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Free agents that can solve the New York Jets’ greatest weaknesses (Part 4)

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - DECEMBER 17: Wide receiver Nelson Agholor #15 of the Las Vegas Raiders warms up before a game against the Los Angeles Chargers at Allegiant Stadium on December 17, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Chargers defeated the Raiders 30-27 in overtime.
(Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Here are the top free agents that have the ability to solve the New York Jets’ biggest problems from the 2020 season.

Previously in our series of breakdowns chronicling the New York Jets‘ greatest weaknesses of 2020, we took a look at special teams, one of the most uncelebrated parts of the game. Today, we are going to turn the tables and analyze a far more celebrated position: wide receiver.

Solving the Jets’ greatest weaknesses

Weakness: Wide receiver blocking

Blocking at the wide receiver position is one of the most overlooked facets of football. On outside runs, the blocking performance of the wide receivers is often the determining factor in whether the rusher gets enough room for a huge gain or if he is stuffed for a minimal gain.

In 2020, the Jets’ wide receivers combined for a Pro Football Focus run blocking grade of 53.1, ranking 26th out of the NFL’s 32 wide receiver groups.

With offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur bringing in a Kyle Shanahan-style offense, this ability will become even more important for the Jets. Outside runs are a staple of the Shanahan run game. In 2020, the 49ers ranked ninth in the NFL with 122 carries directed to “left end” or “right end,” according to the play-by-play charting. Adam Gase’s Jets ranked 27th with 82 of those carries.

Solutions: Chris Conley, Rashard Higgins, Zach Pascal, Corey Davis, Zay Jones, Byron Pringle

It obviously doesn’t make sense to target a wide receiver just for his blocking, but considering their weakness in the area and its importance in their new offense, the Jets would be wise to place a greater emphasis on it than they typically would.

Let’s start out with four free agent receivers who offer plenty-solid receiving ability in addition to strong blocking.

Jacksonville’s Chris Conley has graded out excellently as a run blocker throughout his career. In 2020, his 82.7 run blocking grade ranked fifth-best out of 120 wide receivers with at least 100 run blocking snaps. That marked Conley’s fifth consecutive season with a grade above the 2020 positional average for wide receivers (59.8). He caught the ball effectively for the Jaguars this past season despite poor quarterbacking, ranking 19th out of 47 players on our free agent wide receiver ranking.

Rashard Higgins of the Browns placed 11th-of-120 (92nd percentile) with a 75.2 run blocking grade. He owns a strong career run blocking grade of 67.8. Higgins was a marvelously efficient pass-catcher in 2020 with a +29.4% DVOA that placed third-best among qualified wide receivers behind Julio Jones (+29.7%) and Will Fuller (+41.2%).

Indianapolis’ Zach Pascal is an underrated pass-catcher, placing at the 65th percentile in 2020 with a +5.5% DVOA while averaging 14.5 yards per reception over the past two seasons, but his blocking puts him over the top as a great complementary piece. Pascal’s career-low run blocking grade of 72.5 in 2020 was still good enough for 16th-of-120 (87th percentile). He ranked second among qualifiers in 2019 (85.0 grade) and 12th in 2018 (79.6), possessing a magnificent composite career grade of 77.9.

Corey Davis is a star-caliber free agent who will likely receive a massive deal if he is not franchise-tagged. Davis landed at No. 1 on our free agent wide receiver ranking as he placed above the 90th percentile in all five of the categories measured.

The icing on the cake of Davis’ attractiveness is his ability as a blocker. In 2020, Davis ranked 28th-of-120 (77th percentile) with a 67.5 run blocking grade. Over the past three years, he posted a composite grade of 68.2. Blocking for Derrick Henry, Davis is used to handling a heavy load in the run game, as Tennessee ranked third in the NFL with 396 carries directed “left end” or “right end” from 2018-20. Davis helped the Titans achieve a massive amount of success in those instances, as their average of 6.3 yards per rush attempt on “left end” or “right end” carries from 2018-20 ranked second-best behind Baltimore (6.9).

There are two players on the market who are not good pass-catchers but stand out as fantastic blockers. One is Las Vegas’ Zay Jones. He owns an excellent career run blocking grade of 73.6, going no lower than 68.2 in any of his four seasons. In 2020, he ranked No. 1 at the position with a 90.2 grade, helping the Raiders rank ninth in the NFL with 5.6 yards per carry on “left end” or “right end” carries. Jones has had an abysmal career as a pass-catcher, though, averaging 21.6 receiving yards per game on 5.6 yards per target.

Kansas City’s Byron Pringle only had 76 run blocking snaps in 2020, but he posted a 90.7 run blocking grade that was the best at the position if we cut the qualifier down to 50 snaps. Pringle has been an explosive target in his two-year career with an average of 10.0 yards per target and a sparkling conversion rate of 48.5%, but his sample size is limited as he has been targeted on an extremely infrequent basis (only 33 targets in 29 games, 1.1 per game).

If LaFleur sees blocking as a key trait needed in his wide receivers, look for Joe Douglas to have the above players on his shopping list.

Weakness: Wide receiver elusiveness

The Jets’ wide receivers were not necessarily bad at creating after the catch in 2020, but they weren’t good, either, and they will need to be in a LaFleur offense that will emphasize getting the ball to receivers with room to work in space.

In 2020, the Jets’ wide receivers were credited with 19 missed tackles forced over 188 receptions, an average of 0.101 per reception. That ranked 19th in the NFL and sat a tad below the positional average of 0.111.

Meanwhile, San Francisco’s wide receivers were absolutely electric at making plays with the football in their hands. The 49ers’ wide receivers combined for 33 missed tackles forced over 181 receptions, a league-leading average of 0.182 avoided tackles per catch.

Here are some of the free agents who have the open-field juice to thrive in LaFleur’s offense.

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