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NY Jets could net a huge reward by avoiding star WRs

Joe Douglas
Joe Douglas

What if the New York Jets’ best offseason plan does not include a star wide receiver?

Pursuing a big-name wideout is all the rage in New York Jets land right now. “LeSauce” Gardner is leading the charge with his recent recruiting efforts on social media, specifically targeting Mike Evans and Calvin Ridley.

Adding a player like Evans or Ridley would undoubtedly be a massive boon for the Jets’ offense. The same applies to potential trade-market options such as Tee Higgins, Davante Adams, or Brandon Aiyuk, although as LeSauce mentions, these players likely will not be attainable. Nonetheless, the point stands: The Jets would become a much better football team by adding any of the aforementioned players.

But what if the Jets don’t land one of these players? Would the offseason be a failure?

Depending on how the Jets rebound, I don’t think it would necessarily be a failure if they do not come away with a household-name receiver. To go even further, it might be a good thing. I believe there is a chance that their best-case offseason plan does not involve adding one of these players.

As enticing as it may be to pair Garrett Wilson with another star, avoiding a star receiver would allow the Jets to craft a much more economical offseason plan – one that allows them to do a better job of strengthening the entire roster. This is arguably a wiser approach for a Jets team that has numerous holes to address on offense after posting the worst offensive DVOA in franchise history (-29.3%) across the 43 seasons that DVOA has been tracked (1981-2023).

Wide receiver is not the only hole on the Jets’ roster. It’s not even the biggest. The offensive line is clearly a more significant problem.

This is not to overlook the severity of the wide receiver problem – the Jets do not have a single league-average WR outside of Garrett Wilson – but the unit responsible for maintaining the physical well-being of the franchise’s savior is undoubtedly more vital to the team’s success.

That brings me to the primary appeal of avoiding a star wide receiver: Opening more cap space that can be allocated to the offensive line.

By limiting their budget at wide receiver, the Jets would gain the financial freedom to aggressively pursue multiple high-end offensive linemen. Instead of just plugging holes with competent bodies, they could make a full-court press to solidify the unit that has crushed them for years.

To demonstrate the potential benefit of bypassing the star wide receiver market, let’s analyze the Jets’ cap situation and map out the hypothetical ways they can distribute their cap space. Keep in mind that we’re going to do all of this in a very basic way just to keep it digestible and easy to follow.

How the Jets’ offseason could look without a star WR

The Jets currently have $20.5 million in cap space, per Spotrac. This number recently experienced a sizable increase due to the unexpectedly large spike in the NFL’s salary cap.

From there, we can make a few moves to maximize the Jets’ spending power. We’ll keep it fairly simple for the sake of this exercise. Here are the space-clearing moves we’re going with:

  • Post-June 1 cut: Laken Tomlinson (+$13M), C.J. Uzomah (+$8M)
  • Trade: Zach Wilson (+$5.5M)
  • Restructure (Based on Rivka Boord’s breakdown): D.J. Reed (+$7.5M), Tyler Conklin (+$3.7M)

This puts us at $58.2 million in cap space. The Jets have the flexibility to clear more space than that, but for now, this is a fair number to work with. I want to keep it realistic. Teams rarely come close to utilizing the maximum space that can be cleared when exhausting all cut and restructure options.

To start, let’s envision how the Jets could work with this space if they did nab a blockbuster receiver. Mike Evans, for instance. He is the best possible target among players who would not require a trade.

Jets’ offseason plan with Mike Evans

Evans has an estimated market value of $23.8 million per year at Spotrac, and his actual value may go even higher. Some reports have suggested he could be seeking a number in the range of $25-30 million per year.

Let’s put Evans at $25 million per year. This would tie him with A.J. Brown for the fourth-largest annual salary among wide receivers.

Evans’ contract could be backloaded to lighten the first-year cap hit. We’ll say he carries a $23 million cap hit in 2024.

With Evans alone, the Jets have already lost 40% of the $58.2 million they started with. They are now left with $35.2 million to find two new starting offensive linemen, multiple backup offensive linemen, a quality backup quarterback, and a few miscellaneous holes at other positions. That’s on top of re-signing their own players and leaving enough cap space to sign their draft picks.

According to Over The Cap, the Jets must leave $4.6 million open to sign their rookie class based on the positioning of the picks they currently own. This knocks us down to $30.6 million.

Before getting into the other holes that must be filled after signing Evans, let’s account for the cap hit that would come from re-signing their own players. Here are the re-signings we’ll go with:

  • Quinton Jefferson: $4M
  • Greg Zuerlein: $3M
  • Solomon Thomas: $2M
  • Thomas Morstead: $1.5M
  • Ashtyn Davis: $1.5M

That’s another $12 million off the board. We’re down to $18.6 million to sign other non-Mike Evans free agents.

This is a really tight budget for the number of holes the Jets have to address. They would likely have to severely backload their contracts to make everything fit under the 2024 cap, digging themselves into an even deeper hole in the future.

New York could likely sign a couple of mid-level starting offensive linemen for around $5 million apiece. Let’s say they sign Packers guard Jon Runyan and Raiders tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, both to one-year, $5 million deals. That leaves us with $8.6 million in remaining spending money.

The Jets would probably be sealed out of getting one of the higher-end backup quarterbacks, such as Jacoby Brissett or Gardner Minshew, who may command over $8 million per year. But they could probably settle for someone like Tyrod Taylor at around $5 million. That leaves around $3 million that could be used to fill some miscellaneous backup spots, such as defensive tackle, safety, and running back.

So, after signing Evans, the Jets had to settle for mediocre solutions at other positions of need to make sure everything was addressed.

Obviously, this is a very crude study – we don’t know what the exact contract numbers will be, we don’t know how much space the Jets will clear, etc. – but it is enough to exemplify how hamstrung the Jets could become if they sign Evans to a monstrous contract. Most likely, the rest of the roster would suffer quite significantly.

Jets’ offseason plan with Calvin Ridley

Signing Calvin Ridley instead of Evans would likely leave the Jets with a lot more breathing room. Still, he won’t be cheap, either. Spotrac projects Ridley will earn about $17 million per year. However, even that feels somewhat low, especially considering the recent salary cap spike.

In terms of box-score production, the closest recent free agent WR comparison to Ridley was Christian Kirk in 2022. Kirk earned $18 million per year after entering the market with very similar numbers to Ridley. Kirk was coming off a 77/982/5 season while Ridley is coming off a 76/1016/8 season (both playing 17 games). Kirk was four years younger than Ridley is now, but Ridley is relatively fresh for his age considering he sat out 29 straight games from 2021-22 for non-injury reasons.

Even if we value Ridley at a slightly lower number than Kirk because of the significant age difference, the salary cap spike will inflate his value beyond Kirk’s. Let’s say Ridley would be valued at $16 million per year when compared against Kirk’s 2022 number. Well, the 2022 salary cap was only $208.2 million. Now, it’s $255.4 million. That’s an increase of 22.6%, so Ridley’s valuation would increase accordingly. That pushes him from a $16 million valuation in 2022 to a $19.6 million valuation in 2024.

Say the Jets sign Ridley for $19.6 million. We’ll lower his first-year cap hit to $17.6 million. That’s about 30% of the Jets’ cap space, knocking them down from their starting number of $58.2 million to $40.6 million. After accounting for the draft class ($4.6M) and re-signings ($12M), we’re at $24 million to address everything else.

This is a much better situation than the Evans plan, but it still leaves the Jets’ hands tied. They would still have to heavily backload their contracts to ensure they can address every need.

Compared to the Evans plan, the biggest advantage of saving around $5 million on Ridley is that the Jets could probably sign one high-end offensive lineman instead of settling for two decent ones. We’ll keep Jon Runyan at guard with a $5 million first-year cap hit, but at tackle, instead of settling on Eluemunor, we’ll say the Jets successfully woo Tyron Smith on a two-year, $32 million deal with an $11 million hit in the first year.

With a $16 million hit between the two OL starters (compared to $10M in our Evans plan), the Jets are left with $8 million for everything else, basically the same as the $8.6 million we had left after the OL signings in the Evans plan. They would still be forced to move down to the second tier of backup quarterbacks while scrounging the bargain bin for every other backup spot. If the Jets wanted to sign a higher-tier backup like Brissett for around $8 million, the Ridley plan would allow them to do so, but they would have to scale back at OL.

Just like I said with Evans, keep in mind that we’re doing an extremely rudimentary analysis here. All of these projections could turn out to be way off the mark. It’s not worth going overly nitty-gritty into every contract detail because we simply have no clue what every player is going to end up earning. There are too many unknowns when it comes to projecting how an offseason will play out.

Still, this is a simple way of exemplifying that, even if the Jets drop down a notch from Evans to Ridley, they would remain in a difficult spot to improve everything else on the roster. And this is with significant space-clearing measures – two June 1 cuts, trading Wilson, and restructuring two players – along with only re-signing five players. The Jets might end up having even less space than I gave them in this breakdown.

On the other hand, they could have even more, as I neglected a few restructure options that are available. I think this is unlikely, as the Jets are probably not going to exhaust every possible restructure option, but again, the point is that we don’t know. Keeping it simple is the only sensible way to project an offseason. And a simple breakdown is all it takes to see just how crippling it could be if the Jets sign an expensive wide receiver.

That brings us to our final plan.

Jets’ offseason plan without adding a star WR

In this plan, the Jets’ big-ticket additions would come along the offensive line, so we’ll start with those before addressing the WR room with the leftover space.

Now that we’re not forced to start off by dumping a truckload of money on a wide receiver, the Jets have a tremendous amount of freedom with the offensive line. They can pursue anybody they choose to kickstart the spending spree, and depending on how frugal they are willing to be at WR, they might be able to fit two legitimate difference-making linemen into the picture.

I recently wrote about the appeal of moving Joe Tippmann to guard, and I followed up by breaking down an intriguing candidate to fill his spot at center, Lloyd Cushenberry. That’s where we’ll start off here. Cushenberry was an elite pass-blocking center in 2023 and is just 26 years old.

In the Cushenberry breakdown, I estimated that he will earn about $12 million per year after comparing him to other centers, so we’ll send him to the Jets for $12 million per year. We can put his first-year cap hit at $10 million.

Even after adding an elite-ranked player for only $10 million, the Jets still have ample space to add another quality offensive line starter before addressing other positions. We’ll set our sights on veteran left guard Kevin Zeitler, who shouldn’t be overly expensive considering his age (34) and pedestrian run blocking, but is still one of the league’s top-ranked pass-blocking guards. PFF estimates he will earn $7.5 million per year across two years, so we’ll go with that while putting him at $5.5 million for the first year.

With only $15.5 million in 2024 cap space, the Jets have netted two of the best pass-blocking offensive linemen in the league (see their rankings on this list). That’s two strong starters for just 27% of the $58.2 million. New York now has an offensive line that looks like this:

  • LT Alijah Vera-Tucker
  • LG Kevin Zeitler
  • C Lloyd Cushenberry
  • RG Joe Tippmann
  • RT [Likely First-Round Pick]

After accounting for the two OL signings ($15.5M), our projected re-signings ($12M), and the required draft class money ($4.6M), the Jets still have $26.1 million to address everything else. That is plenty of money to fill out the WR depth chart with multiple solid players rather than one star.

Of course, the downside of this plan is accepting a major drop-off in high-end talent at WR. Instead of forming a superstar duo, the Jets would focus on amassing quantity behind Garrett Wilson. There would not be another game-changer to pull attention away from Wilson.

It’s far less exciting, but if executed properly, this plan could work just as effectively as a one-two punch of Wilson/Star with no depth behind it. There are many examples of this.

Look at the Packers’ weaponry when Aaron Rodgers won his only Super Bowl in 2010. Greg Jennings was the clear No. 1, leading the team in all categories by a wide margin. There was no second star at the time. Behind him, though, the Packers were loaded with reliable depth. These were the team’s top four leading receivers:

  1. WR Greg Jennings: 76 rec on 156 targets for 1,265 yards and 12 TD
  2. WR James Jones: 50/87 for 679 and 5 TD
  3. WR Jordy Nelson: 45/64 for 585 and 2 TD
  4. WR Donald Driver: 51/85 for 565 and 4 TD

While Jennings was the only star at the time, Green Bay was four-deep with talented players at WR. Driver had been a star throughout his career and was on the tail end of his career, providing reliable veteran depth. Nelson was a future superstar at the beginning of his career. Jones was always a steady presence throughout his career.

In the present-day NFL, the Lions are a great example of a team using this model. Detroit built an elite offense with Amon-Ra St. Brown being the team’s only star WR; he had more than twice as many yards as any other WR on the team. They complemented him with a great tight end in Sam LaPorta, but the real magic in Detroit’s offense lies within the reliability of the team’s complementary receivers.

Josh Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, and Jameson Williams don’t blow anyone away as individuals – Reynolds led the trio with only 608 yards last year – but those guys executed their roles tremendously. Each player was highly efficient when called upon. The trio combined for 99 receptions on 150 targets for 1,451 yards and eight touchdowns. Essentially, they gave Detroit a second star WR in the aggregate.

And that’s what the Jets would aim to do in this free agency plan.

As a refresher, we have $26.1 million left after signing Cushenberry and Zeitler while accounting for our re-signings and the draft class. That is enough to get a pair of solid players behind Wilson.

I’m going to start with a player I just mentioned: Josh Reynolds. With Detroit, the 6-foot-3 vertical threat established himself as a tremendous low-volume/high-efficiency player, which is perfect in a complementary WR. In 2022, Reynolds caught 40 of 64 targets for 608 yards and five touchdowns. That is outstanding production on just 64 targets – exactly what the Jets need as they try to cumulatively replicate the impact of a Mike Evans-type.

Spotrac estimates Reynolds has a market value of $7 million per year. We’ll sign Reynolds to a one-year, $7 million deal, leaving us with $19.1 million.

Next, we’ll add a much different type of WR in Tyler Boyd, who is a slot specialist. With a career catch rate of 68% and a career drop rate of 4.1%, Boyd has reliable hands and can separate for quick catches underneath.

With Reynolds and Boyd, the Jets can hypothetically replicate the impact of a star across multiple players. Across the past two seasons, the per-game averages of Reynolds (2.5 rec/35.1 yds/0.26 TD) and Boyd (3.8 rec/43.3 yds/0.21 TD) add up to 6.3 receptions for 78.4 yards and 0.47 touchdowns – pace for 107 receptions, 1,333 yards, and eight touchdowns over 17 games.

That comparison is a little misleading since both players would likely see fewer snaps and targets if they played together. However, even if you look at their combined per-target production – which is more transferable since it accounts for opportunity volume – they’re well ahead of Ridley’s recent production and not too far behind Evans:

  • Reynolds + Boyd (2022-23): 8.3 yards per target, 5.0% TD rate, 67.0% catch rate — Per-100-target pace: 67 catches, 830 yards, 5 TD
  • Ridley (2021-23): 6.9 yards per target, 5.3% TD rate, 56.9% catch rate — Per-100-target pace: 57 catches, 690 yards, 5 TD
  • Evans (2022-23): 9.0 yards per target, 7.2% TD rate, 59.3% catch rate — Per-100-target pace: 59 catches, 905 yards, 7 TD

Spotrac projects Boyd will earn $8.7 million per year, so we’ll sign him to a two-year, $18 million deal with a $7 million hit in the first year.

Between Reynolds and Boyd, we’re only paying $14 million in 2024 for combined per-target production that beats out Ridley, who we projected will have a $17.6 million cap hit by himself. Evans’ production exceeds the duo, but with a projected hit of $23 million, is he $9 million better? Not if Reynolds and Boyd maintain their recent production.

Even after doling out $7 million apiece for Reynolds and Boyd, we still have $12.1 million. That should allow the Jets to nab whichever backup quarterback they please. If they view Jacoby Brissett as the top option, they could match the one-year, $8 million deal he signed in 2023 and still have over $4 million left to sprinkle across their remaining backup holes throughout the roster.

To recap, here’s who we’ve added:

  • Elite starting C: Lloyd Cushenberry ($12M/yr – $10M hit in 2024)
  • Good starting LG: Kevin Zeitler ($7.5M/yr – $5.5M hit in 2024)
  • Complementary vertical WR: Josh Reynolds ($7M for one year)
  • Slot WR: Tyler Boyd ($9M/yr – $7M hit in 2024)
  • Good backup QB: Jacoby Brissett ($8M for one year)

The Jets have a complete offensive line featuring five quality players. They go three-deep at wide receiver with players who are at least “solid”. And they got the arguable No. 1 backup quarterback on the market.

It’s all possible because the Jets did not allocate 30-40% of their cap space to one wide receiver.

The plan I laid out is just one of many combinations the Jets could go with if they do not sign a star WR. The possibilities are endless when you give yourself financial flexibility.

This might be the best pathway

As much as I think Mike Evans and Calvin Ridley would be incredibly exciting additions for the Jets, it’s startling how much more well-rounded the Jets’ hypothetical offseason plan appears when you sub out Evans or Ridley for a more affordable plan at WR. If the Jets are willing to embrace a depth-over-stardom approach at WR, they can build a significantly more complete roster.

And while the Jets’ WR situation is undoubtedly sketchy, let’s not ignore the pass-catching talent they have at the other positions. Breece Hall is a stud out of the backfield, having just led all running backs in receptions (76) and receiving yards (591). Rodgers loves targeting his running backs, so Hall is going to continue being heavily involved in the passing game. At tight end, the Jets have a vastly underrated weapon in Tyler Conklin, who ranks seventh at his position with 119 receptions since 2022.

Wilson/Hall/Conklin is an excellent starting point going into the offseason. By adding two more solid pieces in Reynolds and Boyd, the Jets would be five-deep with viable threats. The Jets could also continue attacking their weaponry in the draft.

Combine the deep pass-catching group with a stacked offensive line that features Vera-Tucker, Zeitler, Cushenberry, Tippmann, and a likely top-10 pick, and the Jets would have all of the necessary ingredients to rejuvenate their offense. With that supporting cast behind him, a healthy Rodgers could go toe-to-toe in a shootout against any AFC powerhouse. Plus, with a quality backup quarterback in Brissett, who has a 92.6 passer rating over the past two seasons, the Jets wouldn’t have to roll over if Rodgers missed a game.

If the Jets want the flexibility that is necessary to build an offense as complete as the one I just laid out, they must take an economical approach to the offseason, which means avoiding the temptation to allocate too much cap space to one headline-grabbing player.

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christian herzeca
christian herzeca
2 months ago

add MVS to the cheaper WR options

christian herzeca
christian herzeca
2 months ago

if jets go with AVT as guard, I could see getting a C in FA and moving Tippman to other guard. then draft a OT and get a FA OT (expensive). would love to see a trade down from 10 a few notches if there is hype developing around JJ Mccarthy, so as to recoup a second rounder (perhaps with a late rounder going back). JD has options, but the OL draft/FA picks have to be winners. I agree that the complements to #17 dont have to be eight figure/yr guys and, just maybe, Lazard does better with AR back in saddle. also a good #2 RB in FA is obtainable

2 months ago

I like your options. The only thing I see as a little unrealistic is a cap hit of 23 million for Mike Evans. We could easily make Mike Evans’ cap hit only like 10 million. You could get more bang for your buck and not have to make as many sacrifices as you propose.

2 months ago

I agree with the strategy but don’t see AVT sliding to LT to be honest. I think you need to sub Cushenberry or Zeitler with an OT in FA.

2 months ago
Reply to  dudizt

I would love the Cushenberry singing. I also have a feeling they sign Bakhtiari for cheap though I don’t agree with it with his injury history. I could see Bahktiari, Graham Barton, Cushenberry, Tippmann and AVT as our starting lineup. I would like for them to make a move for Sutton at WR and draft Malachi Corley. Of course they would trade down from 10 in that scenario picking up Barton and a second rounder for Corley.