Established big play threats linger in the 2022 receivers’ market
New York Jets wide receivers:
- Players under contract: Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, Denzel Mims
- Free agents: Braxton Berrios (UFA), Keelan Cole (UFA), Jamison Crowder (UFA), Jeff Smith (ERFA)
- Reserve/future: Tarik Black, DJ Montgomery, Rodney Adams
The Position on the Position
By the NFL’s increasingly lofty offensive standards, the New York Jets haven’t had a homegrown big-play target in an eternity.
It’s bad enough that the team hasn’t featured a 1,000-yard receiver since Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker each reached four digits in 2015. But the last New York draftee to reach that mark, almost easily attainable by today’s NFL standards, is Jerricho Cotchery back in 2007.
An NFL that has increasingly relied upon big plays and scoreboards that make those of the Arena Football League blush has left the Jets behind. By perhaps no coincidence, they’re trapped in the NFL’s longest active playoff drought at 11 years (and likely counting). The arrival of yet another franchise quarterback in Zach Wilson has only made the Jets’ search for playmaking more desperate.
The emergence of Elijah Moore threatens to end that dubious streak. Moore arrived in the early stages of the last draft’s second round out of Mississippi and earned 538 yards on 43 receptions through 11 games (his NFL debut was marred by injuries that cost him six games, including the final five). Those are pedestrian numbers anywhere else, but it inspires hope to a team that’s desperate for any sort of offensive traction.
Elijah Moore would be on a 62 catch 765 yards 9 total TD pace over a 17 game season pic.twitter.com/ZB8GDRUlbO
— NYJ MIKE (@NyjMike) November 21, 2021
Moore became the sixth Jets rookie to average at least a dozen yards per catch (min. 40 receptions) and the first since Robby Anderson in 2016. He was also the first Jets freshman to reach the end zone five times since Keyshawn Johnson in 1996. It was part of a strong transitional year for Moore, whose Ole Miss responsibilities lingered in the slot before he primarily lined up in wide sets in New York.
Questions linger behind Moore, however.
Corey Davis, signer of a three-year, $37.5 million last offseason, was expected to be Wilson’s top target and was granted a three-year deal to prove he can fulfill the duties of a No. 1 receiver (a role whose heights he never truly reached in Tennessee). He got off to a hot start with Wilson (257 yards and three scores over his first four games) but cooled off and dealt with injuries for a good portion of the season.
With the Jets poised to save nearly $10 million if they cut Davis in 2023, a make-or-break season could linger for the 2017 first-round pick.
Moore’s potential role as a big-play receiver found in the relative rough of the second round was originally expected to be fulfilled by 2020 draftee Denzel Mims. But after injuries ate away at his rookie campaign, Mims struggled to find snaps with the Jets’ new staff and ended the year with only eight receptions on 23 targets. That catch rate of 34.8 percent was third-worst in football (min. 20 targets).
Play: 👉 the Jet X Offseason Simulator
Braxton Berrios has gone from roster afterthought to the focal point of the Jets’ 2022 offseason.
The former Patriot’s prowess in the return game was already well-regarded (his 11.4 average was second amongst 2019’s punt returners before his 30.8 kick return average earned him 2021 All-Pro honors) but Berrios became one of the team’s most consistent playmakers when injuries decimated the receiving corps at the end of the year (263 yards, three scores from scrimmage over his last six games).
This throw by Zach Wilson, where he places it, made this TD possible. No slow down, no hesitation, no wasted movement by Braxton Berrios in the out-cut, and that's the key. 14-7 #Jets pic.twitter.com/Bi9OU0JcHT
— Robby Sabo (@RobbySabo) January 2, 2022
With Davis and Moore set to reassume their primary roles and the Jets poised to seek further help, it stands to reason that Berrios would settle back into a reserve receiver’s role, which would make his reported asking price of the $9 million range a bit excessive.
But with the way he helps the Jets’ offense through both offensive playmaking affairs and setting them up through solid field positions, can a team with a developing quarterback (with whom he likewise developed strong chemistry) afford to see him walk?
— Ari Meirov (@MySportsUpdate) October 3, 2021
The injuries to Davis and Moore led to Keelan Cole becoming the Jets’ most utilized receiver in 2021, as the former Jacksonville Jaguar appeared on 52 percent of offensive snaps. While Cole has some highlight-reel-worthy plays (an erased touchdown against Cincinnati could’ve been the catch of the year), there wasn’t enough production to justify the one-year deal worth a guaranteed $5 million (449 yards on 28 receptions). Cole is undoubtedly a big-play threat, but his return is far from a guarantee.
I feel like Jamison Crowder always has and always will be on the #Jets
So steady and dependable pic.twitter.com/yVZ6tOVuX3
— NYJ MIKE (@NyjMike) November 22, 2021
An increasingly rare leftover of the Adam Gase era, it was almost a small miracle that Jamison Crowder was on the Jets last season after Moore’s drafting. It was a reunion brought about by a sizable pay cut on Crowder’s end, a renegotiation of a three-year deal originally signed in 2019.
In that time, Crowder (who turns 29 in June) has transformed himself into one of the NFL’s more reliable slot targets and is far and away the leader of nearly every major receiving statistical category for the Jets over the last three seasons.
However, it feels like Crowder has served his purpose in New York, leaving him free to search for a more expensive (and potentially longer) deal elsewhere, perhaps to a contender. Last year’s restructure felt like a compromise right from the get-go.
Former @BCFootball WR Jeff Smith was targeted 9 times Thursday night in his season debut.
The speedy Smith hauled in 7 catches for 81 yards, averaging 11.6 yards/rec.
He played 95% of the Jets’ snaps.
*Smith had one grab last year before going on IR.pic.twitter.com/DQY1wklVds
— Andy Backstrom (@andybackstrom) October 5, 2020
A converted quarterback, Smith (113 yards on eight receptions in 2021) has lingered in the Jets’ system for three seasons. As an exclusive rights free agent (which requires a mere qualifying offer to prevent other teams from negotiating with him), it won’t take much effort from the Jets to retain Smith, who has probably earned at least another training camp invite.
Will They Draft?
Receiver should definitely be at or near the top of the Jets’ draft watchlist this spring. Many mock drafts (including the latest from Jets X-Factor, which mentions both Garrett Wilson and Treylon Burks) see the Jets using one of their two first-round picks on a deep, talented class of 2022.
Caution should be exercised as several top prospects (including USC’s Drake London and Alabama’s Jameson Williams) are coming off major injuries, but there’s ample opportunity for the Jets to find a playmaker with their spring surplus. With an equally packed free agent class, the Jets could turn their attention to veterans, but latter-day options could linger in Las Vegas, including John Metchie, Jalen Tolbert, and David Bell.
Veteran Names to Watch
AMARI COOPER CIRCUS CATCH 😮
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 1, 2021
Amari Cooper, Dallas
An opportunity for the Jets to trade for Amari Cooper lingered in 2018, but they passed at the time.
While Cooper wouldn’t have deterred New York from their current course, they can make up for lost time nearly four years later. The first-round pick is the subject of more trade rumors after questions were raised about his usage with the Cowboys after the rise of CeeDee Lamb.
In New York, Cooper would undoubtedly be a part of the Jets’ immediate future, capable of taking some of the pressure off Davis and providing an experienced voice for Moore.
Despite his reduced role with America’s Team, Cooper proved he’s still capable of clutch big plays, which the Jets, as you know by now, have sorely lacked. Speaking of veteran big-play receiver that could appear on the trading block, expect the Jets to also monitor the Calvin Ridley situation in Atlanta.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) September 21, 2021
JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh
It seems like only yesterday that Jets fans were clamoring for the team to reunite JuJu Smith-Schuster with his collegiate teammate Sam Darnold, but he can potentially factor into the team’s plans as a target underneath for Wilson, which would become imperative to gain if Berrios moves on.
Smith-Schuster was limited to only five games last season thanks to injury, but the Jets could welcome him aboard on a short, affordable deal to see if he has any potential left to fulfill.
What catch by Marquez Valdez-Scantling
— IKE Packers Podcast (@IKE_Packers) November 23, 2020
Marquez Valdez-Scantling, Green Bay
The eyes of the nation have turned to what the Green Bay Packers’ offseason will produce, with the headlining factor being the future of top weapons Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams.
Even if Rodgers moves on via free agency or retirement, the Packers will likely do their utmost to retain Adams, which would require a mere franchise tagging. Thus, Mike LaFleur should look into all options his brother’s squad has to offer.
Though Allen Lazard is a restricted free agent, Marquez Valdez-Scantling could prove to be the Jets’ long-sought deep ball threat. Injuries limited him to 11 games last season but he led the league with a 20.9-yard average reception in 2020.
Even if Zach Wilson isn’t destined to be the Jets’ savior under center, the Jets’ lack of big-play potential and ability is unacceptable and unsustainable in the modern NFL. This offseason must see the team replenish its offensive cabinet and prepare for the road ahead.
Moore is undoubtedly positioned to be the team’s highlight maker of the future, but it takes more than one consistent big-play talent to succeed. As general manager Joe Douglas faces a potentially make-or-break third season, making the offense scary (in a good way) will be imperative.
With both the rookie and veteran receiver classes showcasing lasting potency, it’s imperative that the Jets take advantage.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags