Pinpointing the New York Jets’ dream free-agent targets
With the 2021 NFL season coming to a close, New York Jets fans are already looking ahead to 2022, as has become a yearly tradition.
New York will miss the playoffs for a league-leading 11th year in a row. However, a bevy of draft picks and an estimated $51 million in cap space have the Gang Green faithful salivating for the future.
Their record may not indicate it, but the Jets’ core of young draft picks is progressing every week, and an injection of new talent may just push them over the top.
While the NFL free agent landscape is sure to change before the new league year officially begins on March 16, it’s valuable to examine all scenarios, including the highly unlikely.
The Jets will not sign every top free agent at their positions of need. General manager Joe Douglas will likely stick to his morals and sign young players with room to grow for below market value. That said, Douglas is the poster boy of “due diligence”, and it’s always fun to dream big.
With all outside variables removed – franchise tags, re-signings, etc. – who are the best free agents for the Jets to target in 2022, in no particular order?
These five names should be on every fan’s wishlist.
Jessie Bates III, Safety, Cincinnati Bengals
Bengals free safety Jessie Bates III should be one of the first players the Jets contact when the legal tampering window begins.
Since being drafted 54th overall out of Wake Forest in 2018, Bates III has been a stalwart of the Cincy secondary. He’s played no fewer than 93% of snaps in a single year and has grabbed ten interceptions over his first four seasons.
Bates III excels most as a “center-field” safety, using his speed, instincts, and range to lock down the deep middle of the field in zone coverage. The Jets’ Seattle-inspired defense uses a predominantly single-high safety structure, with the free-safety constantly used as the last line of defense down the field.
New York’s safety room has been decimated by injuries, leading to a revolving door of players rotating in. Eight different players have started at least one game at safety for the Jets in 2021. Poor play on the back end has been an open wound for the Jets’ struggling defense, but adding a coverage specialist like Bates III would do a lot to stop the bleeding.
Dalton Schultz, Tight End, Dallas Cowboys
Much like the safeties, the Jets’ tight end room has dealt with injuries all season long. Both of the top players on the opening-day depth chart, Tyler Kroft and Ryan Griffin, have missed multiple games.
New York’s offense relies on the tight end group to be a factor in the run game and the main target on play-action boot passes. The inconsistency of the unit has hurt the offense more than many realize, and stability is desperately needed.
Enter Dalton Schultz, Jason Witten’s heir-apparent in Dallas, and the possible answer to the Jets’ tight end woes.
Schultz is currently in his second year as the Cowboys’ starter and is posting career numbers ahead of his impending free agency. His 787 receiving yards are the sixth-best total in the league among tight ends through 16 games, and his six touchdown catches are tied for sixth overall. Both Schultz’s yardage and touchdown outputs are career highs, improving on his 615 yards and four scores in 2020.
While Schultz can be a weapon in the passing game, he truly shines as a run blocker, leading the way for Dallas runners Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard. He’s also been durable, playing above 80% of total snaps in back-to-back years. Considering tight ends aren’t always in the formation, Schultz has barely missed any time.
The Jets want their tight ends to make their money on the ground just as much as they do through the air, and no available player does both better than Schultz.
J.C. Jackson, Cornerback, New England Patriots
The Jets’ young corner group has done more than a respectable job in 2021 and deserves the chance to secure their roles for the future. However, the option to add one of the league’s best ball-hawks, and hurt a division rival in the process, would be too enticing to pass up.
J.C. Jackson currently ranks 12th on the NFL’s active career interceptions list with 25 picks in four seasons, despite only starting the last two years. The only other player drafted during or after 2016 to crack the top-12 is Dolphins cover-man Xavien Howard, one ahead of Jackson with 26 interceptions. Jackson is the only player on the list to be drafted in 2018 or later. All other players were drafted no later than 2013.
Jackson’s pick production is on a historic pace, and the Jets need ball-hawks like Mike Maccagnan needed coffee. New York is currently tied for the third-fewest interceptions of all teams in the NFL with a mere seven through 16 contests.
If by some miracle Jackson escapes the grasp of “Darth Hoodie” in New England, Joe Douglas should be racing to the phone.
Ryan Jensen, Center, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Connor McGovern had an up and down year for Gang Green in 2021. He was on the upswing before suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 15, putting his future into question.
If the Jets want to truly beef up Zach Wilson‘s protection, adding one of the best, and most durable, centers in the NFL will do just that.
Jensen has been the leader of a Tampa line that has been the unsung hero of the team’s recent success. The Tom Brady effect obviously can’t be overstated, but Brady would not be able to thrive the way he has without the Bucs front five keeping him off the turf. Through 16 games in 2021, Jensen has only allowed two sacks and been called for a single holding penalty.
Excellence on the field is only part of Jensen’s allure. His durability is where he really shines. Since becoming Tampa’s starter in 2017, Jensen has played a combined 99.3% of snaps across five years, absurd consistency for an offensive lineman. He hasn’t missed a start since 2016.
McGovern is under contract through 2022, but the Jets would only face a dead cap hit of $1.3 million if they were to cut him this year. New York would in turn save roughly $9 million in cap space, money that could be used to acquire Jensen’s services.
Davante Adams, Wide Receiver, Green Bay Packers
As I said above, it’s always fun to dream big, and there’s no bigger dream than this. Simply put, Davante Adams is the best wideout in today’s NFL, and adding him to be Zach Wilson’s new go-to receiver would put the rest of the league on notice.
While it appears extremely unlikely Adams will shake loose from Green Bay, either by way of a new contract or the franchise tag, if he is available, the Jets have to try and make an aggressive pitch.
Green Bay’s top weapon currently ranks third in the league with 1,498 receiving yards and ranks fourth in touchdown catches with 11. His route-running is the best in the business, and his equal reliability on contested and open targets can’t be ignored.
Adams’ presence would elevate New York’s offense to previously inconceivable heights. Other receivers like Elijah Moore and Corey Davis would naturally face less attention, and runners like Michael Carter would greatly appreciate the light boxes.
If the Jets want to ensure that Wilson makes the “second-year-leap”, there may be no better way to do so than blessing him with his biggest idol’s favorite weapon.