Mapping out an idealistic New York Jets free agency plan
As we all wait in agony for the Aaron Rodgers news to be announced, it’s important to avoid letting the drama distract us from the fact that the NFL’s free agency frenzy begins tomorrow at 12 p.m. ET, when the legal tampering period opens.
The New York Jets will likely not be spending as much money on the open market as they usually do. However, they do still have a manageable amount of space, especially after making five money-clearing moves over the past few days. With plenty of holes to fill on their roster, it’s fair to expect New York to actively search for low-to-mid-level signings that can improve the team at a reasonable cost.
Keeping things realistic, I have five primary goals on my dream wishlist for the Jets in free agency.
Re-sign Quincy Williams
Quincy Williams enjoyed an improved season in 2022. Over the first three years of his career, his physical gifts were always evident, especially in a highlight-filled 2021 season with the Jets, but he always struggled with consistency. Missed tackles and poor angles would cancel out the positive value of Williams’ highlight plays.
In 2022, though, Williams displayed much-improved fundamentals in his game, allowing him to build the consistency that he lacked over the first few years of his career. Williams continued producing those signature highlight-reel plays to spark the defense and he did it while decreasing his number of mistakes to a far more acceptable level.
Williams does still commit a few too many blunders in coverage, and while his tackling efficiency has improved, it is still probably about average. So, he’s not quite a star or anything close to that. But I think he established himself as an average or possibly slightly-above-average starting linebacker in 2022.
For a Jets team that does not have the resources to make a big splash at linebacker this offseason, it makes sense to try and keep an average-ish type of starter at the position. You’re unlikely to find an upgrade over him anyway, so instead of letting him walk and risking that his replacement will be a bottom-tier starter, just take the known commodity and settle for league-average. The Jets don’t need a superstar linebacker right now, anyway, because of how much elite talent they have at other defensive positions.
Keeping Williams would also allow the Jets to continue building continuity within their defense. Additionally, it would please his brother, Quinnen, who still hasn’t signed his contract extension yet.
I think the Jets can get Williams back for somewhere around $5-6 million per year.
Being realistic, I’m not sure the Jets can get both Williams and Kwon Alexander back. It’s possible, and I would love to see it, but Alexander should probably be able to find an every-down starting role somewhere else, which will be more appealing to him than returning as the Jets’ sub linebacker again.
Re-sign Sheldon Rankins
Sheldon Rankins had a disappointing first season with the Jets in 2021, but he bounced back with a big year in 2022. Rankins provided juice and athleticism as a pass rusher and was also a sound and disciplined run defender. His two-way production made him a great complement to Quinnen Williams as part of the starting defensive line.
The Jets are thin at defensive tackle. Williams leads the way, but each of the next three defensive tackles in New York’s four-man 2022 rotation (Rankins, Nathan Shepherd, and Solomon Thomas) are free agents. Shepherd and Thomas had poor seasons, anyway, and the Jets should be trying to improve that second-string DT duo. Keeping Rankins can allow the Jets to maintain continuity with their starting DT duo and then focus on finding bargain DT options who can improve upon the putrid run defense Shepherd and Thomas provided.
If the Jets can get Rankins back for around $6-8 million per year, they should do it. Letting him walk opens up a hole that needs to be filled, and replacing him will not be easy.
The Jets do not have an in-house replacement to take Rankins’ spot, so if Rankins leaves, the Jets will either have to pay the same amount of money for a similarly-talented replacement or they will have to go cheap and gamble on a low-investment starter, which is highly risky from an on-field perspective. Can the Jets’ defense survive with only one proven defensive tackle on the team? If Williams gets hurt, the unit would be disastrous. Even when Williams plays, he would be the only interior threat on the roster.
New York needs a good starter alongside Williams at defensive tackle. It might as well be Rankins. Pay up and bring him back – unless his price gets out of hand.
Sign C Jake Brendel
I wrote a whole article dedicated to my thoughts on Jake Brendel and why he is a great option for the Jets at center.
To sum it up, Brendel should come relatively cheap because of his age (31 in Sept.) and limited starting experience (one season as a full-time starter), but he is coming off an excellent season of both pass-blocking and run-blocking production in his first year as a starter, and he has limited mileage on his tires for someone his age. Plus, he offers some degree of scheme familiarity since he is coming over from a similar offense in San Francisco.
Brendel’s blend of affordability and potential production is extremely enticing for the center-needy Jets. I think they can snag him for around $6 million per year.
Sign FS Jimmie Ward
The Jets recently traded for Chuck Clark, who could end up being the team’s starting strong safety. That leaves the free safety position to be filled.
Jimmie Ward is a good fit for the role. Like Brendel, he shouldn’t break the bank but can be an upgrade for the Jets.
If you read my breakdown on Clark, you may have noticed Ward’s name in the No. 1 spot for the lowest missed tackle rate among safeties since 2020 (Clark is ninth). Ward is an extremely reliable last line of defense at the free safety position. The Jets did not have that in Lamarcus Joyner, who often took poor angles in the open field.
Ward has been with the 49ers since he was drafted in 2014, which means he overlapped with Robert Saleh for all four of Saleh’s years as the team’s defensive coordinator. Under Saleh, Ward claimed San Francisco’s starting free safety role and became one of the most reliable players in the league at the position. Ward is definitely not a highlight-maker (just 7 INTs in 9 years) but consistently ranks well when it comes to his tackling efficiency and his coverage.
The 49ers moved Ward to slot corner for the entirety of the 2022 season, which Ward claims was done to drive down his price. He says 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan gave him a choice to either play slot corner or “ride the bench”. It may be slightly concerning that San Francisco felt Ward should be moved (remember, Joyner was also moved from FS to the slot before coming to the Jets), but Ward’s production at free safety was still good in his last full season there (2021), so it doesn’t concern me too much.
Ward will turn 32 in July and should not be too costly due to his age, 2022 position change, and career-long lack of splashy box-score production. I think he makes a lot of sense for the Jets as a short-term stopgap who can provide solid production while the Jets try to draft and develop a future game-changer at the free safety spot.
A one-year deal for around $6-8 million should do the trick for Ward, in my opinion.
Sign a quality punter
It’s time for the Jets to look for a new punter. Braden Mann had three years to justify his draft position and could not get the job done.
The Jets should take this weakness seriously. With a league-average punter, the Jets probably would have won another game or two last year. They lost multiple one-score games in which the punting unit cost them points and/or many yards of field position, most notably the losses at New England and vs. Detroit in which the Jets allowed a punt return touchdown. Mann also had net punts of 22 and 16 yards in the Jets’ first loss to the Patriots, which ended with a five-point margin.
Two candidates are at the top of my list: Sam Martin of the Bills and Thomas Morstead of the Dolphins. They each ranked top 10 in punting EPA per punt last season (Martin was 9th and Morstead was 10th). Additionally, they each played for division rivals, so the Jets would be weakening a rival by signing them.
Keeping it realistic is the key
If the Jets can retain Williams and Rankins while adding Brendel, Ward, and Martin/Morstead, I think fans should be very happy with that.
The key for Jets fans over the next week will be to stay realistic. Jets fans have gotten accustomed to gaudy spending sprees over the past decade, raising their expectations of free agency to unrealistic levels. Most NFL teams do not spend nearly as much money as the Jets do on a yearly basis.
Now, it’s time for the Jets to be a regular franchise. This means they will be hunting for value rather than big-ticket stars.
The goal is simple: Improve your team as much as possible within the limits of your budget.