The New York Jets will likely be looking in the mid-tier free agent pool
With the Aaron Rodgers-Derek Carr debate still raging, the New York Jets inch closer to other decisions that they’ll soon have to make.
Quarterback is not the team’s only need. They have holes or potential holes at many other positions, including offensive line, safety, wide receiver, defensive tackle, and linebacker. Meanwhile, their cap situation is pretty tight, as they’re currently $264K in the red, per Over the Cap.
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Given this reality, the Jets will likely be looking outside the priciest free agents and towards the middle of the pack or cheaper end to fill some of their remaining needs. They’ll hope to supplement the rest in the draft.
Let’s take a look at some free agents who won’t be quite as costly as the top of the market but could still make sense for Gang Green. Included are some of the team’s own free agents if they are a good mid-tier option.
Note: all projected marked values from Pro Football Focus and Spotrac are listed if available.
- Age: 25.1
- PFF: 3 years, $8 million AAV
- Spotrac: 3 years, $10 million AAV
Michael Nania listed Taylor Rapp as the fourth-best free-agent strong safety for the Jets to target in terms of how his usage compared to Jordan Whitehead, the team’s current SS. Rapp is the ninth-most similar out of 73 qualified safeties.
Obviously, any signing of a strong safety would be contingent upon Whitehead’s release, which would free up $7.2 million of cap space to sign someone else.
This projection is based on the $8 million per year estimate from PFF. $10 million per year would likely be too steep for the Jets, but $8 million per year for a 25-year-old safety is doable, even if it’s a little higher than what Whitehead is currently making.
According to Nania, Rapp may well be one of the most coveted safeties on the market, which could increase his value. His career 6.7% missed tackle rate is excellent, and the highest he’s ever gone is 8.7%. He has more career INTs (9) than TDs allowed (7) and has limited opposing QBs to a rating of 86.1.
It’s not that this would be a cheap signing, per se, but it’s mid-tier compared to the top options like Jessie Bates, Jordan Poyer, and C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
- Age: 29.8
- PFF: 2 years, $5.5 million AAV
- Spotrac: 3 years, $6.8 million AAV
Adrian Amos is the 13th-most similarly used SS to Whitehead in the NFL. He’s highly durable, starting every game over the past five seasons. His 7.8% missed tackle rate in 2022 was below the 11.6% average for safeties.
However, Amos has allowed 12 TDs over the past two seasons. Since the Jets play so much two-high coverage, this might not be the best move for them. If his real market value is $5.5 million per year, though, the Jets could definitely do worse (and did in 2022 with Whitehead).
- Age: 24.9
- PFF: 3 years, $7.75 million AAV
- Spotrac: 5 years, $7.9 million AAV
Julian Love was listed as the 18th-best match to Whitehead’s usage with the Jets at strong safety. His age and leadership (he was a defensive captain) could be intriguing for Robert Saleh. His 5.5% missed tackle rate was half the league average. His 97.0 passer rating allowed wasn’t terrible, though he did give up three touchdowns.
Surehanded tackling from the strong safety position would certainly be a welcome sight for the Jets.
- Age: 31.6
- PFF: 2 years, $6.75 million AAV
- Spotrac: 2 years, $7.6 million AAV
Every 49ers defensive player who hits the free agent market will be linked to the Jets due to the Saleh connection. Jimmie Ward is certainly one who makes the most sense.
Ward is actually not listed in Nania’s article about top free safety or strong safety fits for the Jets. This is mainly because the 49ers used him almost exclusively as a nickel corner in 2022 after having spread him all over the field previously. (Ward was unhappy about this but was given no choice.)
In 2021, Ward played 54.9% of his snaps deep, 21.3% in the box, 20.5% in the slot, 1.3% off the edge, and 0.2% at outside CB. These numbers aren’t a bad match for how the Jets used Whitehead in 2022 (54.6% deep, 32.0% box, 10.8% slot, 1.7% edge, and 1% outside CB).
Ward’s 4.9% career missed tackle rate is minuscule, even though it slipped a bit to 8.5% in 2022, which is still better than average. Ward’s last two years in coverage have been his best, as he allowed passer ratings of 53.5 and 94.0, respectively.
Ward knows Saleh’s scheme and would be a good short-term answer at the safety position.
- Age: 27.5
- PFF: 3 years, $7 million AAV
- Spotrac: 1 year, $4 million AAV
In 2022, Tranquill played with the Chargers and allowed 7.09 yards per target (24th), 0.763 yards per cover snap (14th), 2 TDs, 1 INT, and a 100.8 QB rating (33rd). However, the problem with Tranquill is tackling: he had a 13.8% missed tackle rate, which ranked 51st, while his 7% stop rate ranked 31st.
Tranquill does not have the big-play ability in the run game to offset his missed tackles. However, he might be worth a flier for one year and $4 million, if that’s what it would take to get him.
- Age: 25.5
- PFF: 2 years, $4 million AAV
Another 49ers player appears on this list as a possible linebacker pickup. Azeez Al-Shaair has been in San Francisco since 2019 and knows Saleh’s scheme. He’s also young and does not appear to be too expensive.
Among 82 linebackers with at least 150 cover snaps, Al-Shaair ranked 26th with 7.0 yards per target, 24th with 0.834 yards per cover snap, and 25th with a 95.8 passer rating allowed. He did not allow any TDs or snag any INTs.
Al-Shaair’s total missed tackle rate of 8.9% was below the 11.6% average for linebackers. However, he was at 13.8% in run defense missed tackle rate. He had just a 4.8% stop rate in the run game, which tied for 75th.
Again, this might not be a bad investment in a young player despite his relative deficiencies in the run game.
Leighton Vander Esch
- Age: 26.0
- PFF: 3 years, $6.75 million AAV
Leighton Vander Esch allowed just 6.03 yards per target in 2022, ranking eighth out of 63 linebackers (min. 200 cover snaps). His 0.459 yards per cover snap ranked first. He did not have any TDs or INTs, and his opposing passer rating of 91.8 was 16th.
Vander Esch wasn’t quite as strong in the run game, where his 6.2% stop rate ranked 47th. However, his overall missed tackle rate of 6.5% was excellent, ranking 11th.
After a terrific rookie season in 2018, Vander Esch suffered injury-plagued seasons in 2019-20 and was not the same player from 2019-21. He had a bounce-back year in 2022. Still just 26 years old, he might be worth a shot as a strong off-ball linebacker.
- Age: 27.7
- Spotrac: 2 years, $5.1 million AAV
Kaden Elliss played with the Saints in 2022, allowing 7.31 yards per target (30th), 0.996 yards per cover snap (39th), and a 97.1 passer rating (27th). His overall missed tackle rate of 12.3% was worse than the league average, though, ranking 42nd. In run defense, Elliss ranked 21st with an 8.0% stop rate.
He may well be worth a shot at his age and projected price.
- Age: 26.5
The single biggest reason to re-sign Quincy Williams is his brother’s impending contract extension negotiations. Quinnen likely won’t take it too well if the Jets let his older brother walk.
That being said, Quincy is said to be looking for north of $7 million per year, which is more than the Jets can afford to pay him. It is telling that neither Spotrac nor PFF has a market value listed for him: they do not consider him to be in the conversation for anywhere close to the top of the off-ball linebacker conversation.
The biggest issue with Quincy is his difficulty in coverage. If he were being paid in line with the value of a two-down linebacker, he’d be a good value signing. However, keeping him on the field for all three downs exposes him against running backs and tight ends.
Although his coverage statistics look good, as he ranked in the top half of linebackers in many categories (6.6 yards per target allowed, 5% forced incompletion rate, 3 pass breakups, 98.3 passer rating allowed, 0 TDs), his film is littered with plays on which he allowed wide-open completions.
Additionally, Quincy continues to miss too many tackles, ranking 51st out of 60 qualifiers with a 14.0% miss rate. His 50 defensive stops for a 6.32% stop rate make him a run-game beast, ranking 8th-best in stop rate. However, his boom-or-bust mentality produces way too many busts despite his highlight reel of big hits.
Williams is in a tricky category. The Jets like him and see him as a developmental success. They definitely want him back. The question is if they can find a price that he’ll agree to and whether he’s really the best man for the job.
- Age: 28.5
Since the Jets’ base defense was nickel, Kwon Alexander saw a smaller diet of snaps than the team’s other two linebackers. However, he still saw 252 total coverage snaps, which was enough to qualify as a starting LB (61 total).
Alexander has characteristically been a strong coverage linebacker in the past. In 2022, he allowed a 76.6% completion rate (21st), 7.3 yards per target (29th), 0 TDs, and a 96.2 passer rating against (23rd). Overall, Alexander had a 13.4% missed tackle rate, which ranked 48th; he has always been a less-than-ideal tackler.
In run defense, Alexander had a 4.48% stop rate, which ranked 41st. However, his film indicated many times in which he held his ground and allowed other players to make the stop.
Alexander is likely going to want a lot more than the $1.1 million the Jets paid him in 2022 as well as a bigger role in the defense. I don’t know if the Jets will be willing to give it to him, although I might choose him over Williams if I were the decision-maker.
- Age: 28.8
- PFF: 2 years, $6 million AAV
- Spotrac: 2 years, $7.3 million AAV
According to a recent report, Sheldon Rankins is said to be looking for between $8-10 million on the open market. The Jets may not be able to pay him that, and both PFF and Spotrac don’t seem to believe he’s worth that amount.
However, the Jets also have two holes at backup defensive tackle, and Rankins did have a rock-solid year in 2022 after a disappointing first season in New York. His 8.14% pressure rate ranked 33rd out of 65 interior defensive linemen, and his 8.4% stop rate tied for 17th.
Rankins is important to the Jets because he figured out how to maintain run-game discipline even in a one-gapping system. Solomon Thomas and Nathan Shepherd did the exact opposite, running straight upfield and allowing teams to get behind them. It’s not the easiest to find players who can take this philosophy and still maintain their lane responsibilities.
Unfortunately for the Jets, the other strong free-agent DTs out there are going to be equally or more expensive than Rankins. Names like Javon Hargraves, DaRon Payne, and Dalvin Tomlinson are out of reach for the Jets. Unless they choose to go the draft route for a starter next to Quinnen Williams, they’re likely beholden to Rankins’s asking price.
Ethan Pocic, C
- Age: 27.5
- PFF: 3 years, $7 million AAV
- Spotrac: 4 years, $7.2 million AAV
Connor McGovern‘s listed free-agent price varies widely between PFF and Spotrac. PFF has him at three years and $7.5 million AAV, while Spotrac projects a more lucrative two years at $12.5 million AAV. Since his AAV until now was $9 million, the Spotrac number is likely closer to what he will be seeking. That is not within the Jets’ price range.
Furthermore, McGovern has been a significant liability in pass protection since joining the Jets. He has allowed a 3.9% pressure rate in his three years in New York, including a 3.37% rate in 2022 that ranked 21st out of 33 centers (the league average was 3.19%).
Even more alarming was McGovern’s sack plus hit rate, which ranked 29th at 1.264%. This means that 37.5% of the pressures McGovern allowed resulted in a QB hit or a sack, which was 27th.
That brings us to Ethan Pocic, perhaps the top center on the market. His projected AAV is lower than McGovern’s on both websites. Pocic ranked sixth with just a 2.17% pressure rate allowed in 2022. His 3.49% pressure rate under true pass sets was eighth, and his 0.434% sack plus hit rate was fifth.
The biggest question with Pocic is whether he will be able to replicate his pass-blocking success in a different environment. In his first five seasons in the league with Seattle, Pocic put up an unsightly 5.2% pressure rate allowed. Cleveland’s offensive line ranked 13th in 2022 with an 86.2% pass-blocking efficiency, per PFF, while the Jets’ line ranked 22nd at 84.5%.
Was Pocic’s success a contract-year anomaly, or is this his new normal? It’s a good question to ask before ponying up money for a position that’s considered one of football’s least important.
George Fant, T
- Age: 30.6
- PFF: 2 years, $5.5 million AAV
- Spotrac: 2 years, $3.3 million AAV
With all the talk about the Jets’ need for a veteran tackle, bringing back George Fant makes the most sense for all parties. Fant had a terrible year in 2022, missing spurts of time and playing on one leg, according to Saleh. He finished the season with a whopping 7.3% pressure rate allowed after having been down at 3.0% in 2021.
However, Fant’s upside remains there, and he knows the Jets’ system. Other veteran tackles have just as many durability concerns without as much upside. Top-of-the-line names like Mike McGlinchey, Jawaan Taylor, and Kaleb McGary will command north of $14 million per year, which the Jets cannot afford.
Right now, the team’s best bet is to roll it back with Fant, Mekhi Becton, and Max Mitchell while drafting a rookie tackle at No. 13 overall (assuming they still have it). If Duane Brown does not retire, the Jets can save the same amount of money by designating him as a post-June 1 cut, which would save $9.7 million in 2023, per Over the Cap, with $1.576 million in dead money.
The only caveat here is that the Jets need to know what’s going on with Fant’s knee. It clearly was not healthy the entire 2022 season, and Fant has had injury problems throughout his career. Despite the relatively cheap projected cost, the Jets don’t want to take this kind of risk if his knee will continue to be a problem.
A note about wide receivers: the top of the market is more expensive than Corey Davis. If the Jets were looking to save money by releasing Davis, they’re not going to do so with Jakobi Meyers, Allen Lazard, Odell Beckham Jr., D.J. Chark, or even Mecole Hardman. That’s all first-tier money according to PFF and Spotrac.
Furthermore, it’s important to note what position a receiver plays. Davis is a Z receiver who plays primarily outside. The Jets just shifted Elijah Moore to the slot in 2022 and presumably want to keep him there. Therefore, any replacement for Davis will need to be comfortable in the Z position.
Most of the names listed here are better replacements for Braxton Berrios than Davis.
- Age: 26.1
- Spotrac: 2 years, $3.5 million AAV
If the Jets are looking for a Darius Slayton-type player, they will have presumably released Davis. Slayton is a potential replacement because he played 71% of his snaps out wide, which is close enough to Davis’s 80% mark.
However, is Slayton really a WR2? 2022 was clearly a breakout year for him after he was a preseason trade or release candidate for the Giants last year. Even on a roster completely bereft of receiving talent, Slayton managed just 2.88 receptions (59th out of 68 qualified WRs), 45.3 yards (46th), and 0.125 TDs (T-59th) per game.
Although his 1.79 yards per route run were better at 28th and his 53.3% contested-catch rate was 20th, it’s hard to know how much of Slayton’s success was his and how much was Brian Daboll and Mike Kafka’s. It was apparent that the Giants’ offensive coaching got the absolute most out of an inferior cast.
Furthermore, Slayton’s 13.8% drop rate was dead-last among starting receivers, which would make him borderline unplayable on most teams. If Jets fans were unhappy with Davis, they will not like Slayton at all.
Personally, I would not sign Slayton as a WR2; if anything, at $3.5 million per year, he might be a solid WR4 option to back up Davis. The Jets could make that up by cutting Berrios, which saves them $5 million.
The drops scare me, though.
- Age: 25.5
- Spotrac: 2 years, $3.7 million AAV
I see Olamide Zaccheaus as another Berrios replacement. He had 40 receptions for 533 yards and 3 TDs in 2022. The Jets could do worse from their WR4. Zaccheaus played 60.9% of his snaps from the slot, which was nearly identical to Berrios’s mark. His 2.4% drop rate in 2022 was good, although he was at 8.8% and 9.1% in the prior two seasons.
$3.7 million per year would still be less than the amount the Jets save by cutting Berrios.
- Age: 29.4
- Spotrac: 1 year, $2.4 million
Mack Hollins would be a veteran outside WR for the Jets. He put up 57 catches for 690 yards and four TDs with Derek Carr in 2022. If the Jets do end up bringing in Carr, getting Hollins for his comfort level would be a smart move. Even if not, this is a very low-end deal for a productive receiver from 2022.
The big ouch for Hollins is his drops. He had a 6.6% drop rate in 2022, which was by far the best mark of his career. His career drop rate is 11%, and it’s gone as high as 17.6% in 2021 (albeit on only 28 targets).
The Jets aren’t looking for players with the dropsies.
- Age: 24.8
- Value: 1 year, $4.304 million (second-round tender)
We’ve already discussed Bryce Huff‘s fantastic 2022 season at length. Placing a second-round tender on him feels like a no-brainer. The only question is whether the Jets plan on increasing his role. I don’t know if they’d be interested in paying $4.304 million for a player who gets 14 snaps per game.
What the team does with Huff might be related to their plan for Carl Lawson. If they keep Lawson, even with a pay cut, I think it makes them less likely to retain Huff (though they might place a right-of-first-refusal tender on him). If they let Lawson walk, bringing Huff back is a must.
Even if Lawson is back, I’d prefer to see what Huff can do as a pass rusher with a larger role on the team. He feels like a player whom the Jets would regret letting go for years to come.