It’s time for Joe Douglas to start filling out this roster
The New York Jets got Aaron Rodgers. (Essentially.) Bravo, gentlemen. That in itself is enough to make this offseason a successful one.
But what about the other 21 spots on the field?
It’s been a mostly quiet free agency period for the Jets. The highlights: They traded for SS Chuck Clark, re-signed LB Quincy Williams, signed WR Allen Lazard, signed P Thomas Morstead, and added a couple of backup offensive linemen. Those are solid moves, but many of the team’s most pressing issues in the offensive and defensive starting lineups are yet to be addressed.
If the Jets are going to win a Super Bowl with Rodgers, there is still more work to be done with the rest of the roster.
New York can salvage its sleepy free agency period by signing any of these available free agents. Note: I’m not necessarily saying the Jets should (or even could) sign all of these players. They are just some of my favorite remaining fits for New York at its greatest positions of need.
DT Calais Campbell
The Jets have a mini-crisis going on at the defensive tackle position. While they do have a first-team All-Pro at the helm in Quinnen Williams (who still hasn’t been extended), the rest of this unit is razor-thin.
New York’s second and third defensive tackles on the 2022 depth chart have both found new homes. Sheldon Rankins, who started alongside Williams, is a Texan. Nathan Shepherd, the Jets’ primary backup on the inside, is a Saint.
Solomon Thomas was re-signed, although he was already a liability as the Jets’ fourth defensive tackle, recording only a half-sack and four quarterback hits in 17 games while struggling against the run. Now, he is the second-best defensive tackle on the roster. Tanzel Smart, Marquiss Spencer, and Isaiah Mack are the only other defensive tackles on the team.
I think grizzled veteran Calais Campbell would be an excellent replacement for Rankins in the starting lineup. Campbell was released by Baltimore earlier this month.
Campbell is 36 years old and entering his 16th season, but the man is still a force. In 2022, he recorded 5.5 sacks and 14 quarterback hits while ranking 23rd among interior defensive linemen with 34 total pressures.
Campbell has never won a championship and could be interested in a ring-chasing season alongside Rodgers. He also has a connection to the Jets through linebackers coach Mike Rutenberg, who overlapped with Campbell in Jacksonville for three seasons (2017-19).
C Ben Jones
Connor McGovern remains a free agent and there have not been any indications that the two sides are interested in a reunion, although options are dwindling for both McGovern and the Jets, so we will see what happens.
One great option that does remain for New York is Ben Jones. The 33-year-old spent the last seven seasons with the Titans and was consistently one of the best centers in the league. Jones was still effective in 2022, ranking 14th-best out of 34 qualified centers with an allowed pressure rate of 2.7%.
Jones has extensive familiarity with the Jets’ offensive line coach and run game coordinator, Keith Carter, who was the Titans’ offensive line coach over the past five seasons. However, it’s fair to wonder whether Carter’s presence would be a draw for Jones or if it would scare him away. Titans left tackle Taylor Lewan criticized Carter after he was fired in January, and he specifically mentioned Jones in his comments.
“I just wish [Carter] focused a little bit more on taking care of the older players,” Lewan said. “I think Ben [Jones] got a little more of that towards the end, and then I kind of did this year, but those practices are hard, and they wear on your body, and they wear your tires out really fast. And you can see it towards the end of the season sometimes.”
There are also some health concerns with Jones. He missed five games due to concussions in 2022, coming over two separate stints. Jones was then released after the year due to a failed physical.
Prior to 2022, though, Jones was extremely durable, missing only one game over 10 seasons.
FS C.J. Gardner-Johnson
The Jets have remained frugal in free agency so far. Obviously, they will have Aaron Rodgers’ contract coming in at some point, but Rodgers’ 2023 cap hit is not all that prohibitive. Additionally, the Jets have restructured a bunch of their veteran players’ contracts to open up immediate space, and Allen Lazard’s contract is heavily backloaded (he only has a $3.3M cap hit in 2023).
With all of these points in mind, the Jets are certainly positioned to make a big-ticket addition if they want to.
Why not make a run at C.J. Gardner-Johnson? A splashy investment at the safety position probably would not have been on the average Jets fan’s ideal offseason wishlist at the start of free agency, but at this point, it makes a lot more sense. The Jets still have money to spend, they still have a gaping hole at free safety, and many of the best free agents are off the board at most positions. Gardner-Johnson is one of the few true difference-makers who are still available, regardless of position.
After three seasons as an excellent slot corner in New Orleans, Gardner-Johnson moved to free safety for the Eagles in 2022 and had a fantastic year. Gardner-Johnson tied for the NFL lead with six interceptions despite missing five games. He also ranked ninth-best out of 74 qualified safeties with only 8.6 yards allowed per reception.
If the Jets added Gardner-Johnson to a secondary that already has Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, Michael Carter II, and Chuck Clark, it could be the best defensive backfield in the NFL.
OT Cameron Fleming
The Jets need as much talent as they can get at the offensive tackle position. Each of their top three tackles – Mekhi Becton, Duane Brown, and Max Mitchell – have significant health and durability concerns. And from a production standpoint, Brown and Mitchell aren’t ideal starters for a season in which the Jets want to chase a ring with a 40-year-old quarterback. The Jets should be looking for a new starter who starts opposite a healthy Becton in a perfect world.
Cameron Fleming would not be a shoo-in starter or surefire upgrade like Campbell, Jones, or Gardner-Johnson, but Fleming would be a solid placeholder starter for the Jets at tackle until the draft arrives, when New York ideally selects a starter in the first round. If the Jets draft a starter, Fleming would be an upgrade as the backup swing tackle, and if not, he’s coming off a good year in which he showed the ability to be an above-average starter.
Fleming, 30, mostly served as a backup tackle over the first eight seasons of his career, playing both sides of the line for the Patriots, Cowboys, Giants, and Broncos. From 2014 to 2021, Fleming played in 96 games and started 46 of those.
In 2022, Fleming was the Broncos’ opening-week starting right tackle and finished the season with 15 starts. Due to injuries to other players, Fleming made eight starts at right tackle and five starts at left tackle. He switched positions three times.
Fleming had the best year of his career, performing at an above-average level in pass protection despite switching sides multiple times and playing amidst disastrous circumstances within the Broncos’ offense. He allowed pressure on 4.63% of his pass-blocking snaps (28 pressures on 605 snaps), which ranked 23rd-best out of 66 qualified tackles. The league average for tackles was 5.55%.
It’s worth noting that Fleming earned his pressure rate while blocking for a Denver offense that ranked seventh-highest in average time to throw (2.89 seconds). This means the Broncos’ quarterbacks – specifically Russell Wilson – were generally holding onto the ball too long, which creates more opportunities for the offensive linemen to be blamed for allowing pressure. In spite of this obstacle, Fleming still allowed pressure at a better-than-average rate.
Fleming also has a connection to the Jets in offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett, who was Denver’s head coach last season.
It looks like most of the Jets’ home-run options are off the board at offensive tackle, barring an outside-the-box trade idea they have in the works. With this in mind, signing Fleming and focusing on the draft would be a smart way to pivot.