Cribbs, 30, is one of the most prolific kickoff returners in history, although he hasn't played a regular-season game since last year. He was cut by the Oakland Raiders in the preseason.
Cribbs can play wide receiver, but it's not his primary position -- he has only 107 receptions in eight seasons. To fill Gates' role at receiver, the Jets signed Greg Salas from the Philadelphia Eagles' practice squad. Salas has 27 career receptions, all with the St. Louis Rams.
Santonio Holmes (hamstring) is likely to miss his third straight game, creating a depth issue at wide receiver.
The Jets have been monitoring Cribbs since the spring. They worked him out twice, most recently in October. With injuries piling up on offense, the Jets finally decided to add him to the roster.
The Gates move came as a surprise.
On Monday, Gates said the injury was "painful, but not that bad," expressing hope that he'd be ready to play Sunday against the New England Patriots. Oddly, it was a non-contact injury. He fell to the turf after an incomplete pass and tried to break his fall by extending his arm, suffering a partial dislocation.
They may have simply lost patience with the injury-prone Gates. The Jets have been struggling on kickoff returns. They rank 27th in the league, averaging only 20.3 yards per return.
The backup kickoff returner was running back Mike Goodson, who suffered a season-ending knee injury Sunday. As expected, he was placed on injured reserve.
Because of his running skills, Cribbs -- a former college quarterback -- could contribute in the Wildcat package. That, too, was one of Goodson's roles.
The concern with Cribbs is his health. He underwent arthroscopic surgery for a torn meniscus after last season, prompting some teams -- including the Jets -- to take a pass during the free-agency period.
He tweeted about his deal with the Jets on Tuesday afternoon.
— Josh Cribbs (@JoshCribbs16) October 15, 2013
In addition, the Jets signed well-traveled rookie running back Miguel Maysonet to their practice squad, releasing linebacker Troy Davis.
ESPN NFL Insider Adam Schefter contributed to this report.