FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets' 2021 season didn't produce tangible results (a 4-13 record and a lot of ugly stats, especially on defense), but the point of the year was to play the kids and determine which ones could be part of the future foundation. The rookies played a total of 5,681 snaps, second only to the Detroit Lions (5,989), according to ESPN Stats & Information.
Wide receiver Elijah Moore and running back Michael Carter flashed the most potential, with guard Alijah Vera-Tucker a notch below them. Quarterback Zach Wilson and cornerback Brandin Echols endured more growing pains than the others, but the organization remains high on their futures. They have to be right about Wilson. If not, the regime of coach Robert Saleh and GM Joe Douglas will have failed.
The return of defensive end Carl Lawson (zero games played) and wide receiver Corey Davis (nine games), both coming back from injuries, should help a lot. Despite injury and personnel issues on both sides of the ball, the Jets were competitive over the final month, fueling internal optimism that the rebuilding plan is working.
Projected salary-cap space: $47,464,306
Potential cut candidates: Cap-wise, they're in pretty decent shape, so there's no immediate pressure to dump salary. Tight end Ryan Griffin ($3 million savings) and guard Greg Van Roten ($3.5 million) are possible cuts, but their cap charges aren't grossly out of line for veteran backups. If things get tight, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins ($5.4 million) could be a name to watch. Linebacker C.J. Mosley won't get cut because he has a $16 million guarantee in 2022, meaning the cap hit is prohibitive, but he could be asked to do a routine restructure to lower his enormous cap charge ($17.5 million).
What you need to know: It's Joe-time! This has to be the watershed offseason for Douglas, whose record is 6-27. Last year was big, too, because of the Wilson-for-Sam Darnold quarterback change, but this is The Year. Douglas has four of the first 38 picks in the draft, having added capital with the Darnold and Jamal Adams trades. There's no excuse for the team not to take a big jump in 2022. The Cincinnati Bengals' quick turnaround proves it doesn't have to take forever.
The big question: Help Wilson or restock the defense? The Jets could go all-in on one or the other, but here's the beauty of their situation: They have enough resources to attack both sides of the game plan via the draft and free agency.
Conventional wisdom says to do whatever it takes to help the quarterback. In the Jets' case, that would mean giving Wilson another wide receiver, a tight end and another lineman. But they can also help him by playing better defense. The Jets allowed a franchise-record 504 points, putting Wilson in too many catch-up situations. Do you know how many passes he attempted while holding a seven-point lead or greater? Only 18. It will be more of the same unless they add three starters in the secondary and another edge rusher.
Douglas invested heavily in offense in his first two drafts and three of his four priciest free-agent signings were on that side of the ball (Davis, center Connor McGovern and left tackle George Fant). It's time to flip the script and help the defense for his defensive-minded head coach.
Best-case scenario for the team’s offseason: Tackle Mekhi Becton shows up healthy and in shape for the conditioning program in April. As for the roster, they can divide their needs into two categories: Immediate needs (safety, tight end, wide receiver and guard) and upgrades (edge rusher, cornerback and tackle). A good offseason might look like this: Tight end C.J. Uzomah and safety Terrell Edmunds in free agency, with pass-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, wide receiver Drake London and cornerback Andrew Booth Jr. in the draft.
Worst-case scenario for the team’s offseason: Four picks in the top 38 is like shooting fish in a barrel, right? Well, the Jets have been known to misfire from point-blank range, so you never know. The one thing they can't do is become so obsessed with propping up Wilson that they forget about the defense, which lacks playmakers on all three levels. It would be a misuse of their resources if they fail to come out of it with an edge player and a ball hawk in the secondary.
Early look at the NFL draft, from ESPN analyst Jordan Reid: With four picks in the top 38, the Jets have a prime opportunity to continue to add talent to the roster. Douglas got a good return from his 2021 draft class, and he has a chance to expedite the rebuild if he can do it again. The Jets had a historically bad defense in 2021 that recorded only seven interceptions (second worst in the league), so improving in the secondary is a must. Defensive end is another position that should be addressed as the team couldn’t generate consistent pressure on opposing offenses. The highest drafted defender under Douglas’ watch came during the third round of the 2020 draft when he selected safety Ashtyn Davis. That is likely to change this year.
Top needs: CB, EDGE, WR
Top picks: Nos. 4 and 10