Losing Trevor Lawrence would be massive, yes. But there are still numerous reasons for Jets fans to be optimistic if their team fails to land him.
Denial. Anger. Bargaining. Depression. Now, it’s time for acceptance.
Missing out on Trevor Lawrence would be brutal for the New York Jets. That is not in question. While he is not a lock to succeed in the NFL – simply because nobody is – his odds of becoming a franchise-changing player are much better than his peers in the 2021 draft class and possibly better than any quarterback to ever enter the draft. In addition, he offers an aura that other quarterback prospects do not, one that would bring newfound legitimacy and respect to the organization, increasing the attractiveness of the Jets as a landing spot for a new head coach candidate, new staff members, and potential free agent targets.
So, yes, losing Lawrence would be bad. I’m not here to tell you it wouldn’t be.
What I am here to tell you is that, even without Lawrence, the Jets are still armed with quite a few legitimate reasons to believe that they can return to relevancy sooner rather than later.
Here are some of those reasons.
Justin Fields and Zach Wilson are great prospects
They obviously pale in the shadow of Lawrence’s long golden hair, but Ohio State’s Justin Fields and BYU’s Zach Wilson are excellent prospects that would be in the conversation to go No. 1 overall in almost any other year.
Even with his recent struggles, Fields’ 179.2 passer rating (NCAA) as a member of the Buckeyes is the highest in the history of the Big Ten conference. There are plenty of advanced numbers that back him up, too.
Justin Fields: Most accurate QB on 20+ yard throws in all of college football (77%) pic.twitter.com/JTz7DOiHHk
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 18, 2020
Wilson has the second-best passer rating in the NCAA this season (195.4), and, like Fields, is similarly revered by the film and advanced numbers. Pro Football Focus had him as the top-graded quarterback in the nation entering this past weekend (in which BYU did not play).
Highest-graded QBs in CFB
1. Zach Wilson, BYU – 94.9
2. Mac Jones, Bama – 94.8
3. Justin Fields, Ohio St – 93.1
4. Kyle Trask, Florida – 92.7
5. Sam Howell, UNC – 92.6 pic.twitter.com/obdqD1WbFB
— PFF College (@PFF_College) December 19, 2020
Fields has the third-best QBR (ESPN’s Total Quarterback Rating) in the nation this season at 89.5. Wilson is seventh at 87.0. Lawrence is eighth at 85.6. (QBR accounts for situational factors like down, distance, time, score, and field position in addition to support factors like pressure, drops, and YAC).
None of that is to say Fields and Wilson are better than Lawrence. They’re not even close to him as prospects. But they are still great options in their own right, prospects who deserve to go No. 2 overall not just because they are quarterbacks, but because they are actually that good. The Jets are lucky that they can fall to the second spot and still have two viable quarterback prospects to choose from. Otherwise, the loss of Lawrence would be far more devastating.
The Jets have loads of cap space in the perfect offseason
According to Over The Cap, the Jets are projected to have $72.8 million in cap room next March, second-most in the league behind the Jaguars. (Yet another No. 1 spot stolen by that pesky Florida team…)
This is the perfect year to be a team with gobs of cap space. Due to all of the ramifications of COVID-19, the salary cap is due to take a steep drop after increasing by at least $10 million in seven consecutive seasons. Over The Cap projects the 2021 salary cap to fall around $176 million, an 11.2% decline from the $198.2 million cap in 2020.
Since teams always build with the assumption that the cap will continue to rise, numerous franchises are going to be in precarious positions this year. Fewer impending free agents will be franchise-tagged or re-signed than usual, and teams will also be forced to cut more players than usual in order to free up more room. All of this means that there will be more good players on the market and fewer teams willing to sign them, music to the ears of cap-laden teams like the Jets.
The Jets will be a less attractive spot without Lawrence and the top-tier head coach that would come with him, but even without those advantages, they will still be one of the few teams in the league that can spend big money on multiple players. If a good free agent wants to get paid, the Jets will be one of his only options to get the money he deserves.
Joe Douglas might be the real deal
Joe Douglas’ team is 1-13, but when you look beneath the hood, he has quietly been revealing the potential that he just might be an outstanding talent evaluator.
Douglas’ draft class has been tremendous to this point. The number of rookies that have been showing promise for the Jets this year is far above the going rate for the average draft class.
Mekhi Becton? He’s really good. Becton has allowed no more than two pressures in six of his past seven games and just gave up zero against a fantastic Rams defense. Since Week 9, Becton has an overall PFF grade of 76.6, a number that is typically around the level of the league’s 10th-best left tackle. That is absurd for a 21-year-old rookie. With slight improvements to his technique, as our own Joe Blewett has touched on, Becton could be the best left tackle in football.
Denzel Mims has found a way to produce at an impressive level despite struggles at the quarterback position and poor play calling. He has shown clear No. 1-receiver potential.
Rookies since 1970 to post 40+ receiving yards in each of their first 5 career games:
— Michael Nania (@Michael_Nania) November 30, 2020
Douglas shrewdly scooped up two of the league’s best-performing rookie cornerbacks to date. Javelin Guidry (undrafted free agent) and Bryce Hall (fifth-round pick) own the best and fifth-best coverage grades at PFF, respectively, among qualified rookie corners (150+ defensive snaps). Minnesota’s Cameron Dantzler, Dallas’ Trevon Diggs, Kansas City’s L’Jarius Sneed sit between them. Guidry’s 76.3 coverage grade currently ranks 12th-best out of 144 qualified cornerbacks league-wide (92nd percentile), while Hall’s 59.5 grade ranks 63rd (57th percentile).
Guidry and Hall have had their success against tough competition. They have played nearly all of their combined defensive snaps (528/569 – 92.8%) against teams that have passing offenses ranked in the top-16 (according to DVOA entering Week 15).
Don’t forget about the undrafted Bryce Huff and his pass-rush potential off the edge.
1. Bryce Huff, DE, NYJ – 15.1%
2. Yetur Gross-Matos, DE, CAR – 14.2%
3. Alex Highsmith, ED, PIT – 13.9%
4. Chase Young, DE, WAS – 12.0%
5. D.J. Wonnum, DE, MIN – 11.0%#FFIDP
— Jon Macri (@PFF_Macri) December 8, 2020
This move is not a draft pick or undrafted free agent signing, but it is still one of the best value pickups in the league over the past two years. Just prior to the 2019 season, Douglas picked up a little-known second-year defensive end off of waivers who goes by the name of John Franklin-Myers. He proceeded to miss the entire 2019 season. Fast forward to today, and Franklin-Myers is one of the best pass rushers in football. Franklin-Myers ranks ninth among interior defensive linemen with 46 pressures, while his pressure rate of 17.2% trails only Aaron Donald at the position.
The Jets’ struggles this season are mostly a product of things that happened before Douglas’ arrival. Head coach and quarterback – arguably the two most positions in the sport – have been the Jets’ biggest weaknesses this season, and Douglas is not responsible for either spot. Adam Gase is likely the worst head coach in football. Douglas was not around when he was brought in. Sam Darnold ranks third-worst in total QBR, second-worst in DVOA, and dead-last in both yards per attempt and passer rating. Douglas did not bring him in, either.
Mike Maccagnan never drafted an offensive lineman within the first two rounds, forcing Douglas to try and build a unit fit to protect Darnold in one offseason. That was just not going to happen. Douglas did improve the unit to a degree (I implore you to watch Blewett’s film reviews if you do not think that has been the case – this unit is not nearly as bad as last year’s), but it still has a long way to go due to the years of neglect that preceded his arrival.
Maccagnan also failed to build pipelines at key positions like wide receiver, cornerback, and edge rusher, leaving Douglas with two choices: compensate for Maccagnan’s follies by overpaying for short-term fixes while restraining the team’s future, or, take the more patient route, maintaining long-term flexibility while risking short-term failure. Douglas took the latter. Whether that works out remains to be seen, but if he is as good as a drafter as his first class suggests he might be, it will definitely be the right call, fully worth the cost of a nightmarish 2020 season (and Darnold’s Jets career).
Even if the Jets decide to keep Darnold – which would not be the right call in my opinion, but should certainly be considered a possibility until proven otherwise – perhaps he can be saved with the right infrastructure and head coach (Arthur Smith, anyone?). The Darnold path is not my cup of tea, but hey, I’m just trying to keep things optimistic here.
Finally, with possession of Seattle’s first and third-round picks in addition to prime position in each round throughout the draft, Douglas will have the opportunity to maximize the value of his drafting ability. This team is loaded with more than enough draft ammunition to fulfill Douglas’ mission of patiently rebuilding the roster.
Douglas has not been perfect. Far from it. He has definitely played a role in the Jets being this bad with some of his mistakes in free agency. But the results of his first draft class to this point have been excellent, especially in a year where rookies have had it tougher than ever with limited offseason practice time. He has given fans plenty of reasons to believe that he will not fail the Jets’ next quarterback like Maccagnan failed Darnold.
There are pieces in place
We’ve already discussed the draft class. But there is a lot more to like on this roster.
Quinnen Williams is a star. He has the fifth-best total of combined pressures, stops, and pass breakups (72) among interior defensive linemen this season. Williams has done that even with numerous formidable offensive lines on his schedule.
We talked about Franklin-Myers, but let’s not forget Folorunso Fatukasi, the top-graded run defender among IDL at PFF with an 89.9 grade.
Williams and Franklin-Myers form one of only three IDL duos in the league in which both players have 35+ pressures. In the other phase, Williams and Fatukasi form one of only two IDL duos in which each teammate has 20+ run stuffs (tackles for 2 yards or less and no first down). It cannot be understated how fantastic of a core this is to build a defense around. That’s a two-way superstar and two players who are elite in one phase.
He’s an impending unrestricted free agent, but Marcus Maye has established himself as one of the best free safeties in the league. His 81.1 overall grade at PFF is third-best among all safeties this season. The Jets have control over his future, with the luxury of using the franchise tag on him if need be.
Jamison Crowder is one of the game’s best slot receivers. He ranks sixth in the NFL with 41.4 receiving yards per game out of the slot, even though he has been missed when open for big gains or touchdowns on an abnormally high number of reps this season. Even so, Crowder has still been targeted on 21.8% of his routes out of the slot, a mark of his excellent separation ability in the underneath game. Among the league’s top-32 slot receivers in terms of total slot routes, that ranks sixth-highest behind only Tyler Boyd, Keenan Allen, Robert Woods, Cole Beasley, and Cooper Kupp. Fantastic company. Crowder is a great asset to have as part of the core.
Take a step back from the ledge. Grab your imaginary Gardner Minshew jersey. Tweet #DUUUVAL incessantly. Scrape the bottom of the barrel for hope-inspiring stats. And get ready for two more weeks of being a Jaguars fan.
When that doesn’t pan out, keep the faith. This franchise remains in an excellent position to turn things around. I will not lie to you or myself and claim that missing out on Lawrence – and becoming the first 1-15 team in history to not claim the top pick – is not a loss. It is. But it’s not the end of the world.
The Jets will come out of 2020 with a feasible path to success in the very near future. They have a roster loaded with youth and promise, a general manager that just might be solid, tons of cap space in an offseason where it will be more valuable than ever, plenty of premium draft picks, and most importantly, a clean slate on the coaching staff with Douglas leading the charge to find the perfect leader that matches his vision.
With or without Lawrence, the Jets will storm into 2021 with a strong opportunity to set themselves up for sustained success throughout the decade.