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NY Jets must avoid another first round ‘what-if’ situation

Will McDonald
Will McDonald, Getty Images

The New York Jets still face questions about a previous first-round pick

The New York Jets face a second consecutive all-in season. To expect a different outcome, they must learn from their mistakes in 2023.

Joe Douglas started that process in free agency. Rather than expecting Aaron Rodgers to fix all ills on the roster, he pursued players to legitimately plug the team’s biggest holes. With a rebuilt offensive line and a true No. 2 receiver, there’s already a lot more reason to believe in the Jets than there was in 2023.

Still, as the draft approaches, there’s a bigger test looming. Will Douglas learn from his mistake in 2023?

Picking Will McDonald was a big error

I believe this can be stated unequivocally regardless of the kind of player Will McDonald becomes. Once Broderick Jones went off the board, the Jets no longer had a top tackle option available in the draft. Still, they had another potential need on the roster, both for 2023 and beyond: wide receiver.

The Jets clearly took McDonald with the anticipation that Bryce Huff would walk after the 2023 season. Still, they forgot that Corey Davis was also entering his walk year. Even before Davis retired, the Jets would need a No. 2 receiver for the 2024 season — not to mention Davis’ consistent injuries for which the Jets had no backup. Even though they paid Allen Lazard good money, he had never proven that he could be a legitimate No. 2 receiver.

Had the Jets taken any of the most widely projected top receivers — Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Zay Flowers, or Jordan Addison — they would be sitting pretty right now. While Smith-Njigba didn’t have an elite rookie season, he still posted 628 receiving yards as the No. 3 target in Seattle. Flowers had 858 yards and became the No. 1 receiver in Baltimore. Addison had 911 yards and 10 touchdowns.

The Jets compounded that mistake by not drafting any receiver at all. Overall, seven rookie receivers had at least 700 receiving yards, the most in one rookie class since at least 2007. Other rookies showed flashes of promise in more limited roles. That’s not to say the Jets would have taken the right guy, but there was plenty of depth in the draft even though it was not considered a top receiver class.

McDonald himself

Besides the mistake of not taking a receiver, the Jets also should not have taken McDonald. His second-round consensus is secondary to his developmental status. In an all-in season, the Jets drafted a player who played 19% of their defensive snaps — and it’s unlikely that they intended to give him anything more when they drafted him.

Furthermore, the fact that they pursued a starting edge rusher this offseason indicates that they still don’t trust McDonald in a starting role in Year 2. Again, it seems unlikely that this is unexpected; McDonald did not put anything unusual on film based on expectations from college. Therefore, the Jets took a guy who wouldn’t significantly contribute in his first two years in the league in an all-in season.

Personally, I like McDonald as a player. I agree with Andrew Fialkow that he has intriguing potential. It wouldn’t shock me to see him force his way into the lineup with disruptive pass rush skills coupled with at least adequate run defense. Still, taking him as a developmental prospect made absolutely no sense.

2024 implications

Since the Jets couldn’t draft a tackle and didn’t take a receiver in the first round last season, they now face those two top needs in the 2024 draft. Around the league, the Jets are facing much mockery and skepticism after filling those holes with two injury-riddled players in Mike Williams and Tyron Smith.

The Jets can’t make the same mistake they did in 2023. They have these two needs that are likely in 2024 and certain in 2025. If they want to maximize both this season and the future, they need to draft either a tackle or receiver in the first round. I don’t care as much about which player they choose, although I have my preferences. But good team-building indicates that the Jets should take players at those positions.

The argument that the tackle might not play in Year 1 does not pass muster. If the Jets are facing cynicism because of Smith’s injury history, taking a tackle insures against that inevitability. The tackle the Jets take will play in Year 1. If the Jets’ past injury luck holds, that player will be thrust into the lineup far sooner than hoped.

Tight end

Of course, you can argue that the Jets could shore up a future need at tight end by taking Brock Bowers. Tyler Conklin will be a free agent after the season, too. Still, Conklin can be extended at a reasonable price, and the tight end position is far less valuable than tackle or receiver, two of the most important positions in football. Again, this is independent of Bowers as a prospect — it’s just a team-building proposition.

From another angle, Bowers’ improvement over Conklin would not come close to the rookie tackle’s over Carter Warren or the rookie receiver’s over Allen Lazard. Again, that’s true regardless of which consensus top-20 prospect they draft.

To take it further, the track record of first-round tight ends becoming a significant improvement over Conklin in their rookie seasons is slim. In 2023, Conklin posted 61 catches for 622 yards.

  • Dalton Kincaid (2023): 73 catches, 673 yards, 2 TDs
  • Kyle Pitts (2021): 68 catches, 1,026 yards, 1 TD
  • T.J. Hockenson (2019): 32 catches, 367 yards, 2 TDs
  • Noah Fant (2019): 40 catches, 562 yards, 3 TDs
  • Hayden Hurst (2018): 13 catches, 163 yards, 1 TD
  • O.J. Howard (2017): 26 catches, 432 yards, 6 TDs
  • Evan Engram (2017): 64 catches, 722 yards, 6 TDs
  • David Njoku (2017): 32 catches, 386 yards, 4 TDs
  • Eric Ebron (2014): 25 catches, 248 yards, 1 TD
  • Tyler Eifert (2013): 39 catches, 445 yards, 2 TDs

It’s telling that there have been only 10 tight ends drafted in the first round in the last 11 drafts. Of those, only Kyle Pitts posted numbers far better than Conklin’s. Should the Jets bet that Bowers will be more like Pitts than the rest of the tight ends, especially in light of his concerning profile?

If the Jets take a tackle or receiver in the first round, they’ll have made a solid team-building pick. If they go for a different position, they’ll largely be repeating their 2023 mistake — regardless of how that player performs.

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verge tibbs
verge tibbs
1 month ago

Its allegedly a deep tackle n wr class, so you can get one past the 1st. What if the available one has character concerns, one doesnt fit the team or scheme, etc. What if they rate a different position significantly higher. What if they grade the available one as undraftable or a 2nd rd grade. I agree to focus more on OT and wr, i just cant agree with the no matter what part.

Jonathan Richter
Jonathan Richter
1 month ago

I disagree that Pitts is the only TE who had a better rookie year than Conklin had last year (not sure why this is the comparison we’re making as Conklin would still be on the team this year WITH Bowers, so we should be looking at the 2nd seasons to see if Bowers could replace Conklin NEXT year). I think both Dalton Kincaid and Evans Engram had better rookie seasons than Conklin had last year. Engram had more catches, yards and TDs.

Nevertheless, I’m in the trade back camp.

Last edited 1 month ago by Jonathan Richter
Jim G
Jim G
1 month ago

I agree 100%. The NFL Network was showing the Jets draft war room after Pittsburgh traded up and took the player the Jets planned on drafting. The Jets appeared to be completely unprepared and scrambling for what to do. I believe they panicked and chose McDonald. Given his defensive proclivities, I suspect Robert Saleh was behind the pick. I have no doubt that the Saleh/Ulbrich team can develop McDonald into a top tier defensive player, but the Jets should have at least picked someone who could produce in Year 1.

1 month ago

With Smith’s injury history and Moses coming back from an injury himself, as well as both of them being 33 and likely less robust for that reason, a rookie OT is probably going to have to start at least six games. If that equates to ~400+ snaps it’d probably be similar or more than anyone else we might take at 10.

Robert Papalia
Robert Papalia
1 month ago

Agree with you on this. But then it is the Jets which is the reason they have not made the playoffs in 14 years. They do stupid things. They should not over think this. That is take a player they do not need. Let us keep our fingers crossed in 3 weeks.