FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- A look at what's happening around the New York Jets:
1. Money to burn: Once again, the Jets are rolling in an abundance of salary-cap space as they head into post-June 1 free agency. The question is, will they actually use it to improve the roster?
They rank second in cap space with $25 million, according to Over the Cap, but that doesn't include a $2.8 million savings for reworking guard Alex Lewis' contract. They still have to sign their top four draft picks, which will eat up $9.1 million in space. Do the math: For practical purposes, the Jets will have a cushy $18.7 million in cap room. They can create more room by signing safety Marcus Maye to a long-term extension, lowering his current cap charge of $10.6 million (franchise tag).
A year ago, the Jets actually got worse after June 1 (see: Jamal Adams trade), as they started to collect draft capital and push cap money into the future. Well, the future has begun, but that doesn't mean general manager Joe Douglas will abandon his steady-as-she-goes philosophy.
My sense is he is open to acquiring a veteran or two to fill specific needs -- don't expect a run at Atlanta Falcons wide receiver Julio Jones -- but he would be just as happy to roll the unused cap space into 2022. The cap could increase by as much as 14%, from $182.5 million to $208.2 million, per an agreement between the NFL and NFLPA. If it hits the $208.2 million ceiling, the Jets once again would be in position to be big players in free agency; they would be $67 million under that threshold, not counting the 2021 rollover.
But what about now? There are two pressing needs Douglas must address:
Cornerback. Currently, the three starters are Blessuan Austin, Bryce Hall and Elijah Campbell/Javelin Guidry (slot). The backups have very little experience. The Jets desperately need a veteran presence, but coach Robert Saleh said Thursday he wants to give the current crew a chance. A seasoned vet would "eat up" reps for the younger players, he said. That's what a coach says in late May. Something tells me he might have a different attitude in mid-August. The top free agents are Richard Sherman and Steven Nelson, neither of whom played well last season. Saleh and Sherman have a history, but the chances of Sherman, 33, playing for a non-contender on the East Coast are remote. Nelson, 28, produced mediocre coverage metrics, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, but at least he's a durable player with plenty of starting experience.
Backup quarterback. The Jets made a late run at free agent Brian Hoyer, ESPN's Jeremy Fowler reported, which suggests they're in the market. The Jets are prepping rookie Zach Wilson to be the opening-day starter, but they need an insurance QB/mentor. What happens if Wilson gets injured? Would they really go with Mike White or James Morgan? That would be wild. Nick Foles, who figures to be the odd man out with the Chicago Bears, makes all the sense in the world. A post-June 1 trade for a late-round pick, with the Bears agreeing to pay a chunk of the $9 million in remaining guarantees, seems like the way to go. For now, the status quo is fine because it provides much-needed reps for three young players, but they need the veteran for training camp.
Keep an eye on 'em. pic.twitter.com/hXYR6JljX9— New York Jets (@nyjets) May 27, 2021
2. Why Zach? The media finally got their chance to speak with offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur, who provided insight into why they drafted Wilson. Remember, the Jets picked him over other top prospects such as Trey Lance, Justin Fields and Mac Jones.
LaFleur pointed to three areas: He called Wilson a "natural thrower" with the ability to adjust his arm angle. He cited his quick decisions, whether passing or running. He also mentioned how the BYU system matched up well with the Jets' offense, noting Wilson gained a "foundation of playing under center." That, in turn, allowed him to learn play-action principles.
"You could literally see it correlate to the system we want to run, which was unique because you don't always get to see that in college," LaFleur said.
Wilson had 87 career snaps under center, according to ESPN Stats & Information research -- not a whole lot, but more than most. Fields had 61 and Jones 25. Lance had 414, which made him an outlier in college football.
3. Wilson vs. Lawrence: Saleh, a guest on the "Flying Coach" podcast with Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay and Peter Schrager, said the Jets viewed two quarterbacks as "head and shoulders" above the rest in the draft. He didn't name them, but it was an obvious reference to Wilson and Trevor Lawrence, chosen No. 1 overall by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
What makes the draft so fascinating is it's a beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder process. For instance, the Jaguars gave Lawrence a much higher grade than Wilson. Their draft board, parts of which are revealed on the team's "inside the draft" documentary, show Lawrence with an 8.0 -- the highest grade, according to the system used by many teams. Wilson has a 7.0. No other QB grades are visible.
Interestingly, the Jaguars rated guard Alijah Vera-Tucker (7.5), drafted 14th by the Jets, higher than Wilson.
4. Where are they? Two absences stood out during Thursday's practice, the first session open to the media -- wide receiver Jamison Crowder and left tackle Mekhi Becton. Maye also wasn't there, but that was no surprise, considering he's in the middle of contract negotiations.
Crowder skipped the first three practices and the previous week of on-field, non-practice workouts (all voluntary), but there has been communication between him and the organization -- a positive sign. But it's unclear why he's staying away. He's due to make $10 million (non-guaranteed) in the final year of his contract and the team just drafted his eventual replacement, Elijah Moore, with the 34th pick. The situation bears watching.
Becton, who has participated in at least one practice, was at the facility all week after missing the previous week. That he didn't practice Thursday suggests a possible injury; teams aren't required to report injuries in the offseason. Going forward, the story surrounding Becton will be his conditioning. He admitted at the end of the season that one of his goals was to drop weight. At the time, one team source said he was north of 363 pounds, his listed weight.
Saleh said they still haven't determined the best weight for Becton, adding, "We'll work with him. We'll find his weight." Becton is a special talent; the only thing that can stop him is him.
5. Better depth: Lewis, who lost his left guard job to Vera-Tucker, avoided becoming a cap casualty by agreeing to take a pay cut. That stinks for the player, but it probably will work out in the long run because it likely secures him a roster spot. It helps the team from a depth standpoint. The Jets now have seven linemen with extensive starting experience, plus Vera-Tucker and 2020 draft pick Cameron Clark. Lewis will get a chance to compete at right guard.
6. Did you know? The Buffalo Bills are entering the fourth season with the same head coach and offensive and defensive coordinators, as noted by ESPN colleague Marcel Louis-Jacques. That sort of continuity is rare in the NFL, especially for the Jets. The last time they kept their big three intact for four years was from 1985 to 1988 -- Joe Walton, Rich Kotite (offense) and Bud Carson (defense). They kind of did it from 1990 to 1993, as coach Bruce Coslet served as his own offensive coordinator with Pete Carroll as the defensive coordinator.
7. The last word: "My first reaction was, 'Typical NFL, right?' They love to bring in the fans. I love it. ... It's not like I'm so pumped because it's Sam. I'm excited because the Panthers are a great team and it's a great challenge for us. ... It has nothing to do with the fact that he was here in New York and now he's there. I'm happy for him. What a great opportunity for him to put some life into his career." -- Zach Wilson on his Week 1 matchup against Sam Darnold and the Carolina Panthers.