New York Jets: Rebuilding the team starts in crucial 2021 NFL offseason

By Matt Johnson
Dec 29, 2019; Orchard Park, New York, USA; General view of a New York Jets helmet prior to the game against the Buffalo Bills at New Era Field. Mandatory Credit: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Jets entered the 2020 NFL season, hopeful to see growth from head coach Adam Gase and quarterback Sam Darnold. Instead, this team took another significant step back. As another underwhelming season comes to a close, following another failed era in this organization’s history, the 2021 NFL offseason will prove crucial to a potential rebuild.

Thanks to a stunning Week 15 victory, the Jets potentially found a way to cost themselves a shot at generational talent Trevor Lawrence. With the Jacksonville Jaguars now destined for the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, this fan base must now hope general manager Joe Douglas can rebuild this franchise without the highly-coveted quarterback. While losing out on Lawrence is an undeniable blow, an opportunity still exists for this organization to do things the right way. If the Jets take a smart approach to creating a new foundation, one that can lead to a brighter future, this team can reach the heights the fans and players desperately want to see.

Here’s a look at how the New York Jets should approach the 2021 NFL offseason, including the futures of Sam Darnold, Adam Gase and the 2021 NFL Draft.

Related: Former New York Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum talks rise to NFL front office

New York Jets QB: Finding a Sam Darnold trade

New York Jets: Sam Darnold
Dec 20, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold (14) looks to pass against the Los Angeles Rams during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The New York Jets had every reason to draft Sam Darnold with the No. 3 pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. He was viewed as a consensus top-10 talent, capable of becoming a franchise quarterback at the next level. Unfortunately, due to roster construction, coaching and injuries, the 23-year-old hasn’t come close to reaching his potential.

Playing behind one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines, receiving the lowest Pro Football Focus’ grade for pass-blocking efficiency (79.0) in 2020, the Jets have failed to protect Darnold adequately. As a result, paired with a lack of playmakers around him, the first three seasons of his career haven’t been impressive.

  • 2018: 4-9 record, 239-of-414 passes completed (57.4%), 17-15 TD-INT ratio, 220.4 pass yards/game, 77.6 quarterback rating, 6.9 yards per attempt
  • 2019: 7-6 record, 273-of-441 passes completed (61.9%), 19-13 TD-INT ratio, 232.6 pass yards/game, 84.3 quarterback rating, 6.9 yards per attempt.
  • 2020: 1-9 record, 178-of-298 passes completed (59.7%), 6/9 TD-INT ratio, 176.7 pass yards/game, 70.7 quarterback rating, 5.9 yards per attempt.

While it’s possible Darnold could still show enough signs to convince the Jets to keep him, his contract situation makes that less likely. He is entering the final guaranteed season of his rookie contract. Justifying his $9.8 million cap hit is easy, but a $25 million projected fifth-year team option for 2022 becomes a far more difficult decision.

One of the greatest benefits teams get from having a good quarterback on the rookie contract is the small amount of cap space they take up. With Darnold, that will no longer be the case after 2021. As a result, a trade becomes far more likely.

New York Jets rumors: Likeliest Sam Darnold trade scenarios

There will be plenty of quarterback-needy teams making calls to the Jets. New York knows it isn’t getting a first-round pick, but a reasonable expectation could be a second-round selection. The San Francisco 49ers, Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos all make sense. But, in the end, we suggest another move.

Trade Sam Darnold to the Chicago Bears, targeting their 2021 second-round pick (48th overall) and a 2022 fifth-round pick in return. It gives Darnold a fresh start, while the Jets acquire another top-50 selection in a deep draft class.

New York Jets coaches: Hiring an offensive-minded head coach

New York Jets: Arthur Smith: coaching candidates
Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Arthur Smith gives instructions to his players during a training camp practice at Saint Thomas Sports Park Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn. Nas Titans Camp 0820 014

New York Jets news: Adam Gase resigned to firing

Once Week 17 of the 2020 season wraps up, the New York Jets will fire Adam Gase. The organization kept him around far longer than they should have, confident he was a bad enough coach to lead this team to an 0-16 record. It backfired in epic fashion, but that disaster won’t change the timeline for firing Gase.

New York is already thinking about coaching candidates and reportedly might have a specific idea for who it wants as its next head coach. While hiring an alpha dog head coach might make some sense to the organization, bringing in a strong personality similar to Rex Ryan, this team should be more open-minded to its hiring.

Arthur Smith might not have the biggest personality among the coaching candidates, but he is a great coach with a sharp offensive mind. He joined the Tennessee Titans as a defensive quality control coach under Mike Munchak in 2011 then transitioned to the offensive side in 2012. After serving a year as offensive line and tight ends coach (2013), he focused on tight ends from 2014-’18.

When the Green Bay Packers hired Matt LaFleur in the 2019 offseason, Smith was immediately promoted to offensive coordinator. Since that time, Tennessee’s offense has been one of the league’s best in each of the past two seasons.

  • 2019 season: 25.1 points per game (10th), 138.9 rushing yards per game (3rd). 108.3 quarterback rating (3rd), 8.8 yards per pass attempt (1st), 5.0 yards per carry (third), 99 penalties (8th).
  • 2020 season: 31.1 points per game (1st), 160.4 rushing yards per game (2nd), 110.2 quarterback rating (4th), 8.2 yards per pass attempt (4th), 5.0 yards per carry (3rd), 44.7% third-down conversion rate (9th).

Since leaving Tennessee, LaFleur has helped shape Green Bay’s offense into an elite attack both through the air and on the ground. He didn’t have the level of success Smith is enjoying with Tennessee. It’s a testament to the 38-year-old’s ability to scheme up an offense, which relies heavily on the play-action game.

Related: Top NFL head coach candidates in 2021

A turning point for this franchise was the Ryan Tannehill trade. But we never saw him perform close to these levels in Miami and Smith also deserves credit for the career resurgence.

  • Ryan Tannehill stats in Miami (2012-‘2018): 62.8% completion rate, 123/75 TD/INT ratio, 4.2% touchdown rate, 7.0 yards per attempt, 87.0 quarterback rating, 42-46 record
  • Ryan Tannehill stats in Tennessee (2019-’20): 68% completion rate, 53/11 TD/INT ratio, 7.4% touchdown rate, 8.7 yards per attempt, 113.3 quarterback rating, 17-7 record.

Tannehill earned the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award in 2019. While he won’t come close to the ballots for NFL MVP award this season, his 31/5 TD/INT ratio and 110.4 quarterback rating in 2020 demonstrate his impact on this team. It’s also worth noting Derrick Henry’s stats since Smith took over:

  • Derrick Henry stats (2019-’20): 3,219 rushing yards, 31 rushing touchdowns, 5.2 yards per carry and 111 rushing yards per game.

Smith has proven himself in two seasons as Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. He can take the same offensive philosophy to New York, building an offense his way and achieving success. If the New York Jets hire Arthur Smith as their next head coach, it can be the first step toward taking flight in 2021.

New York Jets salary cap: Making the most of 2021 NFL free agency

New York Jets: free agency: Allen Robinson
Dec 20, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Allen Robinson (12) runs with the ball during the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

Related: Top 25 potential 2021 NFL free agents

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on the NFL, costing the league upwards of $2.7 billion in lost revenue. While owners and the NFL Players Association prepared for this, getting a $175 million floor for the 2021 NFL salary cap, every team will be impacted. 

According to Over The Cap, the New York Jets are projected to have $45 million in cap space this offseason. While it’s a great spot to be in, with free agency expected to be a buyer’s market, there are even more ways to create financial flexibility.

  • Trading Sam Darnold creates $4.77 million in cap space
  • Cutting George Fant frees $7.4 million in cap space this offseason and nearly $10 million for 2022.
  • Releasing Henry Anderson will wipe $8.2 million off the 2021 salary cap

Suddenly, the Jets skyrocket to having approximately $66 million in cap space for the offseason. Keep in mind, that would be if the cap ceiling is set at $176 million. There’s a chance it could be even higher, giving New York more money to spend.

Looking at NFL free agency, there are a few moves that could be made.

  • Sign WR Allen Robinson: Three-year, $45 million contract
  • Sign TE Jonnu Smith: Three-year contract, $30 million
  • Sign QB Andy Dalton: One-year deal, $5 million
  • Sign LB K.J. Wright: Two-year contract, $13 million

Through years of pedestrian quarterback play, Allen Robinson keeps finding ways to produce for the Chicago Bears. He has posted consecutive seasons with 90-plus receptions and 1,100-plus receiving yards, an accomplishment not many NFL receivers share. According to PFF, he ranks 15th in yards per route run (2.09) and is the sixth-best receiver on deep passes.

In a normal offseason, Robinson might land a multi-year contract that would pay him $17-plus million. With teams limited this offseason, $15 million could get it done for New York. A three-year deal would allow Robinson to take another shot at free agency in a few years and the Jets could find him a quarterback in the 2012 NFL Draft.

Jonnu Smith is the perfect addition for the Jets if Arthur Smith is brought in as head coach. Arthur worked as Jonnu’s positional coach from 2017-’18 and has made him a central part of the offense since becoming OC. In Tennessee’s offense, Smith is used in the backfield, as a blocker and an offensive weapon. He can play that same role in New York, while also helping his teammates transition to the new scheme.

If the Jets are going to move on from Darnold and give the keys to a rookie quarterback, having a veteran backup is necessary. Dalton’s days as a 16-week starter are long gone, but he can step in when needed and will keep the team afloat. He would bring mentorship to the young quarterback and may even start Week 1, if the rookie isn’t ready.

Finally, the Jets add some help at linebacker. Wright’s days as a Pro Bowl player are long gone, but he is still an effective three-down backer. The 31-year-old brings championship experience, can drop back in coverage and would pair nicely with C.J. Mosley.

These are the moves that help the Jets for the 2021 season and beyond. Robinson and Smith are both just entering the prime years of their careers. Meanwhile, Dalton and Wright bring the veteran experience that this team lacks on both sides of the ball. Of course, this is all just part of the process. The 2021 NFL Draft will also be key to this rebuild.

New York Jets mock draft 2021: Building around Justin Fields, strengthening offense

New York Jets: mock draft: Justin Fields
Dec 19, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields (1) drops back to pass against the Northwestern Wildcats during the first half at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Related: 2021 NFL mock draft – Blockbuster trades shake up 2021 NFL Draft.

  • First round, 2nd overall: Justin Fields, QB, Ohio State
  • First round, 32nd overall*: Alijah Vera-Tucker, iOL, USC
  • Second round, 34th overall: Liam Eichenberg, OT, Notre Dame
  • Second round, 48th overall: Tyson Campbell, CB, Georgia
  • Second round, 62nd overall*: Carlos Basham Jr., EDGE, Wake Forest
  • Third round, 66th overall: Javonte Williams, RB, North Carolina
  • Third round, 95th overall: Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss
  • Fourth round, 103rd overall: Chase Lucas, CB, Arizona State
  • Fourth round, 133rd overall: Daelin Hayes, EDGE, Notre Dame
  • Fourth round, 142nd overall: Dmitri Moore, LB, Vanderbilt

Losing out on Trevor Lawrence is a tough pill for the New York Jets to swallow, but hope isn’t lost. The 2021 NFL Draft offers some exciting talent at the top, especially at quarterback. While the likes of Justin Fields and Zach Wilson aren’t without some faults, the talent is undeniable.

In terms of arm talent and athleticism, Fields might be the No. 1 overall pick in any other draft. While he is still adjusting to reading defenses and making reactions quickly, the physical ability is there. Keep in mind, he’s also just in his second full season as a collegiate starter. While he has struggled against the likes of Northwestern and Indiana this season, Lawrence had some bad tape in 2019 with Clemson as a second-year starter.

The right coach can build an offense that will fit Fields’ skills and get him comfortable as a rookie. Plus, life will be easier with a cast of weapons featuring Allen Robinson, Denzel Mims, Jonnu Smith, Chris Henron and Jamison Crowder.

Instead of picking at the No. 26 spot, the Jets accepted an offer from the Kansas City Chiefs. In the deal, New York acquires the No. 32 pick along with Kansas City’s third-round selection (95) and a fourth-round pick (133). We snag Vera-Tucker, a versatile lineman who excels in pass protection. Whether he starts at right or left guard, he is pro-ready.

After that, New York finds its right tackle for 2021 and beyond. Eichenberg falling to the No. 34 pick is a dream. He is extremely powerful and seems made to start on the right side as a rookie. He represents a dramatic upgrade over free-agent bust George Fant.

For the Jets, we later traded the 89th pick, our fifth-round selection (150) and a 2022 sixth-round pick to the Green Bay Packers for the 63rd overall pick. Campbell offers great length and athleticism, traits that can be molded to make him a high-end corner on the outside. Basham Jr. is exactly the kind of edge rusher NFL teams are looking for. While his stock slid a bit this season, he should have a nice pro career.

Javonte Williams has exploded for North Carolina this season, averaging 7.3 yards per carry and racking up 1,140 rushing yards and 22 total touchdowns. He forced 83 missed tackles this season and averaged 4.59 yards after first contact, per CBS Sports. The second round has been where NFL teams frequently land great running backs and Williams is better than shelling out a big contract to an RB in free agency.

New York Jets roster: Depth chart following offseason acquisitions

  • QB: Justin Fields/Andy Dalton
  • RB: Javonte Williams/La’Mical Perine/Ty Johnson
  • WR: Allen Robinson/Denzel Mims/Jamison Crowder/Elijah Moor/Braxton Berrios
  • TE: Jonnu Smith/Chris Herndon/Ryan Griffin
  • OL: Mekhi Becton, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Connor McGovern, Cameron Clark, Liam Eichenberg

Heading into the 2021 NFL season, the New York Jets will be set at multiple positions that have been issues in recent years. Dalton can be a serviceable bridge to Fields, if he isn’t ready in Week 1, or be a veteran backup to mentor the rookie during the roller coaster that is a first NFL season.

New York can use a committee approach in the backfield, with Williams, Perine and Johnson contributing in different roles. Even as a rookie, Williams could be the featured back in Arthur Smith’s offense or carry the load on early downs. As for Johnson, he is serviceable as a pass blocker by positional standards.

Robinson would immediately become Fields’ go-to target, drawing 100-plus targets each season and turning those looks into big numbers. It allows Mims to be in that complementary No. 2 receiver role, putting him in the best position to succeed. Meanwhile, Crowder continues to work out of the slot. When he is injured, Moore can slide it.

At tight end, Smith would enjoy the same role he excels at now with the Titans. A weapon like that, with experience in Smith’s system, would be a huge benefit for the Jets. Since Smith enjoys 2TE sets, Herndon would be a nice pass-catching weapon.

Most importantly, the offensive line will be improved. Becton should be even better in his second NFL season, Vera-Tucker can start at either guard spot and Eichenberg is NFL-ready.

Where the Jets failed before, protecting their quarterback and putting him in the best position to be successful, they would get it right this time. Moving forward, that means Fields maximizing his potential and the Jets becoming relevant in the AFC East once again.