NFL News & Analysis

New York Jets 2021 free agency and NFL Draft preview

In the lead-up to the start of free agency on March 17 and the opening day of the 2021 NFL Draft on April 29, we'll be taking a position-by-position look at all 32 NFL teams with a focus on the starting spots that have question marks heading into next season.

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I’ll warn you before we begin — the current state of the New York Jets roster is ugly. Of the 23 projected starting spots in this piece (11 on offense and 12 on defense), just 10 are filled with players who are currently under contract.

The good news is that New York is well-positioned to make some major additions to their team, with the third-most projected cap space in the NFL and six top-100 picks in this year’s draft. What they do with those resources will go a long way towards determining the team's course over the next several years.

Projected cap space (Over the Cap): $68,725,814 (3rd in NFL)

Picks in 2021 NFL Draft: 2, 23, 34, 66, 87, 98, 130, 138, 162, 215

Projected 2021 offense 
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
QB ?
RB ?
WR Denzel Mims 67 / 127 $1.2 million
WR Jamison Crowder 31 / 127 $11.4 million
WR ?
TE Chris Herndon 58 / 71 $2.4 million
LT Mekhi Becton 18 / 38 $4.2 million
LG ?
C Connor McGovern 23 / 37 $9.3 million
RG ?
RT George Fant 29 / 38 $9.4 million

Sam Darnold still has one year remaining on his rookie contract, but between Deshaun Watson trade rumors and the likelihood that the Jets select a quarterback at No. 2 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft, Darnold seems unlikely to remain New York’s starting quarterback next season. 

Fourth-round running back La’Mical Perine sits atop the Jets' RB depth chart as things stand right now, but look for New York to add competition there this offseason. 

As far as receiving options go, Crowder is easily the most accomplished on the roster, but it remains to be seen if he will be in the starting lineup come September. His release would save the Jets over $10 million against the cap. One of New York's priorities this offseason will be adding weapons around him and Mims for whoever starts at quarterback next season. 

Becton’s job at left tackle is secure following a promising rookie season. And McGovern will be difficult to part with, given his contract. The rest of the starting spots on the line should at least have competition heading into next season, though. George Fant, Alex Lewis and Greg Van Roten could potentially be released for salary-cap purposes. As a whole, the Jets line underperformed in 2020, ranking 29th in PFF’s end-of-the-year offensive line rankings.   

Why must the Jets make securing a franchise quarterback a top priority this offseason?

There was some talk heading into this offseason that the Jets could stay put at second overall and take a player like Penei Sewell, seeing what Sam Darnold had to offer with an improved supporting cast. It’s difficult to overstate how big of a mistake that would be for New York. 

It can be true that Darnold has had arguably the worst quarterback situation in the NFL since the Jets took him third overall in the 2018 NFL Draft and that he has done very little in his first three years in the league to warrant the kind of confidence it would take to pass on a quarterback who would go first overall in most other drafts. That is the kind of talent that both Zach Wilson and Justin Fields have behind Trevor Lawrence in what is an ideal quarterback draft class to find yourself picking near the top.

Darnold’s 63.1 PFF grade since 2018 ranks dead last among 32 qualifying quarterbacks. Even when isolating for clean-pocket dropbacks in an attempt to mitigate some of the poor pass protection he’s had, his 76.2 passing grade without pressure sits ahead of only Mitchell Trubisky among qualifiers. 

Could he develop into a quality starting quarterback in a better environment? Potentially. Is that chance worth passing up multiple high-level talents at the most important position in the game? That’s a tough sell. 

Is Jamison Crowder worth keeping around on his current contract?

When I tell you that Crowder has been the only reliable presence at wide receiver for the Jets over the past two seasons, I mean it. His 137 receptions since 2019 are 85 more than the next highest mark at the position for New York. Robby Anderson comes in second with 52 despite not even playing for the team last season.

Crowder has been a productive contributor from the slot on one of the worst passing offenses in the NFL, earning a PFF receiving grade of 78.0 over the last two years. 

It’s not as if the $10 million-plus that the Jets would free up with his release is much-needed money in a dire cap situation, either. New York does enter this offseason with plenty of needs to address, but they have nearly $70 million to work with already. It makes sense for the Jets to keep Crowder in place for whoever is playing quarterback next season.   

Do any of the 2020 free agent acquisitions along the offensive line take a step forward in their second season with the team?

The Jets attacked the offensive line last season with the look of a team that understood that they needed to be better up front. The problem is that their approach was more quantity over quality. Now, they will enter the 2020 offseason in a similar boat except for the solace that comes with Mekhi Becton looking a lot like a franchise left tackle. 

Left guard Alex Lewis recorded a pass-blocking grade of 55.6 before his season came to an end following Week 11. Pat Elflein fared even worse in the following weeks, recording a 33.9 pass-blocking grade across six starts at left guard.

Similarly, Connor McGovern’s respectable PFF grade rank was driven largely by his run blocking. His 42.7 pass-blocking grade on the season was one of the worst marks at the center position, but he did come on as the season progressed. Greg Van Roten led the interior offensive linemen with a 71.5 pass-blocking grade at right guard. 

Lastly, George Fant required some projection heading into the 2020 season as a starting tackle after playing more snaps as a sixth offensive lineman in the 2018 and 2019 seasons than he did at tackle. He ended the year with a PFF grade of 60.7 at right tackle, ranking  29th out of 38 qualifiers at the position. His release could free up over $7 million this offseason. 

The tricky thing for New York is that it’s hard to see things getting a whole lot better for guys like McGovern, Van Roten and Fant. All appear to be what they are at this point — players capable of starting but not options you’re particularly excited about. Outside of Becton, the Jets should be looking to upgrade all four positions along the offensive line in the coming years.  

Potential targets at open spots

Quarterback: Deshaun Watson, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields

The Jets need to have their eyes set on one of these three guys. Watson obviously comes with the highest floor-ceiling combination as a top-three asset in the entire league given his play to start his career and his age, but he will also cost draft picks in a trade, is already making an elite quarterback salary and would have to agree to a trade to New York. 

If they don’t get Watson, the draft decision for the Jets will come down to Wilson vs. Fields. PFF gives Wilson the slight edge as second on our big board with Fields at third overall, but both guys have franchise-changing ability.

Wilson is coming off an elite 95.4 PFF grade in 2020 and produced some special plays outside the pocket this past year for BYU. Meanwhile, Fields is arguably the most accurate quarterback in the draft class and gives you some more flexibility to use him in the designed run game. 

It will come down to preference for the Jets. Either selection would be a win. 

Running back: Travis Etienne, Jerick McKinnon 

With Mike LaFleur coming in as the offensive coordinator, you can expect the Jets to work plenty of outside zone into their offense. Teams like the San Francisco 49ers have prioritized speed at the running back position in similar offenses, hunting big plays in the run game on the edge. It makes sense that the Jets would do the same.   

There is no better back in this draft class in that mold than Etienne. He broke 217 tackles as a runner across the last four seasons — averaging over 4.5 yards after contact per rushing attempt — and he has rare burst and big-play ability at the position. While Najee Harris looks like he’ll be the first running back off the board come April, Etienne is the top back on PFF’s Big Board

McKinnon would come with less investment than Etienne, but he could still provide the Jets some juice in a rotational role. McKinnon has already made it very clear that he won’t be returning to San Francisco next season. He earned grades of 74.0 or higher as both a runner and receiver in limited action with the 49ers in 2020 after missing both the 2018 and 2019 seasons with injury. 

Wide receiver: Corey Davis, Rondale Moore 

The Jets need a legitimate No. 1 receiver, and those guys are potentially out there this offseason between Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson and Kenny Golladay. The Jets' only problem is that all three could end up getting extended or hit with the franchise tag. 

Davis — PFF’s 25th-ranked free agent — seems more likely to be available. The former fifth-overall pick finally started to look like the player that the Tennessee Titans envisioned when they selected him in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. His 85.3 PFF grade ranked 10th among all wide receivers in 2020, and he stood out as a legitimate big-play threat on Tennessee’s offense. His 15.1 yards per reception last season were a career high. 

Moore is a different kind of receiver for New York to target. So much of his production at Purdue was manufactured because the offense simply wanted to get the ball into his hands. He’s electric in the open field with the football, undersized but not weak or easily brought to the ground by any means. He broke 37 tackles in his freshman year alone. That kind of elite player in space is a mold that the 49ers have continuously targeted, and you could see the Jets look to follow suit.   

Interior offensive line: Joe Thuney, Kendrick Green 

Thuney is one of two “big prize” free agents for every team seeking help at guard. The Jets should be very familiar with his work following five years in the AFC East to open his career. Thuney would immediately tighten up any pass-protection issues at the right guard spot. He has earned PFF pass-blocking grades of 70.0 or higher in each of his first five NFL seasons.

Green is a later draft target that makes a lot of sense if the Jets do transition to an outside-zone heavy rushing attack. As the PFF Draft Guide points out, Green earned a 92.3 run-blocking grade on outside-zone runs with the speed to get out of his stance and into space. He played both left guard and center for Illinois in 2020. 

Projected 2021 Defense
Position Player 2020 PFF grade rank 2021 cap hit
DI Quinnen Williams 12 / 126 $9.0 million
DI Folorunso Fatukasi 14 / 126 $2.2 million
LB C.J. Mosley N/A $7.5 million
LB Blake Cashman N/A $0.9 million
LB ?
CB Bryce Hall 67 / 121 $0.9 million
CB ?
CB ?
S ?
S ?

A changing defensive scheme under new head coach Robert Saleh and defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich, several key free agents and plenty of cap space to improve the defense this offseason makes next year’s starting group difficult to project right now. 

Marcus Maye was arguably the team’s best defensive player in 2020, and there is no reason to expect that he won’t be back with the team on a new contract in 2021. Ashtyn Davis is the favorite to fill the other vacant safety spot, but the Jets could also look to bring in a more natural box safety to fill that role. 

At cornerback, I penciled in Hall for a starting job after several solid performances late in his 2020 rookie season. Still, the cornerback position may be the biggest area of need on this defense. Brian Poole is a candidate to be re-signed to man the slot following strong PFF coverage grades of 80.0 and 79.5 in that role the past two seasons.

The defensive line is relatively set on the interior, especially with 2019 first-round pick Williams making a big sophomore leap last season. Fatukasi, John Franklin-Myers and Henry Anderson give them multiple quality options to turn to inside. Edge stands out as the big area of need, with 2020 starters Tarell Basham and Jordan Jenkins becoming free agents. New York should look to improve those two spots this offseason.

Lastly, the Jets will be hoping that C.J. Mosley starts to pay off the contract they signed him to before the 2019 season. He opted out of the 2020 season after playing just 114 defensive snaps in 2019 before going down with a groin injury. Cashman is most likely to see snaps behind Mosley as things stand.

How does the Jets defense change schematically under the new coaching staff?

The Jets are expected to switch from a 3-4 base defense to a 4-3 base defense given Saleh’s teams in the past. The distinction between the two isn’t as important as it once was given how infrequently teams run base defense in today’s NFL, but it should still be noted with New York needing to make decisions on what kind of edge rushers they will be looking to add to the team this offseason. 

In terms of coverage, Saleh comes from the Seattle “Cover 3” coaching tree, but his defense has evolved in recent years as the defensive coordinator for the San Francisco 49ers. Per PFF’s coverage charting, the 49ers actually ran more quarters coverage than any team in the NFL this past season while still running Cover 3 at a top-10 rate. 

That’s a big departure from the defenses that New York ran under Gregg Williams over the last two years. Since 2019, New York ranks 28th in quarters usage and 31st in Cover 3 usage, ahead of only the Las Vegas Raiders. They ran more Cover 2 than any defense in the NFL over that span while San Francisco ranked last. 

Stylistically, it will be a big shift for the Jets. 

How much does C.J. Mosley’s expected return move the needle defensively for the Jets in 2021?

It should to a certain degree. The Jets may have overpaid for Mosley in the 2019 offseason, but there is a reason that he garnered the kind of contract he did. The former first-rounder out of Alabama has a history of strong play against the run, is a sure tackler and was developing into a solid enough coverage defender with PFF coverage grades of 72.2, 78.6 and 64.1 in his final three seasons in Baltimore. He should step in and immediately be the Jets' best option at the position, even if they opt to bring back 2020 starter Neville Hewitt in free agency. 

Mosley’s return isn’t going to cover up the holes at the edge defender and cornerback positions for New York, though. This is still a defense that needs an injection of talent at key positions this offseason. 

How well do Marcus Maye and Ashtyn Davis fit next to each other as the Jets’ starting safety duo?

I recently broke down the ideal landing spots for several notable free agent safeties, and as I discuss more in-depth there, Maye is someone that the Jets should prioritize bringing back. Davis is the guy expected to start next to Maye at safety for New York next season, but the fit isn’t all that seamless. 

Davis’ ideal role is as a deep safety where he can showcase his athleticism and range while minimizing some of the issues that pop up when he has to come down into the box. The problem is that Maye has graded over 20 points better throughout his career in free safety alignments than anywhere else on the field. The Jets could still use a more traditional box safety starting next to Maye while rotating Davis in situations where it makes more sense.  

Potential targets at open spots

Edge defender: Jayson Oweh, Carl Lawson 

Oweh may not have recorded any sacks for Penn State in 2020, but it marked his second straight year with a PFF pass-rushing grade above 80.0. He was also dramatically improved as a run defender this past year. It wouldn’t be a bad bet on the part of the Jets to take a chance on his elite physical tools translating with one of their early picks. 

Lawson isn’t going to provide much in the run game, but he can be one of the NFL’s elite pass-rushers off the edge. Lawson has proven that he can deliver in that role already with his performance for much of his career in Cincinnati. No edge defender graded higher on “true pass rushes” than Lawson did in 2020. He could end up being a steal at something like the four-year, $55 million deal that PFF projects him for right now. 

Linebacker: K.J. Wright, Justin Hilliard  

With Mosley set to take over as the Mike linebacker, the Jets could be looking for an upgrade at Will, given the options currently on the roster. Wright has been playing at a high level in that role in Seattle for a long time, and the drafting of Jordyn Brooks last season may signal his time there is done. Coming off a strong season where he ranked sixth among all linebackers in PFF WAR, Wright would give the Jets solid all-around play at what should be a reasonable price point. 

Hilliard is one of the best athletes at linebacker in this draft class, but an injury history and corresponding lack of playing time at Ohio State will likely push him down draft boards. The former five-star recruit played a career-high 231 snaps in 2020 and earned grades north of 80.0 as both a run and coverage defender. 

Cornerback: Richard Sherman, Brian Poole, Greg Newsome

It’s not a stretch to see why the Jets would have interest in either of these two free agent options. Poole has played very well these past two years in the slot for New York — a starting role for any defense in the modern NFL. Meanwhile, Sherman has ties to Saleh from his time in San Francisco and is likely to be on the move given the cap concerns for the 49ers. He dealt with some injuries in 2020 but is only one year removed from a 90.5 coverage grade.

Newsome is a name to watch for in the draft. He allowed a 31.7 passer rating on 34 passes into his coverage this past season at Northwestern and has multiple years of experience in a zone-heavy scheme. 

Safety: Marcus Maye, Keanu Neal 

Maye’s play in 2020 as one of the leaders of the defense following the trade of Jamal Adams would make it a surprise if he doesn’t return to New York. The interesting name here is Neal, who has experience with new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich from his time in Atlanta and was teammates with Maye at Florida. 

Neal earned an 81.8 PFF grade when lined up in box or slot alignments for the Falcons in 2020, his first full season following several major injuries. That’s the kind of player this defense could use, and given the connections Neal has, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Jets had interest.

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