When the New York Jets' current regime took over in 2015, it inherited a wonderfully talented defensive line: Damon Harrison, Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson. General manager Mike Maccagnan made it an embarrassment of riches, selecting Leonard Williams with the No. 6 overall pick in the 2015 draft. They called themselves "Sons of Anarchy."
Three years later, the sons have all but disappeared behind the clouds.
With Williams the only holdover, the Jets' once-formidable defensive line is hurting. The situation has deteriorated to the point where they're picking through free-agent scraps, looking to uncover a third starter for their three-man front. Maccagnan has presided over the talent drain, but he still has one lifeline that can save the day:
The No. 3 choice in the upcoming NFL draft. If he can parlay that pick into a franchise quarterback, all will be forgiven.
The Jets might not be in this position if it weren't for the second-round pick they acquired in the Richardson trade with the Seattle Seahawks last Labor Day weekend. That draft pick (No. 49 overall), packaged with their own second-round selection (No. 37) and a 2019 second-rounder, enabled the Jets to move up three spots, swapping places with the Indianapolis Colts.
In essence, Maccagnan used Richardson -- with only one year left on his contract -- to get a shot at a franchise quarterback. The New England Patriots just made a similar trade with wide receiver Brandin Cooks, dealing an asset one year before he walked in free agency. In the Jets' case, they weakened one area in an attempt to fix a perennial problem.
The folks at One Jets Drive weren't planning to re-sign Richardson, so they felt comfortable dealing the former Pro Bowl defensive tackle for additional draft capital and wide receiver Jermaine Kearse. It was a terrific trade at the time, and it has improved with age.
Unless they botch the quarterback pick. Not only would that set back the franchise, but it would shine a harsh light on the talent-thin defensive line.
Right now, all the Jets have to show for trading Richardson, cutting Wilkerson and losing Harrison to the New York Giants are Kearse and three marginal 2017 draft picks: wide receiver Chad Hansen and cornerbacks Jeremy Clark and Derrick Jones. That is hardly a fair exchange.
The Jets were awarded a third-round compensatory pick for Harrison and, thanks to some draft-day wheeling and dealing, they turned one pick into three -- a fourth-rounder and a pair of sixth-rounders. It's premature to write off Hansen, Clark and Jones, but they did nothing as rookies to suggest they will be long-term players.
This all goes back to 2016. With Wilkerson and Harrison heading to free agency, and with Richardson's free agency looming in the distance, Maccagnan decided to hitch his wagon to Wilkerson. He used the franchise tag and eventually signed him to a five-year, $86 million contract, identifying him as a piece of the foundation.
Maccagnan bet on Wilkerson. It seemed like the right move at the time, but it backfired, especially with Big Snacks flourishing with the Giants. Now they're all gone, except for Williams, who probably will get a long-term extension at some point over the next year.
It's a shame because the Jets broke up a potentially dominant unit, and they certainly haven't had many of those over the years. But the score isn't settled yet; there's an X factor in play. Maccagnan still has a chance to save face.