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Jets' first priority in free agency is getting protection for Sam Darnold

Jets quarterback Sam Darnold scrambles during the second

Jets quarterback Sam Darnold scrambles during the second half against the Steelers on December 22, 2019. Credit: Lee S. Weissman/Lee S. Weissman

It’s Joe’s show now.

Jets general manager Joe Douglas has helped build Super Bowl champions as a scout for the Ravens and as the Eagles' vice president of player personnel. But this is the first time Douglas, whom the Jets hired nine months ago, will get to put together his own team.

He plans to use all that he’s learned from Ozzie Newsome and Howie Roseman as he assembles a team he hopes will not only end the Jets’ nine-year playoff drought but become a Super Bowl contender.

The Jets are coming off a 7-9 season and need help in many areas. Douglas currently has roughly $50 million to spend in free agency. That number is expected to rise dramatically — perhaps to $70 million — after he makes the cuts that have been on hold while the collective bargaining situation is unsettled.

“We’ve got a lot of holes to fill,” Douglas said. “You don’t want to sit on your hands. You want to be aggressive, but you don’t want to be reckless, either. There’s a fine line about being judicious with your spending and your decisions.”

Barring some 11th-hour changes, teams can begin negotiating with player representatives as of noon Monday, and Douglas plans to be very active in free agency.

He won’t fall into the trap of trying to make a big splash, as former Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan did last season when he signed stars Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley to contracts worth $137.5 million. The offseason before that, Maccagnan gave cornerback Trumaine Johnson a $72.5-million deal. Douglas will waive Johnson in the very near future and clear another $3 million off the cap.

The Jets are no quick fix. They need to revamp the offensive line and add more weapons for Adam Gase’s system, which was neither as explosive nor as unpredictable in 2019 as it was made out to be. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams did a terrific job with a unit decimated by injuries, but cornerback and edge rusher have to be addressed.

“You have to choose the right targets,” Douglas said. “First you have to make sure they fit with what you’re trying to do from a team-building and character perspective. How they fit with Adam and Gregg’s scheme. And if the right opportunity presents itself, you can’t be afraid to pull the trigger.

“We’re going to have different tiers of free agents with what money they’re going to make. But it’s going to be important for us to choose the right person.”

Douglas’ No. 1 priority is the offensive line and making sure Sam Darnold is protected well enough to allow him to be the quarterback the Jets believe he can be. Douglas is a former lineman, and that was the Jets’ biggest weakness last year.

The Jets’ Week 1 starting line last year was Brandon Shell, Brian Winters, Ryan Kalil, Kelechi Osemele and Kelvin Beachum. Only Winters is signed for 2020. His $7.28 salary is non-guaranteed and he’s coming off a shoulder injury, so he could be released or brought back at a lower figure.  

Douglas will have plenty of linemen to choose from, but two at the top of the Jets’ list are Patriots guard Joe Thuney and Lions guard Graham Glasgow.

Other names to watch are Redskins guard Brandon Scherff (if he’s not franchise-tagged), Titans tackle Jack Conklin, Panthers guard Greg Van Roten, Eagles tackle Jason Peters and Broncos center Connor McGovern. The Jets also are expected to address the line with the No. 11 pick if one of the top tackles still is on the board.

“We have to improve not only offensive line but many other positions,” Douglas said.

Receiver is an area of need, especially if the Jets lose Robby Anderson. They want to keep him, but the price could be high; Anderson is one of the better receivers in a class that’s not that impressive. If Anderson leaves, the Jets could turn to the Broncos' Emmanuel Sanders (who played for Gase), the Buccaneers' Breshad Perriman or the Patriots' Phillip Dorsett.

“We need explosive guys,” Douglas said. “We need explosive, dynamic playmakers.”

That can be said for both sides of the ball. Safety Jamal Adams, whom the Jets will try to sign to a long-term extension this offseason, and a healthy Mosley give the Jets two playmakers. But they need more, up front and on the back end.

Panthers cornerback James Bradberry is on the Jets’ radar, as are the Cowboys’ Byron Jones, the Eagles' Jalen Mills, whom Douglas knows well, and the Broncos' Chris Harris.

Edge rusher has been a need for the Jets seemingly every year. The Jets are expected to pursue Dante Fowler Jr. if the Rams don’t lock him up. The Seahawks' Jadeveon Clowney and the 49ers' Arik Armstead are other options they could consider. Douglas also could try to acquire an edge rusher via trade.

“You need guys who can affect the pass game on defense, and you’re talking about corners and pass rushers,” he said. “It’s going to be important for us to look at those two positions very closely.”

Five players the Jets could target

1. Joe Thuney, G, Patriots: The Jets’ rebuilding starts on the offensive line, and Thuney is one of the better guards available. He has played and started every game for the Patriots since they took him in the third round in 2016. Thuney played 1,140 snaps and allowed only one sack last season.

2. Graham Glasgow, G, Lions: He fits what the Jets are looking for — a young veteran with versatility, durability and toughness. Glasgow, 27, has lined up at center and both guard positions for the Lions while playing in all but two games the past four seasons. He gave up no sacks.

3. James Bradberry, CB, Panthers: The Jets will be one of several teams interested in Bradberry, who had three interceptions last year. He and the Cowboys’ Byron Jones are two of the best cornerbacks on the market, and the Jets have interest in both. Jones might be a little more expensive.

4. Dante Fowler Jr., OLB, Rams: Fowler was pursued by the Jets’ past regime as well. He’s coming off his best season, racking up 11.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

5. Breshad Perriman, WR, Buccaneers: He could be a contingency plan if the Jets lose Robby Anderson. Perriman isn’t a No. 1 receiver, but he had 419 receiving yards and five touchdown receptions in his last four games.

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