Eight new starters, different vibe: Inside the New York Jets' head-turning offseason

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Five months later, Joe Douglas still remembers the feeling. The New York Jets had just lost their season finale to the Buffalo Bills 27-10 to finish 4-13 -- their sixth straight losing season. On the flight home, the general manager tried to remind himself it was a rebuilding year, that growing pains were expected, but that didn't dull the sting.

"Sick of having games like that," Douglas told ESPN, recalling his thoughts from Jan. 9. "Sick of having seasons like that."

By the time they landed, his mindset had changed to 2022 and beyond.

So began the Jets' offseason, a period in which Douglas went from sick to sic 'em.

The Jets used free agency and the draft to add eight potential starters, fueling optimism around the team. A punchline for the better part of a decade, they now find themselves in the unusual position of receiving pats on the back.

On his podcast, NBC analyst Cris Collinsworth tabbed the Jets as a team to watch, saying, "I just feel like if there's a team out there that could make a jump this year and surprise everybody ... the Jets, maybe they're that team this year."

The Jets have a history of turning optimism into despair, but the difference with the 2022 team is that it's built with young, ascending players as opposed to big-name free agents who took the money, became complacent and fell short of expectations. The roster includes seven players drafted in the first round from 2019 to 2022, tied with the New York Giants and Jacksonville Jaguars for the most over that span. Six were selected by Douglas, the lone exception being defensive tackle Quinnen Williams (2019), who is in contract talks for an extension.

"We’ve got to develop them and we’ve got to win games, but I feel like things kind of fell our way in the draft the last couple of years," Douglas said.

After the 4-13 debacle, hardly a surprise with the amount of youth on the roster, the front office devised a plan that was born from their end-of-season meetings with the coaching staff. Douglas called it "the most important meeting" of the offseason. They went through the roster, player by player, discussing strengths, weaknesses and potential growth. Free agents were grouped by priority. A 2022 depth chart was established.

Copious notes were taken during those meetings, and they were crystallized into a master plan.

"That dialogue, that meeting, it really set the blueprint going into the offseason," Douglas said.

For the most part, the Jets used free agency to fill holes at non-premium positions, signing tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin, guard Laken Tomlinson and safety Jordan Whitehead. The exception was cornerback D.J. Reed. None are household names, but they're all productive players in the 25-t0-30 age range. Tomlinson is the oldest, but 30 isn't old for an offensive lineman. He made the Pro Bowl last season as an injury replacement.

In the draft, Douglas focused on premium positions -- cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner, wide receiver Garrett Wilson and defensive end Jermaine Johnson, all of whom were picked in the first round. Douglas said the trade-up for Johnson, which triggered an emotional celebration in the draft room, was the highlight of the offseason.

Their first-round choices weren't an accident. Douglas has a value system, one in which he prefers to invest his most valuable assets -- i.e. high draft picks -- on premium positions. He believes he can fill in the rest with bargains in free agency. It can be frustrating for the fan base, which watches big-name players sign elsewhere, but Douglas doesn't deviate from his plan.

"We didn’t go out and have a major spending spree," Douglas said. "We weren’t on the sideline, but we didn’t go out and sign $18-, $19-, $20-million-a-year players."

The Jets spent $90 million in full guarantees on free agents, including their own, which ranked fifth, according to overthecap.com. Among AFC teams, they were way behind the Jaguars ($195 million), Miami Dolphins ($127 million) and Los Angeles Chargers ($124 million).

Douglas faced a tricky decision with regard to allocation, meaning how to split the money between offense and defense. He wanted to upgrade quarterback Zach Wilson's supporting cast, but he didn't want to neglect a defense that ranked 32nd in most of the key categories.

In the end, it was a divide-and-conquer approach.

Counting their top four draft picks, the Jets doled out 17 contracts that have at least a $1.5 million cap charge in 2022, totaling $55.3 million -- roughly one-fourth of the entire cap. Offense accounts for 56% of the $55.3 million, defense 44%.

In other words, Wilson got much-needed help with Garrett Wilson, second-round running back Breece Hall, Uzomah and Conklin, whom Douglas believes could be one of the surprises of their free-agent class. The defense, which allowed a franchise-record 504 points, received a boost with Gardner, Johnson, Reed & Co. They stockpiled enough assets from previous trades to fix both sides of the ball -- in theory, anyway.

"We’re better, and I know we’re going to be better," coach Robert Saleh said. "We’re young, we’re a year older, we brought in some really cool pieces, a lot of guys who stand for the right stuff, who live and breathe football."

After investing heavily in the offensive line in 2020 and 2021, Douglas focused on offensive skill players. The NFL is a passing league, and the Jets averaged only 180 yards per game with Wilson at quarterback -- embarrassingly low.

Recognizing the deficiency, Douglas made a well-publicized attempt to trade for star receiver Tyreek Hill, whose decision to play for the Dolphins was the low point of the Jets' offseason. It was a bold attempt that didn't pay off. They responded by drafting Garrett Wilson, sticking with the organization's goal of adding dynamic athletes on both sides of the ball.

In doing so, they ignored the offensive line on Days 1 and 2, a calculated gamble because of tackle Mekhi Becton's injury history. Becton, a 2020 first-round pick, has played only eight full games out of 33. It would be ironic if Douglas, himself a former college lineman, left them vulnerable up front. That's the biggest quibble in their offseason makeover.

Former GM Randy Mueller, who worked in the front offices of the Dolphins, New Orleans Saints and Seattle Seahawks and now runs Mueller Football Advising Services, is taking a wait-and-see approach on the Jets' offseason. He's high on Zach Wilson's upside -- "I really have no doubt about Zach Wilson" -- but he's not sure about the new pieces.

"It's one thing to build a team on paper, it's another to get it to come together," Mueller said. "That's up to the coaching staff, developing the guys and bringing them together. I'm a little apprehensive to say, 'Hey, this is it.' ...

"They've got to hit on those three draft picks," he added, referring to the first-rounders.

Douglas believes this is a much better team than the one that flew home with him from Buffalo in early January, but he's not about to throw a party. He knows it's a young team, and there's a lot of growing to do. Four of their top five receivers and running backs are rookies and second-year players, and they will be fed by a second-year quarterback. So don't expect the organizational growing pains to vanish.

And don't forget about the competition.

"The conference is an absolute bear," Douglas said.

Still, there's a positive vibe around the building, and that shouldn't be minimized. There was optimism last year, too, mainly because of Saleh's arrival, but everybody knew there was a severe talent shortage. Now, there's hope.

Linebacker C.J. Mosley, who has been around long enough to know that every team drinks springtime Kool-Aid, said, "Every year is going to be the Year -- we all know how that goes -- but we're all looking forward to putting something together and really getting the New York Jets back on the map."