Which position on the New York Jets’ roster needs an upgrade the most?
With the Divisional Round of the NFL playoffs upon us, we are inching closer and closer toward what is sure to be a thrilling offseason for the New York Jets.
Let’s rank every position on the roster according to its level of neediness entering the offseason.
- Under contract: Zach Wilson
- Free agents: Joe Flacco, Mike White (RFA)
The Jets need a backup for Zach Wilson, but with Mike White facing restricted free agency, they will likely just slap the original-round tender on White to get this problem solved. That would require White’s new team to send a fifth-round pick (White’s original draft round) to the Jets if he chooses to sign elsewhere.
Need rating: 2/10
- Under contract: Braden Mann
Braden Mann missed seven games with an injury suffered in Week 1 and had a roller-coaster year when active. He had quite a few shanks, but also made enough strong kicks to finish 14th out of 35 punters in net average (41.6 yards). Mann also ranked fifth with a 4.33-second hangtime average.
The Jets could add competition for Mann, but he is likely to enter training camp with a firm grip on his job.
Need rating: 2.5/10
- Under contract: Matt Ammendola
- Free agents: Eddy Pineiro
Matt Ammendola had a rough season before being released and landing on the practice squad. Eddy Pineiro enjoyed a strong finish to the year but will hit the open market. Bringing Pineiro back in to compete should be a no-brainer. The Jets should also explore adding a third competitor.
Need rating: 4/10
9. Running back
- Under contract: Michael Carter, Ty Johnson, Austin Walter, La’Mical Perine
- Free agents: Tevin Coleman
Michael Carter is the Jets’ starting running back of the future. Changes must be made alongside him, though.
New York needs a more reliable passing-game back to complement Carter. Ty Johnson largely handled third-down duties in 2021 and struggled, dropping more passes than any other running back in the NFL (9) while sputtering in pass protection.
The Jets could also use a speedy back with home-run-hitting potential. Carter offers elite elusiveness but does not have special top-end speed.
Need rating: 5/10
- Under contract: Bryce Hall, Brandin Echols, Michael Carter II, Jason Pinnock, Isaiah Dunn, Justin Hardee, Zane Lewis, Rachad Wildgoose
- Free agents: Javelin Guidry (ERFA)
Talent-wise, I would place cornerback higher on this list than some of the positions I ranked above it. I have cornerback this low because of positional value.
Personally, I think cornerbacks are becoming increasingly less valuable in the modern NFL. They are certainly important, but their ability to impact the game has become limited relative to other positions. I don’t think it’s a “premium” position as it is labeled by some.
Think about it: Front-seven defenders go mano-e-mano against blockers on every play. The pure talent of the defender versus the blocker is what decides the result of every single rep. Those are man-versus-man duels.
However, in the back end, so much of what happens is just a product of the chess match between coaches.
Was the right passing concept called to beat the defense’s coverage, or not? The answer to that question dictates far more plays than a defender’s raw coverage talent. A huge chunk of passes that get completed have no chance to be stopped by the cornerback and were successful merely because the right route was called to beat the coverage that was called by the defense.
There are not many man-heavy teams in the NFL anymore. For those teams (like New England and Miami), cornerback talent is important, but for everyone else, so much of what I see on film is simply short passes getting completed underneath uber-soft zone coverage with the cornerback having no chance at all to stop them. Most of a cornerback’s job nowadays is to just not blow coverage assignments and to simply make the tackle after allowing a catch they had no opportunity to prevent.
Conversely, in the trench battles that occur between defensive tackles, edge rushers, and linebackers against offensive blockers, pure talent is what dictates results.
Not to mention, the offense-friendly rules that have developed in recent history have significantly hamstrung the ability of cornerbacks to contest passes in the air. Thus, the pure coverage talent of cornerbacks becomes less important, and the results of plays have become increasingly reliant on simply the throw-and-catch ability of the quarterback and receiver rather than anything the cornerback does.
When it comes to big-play production at cornerback, it’s an extremely opportunistic “skill”. Bad throws are needed for cornerbacks to make interceptions. Their opportunities to make big plays need to be created for them by someone else. They can’t just make them on their own on any given rep.
And you know what creates those opportunities? Pressure. Who creates that pressure? Pass-rushers – who need to actually defeat a blocker one-on-one to create said pressure, which has nothing to do with opportunity and is entirely based on talent and performance. They can make a play on nearly any given rep.
Cornerbacks are also significantly less involved in the run game than any other position. Of course, they do have a big role in a run play every once in a while, but for the majority of run-defense reps, they do not affect what happens at all. Meanwhile, front-seven players are involved in just about every run play.
So, yeah, if you couldn’t tell, I’m a big believer that the front-seven is much more important for a defense than the secondary. Cornerback is undoubtedly important – every position in the game is – I just think that it is more of a beneficiary position whereas the players closer to the line of scrimmage are the ones who have the greatest say in dictating the action.
That’s merely my opinion on it, though. I totally understand that it’s a unique take and I can see the counterarguments to it. And I was just focusing on my critiques of the cornerback position – there are plenty of aspects in which the position is very impactful that I could get into, but for the sake of this article, I wanted to focus on my concerns with the position’s valuation to paint the picture of why I value it less than many others do.
Additionally, I should make it clear that I am focusing more so on valuation from a season-long and multi-season viewpoint than on a single-game level. Within one game, I think defensive backs can absolutely make as much of an impact as the front-seven, but over an entire season and especially over multiple seasons, I feel like front-seven production is more sustainable and less volatile than defensive back production – thus making the front-seven a smarter position group to invest heavily in.
Those are my thoughts on the cornerback position at large, but the cornerback position is also relatively unimportant for this particular New York Jets team.
David Wyatt-Hupton wrote a tremendous article yesterday that dove into why the Jets will likely not draft LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. in the top-five. In it, David points out that both Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas hail from backgrounds in which their teams have almost never spent premium assets on a cornerback while frequently placing premium assets on trench players. Saleh and Douglas have each carried on this trend in their tenures with the Jets.
New York has a group of young cornerbacks that got a whole year to learn Saleh and Jeff Ulbrich’s scheme in 2021. They had their growing pains, and it is far from the most talented group of corners in the NFL, but with a year of experience in the defense, they’ll have the knowledge and comfort to simply execute their roles next year. And as I said earlier, that’s really all you need from a cornerback now. Game-changers are rare. Just get guys who know what they’re supposed to do and don’t make big mistakes.
I’ve written before about how I think fans are overlooking the Jets’ need for talent at cornerback – and I stand by that, as I think Echols and Carter II were somewhat overrated in their rookie years – but when thinking about what the position means in the modern NFL, the Jets can survive if they stood pat at this position.
Considering that Saleh and Douglas’ backgrounds suggest they agree with my philosophies on the importance of the cornerback position, it seems the Jets also feel comfortable with where they are at cornerback.
New York could explore some veteran insurance here, or they could add a later-round rookie, but I would be surprised by a big-time move.
Need rating: 5.5/10
7. Defensive tackle
- Under contract: Quinnen Williams, Sheldon Rankins, Tanzel Smart, Jonathan Marshall
- Free agents: Foley Fatukasi, Nathan Shepherd
The defensive tackle position is an underrated need for New York. Quinnen Williams is great, but that’s about all the Jets have. Sheldon Rankins had a poor 2021 season and could be cut to clear cap space. The only remaining defensive tackles on the roster are Tanzel Smart and Jonathan Marshall (John Franklin-Myers could also play the position).
Foley Fatukasi and Nathan Shepherd are set to hit free agency. Shepherd was a liability for most of his Jets career. Fatukasi was an elite run-stopper from 2019-20 but did not transition well to the 4-3 scheme in 2021, seeing his production dip significantly.
As I’ll get into later on, I think the Jets should move Franklin-Myers back to defensive tackle. That would give them two starters, but even so, they would still need to improve the depth behind those guys. Finding someone who can stop the run at a high level in a 4-3 scheme would be the primary goal when searching for rotational interior pieces.
Need rating: 6/10
6. Offensive line
- Interior linemen under contract: Connor McGovern, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Greg Van Roten, Cameron Clark, Ross Pierschbacher, Dru Samia, Isaiah Williams
- Tackles under contract: Mekhi Becton, George Fant, Chuma Edoga, Parker Ferguson, Grant Hermanns
- Interior linemen free agents: Dan Feeney, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, Alex Lewis
- Tackle free agents: Morgan, Moses, Conor McDermott, Greg Senat (ERFA)
The Jets’ offensive line approach all depends on how they feel about their in-house starters and how aggressive they want to be toward maxing out this unit’s talent.
There are four starters in the building – Mekhi Becton, Alijah Vera-Tucker, Connor McGovern, and George Fant – while they should be able to get Laurent Duvernay-Tardif to return if they can meet his asking price.
That’s a nice starting five right there.
But do they want to settle for “nice”, or do they want to shoot for “elite”?
Plus, do the Jets trust Becton’s health? Do they trust Fant at right tackle? Do they want to upgrade over McGovern? Do they see Duvernay-Tardif as an answer at right guard?
Building a quality offensive line is crucial to support a young quarterback. If the Jets like what they have, they could end up mostly standing pat here. If not, there will be plenty of avenues to improve the unit, both through the free-agent market and the availability of multiple elite prospects near the top of the draft.
Need rating: 7/10
- Under contract: C.J. Mosley, Quincy Williams, Hamsah Nasirildeen, Jamien Sherwood, Blake Cashman, Del’Shawn Phillips
- Free agents: Jarrad Davis, Javin White (ERFA)
I won’t get as preachy as I did in the cornerback section, but I really think the importance of linebacker is overlooked in the football world.
A linebacker’s performance has an impact on the result of a high percentage of plays both against the run and pass. Their gap-filling against the run is integral in most run plays, and against the pass, their middle-of-the-field coverage often plays a key role in determining what happens. They also rush the quarterback fairly often. With all of these responsibilities, it’s rare for a linebacker to have a rep in which he does not affect the play at all (relative to other defensive positions, mainly those in the secondary).
Plus, linebackers play an essential communication role, ensuring players get set correctly. It’s also worth noting that most teams’ two starting linebackers play every snap.
Consider this: Starting linebackers play every snap whereas defensive linemen do not, and although some starting defensive backs do play every snap, linebackers are involved in a greater portion of plays than they are. So, linebackers are involved in more total plays per game than any other defensive position. With that in mind, I don’t understand why some see it as a position of lesser importance.
How the Jets value linebacker this offseason depends on what they think of their young linebackers. C.J. Mosley is starting again. That we know. But do they trust Quincy Williams as his partner in crime? Do they like Hamsah Nasirildeen and Jamien Sherwood as depth?
Personally, I love Williams as a third linebacker who comes in for situations that suit his skill-set, but I think he is too mistake-prone to be a starter. I believe the Jets can do significantly better there.
As for Nasirildeen and Sherwood, they were huge projects to begin with as converted safeties. Relying on them for anything would be foolishly optimistic.
I would attack this position aggressively if I were in charge. Do the Jets agree? That comes down to their evaluation of the talent on the roster as well as their philosophical vision of the linebacker position’s importance.
It’s also worth noting that Saleh and Ulbrich are proven linebacker gurus who have developed multiple non-first-round picks into good starters or stars in the past. They might have the confidence that they can develop low-investment talent at this position, thus removing the need to spend premium assets on it.
If I had to predict, I do not think the Jets will make a huge move here. I think they like Williams and will start him next to Mosley.
But in my personal opinion, that would be the wrong call, and I think this is a spot where a substantial move should be made.
Need rating: 7.5/10
- Under contract: Ashtyn Davis
- Free agents: Marcus Maye, Lamarcus Joyner
In our next two slots, we get to a pair of positions that are the team’s two weakest on paper (they might be the weakest on paper in the entire NFL) but rank below the top-two positions due to positional value.
We start with safety.
When the 2022 league year begins, the Jets’ safety room will comprise of Ashtyn Davis. That’s it. You could also throw in Jason Pinnock, a cornerback who moved to safety near the end of the year.
If that’s not a position in dire need of help, I don’t know what is.
Safety isn’t an essential position in this defense, but we saw throughout 2021 how badly any defense can be hurt by poor safety play.
From the bombs allowed by Lamarcus Joyner’s backup (Sheldrick Redwine) in Carolina to the game-winning Tom Brady touchdown pass allowed by Elijah Riley, the Jets lost multiple one-score games that could have flipped in the other direction with league-average safety play. You could also throw in the Jets’ 7-point loss to the Falcons where Jarrod Wilson gave up three first downs in key spots.
It is up for debate whether the Jets need to spend lavishly on this position (such as signing a big-ticket free agent like Marcus Williams or drafting Kyle Hamilton in the top-10), but the Jets absolutely have to add two starter-quality players.
Need rating: 8/10
3. Tight end
- Under contract: Ryan Griffin, Trevon Wesco, Kenny Yeboah, Brandon Dillon
- Free agents: Tyler Kroft
Mike LaFleur wants to run an offense based around 12 personnel (two tight ends). He can’t do that with this unit.
Ryan Griffin arguably isn’t even an ideal TE2 at this point, let alone the best tight end on his team’s roster by a wide margin.
Once again, like safety, it’s debatable whether the Jets need to spend enormous assets at this position, but they must acquire two players who are considerably better than anything they have.
Need rating: 8.5/10
2. Edge rusher
- Under contract: Carl Lawson, John Franklin-Myers, Bryce Huff, Hamilcar Rashed, Bradlee Anae
- Free agents: Kyle Phillips (RFA), Tim Ward (ERFA)
Talent-wise, this might actually be the best position on the Jets’ roster, but it ranks this high due to the importance of the defensive front-seven that I highlighted earlier.
We’ve spoken about it a million times by now, but the pass-rush is especially important in the scheme the Jets are running.
This is a scheme that simplifies the thinking for its players and lets their talent do the talking. If the team has quality talent, you get the early-2010s Seahawks, the 2017 Jaguars, and the 2019 Niners, as Jet X’s Andrew Golden brilliantly explained in his detailed breakdown of Saleh’s defensive vision.
If you do not have talent, you get the league-worst 2021 Jets defense. It’s that simple in this scheme – and the talent needs to primarily be up front.
Saleh’s Super Bowl-bound 2019 Niners defense had a bunch of Day-3 picks and older veterans in their secondary while a bunch of young first-round picks (and a first-round pick that they traded a premium for in Dee Ford) made up the front seven. That dominant front seven made the secondary look good after it was woeful the year prior.
The Jets have Carl Lawson and John Franklin-Myers on the edge. Lawson is an elite pass rusher if healthy while Franklin-Myers proved in 2021 that he can be a solid (top 20-25 range) edge rusher.
However, for the Jets to build their optimal four-man rush, I think Franklin-Myers needs to move back inside to play defensive tackle alongside Quinnen Williams. It’s on the interior where Franklin-Myers was an elite pass rusher in 2020. He’s far more dangerous in there than on the edge.
That would leave a hole on the edge opposite Lawson.
If it were up to me, that is the mentality I would operate with. Franklin-Myers is going back inside and we need a second starter on the edge.
But, as always, we’ll have to see if the Jets agree or if they view their in-house talent in a different way than I do.
Need rating: 9/10
1. Wide receiver
- Under contract: Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Denzel Mims, D.J. Montgomery, Rodney Adams, Tarik Black, Lawrence Cager
- Free agents: Braxton Berrios, Jamison Crowder, Keelan Cole, Jeff Smith (ERFA)
The Jets need to do everything they can to supplement Zach Wilson’s development. That’s why wide receiver is up here.
Sure, Elijah Moore and Corey Davis is a fine duo, and bringing back Braxton Berrios (which should be a priority, provided his cost is reasonable) would make it a respectable trio.
But “respectable” is not getting the job done.
Buffalo got Stefon Diggs for Josh Allen. Arizona got DeAndre Hopkins for Kyler Murray. Cincinnati got Ja’Marr Chase for Joe Burrow.
Wilson needs his Diggs, Hopkins, or Chase.
Need rating: 9.5/10