Next season’s playoff race begins this spring as all 32 teams retool their rosters, so it’s time to take a look at what each franchise must do for a better season in 2016. Today we break down the Jets, who missed the playoffs by the narrowest of margins. What do they need to do this off-season to ensure that they can book a spot in the postseason in 2016? Check back for our other 31 off-season outlooks, which we will be rolling out in reverse order of finish over the coming weeks leading up to free agency and the draft.
Key free agents
DE Muhammad Wilkerson, NT Damon Harrison, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick, RB Chris Ivory, OLB Calvin Pace, RB Bilal Powell, ILB Demario Davis, RB Stevan Ridley
Player(s) that must be re-signed
Wilkerson, Harrison, Fitzpatrick, Ivory, Powell: The Jets obviously want to retain Wilkerson, who needs at least six months to recover from a broken leg suffered in the season finale against the Bills, but they might not be able to without the franchise tag. That’s estimated to cost the team around $15.5 million of 2016 cap space, but Wilkerson is worth it when completely healthy. Harrison is one of the most underrated defensive linemen in the league—he had an amazing 51 stops last season, tied with St. Louis’ Aaron Donald for the league lead—and this line would look a lot lighter without him. If the Jets can’t get Wilkerson back for any reason, Harrison’s resigning becomes even more mandatory.
The 33-year old Fitzpatrick is not a perfect quarterback—he’s reached the top of his physical potential, his deep passes tend to sail at times and he has a dangerous turnover. That said, he was a great signing for the Jets before the 2015 season; he was the best quarterback the franchise has seen since Mark Sanchez at his peak, and it was a big step up for a team with a black hole at that position for a good long time.
Fitzpatrick ended the year with career highs in attempts (562), completions (335), passing yards (3,905) and touchdowns (31), and he kept the turnovers under wraps for the most part with just 15 picks. Right now, Geno Smith and Bryce Petty are the backup options, which makes Fitzpatrick even more attractive in the short term.
Ivory had a great season, going over 1,000 yards for the first time in his career, and he has the power and agility needed in this offense. Powell can be more easily replaced, but his versatility makes him a valuable chip.
Most important position(s) to improve
Linebacker: Assuming the Jets sign Fitzpatrick, the players who can disrupt quarterbacks on the outside become top priority for the Jets. Gang Green racked up 38 sacks last season, but Wilkerson and Richardson had 17 of those, and Lorenzo Mauldin led all outside linebackers with just four. Calvin Pace, an impending free agent who was once the personification of that pass rush, had just three sacks at age 35.
The problem turns to the inside linebacker position as well, because Demario Davis is an impending free agent, and David Harris turned 32 in January. New blood is needed, and fast. Mauldin, a third-round rookie, is a step in the right direction.
Other positions to improve
Offensive line, cornerback: The Jets’ line has seen attrition from its best players over the last couple of year, and it’s about time for that bill to become due in a more drastic fashion. Franchise left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson gave up five sacks and a career-high 40 hurries last season—not a good look for a team on the middle end of the curve in passing attempts. Center Nick Mangold started to show a bit of decline when holding the point in the run game, and that has been his most dominant asset. Right tackle Breno Giacomini gave up a team-high 44 hurries, and left guard James Carpenter was really the only man on that line last season who played at a consistently high level. The Jets gave up just 17 sacks last year, which is a pretty good indicator that sack numbers don’t tell the whole tale when assessing the quality of a front five.
The Jets brought Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie back in a nice reunion tour before the 2015 season, but only Revis was above-average. Cromartie allowed a 112.0 passer rating and gave up seven touchdowns. Turning 32-years old in April, Cromartie’s physical abilities may have declined to the point where they won’t cover up his at-times undisciplined play. Slot cornerback Buster Skrine was a better signing, but it’s not clear that he’s an outside guy over the long term. Dee Milliner, taken ninth overall in the 2013 draft, can’t stay healthy. The team needs a relative reset at that position.
Overall priority this offseason
Find a new level on offense: With Fitzpatrick at quarterback, Ivory as the main man in the ground game and two legitimate number-one receivers in Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, there’s no reason—outside of a sketchy offensive line—that the Jets can’t be a top 10 offense. They came close in 2015, ranking 11th in points and 10th in yards, but with a 10–6 regular-season record and no playoff berth, all those numbers get put in the rear view.
It seemed like a happy surprise for the team to have an offense that was more than functional for the first time in almost a decade, but now, consistency needs to be the key word. Getting Fitzpatrick back would certainly help, and solidifying the offensive line is a must. If that all happens, and the defense remains consistent, this is a team ready to make a deep playoff run. If not, coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan could be in for a bit of a rebuild.