Mike Maccagnan gets a do-over — two of them, actually — and if the Jets’ general manager can get things right this time, his team stands a good chance of finally turning the corner and becoming a playoff contender.
Key word: if.
Maccagnan will be flush with salary-cap cash at the start of free agency, and he plans to spend a good chunk of the $100 million that will be available in early March. If he can come out of the offseason with a reliable quarterback and a handful of other impact players, then the Jets can build on a solid core of young talent and be a factor, not an afterthought, in the AFC East.
If . . .
Maccagnan spent lavishly in free agency when he got the job in 2015, and the Jets enjoyed a modest resurgence by getting to within a victory of the playoffs in Ryan Fitzpatrick’s career year. Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, Brandon Marshall and a few other key acquisitions provided some relief for a team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2010, and only Fitzpatrick’s meltdown in Week 17 prevented them from playing in January.
But the 10-6 season turned out to be a sugar rush that didn’t last. After plummeting to 5-11 in 2016, Maccagnan swept out just about every aging, unproductive player and started refilling the cupboard with promising young players such as safeties Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye and running back Eli Maguire. He also traded for linebacker Demario Davis and found bigger roles for wide receiver Robby Anderson and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. And he got lucky with Josh McCown, the journeyman quarterback who provided terrific leadership and a strong on-field presence.
What didn’t pan out was the long-term quarterback situation, though. With Bryce Petty not showing nearly enough to be considered a realistic solution, and with Christian Hackenberg not even taking a snap his first two years, Maccagnan gets another crack at it.
“I do think we have a lot of potential to improve this team,” Maccagnan said Tuesday at a news briefing to review the season and look ahead to 2018. “We’ll focus on players we can acquire from a talent standpoint that fit what we want to do, both from an ability and character standpoint.”
There will be some enticing choices.
Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins is likely to be on the market, and Alex Smith might be moved to make room for 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes. Both will be pricey, but money should be no object for Maccagnan now that he has cleared the decks with the cap. Lions pass rusher Ziggy Ansah and Jaguars receiver Allen Robinson could be other attractive options.
There are also intriguing choices in the draft, especially at quarterback. If Sam Darnold of USC and Josh Rosen of UCLA declare, they may be picked 1-2. The Jets, who have the sixth pick, could aim for Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield, coming off a spectacular performance in the Rose Bowl. At 6-1, he may not have prototypical size, but he’s uber-productive and competitive — sometimes too much so, especially when he crosses the line with gestures toward opponents. He’d be a dynamic presence on the New York stage, and could be the quarterback the Jets have been looking for all along.
One scenario that makes a ton of sense: Sign Cousins to get an immediate and longer-term fix at quarterback, then try to get Penn State running back Saquon Barkley early in the first round. That’s the kind of instantaneous upgrade that could be the difference maker.
If Mayfield is available, that will be awfully tempting, too, and Maccagnan must decide if he has enough draft capital to make it work in the event he has to move up a few spots.
Either way, there are viable options. Now it’s up to Maccagnan to make sure he doesn’t repeat mistakes of the past on the free-agent market and, especially with the quarterback decision.
He gets a do-over on both counts. If he gets them right this time, the Jets will be playing into January.