Jets QB Sam Darnold has weapons, but needs another outside receiver

People around the New York Jets say the frustration was palpable in the wide receiver room last season. Robby Anderson was unhappy because he wanted more targets. Quincy Enunwa was chafed because he felt stereotyped as Mr. Bubble Screen. Jermaine Kearse was befuddled by his lack of involvement, convinced that offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates had it in for him. Not surprisingly, all three players had a down season.

Instead of starting over at the position, which they could have easily done, the Jets swapped out Kearse for free-agent addition Jamison Crowder and changed the high command on offense. Out went Bates, whose locker room popularity rivaled that of a wet towel, and in came coach Adam Gase. Part of his job is to make the receivers happy and productive. The organization believes the talent is there and that all it needs is to be coached up -- a view shared by a former great.

"I didn't understand why they didn't get Robby the ball more -- and it's not up to [Sam] Darnold," said ex-receiver Wesley Walker, who is a member of the Jets' Ring of Honor. "They have to have the offense, the coaching, the coordinator. No matter what the talent level is, you have to be able to develop that talent within your offense and figure it out. They haven't been able to do that, so that's going to be interesting this year. I think they do have the talent."

Yes, they have talent, but they're still one move away from being an exceptional group. Critics will say the Jets still lack a No. 1 receiver, but that's a vague term. What they really need, to go along with Anderson's deep speed and the inside prowess of Enunwa and Crowder, is another outside receiver who can win consistently in the short and intermediate zones. Darnold ranked 28th in completion percentage outside the numbers, while throwing seven interceptions on those attempts (second most in the NFL), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The Jets didn't draft a receiver with any of their six selections, the free-agent class (not great to begin with) is pretty much wiped out, and the team doesn't have a pipeline of young players because of poor drafting in recent years. (ArDarius Stewart, anyone?) The good news is the 2020 draft is supposedly loaded with receiving talent, but that won't do them any good this season. It's Anderson, Crowder and Enunwa ... and pray for no injuries.

Gase, who cut his teeth in the league as a receivers coach, sees potential in this group. He believes Anderson can be more than a deep threat. (Anderson agrees.) He believes Enunwa can excel outside the slot and be more than a short-area target. (Enunwa agrees.) Gase hasn't coached them yet in a real practice, so we're talking some projection here. They're relying on Gase's offensive acumen to scheme up ways to overcome the deficiencies.

"It's early, but we're seeing what guys are capable of in just a few [non-contact) practices," Enunwa said. "As camp comes, that's where I really think it's going to show. That's when guys will open up and see how they do within the offense, and how we do against a defense."

Enunwa, Anderson and Crowder have played a total of 10 seasons. If you take their career highs to comprise a "best" stat line, kind of like an SAT superscore, it would read like this: 67 receptions (Crowder), 941 yards (Anderson) and seven touchdowns (Anderson and Crowder, tie). Those aren't awe-inspiring numbers. In fact, the Jets are one of only seven teams without a 1,000-yard wide receiver.

Still, Crowder landed a three-year, $28.5 million contract in free agency, making him one of the highest-paid slot receivers. Enunwa reupped for a nice sum -- four years, $33.4 million -- even though injuries have limited him to only one full season. Anderson will make $3.1 million in his final year before unrestricted free agency (assuming he gets around to signing his restricted tender; he belongs to a small minority of RFAs who haven't.)

"It's really up to me," said Enunwa, discussing his ceiling. "Last year, I could be as frustrated as I want to be about what happened, but injuries slowed me down -- injuries in camp, injuries during the season and recovering from [my 2017] injury (neck surgery that wiped out his entire season)."

With a pass-catching tight end in Chris Herndon and a running back in Le'Veon Bell who can split out as a receiver, Gase will have different ways to scheme up a passing attack. He could bunch the wideouts on one side and line up Bell or Herndon on the opposite side, creating a favorable matchup. One thing seems certain: With Herndon, Crowder and Enunwa, there will be no shortage of targets who can work the middle. Outside might be an issue, though.

The wide receiver position is among the remaining post-draft questions for the Jets. The others:

  • Is the starting center on the roster? After striking out in free agency and failing to draft one, the Jets are going with Jonotthan Harrison. So they say. Gase said he would be comfortable with Harrison (28 career starts at center) because his athleticism makes him a fit in the Jets' zone-blocking scheme. While that might be true, it won't stop them from looking at other options.

  • Do they have enough at cornerback? The answer is no, and it wouldn't be a surprise if they re-sign Morris Claiborne. His market could heat up now that May 7 has passed, the deadline in which free agents no longer count toward the compensation-pick formula. The Jets have three seasoned corners -- Trumaine Johnson, Darryl Roberts and Brian Poole, an Atlanta Falcons castoff. They need another.

  • Did they adequately address the edge-rushing issue? Probably not, but that could change if rookie Jachai Polite (third-round pick) can contribute in some fashion. He recorded 11 sacks for Florida last season as an undersized defensive end (about 230 pounds), but he will have to add weight in the NFL. That could be tricky. He added weight for the NFL scouting combine (258) and ran poorly, complaining of a hamstring issue.

  • Who will replace Andre Roberts as the return specialist? Not re-signing Roberts, who made All-Pro, could come back to bite the Jets. Right now, the top candidates are Trenton Cannon, who battled the dropsies, and New York Giants castoff Quadree Henderson. Diminutive rookie Greg Dortch (5-foot-7), a prolific returner at Wake Forest, could get a shot.