans have been waiting for 40 years. It doesn’t matter how good the bread tastes if the main course sucks, or is overpriced, or takes so long to arrive you doubt it’s ever going to come at all. The Jets need to find their franchise signal-caller in this draft (let’s call him Josh Darnfield). If they don’t think he’ll fall to no. 6, New York needs to trade up with Indianapolis for the no. 3 pick or the Giants for the no. 2 selection. Fans can eat only bread for so long.
Having a massive question mark at quarterback isn’t just a concern for fans—it’s a concern for free agents, too. The Jets’ riches may not mean a lot when other teams have both money and a narrative to sell to players. The Eagles can pitch players on joining the defending champs. The Vikings sold Cousins on being a Super Bowl contender right now, and the Jaguars have the same allure. The 49ers have recast themselves as the hottest destination in the league. The Packers give you the chance to play with Aaron Rodgers. The Patriots are the Patriots. Even the Browns made a flurry of trades ahead of free agency that flipped their narrative from “garbage” to “Wait, could they go 8-8 next year?” The Jets don’t have a narrative to sell beyond being in New York. A rebrand will elude them until they add a franchise quarterback, and that might mean their monster cap savings—$80 million left this year and a projected league-leading $136 million in cap space for 2019—aren’t worth as much as you’d think.
With that reality in mind, let’s try to make some sense of the Jets’ moves so far, but with the understanding that none of this matters unless they get Josh Darnfield.
Second McCown and What’s the Goal?
The Jets entered free agency hoping to land Kirk Cousins. They left with McCown and Bridgewater. McCown had a shockingly competent turn at quarterback for the Jets in 2017, completing 67.3 percent of his passes, throwing two touchdowns for every one interception, and leading an abysmal roster to a 5-8 record as a starter before breaking his left hand. Despite his surprising play, McCown is turning 39 years old in July and is not part of the team’s future. As The Ringer’s Robert Mays pointed out in Slack, McCown is basically the highest-paid assistant coach in football, and he has embraced that role.
”I’ve said it from Day 1: I really root for these guys (the Jets) being able to find that long-term answer at quarterback,” McCown told NJ.com in February. “I want them to succeed. If that’s through the draft, or it’s through people already on the team, whatever that is, if I can be a part of helping that, I’d love to.”
Bridgewater’s arrival complicates this plan. NFL practices are all about maximizing reps, and now Bridgewater will be competing for them with Josh Darnfield (or whoever the Jets take in the first round). Bridgewater could prevent New York from forcing a rookie quarterback onto the field before he’s ready—which is arguably what happened with Mark Sanchez—but he could also push the Jets’ future franchise quarterback onto the third team, stunting his initial development.
Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg are unlikely to be around come training camp, and Bridgewater may beat out McCown to become the no. 1 quarterback, but there are only so many quality reps to go around. Last year, McCown wasn’t named the winner of New York’s three-man quarterback competition until August 28, but presumably, the organization will handle its first-rounder differently than it did Hack and Petty. The quarterback depth chart won’t be an issue as long as the Jets have a plan. But this is the Jets, so that might be an issue.
Cornering the Market
The Jets missed out on Cousins, but they landed the best cornerback available in free agency. Still, the Johnson deal isn’t all bacon, egg, and cheese. Johnson is one of the top press-coverage corners in the league, but he isn’t necessarily going to shadow opposing teams’ no. 1 wide receivers like fans might expect of a corner getting $34 million guaranteed. He’ll earn more annually than the entire Jets starting secondary did in 2017, something safety Jamal Adams picked up on immediately.
The Rams let Johnson walk after franchise-tagging him in each of the past two seasons, and now they’ll pay less money to Aqib Talib and Marcus Peters combined in 2018 than the Jets will pay Johnson (and Los Angeles should get a third-round compensatory pick from the NFL in 2019 for letting Johnson walk to boot). Johnson is just 28 years old and should be a valuable piece for a Jets’ pass defense that was middle of the road last year. Most teams might consider this deal too rich, but the Jets have to use their cap somewhere. It might as well be for Johnson.
The Rest of the Gang
Hidden behind the quarterback and corner signings are role players that might end up being far more impactful for the Jets’ future. The Jets added Isaiah Crowell, who runs with good balance that makes him hard to bring down and has vision that lets him break off big chunks of yardage. He’s not much of a receiving threat, but he’ll pair well with running back Bilal Powell after years of sharing a backfield with Duke Johnson Jr.
Knee and quad injuries ended center Spencer Long’s season in Washington last year, but if he can stay healthy, he might be a bargain after the Jets missed out on Andrew Norwell, who signed with Jacksonville as the highest-paid guard in NFL history. Long went to school at Nebraska, and while we don’t know the details of his deal yet, recent league history has shown that signing unheralded linemen from programs with a history of producing competent blockers is a smart bet.
This week, the Jets let linebacker Demario Davis leave in free agency. Davis, 29, played all 1,116 defensive snaps for the Jets last year. The Jets signed former Titans linebacker Avery Williamson, who played on just 60.1 percent of Tennessee’s snaps (654) to presumably replace that production. Williamson didn’t play on passing downs last year, and the Jets will still have a Davis-sized hole in pass coverage. Williamson will help stuff the run, but the Jets would be even stronger if they sign Sheldon Richardson, who’s reportedly interested in a reunion.