New York Jets' offseason plan: Help Zach Wilson, historically bad defense

The Jets will look to bolster the surrounding cast around quarterback Zach Wilson. Sam Navarro/USA TODAY Sports

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- After two years of collecting future assets and spending judiciously in free agency, New York Jets general manager Joe Douglas sounds like he might be ready to step on the gas this offseason.

"I think with the position we put ourselves in, we have great flexibility," he said. "We have great flexibility to really use these assets in different ways. I think you’ve seen teams do that in the past couple of years, where they’ve used assets -- draft assets -- for proven players."

The Jets' willingness to acquire established veterans -- instead of trading them away -- adds a layer of intrigue to the offseason. With nine draft picks, including four in the top 38, they have enough bargaining power to bid on any player who hits the trade market. The aggressive mentality also could work its way into free agency.

This is the next step in their rebuilding plan. First year: Gut the roster. Second year: Find a quarterback. (Hello, Zach Wilson.) Third year: Add some big pieces, constructing a team that will be good enough to contend for a title while Wilson is on his rookie contract.

Easy to say, hard to do.

Coming off a 4-13 season, the Jets have a lot of deficiencies to address. Before cuts, they have nearly $54 million in cap room. A chunk of that will be required to sign their draft picks (the projected rookie pool is $19 million), but they should have enough in the budget to attack several issues, such as ...

A near-bottom pass rush

The defensive line is the engine that makes coach Robert Saleh's defense run, and it did a lot of sputtering in 2021. Without the injured Carl Lawson, who was supposed to be the catalyst, the Jets finished 29th in sacks and 30th in pressure rate, per ESPN Stats & Information. There were too many games in which the opposing quarterback found his first or second read with minimal disruption.

Opponents cracked the code a few games into the season, going to the quick game with extra blockers. In fact, the Jets faced a steady diet of six- and seven-man protection schemes -- a total of 242 dropbacks; only six teams had more.

Call it a sign of respect for the Jets' front four. Or, on the flip side, maybe it was a lack of respect for their coverage players. Either way, Saleh will look to add another big piece to go along with Lawson, John Franklin-Myers and Bryce Huff. They have poured a lot of money into the defensive line, with Lawson, Franklin-Myers and tackle Quinnen Williams combining for $38.4 million on the cap, but remember Saleh's background with the San Francisco 49ers. Their philosophy -- and his -- is you can't have too many edge rushers.

Instead of doling out major bucks in free agency for the likes of linebackers Harold Landry (Tennessee Titans) or Haason Reddick (Carolina Panthers), they can take an edge rusher with the fourth or 10th pick in the draft. Potential options are David Ojabo (Michigan) and George Karlaftis (Purdue) -- assuming Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan) and Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon) are off the board.

A need for a playmaker in the secondary

The ball went up in the air 587 times against the Jets, and it wound up in the hands of a defensive back only five times. Only two of the five interceptions were made by a cornerback, both by Brandin Echols. That isn't a winning formula, especially for a team that played zone about half the time.

There were mitigating factors, namely inexperience in the secondary and an inconsistent pass rush. Truth be told, the young corners actually exceeded modest expectations, but let's call it like it is: Whether it's a shutdown cornerback or a ball-hawking safety, the Jets need to add a difference-maker in the secondary, especially with injured safety Marcus Maye facing a cloudy future as he heads into free agency.

With the fourth pick, the Jets probably will have their choice of the consensus top corner (LSU's Derek Stingley Jr.) and top safety (Notre Dame's Kyle Hamilton). But know this about Saleh: He was schooled in organizations that believe defensive backs can be found in the later rounds and developed into top players, as he's attempting to do with Echols, Bryce Hall and Michael Carter II.

Unless the Jets identify Stingley or Hamilton as a rare prospect, they probably will wait in the draft or decide to take the free-agent route. There are some interesting names at safety, including Marcus Williams (New Orleans Saints), Jessie Bates III (Cincinnati Bengals) and Tyrann Mathieu (Kansas City Chiefs). The cornerback market is thin, except for J.C. Jackson (New England Patriots), who will command a top-of-the-market deal if he's not tagged.

More protection for Wilson

The Jets allowed 53 sacks (29th), but it's wrong to put all the blame on the offensive line. Some of it goes on Wilson, who held the ball too long at times. His average time to pass was 3.0 seconds (30th), which should improve in his second year. That said, the line still needs work, especially with right tackle Morgan Moses and right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif heading to free agency.

Those who know Douglas say they won't be shocked if he uses a first-round pick on a lineman for the third straight year. He nailed it with left guard Alijah Vera-Tucker (2020), but left tackle Mekhi Becton (2019) has sparked concern within the organization because of his slower-than-expected return from a knee procedure.

"I expect big things from him next year," Douglas said, repeating the company line on Becton. "We all want Mekhi back."

Becton and George Fant, who played admirably in Becton's place, are the only starting-caliber tackles under contract. Saleh loves Fant's toughness -- he played on a balky knee that will require an offseason procedure -- but it's hard to see them relying solely on Fant (30 in July) and Becton to be Wilson's bookends. It's time to add a blue chip into the equation, especially one who can bring a much-needed punch to the running game.

The draft is top-heavy with tackles, including three who could land in the top 10 -- Evan Neal (Alabama), Charles Cross (Mississippi State) and Ikem Ekwonu (North Carolina State).

A shortage of weapons on offense

The Jets added two nice pieces in wide receiver Elijah Moore and running back Michael Carter in the 2021 draft, but they still need at least two more playmakers. Wide receiver Denzel Mims' struggles, combined with the perennial search for a pass-catching tight end and a potential free-agent exodus at receiver, means the Jets are in the market for a tight end and a receiver to complement Moore, Corey Davis and pending free agent Braxton Berrios (if he re-signs).

Let's focus on tight end, an annual problem. The Jets finished with only 50 receptions (31st) at the position, bringing their 10-year total to 489 (32nd). Get the picture? Mike LaFleur's offense is incomplete without a middle-of-the-field threat, a security blanket for Wilson. They went cheap last offseason, signing the oft-injured Tyler Kroft. True to form, he missed eight games and made no impact. Ryan Griffin was adequate (27 catches for 261 yards and two TDs), but they can do better than adequate this time around.

While there are no blue chip tight ends in the draft, Trey McBride (Colorado State) was a prolific college receiver who could be available at the top of the second round with the 35th or 38th pick. The Jets will get an up-close look at McBride because they will coach him in the Senior Bowl. There are a handful of options in free agency; scheme fit will be important. Dalton Schultz (Dallas Cowboys) was second in receptions among in-line tight ends (49), while Mike Gesicki (Miami Dolphins) was third in receptions from the slot (48).

The Mike White question

Did White show enough in his cameo to nail down the QB2 job? Apparently not.

Saleh, who has changed his tune on the importance of having an experienced quarterback in the room, said he'd like to run it back with Joe Flacco and White as the backups. He called it an "ideal" setup, saying he will be "vocal" in trying to re-sign Flacco, whose contract voids.

Here's the problem: White will be a restricted free agent. The lowest tender -- which gives the Jets the right of first refusal -- is projected at $2.4 million. That's a lot of money for a potential third-stringer. They probably will try to get him to accept less money on a one-year deal, with playing-time sweeteners. Flacco, a midseason acquisition who made $3.5 million on a one-year contract, will be looking for at least that much.

In other words, it will get expensive to keep both, but they can't make the same mistake they did last year, starting the season without a seasoned backup.