It is far too early for New York Jets fans to bury Joe Douglas
Is Joe Douglas above criticism? No.
There are definitely a number of things that the New York Jets general manager can be legitimately criticized for. Feel free to knock him for neglecting the tight end position despite its heavy importance in Mike LaFleur‘s offense, not finding an upgrade over Greg Van Roten at right guard, and throwing away the James Morgan pick, among other blunders.
With that being said … what are we doing here? Why is a vocal minority of the Jets fanbase already calling for the head of the franchise’s first decision-maker with a clear vision in eons?
Douglas was hired in 2019; but since he was hired in June of that year, he did not truly begin building the roster until the 2020 offseason. As we sit here today, Douglas has executed two full offseasons and overseen the team play a whopping 18 games since his first draft at the helm.
Wow, color me shocked that a general manager who inherited one of the NFL’s most barren rosters and signed a six-year deal has not built a team that looks playoff-ready after barely more than one season’s worth of games.
The man signed a six-year contract for a reason. His goal was never to compete in 2020 nor in 2021. He wants to build a sustained winner – not a flash in the pan – and that takes time.
Here is a look at the opening week starting lineup of the 2019 New York Jets – essentially the core of the team that Douglas inherited.
- QB: Sam Darnold
- RB: Le’Veon Bell
- WR: Quincy Enunwa
- WR: Jamison Crowder
- WR: Robby Anderson
- TE: Ryan Griffin
- LT: Kelvin Beachum
- LG: Kelechi Osemele
- C: Ryan Kalil
- RG: Brian Winters
- RT: Brandon Shell
- DL: Leonard Williams
- DL: Henry Anderson
- DL: Steve McLendon
- DL: Bronson Kaufusi
- LB: C.J. Mosley
- LB: Harvey Langi
- LB: Neville Hewitt
- CB: Trumaine Johnson
- CB: Darryl Roberts
- SS: Jamal Adams
- FS: Marcus Maye
Of those 22 players, 12 are no longer starters in the NFL (bolded). Six are not even on an active roster (bolded and italicized).
More than half of the team’s starters were not good enough to start for any of the other 31 franchises in the league. More than a quarter were not good enough to be one of the top-53 players on any of the other 31 franchises in the league.
Repairing such an awful roster takes time. It cannot be done with the snap of a finger.
And Douglas has wisely avoided the shortcut strategy.
In 2020, Douglas was fairly unaggressive in the offseason. He patched a few holes but did not reel in any top-tier free agents. He also signed deals that had little-to-no effect on the team’s long-term cap sheet.
While Douglas surely was not trying to win a measly two games to tank for a new quarterback and push out his lame-duck head coach, he definitely was not opposed to the possibility of that happening, either. His main goals were simply to maintain long-term flexibility, increase the number of young pieces on the roster, and put his cultural stamp on the roster – for better or worse in terms of short-term results.
The failures of the 2020 squad – while unintentional, but, again, not something that Douglas tried to completely eliminate the possibility of – left Douglas in a position to kickstart a complete overhaul in 2021.
New York revamped its regime and constructed a new coaching staff that, by all accounts, is a massive upgrade over the previous staff. It’s also instilling a culture that matches the values that Douglas has preached in the past.
The staff is filled with accomplished developers of young talent and one that believes in patiently developing its own homegrown talent to build a sustained winner rather than stressing to win games in the present.
Using a treasure chest of draft selections, Douglas brought in a massive rookie class that features a number of year-one starters – made possible due to the fact that Douglas did not overrun the team with veteran short-term solutions in either 2020 or 2021.
Running out the team that leads the NFL in rookie snaps on both offense and defense will not yield good short-term results. Douglas knows that. Robert Saleh knows that. You should know that.
In the NFL, short-term pain will result in long-term gain, if the right talent evaluators are in the building and the right coaches are building a fruitful program.
Instead of adding a random veteran like Richard Sherman or Steven Nelson, who could have helped the 2021 squad win seven games instead of six but will do nothing in 2022 (when the team actually wants to start competing for the playoffs), they have youngsters like Brandin Echols and Michael Carter II gaining valuable experience. Accelerating their development as they grow into pieces that can help the Jets win games for any number of years into the foreseeable future is the way to go at this early stage of the game.
Instead of tying themselves to Sam Darnold, a quarterback who has shown and continues to show a limited ceiling, Douglas and the Jets shot for the moon with Wilson. They knew Wilson could produce at a lower level than the fourth-year Darnold in 2021. That’s not the point, the end-all, be-all. It’s instead about exchanging better production now for the chance of a potential superstar quarterback in the future.
And, of course, the quarterback pick is the biggest move that will define Douglas’s success.
If Zach Wilson pans out and becomes the franchise-lifting player that they drafted him to be, he will mask a lot of deficiencies across the roster. Take a look at how many issues that Russell Wilson masks in Seattle on a yearly basis and how many issues Tom Brady masked throughout his time in New England.
It will take a while until Wilson can get to that level, though, so in the meantime, the rest of Douglas’s decisions will be more scrutinized. But if Wilson reaches the elite level that the team hopes he can, that one successful pick alone will push the entire franchise to a new level, lessening the pressure for Douglas to be perfect elsewhere.
Douglas and the Jets have willingly made a number of decisions in which they hope the long-term benefits will be twice as good as the present-day woes are bad. It takes patience for these types of moves to be enjoyed, but they are positive in the long run and necessary on the road to building a contender.
Another topic that is currently raging in the Douglas debate is the criticism of his draft classes. Some fans are already writing off his 2020 class as a failure.
My first response to that claim is this: We’re 18 games in. It takes years to discern whether a given draft class was a success – not one season plus two games.
Secondly, the early results for Douglas’s draft classes are positive, pending good health.
Right now, his 2020 class appears on track to at the very least yield two good starters (Mekhi Becton and Bryce Hall), an above-average starter (Bryce Huff), and four role players (Denzel Mims, Ashtyn Davis, La’Mical Perine, Javelin Guidry). Obviously, these designations are subject to change in either positive or negative directions, but that is how things look as of now.
A class that yields three starters and four role players is a smashing success. In general, fans’ expectations for what a draft class should yield are way too high. Hit rates in the draft are incredibly low. If your team can find even just three long-term pieces in a class, that’s awesome.
Look at the year-to-year draft history of any successful franchise in the league. For example, here is a glimpse at the Kansas City Chiefs’ five draft classes leading up to their 2019 championship:
Only seven of those 36 picks turned out to be among the 23 players who started eight-plus games for the Chiefs in their 2019 championship season. That’s 19.4% of all picks and an average of 1.4 starters per draft class. Just 14 of those picks even appeared in at least seven games for Kansas City in 2019, an average of 2.8 contributors per class.
Even if you push it back two more years to 2013 – when the Chiefs acquired key 2019 starters Eric Fisher and Travis Kelce – the numbers are equally low. Kelce, Fisher, and 2014 pick Laurent Duvernay-Tardif were the Chiefs’ only 2019 starters or contributors selected in 2013 or 2014. Over the seven drafts from 2013-19, the Chiefs selected an average of 2.4 contributors and 1.4 starters per class.
Undrafted success stories do not change the expectations much. The Chiefs had four homegrown undrafted contributors in 2019 – none of which were primary starters – pushing up their 2013-19 average number of contributors per class to 3.0 while leaving their average number of starters per class at 1.4.
So, I think people’s expectations for what a good draft class looks like are completely out of whack. If Becton stays healthy and Hall maintains his early success, that is all the 2020 class needs to be successful. Huff, Guidry, and whatever the Jets get out of Mims, Davis, and Perine down the line is all sweet, sweet gravy.
The 2021 class has looked very promising early on. Michael Carter II and Brandin Echols have been quality starting cornerbacks. Alijah Vera-Tucker has flashed star-caliber talent. Elijah Moore immediately established himself as a starter and has created a lot of separation in his first two games even if the production has not been there. Michael Carter became the youngest Jets running back to post over 80 scrimmage yards since 1971.
The “it’s too early” disclaimer applies to positive things, too – let’s see if the aforementioned accomplishments can be maintained over the next 15 games and into the next few years – but a promising start sure beats an ugly one.
Here’s another big key in all of this: the Jets are far from done improving. If Douglas had gone all-in for the 2021 season and had few avenues to make the team better in the future, then, sure, fans would have every right to be frustrated.
This team is still loaded with assets, though.
According to Tankathon, the Jets are projected to have the league’s second-most valuable hoard of selections in the 2022 draft, trailing only Douglas’s former employer, the Philadelphia Eagles. The Jets have two first-round picks, two second-round picks, two fourth-round picks, and two fifth-round picks, all part of a 10-pick collection.
According to Spotrac, the Jets are projected to have the fourth-most cap space in the NFL next March at $69.8 million.
The Jets also have a superstar edge rusher on his way back in Carl Lawson.
Plus, with this being the youngest roster in the NFL (average age of 25.1 years old), the Jets are likely to see more internal improvement on a year-to-year basis than most other teams in the league. Imagine what the 2023 Jets offense could like like with a year-three Zach Wilson, year-three Alijah Vera-Tucker, year-three Elijah Moore, and year-four Mekhi Becton, for example.
In terms of the team’s early 2021 results, we are two games in. Two games!
It is ridiculous to already bury the 2021 team as a “bad” one, especially considering that the first game was lost by one score to a 3-0 team that blew out its other two opponents, the second game was a fantastic all-around team effort that was wasted by a rookie quarterback doing what rookie quarterbacks always do against Bill Belichick, and the Jets are enjoying the progression and promise of numerous Douglas draft picks.
Oh, yeah, and they have a rookie head coach, rookie offensive coordinator, and rookie defensive coordinator, too.
The Jets have a coherent plan for the first time in forever. They have a quarterback, head coach, general manager, coaching staff, and roster that are all on the same page from a timeline perspective. Every level of the organization is in it for the long haul and growing together at the same pace. That’s an enormous positive.
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Gone are the days of Sam Darnold coming in under a fourth-year Todd Bowles on the hot seat, to then be dished a unanimously-despised head coach in year No. 2, only to then have the unaccomplished general manager fired mid-season after already executing the draft.
Gone are the days of Geno Smith trying to develop under fifth and sixth-year Rex Ryan on the hot seat.
Gone are is the decade of Mike Tannenbaum, John Idzik, and Mike Maccagnan giving their quarterbacks zero help on the offensive line via the first two rounds of the draft.
There was a never real plan.
The quarterback, head coach, and general manager were always at a different stage of their timelines with the franchise. The decision-makers never knew whether they were building for the present or the future. Genuine efforts to construct a sustainable infrastructure were never made.
The Jets played Madden franchise mode for years, spending money with no rhyme or reason and never caring about stabilizing the organizational structure and long-term timeline.
It’s over. All of that is over. Finally, it is clear and obvious what the Jets are trying to do.
That plan will take patience to execute, and in the meantime, there will be growing pains. Every Jets fan should have been prepared for this coming into the year. Yes, it hurts that the season had to begin with high-emotion losses to Sam Darnold’s Panthers and the hated Patriots.
But emotions cannot get in the way of the calculated, smart, and well-thought-out plan that Joe Douglas and the Jets are executing.
Will it all work and make the Jets a championship contender? That’s not a guarantee. It never could be.
What is guaranteed is that there is a chance it might work. And that could not be said of previous Jets regimes.
Was there really a chance that the Sam Darnold-Adam Gase pairing would work? Was there really a chance that Ryan Fitzpatrick would build on his massive outlier of a 2015 season? Was there really a chance Geno Smith would lead the Jets to the promised land under a washed-up Rex Ryan and the incompetent John Idzik? Was there really a chance that year-four Mark Sanchez would suddenly figure it out after the majority of the pieces that supplemented his early-career success were gone?
Hope might have been present for Jets fans when they analyzed those questions at first, but the rational answer to all of those questions has always been a resounding no, even while those situations were playing out. None of those infrastructures had a legitimate path to becoming Super Bowl-worthy.
Now, look at the Jets’ current predicament at the moment. Can a team with Robert Saleh, Zach Wilson, a general manager that values premium positions rather than splashy big-name moves, a good infrastructure around the quarterback, numerous homegrown young players, loads of cap space, and loads of draft picks develop into a Super Bowl contender down the line?
Sure they can. That reads like a team that is building the right way and can improve as time goes on.
It is feasible to picture this franchise becoming a sustained winner someday thanks to the long-term flexibility and growth potential they have established through the base that Douglas has built over his first two years.
Only time will tell if Douglas’s draft picks, free-agent signings, and trades will pan out to the level that is necessary to build a winner. The plan only puts you in a position to succeed. Actually capitalizing on the moves is, of course, the cherry on top.
What matters is that Jets fans can rest assured knowing that their team finally has mapped out a viable path to Super Bowl contention.
Reaching the end of that path is just going to take some patience.