For all the Jets' roster moves this off-season—and there were some doozies—the real game-changers came well before the draft or any free agent signings.
Rex Ryan was out as coach after six seasons, including four straight without a playoff appearance and last season's 4–12 meltdown. The Jets replaced him with another brilliant defensive mind, ex-Cardinals coordinator Todd Bowles, whose ascension to a head coaching spot was downright inevitable. Also sent packing was GM John Idzik, whose conservative approach in the 2014 market later left owner Woody Johnson lamenting that "we probably should have spent more." Idzik's replacement: longtime Texans scout Mike Maccagnan.
“You try to get the best people you can to run your organization that represent what we are trying to accomplish here and the way we are trying to do it,” Johnson said when announcing the hires of Bowles and Maccagnan. “I can’t underestimate the importance of these two decisions here.”
Maccagnan certainly did not tiptoe into the waters. Within his first 110 days on the job, Maccagnan had orchestrated a trade for wide receiver Brandon Marshall, signed a pair of high-profile cornerbacks (Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, with Buster Skrine coming along to boot), spun another deal for quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and nabbed defensive lineman Leonard Williams in the draft.
A rebuild? Hardly. The Jets are banking on Bowles and their other new faces to produce a quick turnaround.
“I think anytime you take over a team or go to a different place, there has to be a culture change,” Bowles said when he was hired. “We have to get to some of the players and we have to teach them our culture. Not that the other culture was bad, but it didn’t win, so our culture is going to be try to instill different things in them from a winning organization, from a different point of view to make us go forward and get to the playoffs.”
The past few months have been a rousing success for this franchise, on paper. Many a team, though, has stumbled after challenging for the crown of off-season champions. Can the Jets avoid that fate and regain their status as playoff contenders?
Best acquisition: Darrelle Revis, CB
There is a general air of desperation among NFL general managers as they turn over every stone in a search for impact cornerbacks. Within a short free-agency window, Maccagnan added three: Revis, Cromartie and Skrine. It cost him a boatload of money—around $127 million total and $59 million guaranteed. But if the aggressive play works out, the Jets could have a shutdown secondary to pair with their potentially dominant front.
Revis was the marquee signing. Two seasons removed from his first Jets stint (2007–12) and coming off a Super Bowl title with New England, he returned to settle some unfinished business.
“They drafted me and I have a lot of history here,” said Revis of the Jets at his introductory press conference. “I love being around the people I’ve met in the organization and I just have a lot of ties here. This is where my heart is.
“When I got drafted in 2007, the GM then was Mike Tannenbaum and I told him I would do everything in my power to try to bring a championship to this organization and I still feel that way. That’s something that I want to be a part of ... that was probably one of the big reasons to really come back home, it is just because I still have that mindset.”
In New England, Revis, who turns 30 years old in July, appeared to be all the way back from the knee injury that brought a close to his prior Jets run in 2012. The Patriots leaned heavily on his man-to-man skills en route to a championship; the Jets figure to do the same, with what they hope will be similar results.
Bowles said in March that he may use Revis as a shadow on the opposition's top receiver, much as he did with Patrick Peterson in Arizona. Incidentally, Peterson also had Cromartie covering the opposite side of the field, as Revis will in New York. Skrine should be capable of handling slot duties.
The Jets ranked 14th against the pass in 2014. Their standing in that category should improve this year, if all goes according to plan.
Biggest loss: Dawan Landry, S
Landry is still a free agent in the final days of May, so that should tell everyone how the Jets feel about his departure. The veteran did play more than 2,000 defensive snaps over the past two seasons, so there is a void to fill. Calvin Pryor, the Jets' first-round pick in 2014, and free-agent addition Marcus Gilchrist are first up in trying to ensure that safety is not the Achilles' heel of the defense.
While Landry provided a steady hand, it won't take much to match his overall impact—he picked off just one pass over two seasons in New York and neither forced nor recovered a fumble in that time. The Jets as a team mustered a league-worst 13 takeaways in 2014, with Landry as guilty as anyone for the lack of big plays.
Landry's experience might be missed, but that's about all.
Underrated draft pick: Deon Simon, DT (round 7, pick No. 223)
As is often the case for seventh-rounders, Simon faces an uphill battle simply to make the roster. The depth in place up front will not make that quest any easier.
His calling cards are his size (6'4", 321 pounds) and strength (his 35 bench press reps topped all combine attendees), which give the Northwestern State product a chance to hang on as a backup nose tackle. There will not be many snaps available along the defensive line, but Simon could give Damon Harrison a breather as a run-stuffing presence inside if he wins a roster spot.
Looming question for training camp: How will Bowles get all of his D-line talent on the field?
Step one in answering this question is for the Jets to get Muhammad Wilkerson into camp. Wilkerson skipped the first set of OTAs as he seeks a contract extension, with his current deal set to expire after the 2015 season. Even before the Jets drafted Williams, there was some speculation that Wilkerson could be on the trade block.
Assuming for now that he stays put, Wilkerson eventually will join Williams, Sheldon Richardson and Harrison as the top four linemen in Bowles's base 3–4 scheme. Add in veteran free-agent additions Kevin Vickerson and Stephen Bowen, Simon and intriguing 24-year-old tackle T.J. Barnes, and the Jets have a lot of bodies competing for playing time.
No matter how Bowles and defensive coordinator Kacy Rodgers settle things, the upside is enormous.
“Definitely the talent is there for us to be the best [defensive line in the NFL],” Vickerson told NJ.com recently.
The Wilkerson-Richardson-Harrison trifecta was disruptive on its own last season, with Richardson earning a Pro Bowl berth and Wilkerson earning second-team All-Pro honors. The Jets ranked fifth in the league against the run, despite their 4–12 record.
Maccagnan may have had more pressing needs to address at the No. 6 pick this year, but Williams was too talented to pass up there. The USC star landed as the top prospect on our SI 64 draft rankings.
“I'm willing to play wherever they want me to play, because being versatile at USC, it allows me to fit in a lot of different spots,” Williams said, via the New York Daily News. “I’d prefer to play defensive end, but also … in a lot of sub-packages, I can move around and find spots to get to the quarterback.”
Adding Williams to the roster provides Bowles with even greater mix-and-match flexibility on defense. He could use Williams in a rotation with Wilkerson and Richardson; he could drop all three onto the field at the same time in an attempt to overwhelm an offensive line with athleticism. Heck, he even could give all three a breather, allowing them to rest up for key moments as the depth players hold down the fort.
This is a great problem to have.