The NFL isn’t truly separated into a season and an offseason. What’s coming up after the Super Bowl — when the on-field action begins its hiatus — is the league’s “second season,” which is sometimes more fun for fans of the New York Jets and other teams than the competitive season is.
We all know the two ways teams try to improve rosters. Free agency can provide quick fixes, veteran depth or the rare instant upgrades. But the draft is supposed to be for the long-term. While you want your top few picks to become contributors or perhaps starters right away, these newcomers must eventually become the team’s foundation in the years ahead.
With that philosophy in mind, I’m going to rank how important it is for the Jets to draft each positional group in 2018. I’ll sort 10 positional groups: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, offensive line, defensive line, edge rusher, inside linebacker, cornerback and safety. Let’s exclude fullbacks, kickers, punters and long snappers, the positions that have the least demand in drafts.
Two quick notes: This ranking will be irrespective of draft order and strategy. Putting quarterback over edge rusher, for example, doesn’t mean I think the Jets should reach for the fourth-best QB if the top edge rusher is in their lap. And let’s do this in a vacuum, outside free agent possibilities. I think we would all agree that the need to draft the QB of the future next April would be lessened if the Jets acquire a top veteran quarterback such as Kirk Cousins.
1. Offensive line
I shouted it from the hilltops this time last year. The Jets did not listen to me. This team needs to build the offensive line of its future, but no picks were spent on the line in 2017. Since starting guard Brian Winters was drafted in 2013, the Jets have used only three picks on O-linemen: Dakota Dozier (4th round), a career back-up; Jarvis Harrison (5th round), no longer on the team; and Brandon Shell (5th round), whose success as a starting right tackle remains to be seen. They need to pick a big guy high.
The Jets can’t view Kelvin Beachum as the future at left tackle, one of the three most important positions in football. Center was also a disaster in 2017, as Wesley Johnson did not pan out. Funny, these positions were cemented for a decade when the Jets drafted D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold in the same first round. Ah, those were the days. Both positions have been unstable since their careers ended. I hope the team puts two and two together.
Is this too high? Perhaps not. I can make the argument that none of the Jets’ 2017 quarterbacks will even be on the roster in September. Josh McCown will be 39 and is a free agent, Bryce Petty is no guarantee to make any NFL team and Christian Hackenberg might be gone if Mike Maccagnan admits his mistake. Of course, all of them could return, too. McCown played well as a stopgap and was a beloved leader around the locker room (he won the Curtis Martin team MVP award) and could be brought back cheaply for a true bridge season. Petty and Hack are still under contract and could stay on as back-ups. But none of these three men are the future of the position in New York.
Last year, the top propsects were Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson, Patrick Mahomes and Deshone Kizer. The second tier of Davis Webb, CJ Beathard and Nathan Peterman had terrible seasons in a variety of ways, and though Watson looked like a rising star before getting injured, the QB class ultimately was below average. Not that I buy into the hype of every prospect this time around, but there are around seven quarterbacks with potential to be first- or second-round picks in 2018. We’ll dissect each one as the combine and draft draw nearer, but New York has to strike while the iron is hot.
3. Edge rusher
I rank edge rusher barely ahead of running back because I like Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire better than I like Josh Martin and Lorenzo Mauldin. Put another way, the Jets have no star, go-to guy at either position, but the backs will be more serviceable in their current state than the pass rushers.
Don’t get me wrong, Jordan Jenkins is a good NFL starter on one side of the defense. The 2016 third-round pick even earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week when he made two sacks and forced a fumble in the Jets’ win over Buffalo Week 9. But Jenkins is an edge sealer who needs a pure pass rusher opposite him to make the defense better. The Jets sacked the quarterback 28 times in 2017, 28th in the NFL, one year after recording 27 sacks for 29th in the league. That’s an almost humorous lack of improvement. I place part of the blame on defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers and the rest of it on the personnel.
4. Running back
New York Jet Fuel can’t say enough good things about Elijah McGuire. I will plug Max Marcilla’s profile of him forever. He’s coming off a nice rookie campaign, but I wouldn’t bet my house that he’ll compete for the starting gig in 2018. Meanwhile, Matt Forte is a future Hall of Famer whose game I enjoyed far more when he played for the Bears than during his two-year stint in New York. Bilal Powell has the tendency to put up monster fantasy football numbers in December, and he’s one of the longest-tenured Jets left.
I’m a fan of all three players, so it was originally hard for me to admit this. But much like quarterback, the Jets don’t have their true no. 1 running back on the roster right now, and this draft has a ton of talented young prospects at the position. This is way more pressing in my view than drafting a receiver, as the Jets are deeper there.
5. Defensive line
For all intents and purposes, Muhammad Wilkerson is a goner. It’s so disappointing, considering not only that he was a Pro Bowler a few short years ago, but also that the team seemed to have solved its D-line dilemma by trading away locker room troublemaker Sheldon Richardson just before the regular season.
Leonard Williams dropped off from seven sacks in his second season to a career-low two in 2017. I think that’s another coaching issue (eyes still on Kacy Rodgers). Kony Ealy certainly can become a starter the way he was in Carolina, and the Jets weren’t afraid to play Xavier Cooper in Wilkerson’s place at the end of the year. But also keep in mind the nose tackle spot. Steve McLendon is one of the oldest players on the roster and back-up Mike Pennel seemed to earn more penalty flags than tackles this season. The Jets will be drafting someone on the D-line, and maybe even doubling up.
Some mock drafts have the Jets picking Denzel Ward, Ohio State’s latest cornerback product, a year after passing on Buckeye teammate Marshon Lattimore in the first round. Heck, the Jets are high enough to consider Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. But how desperate is the team at corner?
It’s certainly not a solved position yet. One week Morris Claiborne seemed to have a handle on the opponent’s top target, and the next he couldn’t hold a candle to the man he was covering. One week Buster Skrine was making super-athletic plays – no one on the team had more than his nine pass deflections, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries – and the next week he appeared on game film mainly for dumb penalties. Depth certainly needs to be addressed. Juston Burris is not panning out, and the two 2017 rookies, Jeremy Clark and Derrick Jones, didn’t see a lick of playing time. But the team could choose to get by with Claiborne and Skrine starting again.
7. Wide receiver
This might be surprisingly low to some of you. I’ve had spirited debates lately with our founder Matt Barbato, who’s in favor of signing a free agent receiver or drafting one high to fill in the lack of a true No. 1 on the depth chart. Here’s why I disagree: The Jets might be better off going with a “wide receiver by committee,” if you will, than shelling out for a top talent at the position.
Quincy Enunwa missed 2017 with an unfortunate neck injury and needs a new contract to come back to the Jets. It’s fair to question whether he’ll be the same player when he returns, but suppose you bring him back for a short-term on a show-me-the-goods deal. He slides in opposite Robby Anderson, who finished 2017 with a respectable stat line (63 rec, 941 yards, 7 TDs) and most importantly, Jermaine Kearse plays exclusively from the slot, where he’s most lethal. Who needs a No. 1 when you have a stable of good No. 2s? Don’t forget about the pair of 2017 rookies Maccagnan spent fairly valuable picks on, ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen.
8. Tight end
Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the best tight end the Jets have had since Dustin Keller, with the potential (in my humble opinion) to be top 10 at his position. He’s sober and clearly grateful to have a second act to his pro career in New York. Just check his social media posts. He also recently said he wants to be a Jet for life.
Jordan Leggett, the Jets’ fifth-round pick last year, is a much bigger question mark. He spent his rookie year hurt and inactive. But because ASJ in one season has shored up a position the Jets basically ignored during the Chan Gailey era, I’m not itching to draft for depth or find a Dwayne Allen to his Gronkowski when other needs are more pressing. Maybe Leggett will pan out, maybe not, but let’s give him a chance first.
9. Inside linebacker
Demario Davis’ triumphant return to the Jets and growth into one of the league’s better young run-stoppers have been great to follow. Darron Lee, meanwhile, continues to have his peaks and his valleys – lots of mental mistakes and terrible pass coverage mixed in with a few flashes of talent. And the back-ups, Bruce Carter and Julian Stanford, are under contract for now and serve fine when called upon. However you slice it, this is not a position the Jets should have at top of mind in the war room. Say what you want about Lee, but Bowles and Maccagnan aren’t going to give up on the 2016 first-rounder this fast and seek an upgrade for him in the draft.
This should be self-explanatory. The Jets drafted Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye with their top two picks last year. Some of us cringed – there are so many other needs! – but it looks like it’s panning out. There’s always room to bolster the depth chart a little, but not in sacrifice of drafting literally any other position on this list. It’s safe to say safety is the most solid position on the Jets’ roster; whatever that says about the state of the team is up to your interpretation.