It’s time for the New York Jets to execute Plan B on the wide receiver market
New York Jets fans entered the 2022 offseason with grandiose dreams at the wide receiver position. Joe Douglas was going to put all of his chips in the middle of the table and get Zach Wilson his Stefon Diggs. It was destiny.
The NFL’s legal tampering period has yet to open and those dreams are already dashed. Amari Cooper, Chris Godwin, Davante Adams, Calvin Ridley, and even Mike Williams are all off the board, leaving Jets fans scrambling for answers.
Douglas must turn to Plan B.
Going after a mid-tier wide receiver option to join Elijah Moore and Corey Davis may not have been what fans had in mind entering the offseason, but it is the best path left for Douglas to take. New York cannot punt on the veteran market and bank on a rookie wideout to immediately provide the reliability that Wilson needs in his crucial second season.
The Jets need to round out their starting wide receiver trio with a third proven weapon who they know can help right away. A veteran player is a known commodity whose performance is somewhat predictable. Rookies are a complete crapshoot.
History tells us that rookie wide receivers tend to produce at a very modest level regardless of where they are drafted. You never know if you’re getting an Elijah Moore or a Stephen Hill – and the Jets simply cannot afford to have a Hill-level liability bogging down Wilson this year.
After adding a free agent, the Jets can absolutely still consider selecting a wide receiver in the first or second round of the NFL draft. With Moore on an affordable rookie deal and Davis’ contract becoming escapable after the 2022 season, there is nothing prohibiting the Jets from still drafting a receiver even if they complete their starting lineup with a mid-tier free agent signing.
Having too many weapons is never a bad thing. Plus, the aforementioned path allows the youngster to develop at his own pace.
The bottom line is that the Jets have to come out of free agency with a third starting-quality wide receiver to pair with Moore and Davis. If they fail to do that and choose to rely on a rookie to step in as a starter, they will be taking a huge risk that could damage Wilson’s development.
There are plenty of intriguing options left for New York to consider at the position, including Allen Robinson, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Christian Kirk, Michael Gallup, D.J. Chark, Cedrick Wilson, and my favorite of the bunch, Russell Gage.
I believe that signing Gage and later drafting a wide receiver with a top-40 pick is the Jets’ best path forward at the position.
Let’s dig into Gage’s profile to learn why he makes sense for New York.
Gage just averaged 4.7 receptions per game, 55.0 yards per game, and 0.29 touchdowns per game (66/770/4 in 14 games) in his age-25 season for the Atlanta Falcons. He turned 26 in January.
Looking at some comparable free agents from the 2021 class, it appears Gage should come at an affordable cost for New York:
- Curtis Samuel, entering age-25 season: Coming off 5.1/56.7/0.20 (77/851/3 in 15G), signed 3-year, $34.5M deal with Washington
- Nelson Agholor, entering age-28 season: Coming off 3.0/56.0/0.50 (48/896/8 in 16G), signed 2-year, $22M deal with Las Vegas
- JuJu Smith-Schuster, entering age-25 season: Coming off 6.1/51.9/0.56 (97/831/9 in 16G), signed 1-year, $8M deal with Pittsburgh
- Kendrick Bourne, entering age-26 season: Coming off 3.3/44.5/0.13 (49/667/2 in 15G), signed 3-year, $15M deal with New England
Collectively, those four free agents have about the same profile as Gage, combining for an average line of 4.4/52.3/0.34 (vs. Gage’s 4.7/55.0/0.29) while entering their age-26.0 season on average. The average yearly salary amongst the four players was about $8.9 million.
So, let’s say that a reasonable contract projection for Gage is a three-year, $27 million deal ($9 million per year). That’s very affordable – it would currently rank as the 29th-largest contract among wide receivers in terms of total value and the 30th-largest in terms of average annual value.
Such a deal would likely make Gage a cheaper option than other free agents like Allen Robinson and Christian Kirk, who Spotrac projects to earn annual salaries of $16.3 million and $11.8 million, respectively.
You might be thinking: “Well, sure, that’s because Gage is worse than those players.”
As we are about to find out, that might not actually be the case.
Gage has the potential to go down as the best value signing on the 2022 free-agent market.
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Russell Gage’s excellent overall efficiency
Gage was given an opportunity to take over as Atlanta’s top wide receiver in the wake of Julio Jones’ exit, and he delivered.
In 14 games, Gage caught 66 passes on 94 targets for 770 yards and four touchdowns. Those numbers put him on pace for 80 receptions, 935 yards, and five touchdowns per 17 games. Gage set career-highs in receptions per game, yards per game, and touchdowns per game – marking his third straight season setting new personal bests in all three categories.
While the volume totals that Gage posted are nice, what really stands out is his efficiency.
The Falcons only used Gage on 73% of their offensive snaps in games that he appeared in. It’s definitely a starter’s number, but it’s not quite as high as other starting wideouts in the league who routinely eclipse 80% or even 90%. Corey Davis, for example, had an average snap ratio of 83% for the Jets in 2021 (excluding one game he left early with an injury).
Because of the slightly smaller workload and the three games that he missed due to an ankle injury, Gage’s raw volume numbers didn’t quite reach the ceiling he could have hit. However, on a per-route basis, he was producing at a top-tier level.
Significantly outproducing his number of opportunities, Gage ranked 39th among wide receivers with 770 receiving yards despite placing 64th with 392 routes run. That gives him an average of 1.96 yards per route run, which ranked 17th out of 101 qualified wide receivers.
An average of 1.96 yards per route run is star-quality. For reference, 12 of the 23 wide receivers to reach 1,000 receiving yards in 2021 averaged less than 1.96 yards per route run. They just got a lot more reps than Gage did.
Gage’s 2021 efficiency suggests he has the potential to be a big-time receiver if he can maintain his efficiency over a larger volume. But if the Jets signed him, they don’t even need him to do that. Gage would ideally be their No. 3 receiver, so they would happily settle for Gage producing with the same excellent efficiency in a similarly complementary role.
This is a perfectly-executed hurdle by Russell Gage. pic.twitter.com/2WxKCGt2ht
— Jeff Eisenband (@JeffEisenband) January 9, 2022
Russell Gage’s ability to win man-to-man
Regular Jets X-Factor readers know I have already brought up this ability of Gage’s multiple times before, but we’ll touch on it again in case you missed some of the previous breakdowns that featured Gage.
Gage was outstanding against man coverage in 2021. This is a key need for a Jets wide receiver room that lacks players who can beat man coverage. Other than Elijah Moore, the Jets don’t have another receiver they can trust to consistently create opportunities against man-to-man defense. It’s one of the weaknesses in Corey Davis’ game.
This past season, Gage ran 81 routes against man coverage and racked up 18 catches on 28 targets for 230 yards, three touchdowns, and 11 first downs. He ranked eighth-best out of 68 qualified wide receivers with 2.84 yards per route run against man coverage, landing in some star-studded company:
- Cooper Kupp, 4.30
- Ja’Marr Chase, 3.38
- Antonio Brown, 3.37
- A.J. Brown, 3.31
- Justin Jefferson, 3.30
- D.K. Metcalf, 3.27
- Davante Adams, 2.96
- Russell Gage, 2.84
- Diontae Johnson, 2.64
- Tim Patrick, 2.48
Okay Russell Gage okay pic.twitter.com/oZDaKpeTBl
— Ian Hartitz (@Ihartitz) December 15, 2021
More of Russell Gage’s key stats
Gage may stand at a slight frame of six feet and 184 pounds but he can go up and get the football with the best of ’em.
In 2021, Gage caught 11 of his 19 contested targets, per Pro Football Focus, giving him a 57.9% contested-catch rate that ranked 22nd out of 101 qualified wide receivers.
ARE YOU SERIOUS, RUSSELL GAGE⁉️
📺: CBS pic.twitter.com/5yRrUNIArk
— Atlanta Falcons (@AtlantaFalcons) December 19, 2021
In my “Catches Added” metric – which compares a player’s actual number of contested catches and drops versus their expected total (learn more about it here) – Gage recorded a solid mark of +1.78 this past season, ranking 36th out of 118 qualified wide receivers.
Gage also provides useful versatility. In 2021, he had a very balanced split between his reps in the slot and his reps out wide, taking 44.2% of his reps in the slot and 55.7% out wide. This style of usage was a departure from previous years in which Gage was primarily used in the slot.
It’s no surprise that the increase in wide reps led to a career year for Gage, as he produces better when lined up out wide. He averaged 2.32 yards per route run when lined up out wide in 2021, versus 1.60 yards per route run in the slot.
Concerns with Russell Gage
Gage isn’t incredible in the drops department. He has dropped 7.7% of his career catchable targets, which is a tad higher than the 2021 league average for wide receivers (7.0%). In 2021, he was equal to the positional average with a 7.0% drop rate, botching five passes against 66 receptions.
There were a fairly high number of key miscues involving Gage this year. He had two fumbles (losing both) and was the intended target on five interceptions.
However, those numbers were outliers for Gage as he entered the year with only one career fumble and two interceptions when targeted.
If Gage were perfect, he’d be a superstar and we wouldn’t be discussing him as a fallback option for the Jets. He’s got some holes in his game as all non-star players do. With that being said, the good outweighs the bad for Gage.
Russell Gage’s age, injuries, and other notes
Gage will turn 26 this season, so his prime years are ahead of him.
As I mentioned earlier, Gage has had a positive trajectory throughout his career. His per-game production has improved across the board on a yearly basis:
- 2018: 0.4 receptions for 4.2 yards and 0.00 touchdowns (6/63/0 in 15 games)
- 2019: 3.1 receptions for 27.9 yards and 0.06 touchdowns (49/446/1 in 16 games)
- 2020: 4.5 receptions for 49.1 yards and 0.25 touchdowns (72/786/4 in 16 games)
- 2021: 4.7 receptions for 55.0 yards and 0.29 touchdowns (66/770/4 in 14 games)
Gage has only missed four games in his career. He missed three games from Weeks 3-5 this past season with an ankle injury.
Joe Douglas needs to pivot at wide receiver
While Russell Gage is my personal favorite option for the Jets right now, Gage himself does not have to be the Jets’ next big move at wide receiver. Any of the other solid receivers on the market will do, like Robinson, Smith-Schuster, Gallup, Chark, Kirk, Wilson, or perhaps an outside-the-box trade target that nobody is talking about.
Whoever Douglas decides to go after, it’s clear that he needs to get somebody new in the building to help raise the reliability of a unit that has an enormous impact on the development of the most important person in the organization: Zach Wilson.