Pinpointing Joe Douglas’ biggest 2021 offseason mistakes at the bye week
Despite their 1-4 record and unsightly minus-54 point differential (third-worst in the NFL), the New York Jets have enjoyed some positive developments in the early goings of the 2021 season. General manager Joe Douglas has watched quite a few of his young acquisitions develop into potential long-term contributors.
With that being said, Douglas did make a few 2021 offseason mistakes that were questionable at the time and have come back to bite the Jets in their first five games of the year. There are good reasons that the team is performing at the level that it is.
The following details three of Douglas’ most notable 2021 offseason blunders at the moment.
1. Not getting more aggressive for an upgrade at right guard
Five games into the season, Van Roten ranks second among all guards with 21 pressures allowed in pass protection. He is also consistently to blame for unsuccessful run plays.
Bringing back Van Roten on his $3.6 million cap number instead of cutting him to save $3 million in cap space was a perfectly fine decision. In 2020, Van Roten shook off an atrocious four-game start and played at an average-ish type of level throughout the rest of the year. His performance for the majority of 2020 was good enough to warrant sticking around at his cap number as a veteran backup.
But that’s the key word: backup.
Douglas was too willing to run it back with Van Roten at right guard. He did not explore potential upgrades as aggressively as he should have.
In fairness to Douglas, the free-agent guard market was paper-thin. Even so, there was still a decent number of potential upgrades that he could have pursued, such as Chris Reed (signed with Colts for 1 year, $1.1 million), Oday Aboushi (signed with Chargers for 1 year, $1.6 million), and Kevin Zeitler (signed with Ravens for 3 years, $22.5 million). All three players posted much better numbers than Van Roten in 2020 and are doing so again in 2021.
Douglas also could have explored the trade market. Good starters were moved for low prices. Seattle acquired Gabe Jackson from the Raiders for a fifth-round pick in March, and Jackson is having a solid year. Washington reunited with Ereck Flowers by swapping seventh-round picks with the Dolphins in April, and Flowers has been one of the best pass-blocking guards in the league.
Another option was signing one of the many above-average centers on the market and moving incumbent starting center Connor McGovern over to guard, which is where he started his career and seemed to be an intriguing possibility considering his athletic prowess but mental-processing struggles at center.
Douglas did not seem to have any interest in going that route, as there was little-to-no reported interest from the Jets regarding any centers.
There are some good things going on with Douglas’ offensive line rebuilding project, but the right guard spot remains a gaping hole that has sunk Zach Wilson and the entire offense in 2021. The Jets are getting out of it what Douglas put into it.
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2. Failing to adequately support a 12-personnel offense
Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has deployed a bevy of 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR), a personnel package that exchanges a wide receiver for an extra tight end. The Jets have run 12 personnel on 36% of their offensive plays, ranking third in the league behind only Atlanta (37%) and Miami (41%).
Douglas and the Jets did not provide LaFleur with the necessary personnel to run such an offense effectively.
The Jets had one of the worst tight end units in the NFL in 2020, both in terms of blocking and receiving. To get from that to an offense capable of regularly utilizing two tight ends, the Jets ideally needed to make two quality additions at the position, with one of those being a true TE1-caliber type of player.
Douglas signed former Buffalo tight end Tyler Kroft, which was a nice addition. Kroft’s track record as an above-average blocker and decent red-zone threat made him a great fit for the TE2 slot on the depth chart.
And … that’s all they did.
The Jets’ only other move at tight end was the signing of undrafted free agent Kenny Yeboah. They were fully content heading into training camp with a room of Yeboah, Kroft, Ryan Griffin, Chris Herndon, Daniel Brown, and pseudo-fullback Trevon Wesco – knowing full well they would be using two of those guys at once more often than most teams in the league.
Unsurprisingly, the tight end unit has been crushing the offense in its starring role.
Kroft has struggled with the expanded responsibility of being the featured tight end. He is blocking at a career-worst level and producing as a receiver at an even worse level than his usual standards, averaging a career-low 4.6 yards per target (previous career average: 6.8). Kroft has six catches on 10 targets for 46 yards in four games.
Griffin has been the No. 2 tight end and is a consistent liability in both phases, producing 3.3 yards per target (49 yards on 15 targets in 5 games) and blocking poorly.
Wesco has been blocking well in his fullback role but is a complete non-threat as a receiver or rusher and thus has rarely been trusted for snaps as a true in-line tight end.
Entering the year, Herndon was the unit’s highest-upside player, possessing at least somewhat of a chance to develop into a TE1-quality player, but the Jets dealt him and a sixth-round pick to Minnesota for a fourth-round pick after the preseason. That move is looking great as Herndon is a backup for the Vikings and has zero targets in five games. So, it seems likely that Herndon would not have helped if he sticked around.
It is hard to fathom how the Jets could have gone into the offseason knowing they would employ a 12-heavy offense and then be content with merely adding Kroft and doing nothing else.
There were numerous tight ends available in free agency that the Jets could have snagged. These options have the receiving talent to handle a TE1 role better than Kroft can:
- Jonnu Smith (TEN) – Signed with Patriots for 4 years, $50 million, $31.3 million guaranteed
- Hunter Henry (LAC) – Signed with Patriots for 3 years, $37.5 million, $25 million guaranteed
- Kyle Rudolph (MIN) – Signed with Giants for 2 years, $12 million, $4.5 million guaranteed
- Dan Arnold (ARI) – Signed with Panthers for 2 years, $6 million, $4.5 million guaranteed
- Gerald Everett (LAR) – Signed with Seahawks for 1 year, $6 million, $6 million guaranteed
- Jared Cook (NO) – Signed with Chargers for 1 year, $4.5 million, $4.5 million guaranteed
These options are highly-ranked blockers who would have added substantially more in the run game than Griffin:
- Cethan Carter (CIN) – Signed with Dolphins for 3 years, $7.8 million, $2.7 million guaranteed
- Chris Manhertz (CAR) – Signed with Jaguars for 2 years, $6.7 million, $4.3 million guaranteed
- Marcedes Lewis (GB) – Re-signed with Packers for 2 years, $5.9 million, $3.3 million guaranteed
- Demetrius Harris (CHI) – Signed with Cardinals for 1 year, $1.1 million, none guaranteed
Well-regarded blocking tight ends Ryan Izzo and Lee Smith were traded for pennies in March. The Jaguars just acquired high-upside receiving tight end Dan Arnold from the Panthers along with a third-round pick for cornerback C.J. Henderson.
This one is mind-boggling. Moves were there to be made and the Jets stood pat for no apparent reason.
Perhaps Douglas can try and save face with an in-season trade.
3. Not adding a veteran backup quarterback
This one is far more speculative than the previous two, but with Zach Wilson sputtering his way through a rough start to his NFL career, this topic has been thrust into the limelight.
Many of the league’s best young quarterbacks had a veteran around in their rookie seasons. Whether those quarterbacks were there to hold the fort for them, compete with them, or simply provide a veteran voice, we have seen many examples of young quarterbacks benefiting from having someone in the room with vastly more experience than them.
Patrick Mahomes had Alex Smith, Justin Herbert and Baker Mayfield had Tyrod Taylor, Lamar Jackson had Joe Flacco, Dak Prescott had Tony Romo and Mark Sanchez, Russell Wilson had Matt Flynn, Matthew Stafford had Daunte Culpepper – the list goes on and on.
Douglas and the Jets completely ignored the backup quarterback spot, rolling with returnees James Morgan (who was eventually waived and claimed by Carolina) and Mike White. Neither player has ever thrown a regular-season pass.
Wilson was gifted the starting quarterback job from the get-go and has progressed throughout his NFL career without a quarterback around him who possesses more experience, save for intermittent moments with 35-year-old Josh Johnson, who was added late in the summer and has been hanging around on the practice squad.
And Johnson hardly counts as “experienced” – heck, he has the same number of NFL wins as Wilson (1).
One cannot help but wonder if Wilson would have benefited from having a veteran around from the very beginning, whether that be for competition’s sake or merely for the sake of a leadership presence. He did not have a mentor to lean on throughout the offseason and does not have someone to turn to on gamedays who has been through what he is going through.
Let’s face it: Wilson is more qualified to mentor Mike White than vice versa.
Of course, the tale of the veteran backup is not a flawless one. Mark Sanchez had Mark Brunell (although not until his second season) and Sam Darnold had Josh McCown, yet neither of those passers panned out in New York.
Stars like Josh Allen, Kyler Murray, and Deshaun Watson were able to develop without a true veteran in the room throughout their rookie seasons. It is not a proven fact that young passers need a veteran quarterback to succeed.
This criticism is somewhat of a “TBD” for now – if Wilson figures things out at some point, this topic will never be discussed again – but while the kid fights his way through early-career woes, fingers will be pointed in every conceivable direction in an attempt to attribute blame for his struggles.
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