Jets 10-step offseason plan: Trade Zach Wilson, get Aaron Rodgers help on offense
The New York Jets talked about themselves like Super Bowl contenders in training camp last year, and then — for many reasons — they didn’t even sniff the playoffs.
They’ll mostly run it back with the same defense and the same cornerstones on offense: Aaron Rodgers, Breece Hall and Garrett Wilson.
But if they want to snap the playoff skid and vault into legitimate Super Bowl contention, there is much to be done.
Here’s a 10-step to-do list for general manager Joe Douglas this offseason.
This has been inevitable for a while; Jets coach Robert Saleh told Wilson as much when he benched him for Tim Boyle during the season. The Jets will try to find a better backup quarterback and Wilson will get out of a situation that has been bad for him (and for the Jets) since the beginning. He’s flashed some talent in spurts over three years, especially against the Texans this year, but it’s been more bad than good.
Don’t expect a significant return in a trade for Wilson, but there will be interest in a young quarterback with the tools to improve with the right coaching. He might never be a full-time starting quarterback, but some team will convince itself it can turn Wilson into something. And maybe that can happen out of the New York limelight.
There has been some buzz about the Los Angeles Rams being a potential destination, but I wouldn’t count on that considering former Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur’s feelings about Wilson. (Hint: Not positive.)
2. Make a decision on Laken Tomlinson (and other cuts/restructures)
The Jets don’t have much cap space ($4.9 million, per Over the Cap), and they also don’t have many logical players they can release to save money.
Tight end C.J. Uzomah is a safe bet to be waived, which will save only $5.3 million (with a $5.9 million dead cap penalty) because Douglas restructured Uzomah’s contract last offseason. Trading Wilson will save $5.4 million (with a $5.7 million dead cap penalty).
Tomlinson will be the most interesting decision. The Jets won’t carry Tomlinson’s $18.8 million cap hit into the season, so they have three routes they might go:
1. Cut or trade him and save $8.1 million (with a $10.7 million dead cap penalty).
2. Get Tomlinson to agree to a pay cut, a la Carl Lawson in 2023.
3. Restructure his contract and push the dead cap into future years.
There aren’t any other obvious cap cuts unless general manager Joe Douglas decides to make a surprise move and cut linebacker C.J. Mosley ($11 million cap savings) or defensive end John Franklin-Myers ($7.3 million), which would make the defense worse in both cases. The Jets will have to wait another year to cut wide receiver Allen Lazard.
More likely than Douglas cutting players like Mosley: a bunch of contract restructures, like last season. It will make the future cap sheet look messy, but the Jets don’t have much of a choice.
The most likely restructure candidates: Mosley, Franklin-Myers, Tomlinson, D.J. Reed, Tyler Conklin and Quincy Williams. The fans might not like it, but restructuring Lazard’s deal ($12.1 million cap hit) is on the table, too.
3. Extend D.J. Reed and Tyler Conklin
Another option for the Jets with Reed and Conklin rather than restructure: extend.
Reed will go down as one of the Jets’ all-time successful free-agent signings. He’s turned into one of the NFL’s best cornerbacks, even if the league hasn’t recognized that yet with Pro Bowl or All-Pro accolades. He’s still only 27 and carries a $15.6 million cap hit in 2024. Douglas should extend him now, reducing that cap hit and locking in one of the Jets’ best players long-term.
Conklin has been solid for more than two seasons despite shoddy quarterback play, and his numbers should take a leap in 2024 with Rodgers at QB. He has a $9.3 million cap hit in 2024 and an extension shouldn’t be too pricey.
The Jets also should extend 24-year-old corner Michael Carter II before he hits free agency in 2025, though that wouldn’t necessarily save money since he has just a $1.1 million cap hit as a 2021 fifth-round pick.
4. Make a difficult decision on Bryce Huff
At this juncture, it’s unlikely the Jets bring back the 25-year-old Huff, especially as his price has skyrocketed coming off a career year. Huff had 10 sacks in an increased role and might’ve played his way out of the Jets’ price range. Letting a player of that caliber leave is not good business, but the Jets are deep at defensive end and also just invested first-round picks at the position in each of the last two years with Jermaine Johnson (a Pro Bowler) and Will McDonald, who barely played in 2023.
Douglas might want to re-sign Huff, but he also has to justify spending that much money on a non-starter to owner Woody Johnson. If the Jets are willing to let Huff walk, that likely means they believe McDonald is ready to take a Jermaine Johnson-esque leap forward. It’s a gamble.
5. Bring back some notable free agents — and let others (like Mekhi Becton) walk
Becton almost certainly won’t be re-signing. Same for Lawson, cornerback Bryce Hall and offensive tackle Duane Brown.
The Jets should re-sign safety Ashtyn Davis, who emerged as a playmaker in 2023, and kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Thomas Morstead will be priorities. Safety Jordan Whitehead is well-liked by Jets brass but it might be time to turn the page at safety to someone new. Perhaps that means simply bringing back Davis or the injured Chuck Clark to pair with Tony Adams. Defensive tackles Solomon Thomas and Quinton Jefferson are both worth bringing back for depth.
6. Invest in the offensive line
If the Jets go all-out for anything in free agency, it should be on the offensive line. Joe Tippmann and Alijah Vera-Tucker are the only locked-in starters for 2024, and the Jets still have to decide what position Vera-Tucker will play. I’d keep him at left or right guard. And if we’re operating under the assumption that Tomlinson will return, that leaves holes at left and right tackle, along with some depth concerns.
Cowboys tackle Tyron Smith and Patriots tackle Trent Brown are the two best impending free agent tackles, but both have injury issues and it feels unlikely that Smith would leave Dallas. The next tier includes Jonah Williams (Bengals) and Mike Onwenu (Patriots). Williams has talent but he’s allowed 20 sacks and 16 QB hits combined over the last two years. Onwenu is intriguing: He’s only 26, can play guard or tackle (mainly right tackle) and he’s graded positively as a run and pass blocker by PFF every year of his career. PFF projects him to earn $14.5 million per season.
The next tier of tackles, Jermaine Eluemunor (Raiders) and Andrus Peat (Saints), would be cheaper and worth exploring, too. If the Jets cut Tomlinson, or move Vera-Tucker to right tackle, they’ll need to sign interior linemen. Some potential options include Kevin Zeitler (Ravens), Jon Runyan (Packers), Damien Lewis (Seahawks), Jonah Jackson (Lions) and Aaron Brewer (Titans).
It’s also imperative that the Jets upgrade their swing tackle spot for depth.
7. Don’t overspend on a No. 2 WR
Fans often want the best wide receivers hitting free agency, but rarely does it work out for the teams that overspend at the position. Just look at the top two earners to sign with new teams over the last five years:
2023: Allen Lazard, Jakobi Meyers
2022: Christian Kirk, Allen Robinson
2021: Kenny Golladay, Corey Davis
2020: Randall Cobb, Emmanuel Sanders
2019: Tyrell Williams, Golden Tate
Kirk is the only one of that group that can be viewed as a true success.
So while the Jets absolutely should invest in wide receiver this offseason — they need more than one — overspending is not the avenue. Odds are, the best projected free agents like Mike Evans, Tee Higgins and Michael Pittman Jr. won’t actually hit the open market. Maybe Marquise Brown or Calvin Ridley will break free, but Ridley will be pricey — PFF projects $16 million per season — and Brown is injury prone.
The priority in free agency should be in the offensive line, so dabbling in the next tier of free agent wide receivers isn’t the worst idea — especially if Douglas wants to draft a wideout early. That includes players like Gabe Davis, Tyler Boyd, Curtis Samuel, Darnell Mooney and Kendrick Bourne. The Jets could also add wide receiver talent via trade, as well as early in the NFL Draft. Some potential trade targets who may or may not be available: Courtland Sutton (Broncos), Adam Thielen (Panthers), Diontae Johnson (Steelers), Chris Godwin (Buccaneers).
Some receivers who might make sense as potential targets to be a No. 3 or No. 4 option: K.J. Osborn, Noah Brown, Van Jefferson, Mack Hollins and Nick Westbrook-Ikhine.
8. Don’t just sign Aaron Rodgers’ friends
That’s not to say the Jets shouldn’t sign someone just because he’s Rodgers’ friend — but they can’t have a repeat of the 2023 offseason, when all of the players he wanted (Lazard, Cobb, Dalvin Cook, Billy Turner) simply did not work out.
The Jets should avoid Odell Beckham Jr. despite pursuing him in 2023. Offensive lineman David Bakhtiari could hit free agency but he’s had five knee surgeries in the last three seasons.
Packers running back AJ Dillon would be intriguing for depth behind Breece Hall, as would Ravens running back J.K. Dobbins, who rehabbed with Rodgers. Runyan is an option on the offensive line, too.
The Jets can’t afford to make the same mistake as last year, when the season fell apart the minute Rodgers went down with an Achilles injury. It’s not uncommon for teams to struggle while playing backup quarterbacks, but the Jets wasted one of the NFL’s best defenses by deploying one of the league’s worst offenses week after week. And that was largely because Douglas opted not to bring in any veteran quarterbacks when Rodgers got injured.
Two obvious options should become available:
• The 31-year-old Brissett, a solid starter, one of the league’s best backups and highly respected by many in the Jets building.
• The 35-year-old Tannehill, on the decline but still leaps and bounds better than last year’s options, with a connection to Jets coaches Todd Downing and Keith Carter from their time together with the Titans.
Brissett earned $8 million with Washington last year, which might be the going rate for a quality backup quarterback.
“We need a backup quarterback,” Woody Johnson told the New York Post last week. “We didn’t have one last year.”
The Jets also need to sign a better backup running back than Cook, and for less money. I’d consider someone like Dillon, Gus Edwards or Zack Moss as a counter to Hall’s skill set.
10. Draft O-line and/or offensive weapons early — and a developmental QB late
The Jets pick 10th and don’t have a second-round pick. A trade back to recoup the pick lost in last year’s Rodgers trade can’t be ruled out. Short of that, the Jets’ No. 1 priority should be offensive tackle. If they are able to address the position in free agency — they need left and right tackles — then they can turn to wide receiver in a loaded draft at the position.
Oregon State tackle Taliese Fuaga, a Senior Bowl standout, has caught a lot of buzz about being a potential Jets target, though it’s still a little early in the process to give that too much credence. The Jets would also have to at least consider LSU’s Malik Nabers or Washington’s Rome Odunze — both wide receivers — if they fell to No. 10. O-line and offensive weapons should be targets in Round 3, too.
As for quarterback: It’s time for Douglas to take a page out of Howie Roseman’s book and start adding quarterbacks to develop — even on Day 3 — especially since Rodgers will turn 41 during the 2024 season. It might not amount to anything, or maybe the Jets can strike gold and find the next Brock Purdy.
(Top photo: Nick Cammett / Getty Images)