New York Jets spend $75M in NFL free agency, but they still need a big draft

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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:

1. Joe draft: An early takeaway on Joe Douglas’ free-agent class: This is a general manager planning to crush the 2021 NFL draft, which he believes is the most prudent way to upgrade his talent-starved roster.

He needs to be right or else the misery in Gotham will continue.

While the Jets have signed eight players for about $75 million in guarantees, nearly $20 million more than last year’s total, it hasn’t been “all gas, no brake.” It certainly hasn’t been (Bill) Belichickian either, not with approximately $25 million in remaining salary-cap room.

Douglas got in early and high on defensive end Carl Lawson and wide receiver Corey Davis, whom he identified as the best at their respective positions, but the rest of the class is filled with Band-Aids. A segment of the Jets’ fan base is antsy, watching big-name players fly off the board as the Jets sit with pressing needs at cornerback, running back, offensive line, tight end and, of course, quarterback.

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The starting five on the offensive line remains untouched, the same line that ranked 29th in sack percentage, 31st in pressure percentage and 29th in pass block win rate. They made a run at coveted guard Joe Thuney, but he signed a record contract with the Kansas City Chiefs. All-Pro center Corey Linsley would have been a nice add, allowing them to move Connor McGovern to guard, but the Jets showed no interest and he signed with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Their rationale? The Jets believe McGovern is a better center than guard, where he’d be isolated against top interior pass-rushers. They also saw improvement in his game late last season. They feel the overall play of the line will improve in coordinator Mike LaFleur’s zone blocking scheme, which can camouflage deficiencies.

The offense is far from whole, even with Davis and Keelan Cole Sr. upgrading the receiving corps. With nine draft picks, including three in the top 34, Douglas has a chance to remedy that. He can acquire more draft capital by trading quarterback Sam Darnold, but there’s already enough draft capital to find multiple starters.

The offensive line takes on a different look if you add Oregon tackle Penei Sewell or USC guard Alijah Vera-Tucker. The weaponry gets a boost with Florida tight end Kyle Pitts or Clemson running back Travis Etienne. This is the Douglas strategy: Fill holes in free agency, build the core via the draft. More than any of his predecessors, Douglas has remained true to that philosophy.

But what about those ultra-aggressive New England Patriots? Relax. The Jets didn’t have to wage a Belichick-like spending spree because they have a resource the Patriots don’t — an abundance of draft capital. And Douglas is planning to max it out. He’d better.

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Chris Canty says the Jets fielding phone calls for Sam Darnold proves they are not fully committed to him as their franchise quarterback.

2. Dollar Bill: Don’t say the Jets don’t spend money. The numbers are ever-changing, but the Jets’ $75 million in spending ranks fourth in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Belichick’s Patriots have doled out $156 million in guarantees, the New York Giants in second with $97 million and the Jacksonville Jaguars next at $82 million.

The Jets have put most of their eggs in two baskets, Lawson and Davis.

3. Corey story: One AFC scout told me he believes Davis will make a smooth transition to the Jets’ offense because it’s similar to that of the Tennessee Titans. In Tennessee, he put up good numbers on play-action in 2020 — 26 catches for 544 yards, a 20.9 average. He was effective on intermediate crossing routes, beyond the linebackers. The Jets plan to make play-action a big part of their offense. A standout stat on Davis: Over the past three seasons, the Titans’ quarterbacks threw one interception when targeting him.

4. On the edge: Did some film study on Lawson and came away impressed with his upfield burst. He has closing speed, and the Jets haven’t had a player like that in some time. It makes you wonder why he had only 5.5 sacks last season, including two coverage sacks and two against 39-year-old left tackle Jason Peters of the Philadelphia Eagles. On one play, he made Peters look silly, beating him with a spin move that turned him around.

Lawson played right end for the Cincinnati Bengals, almost in a wide-9 technique at times — which makes him a scheme fit in coach Robert Saleh’s defense. I wouldn’t call him stout against the run, but that’s not why he received a $30 million guarantee. He’s getting paid to affect the quarterback. He needs to be a double-digit sacker to justify his massive contract. Talent evaluators love his upside.

5. Big, big money: Let’s put Lawson’s contract into perspective. Based on guarantees, it’s the fifth largest in franchise history, behind C.J. Mosley ($43 million), Darrelle Revis ($39 million), Muhammad Wilkerson ($37 million) and Trumaine Johnson ($34 million). It’s fair to say the latter three didn’t work out; each one had a five-year contract, but lasted only two.

6. Here’s a kick: This might come as a surprise, considering they already have Sam Ficken and Chase McLaughlin. (Or maybe it won’t come as a surprise because … well, it’s Ficken and McLaughlin.) But the Jets have been quietly looking into free-agent kickers. There aren’t many left on the market.

7. Corner market: The Jets are hoping to find a starting-caliber cornerback. The biggest name is Richard Sherman, but I’d be surprised if that happens. Once again, Douglas will lean on the draft for long-term solutions. They also had interest in safety/linebacker Keanu Neal, but he opted for the Dallas Cowboys.

8. Middle men: The addition of linebacker Jarrad Davis has fueled speculation about Mosley, whose roster spot appears shaky. Yes, the Jets are open to trading him, a source said, but that will be difficult because he’s owed $14 million in guarantees over the next two seasons.

The Jets believe Davis can thrive as a middle linebacker in their 4-3 scheme, which emphasizes lateral movement over the 3-4’s downhill style. His speed is what attracted the Jets’ coaches. (He’s faster than Mosley, but slower than Neville Hewitt, according to tracking data.) They also think he has position flexibility and could slide to one of the outside spots, but that might be a stretch. Statistically, he’s horrible in coverage. In 366 coverage snaps over the past two years, he allowed 39 completions and two touchdowns in 50 targets as the nearest defender, per NFL Next Gen Stats.

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Mosley’s cap charge is a manageable $7.5 million, but it means there’s $13 million committed to two players at the same position.

9. Hardy praise for Hardee: The addition of Justin Hardee didn’t spark big headlines, but he will improve the special teams, according to former longtime special-teams coordinator Mike Westhoff. He coached the New Orleans unit in 2017 and 2018, Hardee’s first two seasons. He said Hardee was so good as a gunner in 2018 that “he could’ve gone to the Pro Bowl.”

Westhoff recalled Hardee’s tenacity in practice as a scout-team cornerback, how he battled star wide receiver Michael Thomas every day.

“It was something to watch; they’d get in fistfights,” Westhoff said with a laugh. “I think he helped make Michael Thomas a better football player.”

Hardee suffered one infamous moment during his four years in the Big Easy; he was victimized on the Los Angeles Rams’ fake punt in the 2018 NFC Championship Game. As a gunner, Hardee gave cushion and backpedaled too quickly on Sam Shields, leaving him open for a pass by punter Johnny Hekker. Westhoff took the blame, saying he instructed Hardee to play the wrong technique.

Westhoff called it a “good pickup” by the Jets.

10. Last word: “I looked up some stuff on YouTube about Coach Saleh. I’ve heard about him throughout the league and I saw he took the job here. I looked at some of his interviews and I just came away with how impressive he was, the message he was preaching. Even in a video, I felt like he was talking to me. That was in the back of my mind. It kind of started there.” — Lawson on his decision to pick the Jets.





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