The saddest thing about the current state of the Jets is that this was supposed to be the year they arrived. After nine years of waiting for a playoff game, after enduring three years of rebuilding under ex-GM Mike Maccagnan, it was all supposed to come together in 2019.
Not only didn't that happen, but now the Jets appear to be on the brink of a rebuilding project again.
"We are not where we thought we would be," Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said on Wednesday. "I don't think anybody in this building - me, probably (the media) … This team isn't where we thought we'd be. It's exceedingly frustrating."
It is. It's also stunning considering the amount of high draft picks they've used and the free-agent money they've spent over the last few years. Yes, injuries have taken away some very important pieces, such as inside linebackers Avery Williamson and C.J. Mosley. But they've also been plagued by bad free-agent contracts (cornerback Trumaine Johnson) and a litany of wasted high draft picks (Jachai Polite, ArDarius Stewart, Christian Hackenberg to name a few).
That's a big part of why Maccagnan was fired in May, and why Douglas, a friend of Jets coach Adam Gase, was hired a few weeks later. Douglas held out for a six-year contract before agreeing to take over, which was likely a sign he knew this could take a while.
"(Douglas) has a lot of work to do," said one AFC scout. "This season exposed their roster. We knew they were thin, and that injuries would hurt them. But they need help everywhere - the offensive line, the pass rush, the secondary. Everywhere."
What's unknown, though, is how Douglas is going to attack those problems. He could sell-off some of his biggest assets to accumulate as many draft picks as he can - something he appeared to start to do at the trading deadline when he sent the disappointing Leonard Williams to the Giants for two mid-round picks and nearly shipped safety Jamal Adams to the Cowboys for a package of higher ones. He also listened to offers on running back Le'Veon Bell and receiver Robby Anderson, and multiple NFL sources said he appeared willing to move anyone except for quarterback Sam Darnold and defensive tackle Quinnen Williams if the price was right.
But in the end, he didn't move anyone but Leonard Williams. And despite all the speculation, there's no guarantee he'll move any of them this offseason either. It's possible he'll try to rebuild around the pieces the Jets have - and once everyone is healthy, there are building blocks there. Darnold is the biggest one, of course. Quinnen Williams, Adams, Mosley and Williamson form a strong defense up the middle. And Bell and receiver Jamison Crowder are two formidable offensive weapons.
"Could they be competitive next year? Sure," the scout said. "The playoffs are probably a few years away. But again, they've got a lot of work to do. This won't be easy."
That's not what Jets fans or Johnson or anyone around the franchise likely wants to hear. But they escape the reality that they need an edge rusher, a big-time receiver, and probably a complete overhaul at cornerback and along the offensive line. But who knows? Turnarounds can happen quickly in the NFL. And the Jets do have another high draft pick and they could have $60 million or so to spend in free agency this offseason (again).
That could help them refill a cupboard of talent isn't exactly bare. They do have some pieces to build around, if they choose:
The franchise quarterback - Even though one scout called Darnold's regression this season "alarming" (prior to the Giants game), no one has questioned his talent. He's simply the franchise-changing quarterback the Jets have been looking for forever. And not having "find a quarterback" on his to-do list will make everything easier for Douglas this offseason. He can focus his draft and free-agency plans on edge rusher or the offensive line or the other things the Jets need, knowing that at age 22 Darnold has only scratched the surface of what he can become.
Safety studs - The owner wants Jamal Adams here "forever," though after the Jets nearly traded him at the deadline it remains to be seen if that's possible. And this is where Douglas' plans become a wild card. If he keeps Adams, he's got potentially one of the best safety duos in the NFL in Adams and Marcus Maye (look at the Cowboys game for proof of their potential). But if he could really get a first-rounder and another top pick for Adams, that could help fill a lot of holes. "The kid is an impact player," one AFC scout said. "But you don't want to build around a safety, especially with the contracts they're getting these days." Dealing Adams for a couple of picks would be tempting, but replacing Adams' passion and leadership wouldn't be easy. A trade would be a risk.
Up-the-middle defense - This comes with the caveat of "when healthy," but think about what the Jets have lined up in the middle of the field. Quinnen Williams has been slow to show the potential that made him the third overall pick, but there's obvious talent there. Adams and Maye have the back end covered. And between them they'd have Mosley and Williamson, two players they spent a lot to acquire the last two offseasons. Unfortunately both of them have been hurt all year. "Those might have been their two best players on defense after (Adams)," another AFC scout said. "They're smart. They're leaders. Look at the way the defense fell apart when Mosley went down (in Week 1). They could have changed everything." They're also both only 27. Williamson has another year left on his deal and Mosley is signed through 2023.
The play-maker - This may go down as Bell's worst season, but there seems little doubt he's a product of his surroundings, not diminished talent. There are many teams who would want a playmaker like him in the backfield, which is why he drew interest at the trading deadline too, despite an expensive contract. But like with Adams, his future is uncertain. Gase, as everyone knows, didn't want the Jets to spend all that money on Bell. If Douglas agrees, they could shop him to better allocate their assets and accumulate picks. If he stays, though, what a great centerpiece to build an offense around. "A running back may not be able to carry a team," said one NFL insider, "but if you put a good one with a good quarterback, then you've really got something to build on."
Gase's slot receiver - This position is so key to Gase's offense, and it's why the Jets gave $17 million in guaranteed money to Jamison Crowder. He's always been underrated and underused, but Gase was sure the 26-year-old could become a No. 1 receiver in his scheme. Given Darnold's bout with mono and the offensive line injuries that have made the whole offense feel rushed, Crowder doesn't feel like he's had a huge impact yet, even though he's had 48 catches for 486 yards and two touchdowns in nine games. "It's hard to figure out why they can't get really break him loose," one scout said. "When they do, he'll be a dangerous weapon over the middle." The Jets still need a more traditional top receiver - someone like Demaryius Thomas, only younger. But Crowder has a chance to be a big weapon under Gase.
Line fragments - A team official recently told SNY that guard Alex Lewis might be the only keeper among this five-man group, which is a problem since he could be a free-agent in March. There may be others, though, and not just because overhauling all five positions might be impossible. The Jets have seen some good things lately out of rookie Chuma Edoga and he could be an answer at right tackle. Jonotthan Harrison, 28, looks like a decent player and could return at center next season since he costs only $2.25 million. And they might ask Kelvin Beachum to come back at a reduced rate to be a stopgap at left tackle. Realistically, though, by the time the Jets are really good again, there will be a whole new unit up front.
Other pieces - There aren't many others, really. TE Chris Herndon has talent, but his second season in the NFL has been wasted by a suspension and injuries. WR Robby Anderson could be a deep threat, but he hasn't become the all-around receiver Gase thought he'd be. He'll be a free agent and it's unclear how much the Jets will spend to bring him back. And there are real questions now whether WR Quincy Enunwa will ever play again (he Tweeted on Thursday that the chances are only "50/50"), which will thin out that unit even more. LB Jordan Jenkins does have five sacks this season, but he's a free agent and the Jets won't overspend to keep him, especially when they'll probably be shopping for more expensive pass-rushing help.