MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — New York Jets owner Woody Johnson was livid after last week’s ugly loss to the Seattle Seahawks, team sources said. A five-game losing streak and playoff elimination will do that to a billionaire boss.
On Sunday, they will try to avoid becoming the first Jets team since the 1996 Rich Kotite misfits (1-15) to end the season with six straight losses. If they fall to the Miami Dolphins, Johnson’s patience will be tested. It already seems to be eroding. He was visibly angry in the postgame locker room after previous losses as well, according to sources in the room.
Coach Robert Saleh and general manager Joe Douglas, assuming they both return for 2023, will have a lot of work to do as they try to upgrade a roster that was good enough for 11 games, but not 17.
Some of the key issues:
Find a starting quarterback: Saleh said they will continue to develop Zach Wilson “through hell or high water,” but he hasn’t committed to him as his ’23 starter — a glaring non-endorsement. The former No. 2 overall pick is the NFL’s lowest-rated passer over the past two seasons and probably too risky for a coach-GM tandem whose survival might hinge on making the postseason in 2023. Based on Saleh’s gushing support, it sounds like Wilson could stick as an expensive backup/possible starter in a continuing effort to salvage their investment.
Wilson’s future could be a hotly debated issue among the powers that be. There could be some sentiment to go outside the organization for a proven starter. Veterans Jimmy Garoppolo (San Francisco 49ers free agent) and Derek Carr (Las Vegas Raiders) are the most logical candidates.
Contractually, the Raiders have until three days after the Super Bowl to decide Carr’s fate; he likely will be traded or released. He’s a durable player with four 4,000-yard seasons on his résumé and young enough (32 next season) to be more than a one-year fix. The concern is that he’s had 28 interceptions over the last two seasons, tied for a league high. Garoppolo, 31, has a winning pedigree, and he’s a system fit with ties to the offensive staff, but there are durability questions.
Chart a course on offense: After two years of poor to mediocre offense, offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is on the hot seat. He admitted that he has failed to develop Wilson — an eye-opening comment. This is a huge decision, one that will impact the trajectory of the Saleh regime.
Saleh believes in giving young coaches and players time to grow; it’s unclear if Johnson has the same mindset as it pertains to LaFleur. Johnson could be so frustrated that he might look for a scapegoat, but you can bet Saleh will try to save his close friend. This situation bears watching. Of the 340 offensive touchdowns in the last five weeks, the Jets have only four. In LaFleur’s defense, he lost two starting linemen and his most dynamic playmaker, running back Breece Hall, before Halloween.
They could consider keeping LaFleur and pairing him with a senior assistant, a role the late Greg Knapp was supposed to occupy. If so, someone like Gary Kubiak — one of the founders of their offensive scheme — would be a name to watch. Kubiak, 61, retired from coaching two years ago. Maybe Saleh, who worked under Kubiak more than a decade ago with the Houston Texans, could talk him into coming back.
Rebuild the offensive line (yes, again): This was Douglas’ pet project a couple of years ago, but here we are again, staring at more heavy lifting.
The Jets finished 20th and 30th in pass and run block win rate, respectively, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Because of injuries, they had to start three left tackles, four right guards and four right tackles — and that doesn’t include right tackle Mekhi Becton, who was lost in training camp due to knee surgery. There’s a sentiment within the organization that the line’s issues were the primary reason for the downfall of the team.
Douglas will have two returning starters in guard Laken Tomlinson and guard/tackle Alijah Vera-Tucker, who will be back from triceps surgery, but he will need a center (Connor McGovern is a free agent) and one or two tackles (George Fant is a free agent and Duane Brown could retire).
Becton is a wild card because he will have missed nearly two full years due to injuries and weight issues. Can they count on him to be a starter in the final year of his contract? Rehabbing at the facility, Becton looks “slim,” said one teammate, who predicted the 6-foot-7, 380-pound tackle will be a comeback-player-of-the-year candidate.
Look for Douglas to make one or two big investments in the line.
Trim some fat: They haven’t had to do this in recent years because there was always plenty of cap room, the result of not having burdensome contracts. Those days are over, as some of their free-agent signings haven’t carried their weight.
Several high-priced veterans could be salary-cap casualties, most notably wide receiver Corey Davis ($10.5 million savings) and Brown ($5.3 million). The Jets are taking a risk by playing Davis in the final game. If he suffers a major injury, the team could be on the hook for his 2023 salary.
Other vets who could be in danger are defensive end Carl Lawson ($15 million savings), wide receiver Braxton Berrios ($5 million) and safety Jordan Whitehead ($7.5 million). Lawson hasn’t had a great year (seven sacks), but he plays a premium position, which works in his favor. They have to do something with C.J. Mosley‘s contract. The Pro Bowl middle linebacker has a $21.5 million cap charge, which is prohibitive.
Write a big check: The Jets have 19 unrestricted free agents, including quarterback Mike White, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and linebacker Quincy Williams, but the biggest contract situation is that of defensive tackle Quinnen Williams. He’s not a free agent — he’s under signed through 2023 (fifth-year option) — but he will be the big story because he will command the largest contract in franchise history.
Williams, still only 25, has established himself as one of the premier defenders in the league (career-high 12 sacks). Defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich called it “one of the best defensive performances … that I’ve ever been around, and I’ve been around some really, really good players,” including Pro Football Hall of Famer Bryant Young.
The highest-paid defensive tackle, based on average annual value, is the Los Angeles Rams‘ Aaron Donald at $31.7 million. Next are the New York Giants‘ Leonard Williams and the Indianapolis Colts‘ DeForest Buckner at $21 million. Williams figures to be aiming for something north of Williams and Buckner.
Unlike some former teammates, who have squawked about their contracts, Williams has remained patient. The Jets don’t have a great reputation when it comes to rewarding their own, so this will be interesting. His mindset might be influenced by how the organization handles his brother’s contract. Quincy, 27, might be their most coveted free agent.