As the New York Jets turn the direction of their franchise, they have a blueprint for success right in front of them.
With the bulk of the offseason over and training camp well underway, it is clear that the New York Jets are beginning a long and painful rebuilding process. Success in the 2017-18 campaign will be determined by how close the team comes to the first overall pick in the draft.
No matter what players and staff may say, the Jets are absolutely tanking. As well they should. The roster, as it stands, is not equipped to compete in the NFL at this time. The Jets are making the right call in going younger, hoarding cap space, and attempting to get the number one pick in a strong quarterback draft class.
But as fans have learned from the team’s multiple rebuilds and “reloads” of the past several decades, there is a right way and a wrong way to rebuild the team. The Jets should look to two franchises as the model of what to do, and what not to do when rebuilding a roster. The first is the Oakland Raiders, who turned a talentless roster, years of failure, and a mountain of cap space into a Super Bowl contender. The second is the Cleveland Browns, who never can seem to get things right and represent the wrong way to rebuild a team.
The number one factor in a successful rebuild and a successful franchise is building through the draft. The Raiders, the Browns, and the Jets all struggled mightily when it came to drafting. Most importantly, all three franchises failed to identify and draft a quarterback capable of leading their team. Then came the 2014 draft.
The Raiders identified their quarterback of the future in Derek Carr and drafted him 36th overall. In the same draft, the Browns had four different chances to draft Carr, including the 35th pick. Instead, Cleveland selected Johnny Manziel, who failed out of the league after two seasons. Cleveland’s other two picks before Carr have also failed to make a Pro Bowl.
The Jets, for their part, also whiffed in the first round, taking Calvin Pryor, who they traded to Cleveland this offseason. But the draft isn’t just about the quarterback position. Over the last several years the Jets have had an incredibly poor drafting record. They have continually tried to repair that damage by shelling out money to bring in free agents who made the team competitive but drastically limited the team’s ceiling.
This was the case in 2009 and 2010 when the Jets went to back to back AFC Championship games. The roster was talented enough to compete but aged so rapidly that the team fell off a cliff in 2011, and has never recovered. The same thing happened in 2015-16, when a roster full of veteran free agents achieved a 10-6 record, before falling back to earth last season.
General Manager Mike Maccagnan has an excellent opportunity right now to reinvigorate the team, and send them on an Oakland Raiders-esque arc back to the top of the NFL. The roster right now is incredibly young and inexperienced. But the players have a chance to learn and develop together as a unit. This season looks anything but promising, but there is a strong chance that a quarterback prospect like USC’s Sam Darnold could be the franchise quarterback the team has longed for since the days of Joe Namath.
Outside of landing a franchise quarterback, the Jets need to be smarter in free agency. The reality is, if a player is truly a talented difference maker, he is not going to hit the open market. The best you can ever hope for out of free agency is B-level players who can fill gaps in the middle of your roster. No team in the league does this better than Green Bay, who is notorious for spending as little as possible in free agency. Instead, the Packers spend money retaining the players that have been brought up through their own program.
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Looking again at the Raiders, you can see both sides of this philosophy at work in one team. Oakland drafted well throughout the offense, getting playmakers like Carr and Amari Cooper, and building a formidable offensive line. They then used free agency to grab players like Michael Crabtree and Marshawn Lynch, who can complement the players around them nicely.
On defense, the Raiders drafted the incredibly talented Khalil Mack, but mostly used free agency to build the rest of their front seven and secondary. As a result, the team’s defense has clearly been the weaker side of the ball. The secondary in particular was made up of hired guns, and often forced Oakland to rely on its talented offense to win games.
The Jets have drafted fairly well defensively. They still lack a dynamic edge rusher, and cornerback is a glaring weakness, but the team’s best talent lies along the defensive line, and newcomers Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye could hold down the safety position for years to come. Maccagnan will have to resist the urge to splurge next offseason. Shelling out big contracts to free agents to revamp the offense risks bringing back the same issues the team had this season.
The final thing the Jets can learn from the Browns and the Raiders rebuilds is patience. The Browns, like the Jets, have had very little patience through the years. They swap coaches, managers, and players with incredible speed. The Raiders, meanwhile, stayed the course with GM Reggie McKenzie and refused to blink when Carr started his career 0-10. The Raiders continued to believe in their young talent, and built around him, giving him the tools to succeed.
If a player like Darnold is the real deal at quarterback, and assuming the Jets can get him, they have a chance to develop a young team as a unit that will be capable of competing at the highest level, just in time for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick to be making their NFL exits and leaving the AFC East open for the taking. Things may look grim now, but the Jets can draft their way to a bright future.