Was it Mike LaFleur or the personnel?
Heading into 2022, one of the most exciting aspects of the Jets’ team was the potential of their wide receiver corps. In some ways, they seemed to have an embarrassment of riches, with a budding star in Elijah Moore, a talented veteran in Corey Davis, a rookie with vast potential in Garrett Wilson, and an old reliable in Braxton Berrios.
Exiting the season, though, most of the Jets’ receivers have more question marks than answers attached to their name. Wilson surprisingly stepped in as the clear WR1 almost from Day 1, forcing the coaching staff to feature him in the offense. However, Davis’s 2022 season was plagued with some of the same issues as his 2021 campaign, and Moore did not become the high-end receiver that he was expected to. Meanwhile, Berrios fell off a cliff in all aspects of his game. Denzel Mims, who had fans screaming about his burial on the depth chart, showed that his lack of playing time was absolutely warranted.
So what should the Jets’ plan be at receiver moving forward? Should they retool yet again after spending premier draft capital and free-agent dollars on the position in each of the last three seasons?
Whose fault was it?
When a quarterback struggles along with his receivers, it’s difficult to know who is really to blame. With all of Garrett Wilson’s success, it’s tempting to say that Moore and Davis simply underachieved. However, with the way the Jets utilized the trio within the offense, you wonder if that’s really the case.
Through the first six games of the season, the Jets utilized Elijah Moore on the outside and threw him a steady diet of go routes. We at Jet X repeatedly criticized Mike LaFleur for his asinine usage of his talented receiver. Then the whole drama with Moore’s trade request happened, and most fans wanted him booted out of town. With Moore’s trade value so low, there was almost no chance of that happening.
After a reintegration period and a transition to the slot, Moore had a few decent games against the Bears, Bills, and Lions. However, he simply never became the weapon that the Jets had anticipated prior to the season. Was it on Moore, the QB, LaFleur, or a combination thereof? (Answer: it was a combination, but if the other two had done their parts, Moore’s would be more of a blip on the screen instead of a major issue.)
Even with Corey Davis, you wonder how much of it was simply the QBs throwing him the ball. Yes, his 8.9% drop rate was inexcusable, but his 87.5% first down rate shows how clutch he was. He had numerous opportunities throughout the season on which he was open and was simply missed by the QB. Had he merely been hit on those plays, his stats likely would have been in line with what you would expect from a WR2/WR3, at least on a per-game basis.
Braxton Berrios is the only player whose poor play cannot really be attributed to QB play. He dropped balls that were right in his chest and failed to get open on third down. Coupled with his atrocious punt returning, he is an obvious cut candidate this offseason. The Jets clearly need a new WR4.
But what about the WR2 and WR3 positions?
Outside vs. slot
Many Jets fans have been saying that the team does not have a WR2 behind Garrett Wilson. This is patently untrue. Watch Elijah Moore’s game against the Bills; it tells you that he is perfectly capable of playing second fiddle to Wilson. One of the gripes I had with LaFleur down the stretch was that he did not utilize Wilson and Moore properly to create high-low conflict for a defense.
It will be up to whoever the Jets hire as their offensive coordinator to utilize Moore as a proper No. 2 receiver, even if that’s in the slot. The truth is that Moore performed very well on the outside in 2021, so if the Jets wanted to use him there, they likely could—as long as it doesn’t include constant go routes. But if they want a more traditional outside receiver, they can and should use Moore as their No. 2 target from the slot position a la Amon-Ra St. Brown of the Lions. St. Brown is Detroit’s No. 1 receiver and plays overwhelmingly out of the slot; there is no reason why Moore could not do the same as a WR2.
Yes, Moore’s immaturity and me-first attitude rubbed many the wrong way during the season. However, after seeing the utter meltdown at QB and Mike LaFleur’s obstinance in other areas of the offense, even that becomes a little more understandable.
It would be foolish for the Jets to give up on Moore now, especially since he’s still on a cheap contract. Use him properly and then trade him at the height of his value if you don’t want to extend him.
Cap space vs. improvement
Prior to the 2022 season, Corey Davis was one of the principal players whom I thought would not be back for 2023. His contract was clearly structured in such a way that the Jets could move on after Year 2. His overall stats—13 games played, 32 receptions, 536 yards, two TDs, 1.35 yards per route run—certainly would not do anything to diminish that perception.
However, Davis’s $11.2 million cap hit for 2023 is honestly right in line with an average WR2 salary, and possibly slightly below. Just for reference, here is the average annual value of many wide receiver contracts:
- D.J. Moore: $20.6 million
- Diontae Johnson: $18.4 million
- Kenny Golladay: $18 million
- Robert Woods: $16.3 million
- Hunter Renfrow: $16.2 million
- Allen Robinson: $15.5 million
- Robbie Anderson: $14.8 million
- Curtis Samuel: $11.5 million
- Tim Patrick: $11.3 million
- Nelson Agholor: $11 million
- Marquez Valdes-Scantling: $10 million
- Russell Gage: $10 million
- D.J. Chark: $10 million
While some of those contracts reflect the player’s value from a few years ago rather than now, the numbers for players like Agholor, Samuel, and Robinson indicate that it will be very difficult to find a No. 2/3 receiver for less than Davis’s salary. Furthermore, Davis is one of the strongest run-blocking receivers in the league, an attribute that the Jets value tremendously.
As a counterargument, Davis’s injury history may make him expendable, as the Jets may be spending more effective cap dollars in replacing him due to injury. $11.2 million for somewhere around 11 games per season (which is what Davis has averaged over his two years with the team) would be a higher price per game than signing a receiver who usually plays a full slate at a slightly higher mark.
The question is if there are any free-agent receivers out there who can match or exceed Davis’s production at a similar price. Here is a comparison for some of the free agents out there, with Davis’s stats listed as a baseline.
|68 total qualified WRs||Corey Davis||Mecole Hardman||Allen Lazard||D.J. Chark||Darius Slayton||Jakobi Meyers||JuJu Smith-Schuster|
|Spotrac projected market value||$11.2 million (cap hit)||$11 million||$11 million||N/A||$3.5 million||$12.5 million||$14.6 million|
|Games played||13 (unqualified)||8 (unqualified)||15||11 (unqualified)||16||14||16|
|Catches per game (4.44)||2.46||3.13||4.0 (39)||2.73||2.88 (59)||4.79 (24)||4.88 (T-18)|
|Yards per game (55.3)||41.2||37.1||52.5 (36)||45.6||45.3 (46)||57.4 (26)||58.3 (24)|
|TDs per game (0.314)||0.154||0.500||0.400 (T-21)||0.273||0.125 (T-59)||0.429 (15)||0.188 (48)|
|Yards per route run (1.71)||1.35||1.49||1.61 (37)||1.47||1.79 (28)||1.90 (24)||1.77 (30)|
|Contested catch rate (46.9%)||47.4%||2-for-2, 100%||39.1% (48)||50%||53.3% (20)||56.5% (14)||38.5% (T-48)|
|ADOT (10.8)||14.5||8.3||12.9 (T-13)||15.9||12.4 (21)||10.2 (43)||7.1 (60)|
|Drop rate (5.6%)||8.6%||7.4%||6.3% (T-40)||9.1%||13.8% (68)||1.5% (T-8)||3.7% (17)|
|Catch rate (67.3%)||55.2%||75.8%||61.2% (56)||58.8%||64.1% (T-44)||72.0% (16)||80.4% (3)|
|First down rate (60.6%)||87.5%||56%||75.0% (4)||80%||65.2% (T-19)||56.7% (40)||60.3% (31)|
|YAC per reception (4.1)||3.6||6.6||4.4 (T-29)||4.6||6.3 (5)||3.6 (38)||5.9 (T-7)|
|Targeted QB rating (96.6)||83.7||142.3||85.8 (51)||103.6||96.7 (36)||119.6 (4)||104.2 (27)|
Looking at these numbers, it appears that the only receiver who is a considerable upgrade for around the same price is Jakobi Meyers. The problem is that Meyers played in the slot on 69.5% of his snaps, and if the Jets want to replace Davis, they’ll be looking for an outside receiver.
Many Jets fans want Allen Lazard, but he does not appear to offer much of an upgrade over Davis. The fact that his stats were so lackluster considering the departure of Davante Adams speaks to the fact that he is simply not a good man-to-man receiver. Aaron Rodgers was forced to rely on 32-year-old Randall Cobb to beat man coverage until Christian Watson emerged as a weapon toward the end of the season.
A player like Darius Slayton may look intriguing, but his drop rate does not do him any favors compared to Davis. Most of the other names on the market are either has-beens (Cobb, Marvin Jones, Julius Jones, A.J. Green, Jarvis Landry), overpaid and underachieving retreads (Nelson Agholor, Sammy Watkins), or closer to WR4-caliber options (Olamide Zaccheaus, Equanimeous St. Brown, Greg Dortch, Scotty Miller, Juwan Johnson, Demarcus Robinson, Richie James).
Some fans have brought up the possibility of drafting a receiver in the early rounds. In my opinion, that would be a highly foolish move by Joe Douglas. The team has deeper needs, highlighted by tackle and safety. After having drafted a WR within the first two rounds for three consecutive seasons, it’s time to work on the offensive line once more.
What the Jets can do is draft a receiver in the mid-to-late rounds, preferably a receiver with contested-catch ability and the speed and agility to stretch the field. It is not all that unusual to find a strong receiving option outside the first two rounds, as Terry McLaurin (3rd round), Tyreek Hill (5th, due to character concerns), Amon-Ra St. Brown (4th), Stefon Diggs (5th), Cooper Kupp (3rd), Keenan Allen (3rd), Tyler Lockett (3rd), Chris Godwin (3rd), Jakobi Meyers (undrafted), Allen Lazard (undrafted), Darius Slayton (5th), Gabe Davis (4th), Adam Thielen (undrafted), and Michael Gallup (3rd) were all finds outside the first two rounds.
However, it would be unwise to rely on a mid-round selection to be a starting receiver on the outside. Therefore, it makes more sense to keep Davis around and start grooming his replacement. We will discuss draft options this offseason, but this is likely the ideal route for Joe Douglas to take.
Even though it is a reasonable number for the position, Davis’s $11.2 million cap hit is still a bit steep for the Jets to be able to fulfill all their needs. What they can potentially do is extend Davis or add a void year to his contract next season and shift some of the dead money to 2024.
Although having the dead cap in that season would not be ideal, either, siphoning off $3-4 million is affordable and gives them more space to go out and sign a WR4 in free agency, re-sign some of their own free agents, or acquire players at other positions.
Remember the other weapons
Those who think the Jets’ receiver room is too thin on high-end weapons should remember that WR is not the only position to throw to. Breece Hall is returning; Bam Knight showed some intriguing potential on screen passes and dump-offs; and even Michael Carter is still a target out of the backfield.
More importantly, despite disappointing years from both Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah, the Jets do have talent at the tight end position. Conklin, in particular, was completely misused this season. Although his drops were vexing, a more accurate passer will likely clean up that issue, as Conklin has never had such drop issues in the past. (You have to wonder if Corey Davis will benefit from better accuracy, as well, since his drop issues also commenced upon his arrival in East Rutherford.)
The way the Jets should be utilizing Conklin is in isolated matchups against linebackers. No. 83 is a prolific route runner for a tight end, using a rocker step to beat LBs on a routine basis. Instead, Mike LaFleur often had Conklin as the outlet option on throws, forcing him into YAC situations that do not coincide with his strengths.
I expect Conklin to have a bounce-back year with a better coordinator and quarterback. In my opinion, Conklin should be the No. 3 option in the offense behind Wilson and Moore, which will further take pressure off Corey Davis to be a top target.
Let’s not forget about Jeremy Ruckert, either. Ruckert should be on the field more often due to the blocking skills he flashed against the Dolphins in the season finale. Perhaps 2023 is the year he shows he has improved in the passing game, as well.
The Jets’ best bet is to roll with Wilson, Moore, Davis, and a drafted WR4 with high upside. They can try to trade Mims for a late-round pick, but he’s a more likely cut candidate. Braxton Berrios should definitely be cut. If the Jets want to re-sign Jeff Smith as WR5, they can probably do so at a bargain basement price.
If the team wants to sign a lower-level free agent and draft a late-round WR, that would fill out their receiver room enough to give the new QB strong weapons to target.
I still expect good things from Elijah Moore and Tyler Conklin. The Jets’ job is to find the offensive coordinator and quarterback who can facilitate that.