The New York Jets don’t plan to be a contender in 2017. The moves the franchise has made during the offseason have made it abundantly clear the team doesn’t consider itself a winner right now.
It’s also a realistic approach by the Jets following a 5-11 season where they had the No. 30 scoring offense and the No. 28 defense. The team could have dug in its heels and gone after high-priced free agents, but that probably wouldn’t have helped much. So the Jets did the opposite.
Now the team parted ways with one of its best defensive players, jettisoning Sheldon Richardson to Seattle in exchange for Jermaine Kearse and a second-round pick.
There’s no doubt that the team is worse now than it was when the 2016 season ended, but are the Jets tanking?
Why the Jets are tanking
The Jets’ current situation under center is a disaster. The depth chart is led by soon-to-be-38-year-old journeyman Josh McCown on a one-year deal with unimpressive draft picks Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty battling to be his backup. It’s a mess.
#Jets coach Todd Bowles with the line of the offseason. On Josh McCown: “Even when you go to Kindergarten, somebody's got to be the teacher”— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) June 13, 2017
With a terrible season in 2017, the Jets could fix that.
There are a trio of quarterbacks at the top of the 2018 draft class, led by USC’s Sam Darnold, who is considered the early favorite to be the No. 1 pick. Both SB Nation’s Dan Kadar and ESPN’s Todd McShay pegged Darnold to be the top pick next spring, but both slated him to the Cleveland Browns in their respective mock drafts.
At this rate, that pick could easily belong to the Jets.
With Decker gone, the wide receiver corps is another reason to be convinced the Jets are on track to crash and burn. Devin Smith and Quinton Patton are on injured reserve, Jalin Marshall is suspended the first four games, and Robby Anderson is likely to be suspended, too.
In 2011, there was a “Suck for Luck” campaign on the internet. Fans hoped their favorite team would be the ones to play so poorly that it ensures the No. 1 pick and the chance to take Stanford’s Andrew Luck. It started before the season began and was tracked on a weekly basis.
There isn’t the same amount of hype around Darnold as there was Luck, but the incentive is similar. Why continue to be a middling team that misses out on the top player in the class when it only takes a few roster moves to skip ahead to the front of the line? It’s not like winning in 2017 was a doable option, anyway.
Why the Jets aren’t tanking
It may look like a poorly disguised attempt to be terrible, but the Jets aren’t doing anything new. It’s just step one of rebuilding an NFL franchise. Plenty have done it before and it will be done again.
Teams start by purging as many high-priced contracts as possible and pushing down the age of the roster.
There are only four players on the Jets’ roster right now 30 or older, including McCown. The only player due to count more than $8.5 million against the team’s salary cap is defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson — the Minnesota Vikings and Chicago Bears are the only other teams with just one player over that mark.
It also meant rough times for each franchise.
When Reggie McKenzie first came to Oakland in 2012, the Raiders cut Stanford Routt, Kamerion Wimbley, and John Henderson. The team also renegotiated the contracts of Richard Seymour, Carson Palmer, and Michael Huff, clearing cap space and making all three easy to part with in 2013.
Oakland went 4-12 in 2012 and managed just seven more wins in the next two seasons of the McKenzie era, before finally improving and coming away with 19 wins in the last two.
The Jaguars and Browns are still floundering and hoping years of futility are going to yield results soon.
Losing helped all of those franchises net early draft picks, but losing wasn’t the goal. And even though New York’s recent roster moves undoubtedly make the team worse in 2017, it frees up cap space and open room for younger players to compete and be potential stars of the Jets’ future.
The Jets are adamant that they’re not tanking.
“None of us on the team think that we're going to tank,” running back Matt Forte, one of the few players over 30, told the Associated Press. "So all I have to say about that is: Bring it."
Maccagnan on whether they're tanking: "That's not our focus." #Jets— Rich Cimini (@RichCimini) June 6, 2017
“It’s a good opportunity for all of us young guys to kind of show what we can do,” 25-year-old wide receiver Quincy Enunwa said, via NewYorkJets.com. “It’s unfortunate we lost the people that we lost. They were great leaders.”
After the season, the Jets are currently set to have more than $56 million in available cap space — behind only the Detroit Lions, who will likely cut into that soon with an extension for Matthew Stafford.
The team is hunting for players who will contribute in 2019 or 2020, and Mangold, Revis, Marshall, Harris,and Decker didn’t fit the bill — Enunwa and Wilkerson do, although Enunwa suffered a season injury that will keep him out of action in 2017.
“[Harris] was a great leader in the locker room and on the field, but we have some young guys in that linebacking corps,” Wilkerson said, via NewYorkJets.com. “They may not be big-name guys like Dave, but those guys can definitely step up and make plays.”
The Jets have made a commitment to building through the draft and got that started in April with the additions of Jamal Adams and Marcus Mayes — a pair of safeties who could start as rookies.
Losing will inevitably be a byproduct of cutting ties with so many veterans, but the Jets are better set up to be winners in the future.
Is that tanking?
It depends on your definition. If all it takes are moves that push the team toward more losses than wins, then the Jets’ 2017 offseason would certainly seem to qualify. But those moves are about a whole lot more than Darnold or any other top draft pick.
They’re about better positioning the Jets to be winners in the years beyond 2017.