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NY Jets: How Joe Douglas can avoid repeating free agent failures

C.J. Uzomah
C.J. Uzomah

Joe Douglas can flip his free agency resume if he learns from his past mistakes

Joe Douglas owns a 27-56 record as the general manager of the New York Jets.

If you take out a 7-9 season in 2019 where he did not join the team until June and therefore did not run the draft or free agency, Douglas’ record stoops to an abysmal 20-47 in four full seasons. That’s a win percentage of .299.

When your win percentage sounds like the price of a gallon of milk, it’s never a good thing. (Unless you live in Hawaii, where the average cost is $5.98.)

There are a multitude of reasons for Douglas’ pitiful record. If you had to choose one to be the biggest, it’s probably his performance in free agency.

The Jets had a barren roster when Douglas arrived. It lacked players with large contracts that would hinder the team’s cap future. This left him flush with cap space throughout his first few seasons at the helm. In the 2020, 2021, and 2022 offseasons, the Jets had enough cap flexibility to pursue multiple lucrative free agents each year. It was imperative that Douglas used this cap flexibility wisely to rebuild the core of the Jets’ roster.

Douglas did not shy away from using the dollars at his disposal. Per Spotrac, here is where the Jets ranked in free-agent spending across Douglas’ first three seasons – this only includes free agents signed, not contract extensions or draft picks.

  • 2020: $93.4M total value (8th), $51.8M guaranteed (5th)
  • 2021: $134.8M total value (6th), $85.7M guaranteed (2nd)
  • 2022: $174.6M total value (2nd), $84.9M guaranteed (3rd)

Cumulatively, Douglas doled out $222.4 million in guaranteed money across those three offseasons, ranking third in the NFL over that span behind only the Jacksonville Jaguars and Miami Dolphins.

Despite having the luxury to begin his tenure with three consecutive shopping sprees in free agency, Douglas’ free-agent hauls have done little to improve the Jets’ long-term roster health. As we sit here in January 2024, Tyler Conklin and D.J. Reed are Douglas’ only higher-end signings who remain on the roster, have provided multiple years of positive impact, and are poised to do so for at least one more season.

It’s a massive failure on Douglas’ part to only produce two long-term core players out of four free agency periods, especially with the Jets spending so much money over the first three of those seasons. While Douglas deserves credit for nailing some under-the-radar pickups in his tenure, such as Quincy Williams and John Franklin-Myers, his alarmingly low hit rate with the higher-end signings has been a crusher.

Not many general managers would make it this far with such a track record. Douglas has a unique opportunity to learn from four years of mistakes and turn things around.

Let’s review some of Douglas’ biggest whiffs in free agency and deduce the lessons that Douglas can take away from each of them. To exemplify how he can put those lessons into action in 2024, we’ll also pinpoint some of the 2024 free agents who carry similar red flags to the ones that accompanied Douglas’ failed free agents.

Laken Tomlinson

  • 2022
  • 3 years, $40 million ($23.9 million guaranteed)

Some of Douglas’ failed signings had a reasonable thought process behind them, and this is one of them. Laken Tomlinson was a sensible signing for many reasons.

The Jets needed a guard to start opposite Alijah Vera-Tucker, and Tomlinson was coming off a Pro Bowl season at left guard in San Francisco. While the Pro Bowl tag may have overrated his actual production by a decent amount, it was still fair to say he was somewhere around a top-10 left guard.

On top of the production, Tomlinson offered two traits that are enticing in any free agent: tremendous durability (he had never missed a game due to injury and still hasn’t) and a familiarity with the Jets’ scheme, as he had played under offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur and offensive line coach John Benton in San Francisco.

This signing had a lot of green flags. The biggest issue was that the contract itself was a bit rich for Tomlinson’s actual talent level, as the contract’s average annual value of $13.3 million still ranks as the fifth-highest among left guards today, per Over The Cap.

Even at the time, Tomlinson was not a top-five left guard. In 2021, his 4% allowed pressure rate ranked 15th-best among 33 qualified left guards. His 75.2 run-blocking grade at PFF ranked seventh-best, although that number should have been viewed with suspicion considering Tomlinson’s environment (more on that later).

When the Jets signed Tomlinson to this contract, their thought process was that they were paying for the certainty he offered. Sure, maybe he wasn’t quite as good as his contract suggested, but considering his durability, scheme familiarity, and track record of above-average production, the Jets felt he had a high chance of providing consistently solid production for them, making him worth the price. In a league where most free agents carry an abundance of red flags, Tomlinson felt like a safe bet.

If Tomlinson played up to his San Francisco level with the Jets, the signing would have been worth it. New York would have successfully filled one of its five offensive line spots with a reliable 17-game starter who plays at an above-average level. That would be worth the cost even if Tomlinson’s performance level was a few spots below his pay grade.

Instead, Tomlinson was a bottom-tier guard in each of his two seasons with the Jets, making the signing a complete flop. Somehow, Tomlinson bombed despite the various reasons to believe he was a safe signing. What could the Jets have missed?

From an on-field perspective, the biggest concern with Tomlinson at the time of his signing was whether he benefited from his surroundings in San Francisco. Tomlinson not only played in a well-coached scheme that was friendly to offensive linemen (thanks to heavy usage of play-action, rollouts, and bootlegs), but he also got to play beside a future Hall-of-Fame left tackle in Trent Williams.

It was certainly a cushy environment for Tomlinson. Adding to this concern was the fact that Tomlinson was a bust of a first-round pick in Detroit, causing him to be traded to San Francisco after two years. Even in his first three seasons with the 49ers, Tomlinson’s production was mediocre at best. It wasn’t until San Francisco added Williams in 2020 that Tomlinson’s production took off.

After posting an average overall Pro Football Focus grade of 65.2 over his first five seasons, Tomlinson posted a career-best 78.8 in 2020 and followed it up with 75.9 in 2021.

Tomlinson played four games without Williams from 2020-21 and posted mixed results. He was subpar in both of his games without him in 2020 (grades of 49.6 and 59.2) but seemed to play well in both of his games without him in 2021 (grades of 74.8 and 78.1). PFF generally considers a 60.0 grade to be about average.

Still, despite the recency bias toward Tomlinson’s success without Williams in 2021, the 2020 games should have been included in the sample. Perhaps it should’ve been concerning that Tomlinson was subpar in two of his four games without Williams (50%), whereas when Williams played, Tomlinson had a grade above 60.0 in 23 of 29 games (79%).

Lo and behold, the non-Williams games predicted Tomlinson’s Jets performance. He’s posted a grade above 60.0 in exactly 50% of his games as a Jet (17 of 34).

Ultimately, the Tomlinson signing was a reasonable one that made sense at the time. It would have been hard for the Jets to foresee Tomlinson’s downfall coming. But if there’s a lesson to take away from this one, it’s the importance of being vigilant in determining whether a free agent’s production is legitimate. Did he earn his numbers, or did he benefit from surrounding factors? Can we trust him to do the same thing in our environment?

Tomlinson’s scheme familiarity made it easy to believe his production was transferable, but in the end, it appears the Trent Williams effect truly was the real reason for Tomlinson’s ascension.

Who to be wary of?

I would be slightly cautious of players coming from Baltimore. The Ravens have a long-established successful system in place that seems to make every offensive lineman look good. With an all-time-great rushing threat at quarterback and an elite coaching staff, the Ravens scoop up random offensive linemen every year and make it work. This leads me to be wary of free agent guards Kevin Zeitler and John Simpson.

Simpson, 26, is a former fourth-round pick who never found his footing in three years with the Raiders before breaking out with the Ravens this year. Zeitler, 33, is a former first-round pick who was a longtime stud for the Bengals and Browns. Zeitler looked like he was starting to decline in his age-30 season with the Giants in 2020, posting some career-worst numbers. Then, he came to Baltimore in 2021 and has rejuvenated his production ever since.

Miami offensive linemen also warrant caution. Mike McDaniel has built a brilliant system in Miami that (outside of cold-weather games) makes its linemen look extremely good. With heavy usage of play-action and quick passes, their jobs in pass protection are easy. In the run game, McDaniel often schemes running lanes open via pre-snap motion, making the offensive line look good when they didn’t actually have to do much.

Robert Hunt, Connor Williams, Robert Jones, and Isaiah Wynn are all set to hit free agency with respectable numbers under their belt after a year in Miami’s luxurious system.

Carl Lawson

  • 2021
  • 3 years, $45 million ($30 million guaranteed)

Carl Lawson joins Laken Tomlinson as another huge signing that flopped but seemed reasonable at the time.

Lawson was the perfect signing for New York’s defense. The Jets had little-to-no proven talent on the edge. With Robert Saleh bringing in his wide-nine scheme from San Francisco, they needed explosive pass rushers who could win one-on-one off the edge and anchor a successful four-man rush without the help of the blitz.

Enter Lawson. He checked every box. Lawson was one of the league’s most consistent pass rushers in 2020, offered tremendous explosiveness off the line, and was experienced with rushing from a four-point stance as a 4-3 defensive end.

Lawson was known as a mediocre run defender, but that didn’t matter to the Jets. They needed pass rushing, and Lawson brought it in spades. Lawson was second behind only T.J. Watt with 32 quarterback hits in 2020, and he ranked fourth among edge rushers with 64 total pressures. While Lawson struggled to convert pressures to sacks, he was elite when it came to winning his reps, and that’s the type of player the Jets needed to spark their pass rush and make life easier for everyone on the defensive line.

The only major concern with Lawson was his durability – and that’s what ended up sinking his Jets career.

Lawson had an extended injury history when he signed with the Jets. He tore his ACL in his sophomore year at Auburn and then tore his ACL again four years later in his second year with the Bengals. Lawson also missed four games in 2019 as he battled a hamstring injury throughout the year. While Lawson played all 16 games in 2020, he remained an injury risk.

Only five months after signing with the Jets, Lawson tore his Achilles and missed his entire first season with the Jets. Lawson returned to play all 17 games in 2022 but didn’t look like the same player. He restructured his contract in 2023 and had his season limited to six games due to more injury issues.

Lawson made too much sense for the Jets to not target him just because of his injury history. He was worth the risk. Still, his fate with the Jets shows that a player’s prior injury history is a warning that must be heeded. Just know what you’re getting into when you sign this type of player.

Who to be wary of?

The Jets will be on the prowl for offensive tackles this offseason. Unfortunately, two of the most talented ones available in free agency have major injury issues: Trent Brown and Tyron Smith. Brown has missed at least five games in four of the past five seasons. Smith has missed at least three games in eight consecutive seasons, including at least six in three of the past four.

David Bakhtiari will be heavily linked to the Jets, but he has played 13 games over the past three seasons combined. Bakhtiari has not played more than 12 games in a season since 2019.

C.J. Uzomah

  • 2022
  • 3 years, $24 million ($15 million guaranteed)

Unlike Lawson and Tomlinson, this signing was difficult to justify from the moment it was announced. The Jets wildly overpaid for C.J. Uzomah. His contract could have been used on a far more deserving player.

Uzomah’s value was at its all-time peak after a 2021 season that saw the Bengals reach the Super Bowl. Uzomah posted career-highs in catches (49), receiving yards (493), and touchdowns (5) while establishing himself as a vocal leader in the Bengals’ locker room.

Even these career-best numbers didn’t quite warrant Uzomah’s deal. His $8 million average annual value ranked 16th among tight ends entering 2022. While his standard stats put him in that ballpark – in 2021 he was 18th among tight ends in receptions, 20th in yards, and ninth in touchdowns – his underlying metrics were generally not as good.

Among 44 qualified tight ends in 2021 (min. 30 targets), Uzomah ranked 35th in yards per route run (1.05), 27th in drop rate (7.5%), and 23rd in yards per reception (10.3). In fairness, he ranked eighth in catch rate over expected (4.1%) and fifth in YAC over expectation (+89), so it was a mixed bag overall when looking into the advanced metrics.

However, the main issue was that this season represented a massive outlier for Uzomah, who was already 29 years old going into 2022. Over his first six seasons prior to 2021, he had career averages of 1.8 receptions for 17.4 yards per game with eight touchdowns in 63 games. His drop rate was 9.5%, even worse than his already subpar 7.5% in 2021.

This brings us back to the lesson we learned from Tomlinson. Did Uzomah really improve in 2021 at 28 years old? Or did he just benefit from changes around him?

Considering 2021 was Joe Burrow’s breakout season and the debut season of Ja’Marr Chase, it was easy to tell that the latter was true. Burrow and Chase elevated everyone in Cincinnati during that magical season. Uzomah was just along for the ride. There wasn’t much about him that stood out when you watched him.

You could see this on Uzomah’s film. While his YAC skills and physical traits sometimes stood out, Uzomah did not display reliable hands or route-running. Much of his production in 2021 came on easy dump-offs where he was uncovered.

Backing this up, 32 of Uzomah’s 49 receptions (65%) in 2021 came on flat or hitch routes, per Next Gen Stats. He had 16 receptions on each of those route types, giving him the second-most flat receptions and the eighth-most hitch receptions. Uzomah was mainly benefiting from the underneath space that was left open due to teams backing off in respect of Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, and Tee Higgins. His stats – mediocre enough as they were – largely were not self-created.

We haven’t even touched on Uzomah’s blocking yet, a crucial piece of the pie for any tight end.

Uzomah’s blocking was fine in Cincinnati, but he never had a reputation as someone who is much of a game-changer in that area. It’s not as if Uzomah’s contract was justified by tremendous blocking. In 2021, he earned a run-blocking grade of 60.9 at Pro Football Focus, ranking 28th among the 56 tight ends who played at least 200 run-blocking snaps. Perfectly “meh”.

Just like his pass-catching, Uzomah’s mediocre blocking still represented a major outlier compared to his past production. In 2019, his previous full season (he played two games in 2020), Uzomah ranked 44th of 48 qualifiers with a 47.4 run-blocking grade.

Perhaps Uzomah’s stats were painting the wrong picture. Maybe the Jets’ review of his film showed a far more impressive player than the stats, thus justifying the signing.

Well, you cannot even make that claim, as all of the points we’ve made so far via the statistics are in alignment with what the film showed about Uzomah. In his film review of Uzomah’s 2021 season, Jets X-Factor’s Joe Blewett mentioned all of these weaknesses:

  • Could show more aggressiveness in the run game
  • Needs more consistent punch as a run blocker
  • Needs to attack the ball more often
  • Can get splashed as a run blocker
  • Ducks head into blocks
  • Inconsistent route runner
  • Contested catching
  • Easy drops show up
  • Can telegraph breaks
  • Inconsistent catch technique
  • Leans out of breaks
  • Could avoid contact in routes more often

To sum it all up, Uzomah was a 29-year-old tight end who offered “meh” receiving and “meh” blocking in an outlier breakout season that looked nothing like his previous track record. How did the Jets possibly think this player was worth $8 million per season?

There’s only one answer I can think of (besides the Jets simply making a gross missevaluation, which is also possible): They fell for the off-field stuff.

Uzomah was a beloved veteran leader in Cincinnati who started to receive national attention during the 2021 playoffs for his passionate leadership and speeches. The Jets were desperate for these types of players in their locker room after winning six games in the previous two seasons.

When the Jets signed Uzomah, the off-field stuff was constantly peddled as one of the main reasons why. It seems very possible that New York overvalued him for some of those traits.

In New York, Uzomah has unsurprisingly reverted to the same low-end tight end he was prior to 2021. He averaged 1.1 receptions for 10.7 yards in two seasons, not far off from the 1.8 receptions for 17.4 yards he averaged for six years before the Burrow-Chase season. Uzomah’s blocking has also been brutal, just as it was rated in his most recent full season pre-Burrow.

The most surprising thing about the Uzomah signing is that he received a better contract than Tyler Conklin, whom the Jets signed for three years and $20.25 million ($6.75M per year) soon after.

Conklin is two years younger than Uzomah, had more receptions (61) and yards (593) in 2021 than Uzomah ever had in any of his seven seasons, and showed significantly better route-running skills and hands on film. Conklin was also more durable, missing one game in his career due to injury versus Uzomah’s 23.

The disparity in these players’ contracts leads me to believe it is very likely the Jets bought into the recency bias, name recognition, and off-field hype surrounding Uzomah to pay him as much as they did. If that’s not the case, then they just completely whiffed in their evaluation.

There are plenty of lessons Douglas can take from the Uzomah blunder. Number one, don’t overvalue the off-field stuff. It’s a nice bonus trait, but that’s not something you pay for.

Number two, don’t overreact to outlier breakout seasons, especially by players who are in their late twenties. This one could arguably apply to Tomlinson as well, although Tomlinson at least had two strong seasons in San Francisco before becoming a free agent. Uzomah only had one “good” season before becoming a free agent, preceded by six years of production that did not come anywhere close to warranting $8 million per year.

And third, just like Tomlinson, Uzomah serves as another example of a player whose improved production came as a result of something besides their own performance. Tomlinson was propped up by Williams while Uzomah was propped up by Burrow and Chase. In the case of both players, their futures were predicted not by how they did in one or two seasons with the perfect teammates, but how they did in the much larger sample of seasons before that.

Who to be wary of?

In the free agent offensive line market, Rams guard Kevin Dotson is someone who matches a few of these red flags. Dotson had three mediocre seasons in Pittsburgh before being traded to the Rams this year and putting up superstar numbers in his age-27 season. He had the best run-blocking grade at PFF among guards and also thrived as a pass protector.

Playing in Sean McVay’s scheme (similar to the OL-friendly ones we discussed with SF and MIA) and with Matt Stafford at quarterback, it was a far better environment for Dotson than Pittsburgh’s nightmarish offense. Prospective teams must try to figure out whether Dotson truly improved or if he just benefited from the new surroundings.

I’d be slightly cautious with Dotson, but let’s be clear: he is not all the way down at Uzomah’s level. Dotson is playing like a star in his breakout season while Uzomah was just okay. In addition, Dotson broke out in year four while Uzomah’s emergence came in year seven. Dotson is a far safer target. Still, remember to be wary of players who do not break out until their surroundings vastly improve.

Raiders tackle Jermaine Eluemunor is a free agent who might fall closer to Uzomah’s level. Eluemunor, 29, is headed to free agency after a productive season with the Raiders in year seven. Starting primarily at right tackle, Eluemunor rated above the 70th percentile among qualified tackles in both net pressure rate and PFF’s run-blocking grade.

However, Eluemunor spent the majority of his first six seasons as a backup, and he failed to stick around in both Baltimore and New England despite the success those teams typically have with offensive linemen. The league made it clear how they viewed him when he was a free agent last year and only landed a one-year, $3 million deal.

Additionally, it’s somewhat concerning that Eluemunor is coming from a situation in Las Vegas where the Raiders had multiple offensive linemen enjoying surprise breakouts.

Under offensive line coach Carmen Bricillo (recently hired by the Giants for the same role), the 2023 Raiders facilitated strong seasons from three low-expectation players: Eluemunor, Greg Van Roten (a 33-year-old on a one-year deal), and Andre James (a fifth-year UDFA). When you have a lot of players from one unit breaking out at once, it should raise an eyebrow. This screams “scheme beneficiary”.

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Jets71
Jets71
5 months ago

I think we are getting to specific with the “high end-low end” stuff. I don’t think we can just choose his FA record by the guys we like to hammer him on. Yes, Laken, Uzomah, Lawson…and you can even include Lazard…are bad misses but to dismiss, guys because of contracts seems like flawed thinking as it relates to evaluating free agents.

Contracts aside…meaning, player evaluation I think Joe has been better than average. You mentioned a few guys but DJ, JFM, Huff, Conklin, Quincy, Q. Jefferson, Z, Morestead, and guys like Thomas, or McGovern last season (for cheap since we are talking money…he got a staring C for a song)….are all major contributors.

I don’t think they struggle with player evaluation as a whole, yes with some guys it’s been poor but I don’t think that indicates the need for a complete overhaul of how they are evaluating free agents.

If they hit on Laken, Uzomah, and Lawson but missed on DJ, Conklin, JFM…. would it be different?

Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
5 months ago
Reply to  Jets71

Yeah, but Nania only mentioned the worst examples. Jarrad Davis, Jordan Whitehead, Dalvin Cook, Mecole Hardmon, Greg Van Roten, Alex Lewis, plus the ones he let get away like Morgan Moses and George Fant (who belongs in the plus column as a signing). He’s really had one standout draft class when he had 4 picks in the top 38.

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