The New York Jets have done a terrific job of rebranding themselves since the end of the season. New coach. New uniforms. New star power (hello, Le’Veon Bell). It’s no wonder wide receiver Quincy Enunwa said recently, “It feels like a whole fresh start.”
Change is good, especially when you haven’t made the playoffs in eight years. A slick marketing campaign and a new uniform color (Gotham green) are nice, too, because they can re-energize the fan base. But here’s the thing with the NFL: Consistent success usually hinges on how well a team drafts, and that’s why you have to be concerned about the Jets.
In four drafts, general manager Mike Maccagnan has added a promising young quarterback in Sam Darnold and two quality starters in safety Jamal Adams and defensive end Leonard Williams. Two or three others are on the cusp of becoming quality starters, but the total haul is underwhelming after four years and 28 draft picks.
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Which is why this draft is so critical for Maccagnan, who, after outlasting coach Todd Bowles, finds himself on the hot seat. Quite simply, he needs to maintain the momentum from this offseason and hope coach Adam Gase can fit together the pieces to contend for a playoff spot.
Maccagnan said he feels “less stress” because there’s no pressure to find a quarterback, but he quickly added, “You pick up stress somewhere else [because] it’s, ‘Hey, who are we going to pick up with the third pick?'”
So, what would constitute a successful draft, starting with the Jets’ pick at No. 3 overall on Thursday night? They need to find:
1. An edge rusher who can make an immediate impact. With quarterback out of the way, it’s on to the next challenge — finding a speed rusher who can make a difference. There’s no reason this problem can’t be addressed with the No. 3 pick.
When Maccagnan was hired, he said the goal was to create a pipeline of 3-4 outside linebackers, but he has yet to draft one in the first two rounds. He used two third-round picks on the position, Lorenzo Mauldin (out of the league) and Jordan Jenkins (current starter). Jenkins has developed into a solid player, but he’s regarded more as an edge-setting presence against the run rather than a pass-rushing threat.
The Jets probably will have a shot at Kentucky sack master Josh Allen at No. 3, but there are some in league circles who believe he won’t be their pick. Without a second-round pick, they would have to wait until the third round (picks 68 and 93 overall) to get another pick. Jachai Polite, who hurt himself with a terrible scouting combine, could be a risky option in the third. He recently visited the Jets’ facility.
Some league insiders believe Maccagnan will ignore the edge-rushing need in the first round and go for Alabama defensive tackle Quinnen Williams or Houston nose tackle Ed Oliver, who would be a reach at No. 3. Without naming names, Maccagnan said it’s “quite a talented group” of edge rushers and defensive linemen.
Justin Layne is a bump-and-run cornerback with rare size out of Michigan State.
2. A cornerback who can develop into a rookie starter. This is another premium position that hasn’t been adequately addressed via the draft. The Jets took sixth-round fliers the past two years on Parry Nickerson, Jeremy Clark and Derrick Jones, none of whom has developed into a 2019 starting candidate. Their top corners are Trumaine Johnson, Darryl Roberts and Brian Poole — a shaky trio at best.
It’s time to think hard about a cornerback on Day 2 of the draft. With a blitz-heavy defense, it’s imperative to have corners who can thrive in man-to-man coverage. The Jets are showing interest in Justin Layne (Michigan State) and Amani Oruwariye (Penn State).
3. An eventual starter on the offensive line. Everybody is screaming how they need a center — and that’s true — but they also need to think about an offensive tackle because current starters Kelvin Beachum and Brandon Shell are entering the final year of their contracts. With only three picks in the top 93, it will be hard to find a plug-and-play answer at any of these positions, but Maccagnan needs to find a developmental player who can ascend to a starting role over time.
Truth be told, they need two such players, but you can’t expect the man to work miracles with only six picks total. That’s why trading down to accumulate extra picks is so appealing to Maccagnan. If he trades down in Round 1, Alabama tackle/guard Jonah Williams becomes a prime target.
Maccagnan all but ignored the offensive line in his first four drafts, picking only two — Shell and Jarvis Harrison (out of the league). The Jets have relied mainly on free agency, but that gets very costly.
Football Outsiders projects the top draft prospects at key positions:
4. A midround gem. Maccagnan has hit on three of his four first-round picks — all top-six selections — but his track record in the middle and late rounds is spotty at best. The ability to find talent on the third day is what separates the good scouting departments from the mediocre ones.
Since 2015, only two players of the 17 players drafted after the third round have become starters — Shell and tight end Chris Herndon, who shows tremendous promise. Maccagnan should get credit for wide receiver Robby Anderson, an undrafted free agent who has flourished. Otherwise, it has been slim pickings.
It will be fascinating to see which direction they go in this draft: Quality or quantity? From all indications, Maccagnan prefers the latter, which is why he’s motivated to trade down. That can be risky, passing up a blue-chip talent such as Allen or Williams, but the word around the league is the Jets are eager to get out of the No. 3 spot. Historical note: They haven’t traded down in the first round since 2005.
Maccagnan tends to morph into Trader Mike on draft day — 12 trades in four drafts, not counting last year’s blockbuster that netted Darnold. (That trade occurred on St. Patrick’s Day.) His best draft-day trade happened last year, when he acquired defensive end Henry Anderson for a seventh-round pick. None of the other trades resulted in anything memorable. In 2017, he added extra picks by trading down four times, but the return was minimal — busts and bottom-of-the-roster players.
This year, with fewer picks and more pressure, there’s no margin for error.