As the Jets’ coaches and personnel department head to Indianapolis on Sunday for the NFL Scouting Combine, general manager Mike Maccagnan faces a turning point in his role as executive talent evaluator.
In his first three seasons, Maccagnan found seven starters from his draft classes. Now, in his fourth year, there is pressure to get the team into the playoffs.
Building a roster is done through more than the draft, but for the Jets, it’s everything, and Maccagnan, boosted by a two-year contract extension signed just before the end of the 2017 season, must get this right.
The Jets have produced consecutive 5-11 seasons under Todd Bowles, and although some progress has been shown, making the postseason in 2018 or at least getting close seems vital.
“I have no mandate. Believe me, I want to get to the playoffs,” Jets CEO Christopher Johnson said when the season was over. “I want to build a team with Mike and Todd that can compete for the playoffs every year, and that can’t happen fast enough, but there is no mandate.”
But there must be progress, and the Jets have some holes to fill to reach their goals. It starts at quarterback.
With the No. 6 overall pick in the draft and two second-round picks, the Jets should wind up with three quality players. But getting a quarterback is a tricky business.
The free-agent market is filled with quality quarterbacks and the Jets are interested in Kirk Cousins. They have a projected $77 million in salary-cap space to work with in 2018. That number can increase by $14 million with the expected cuts of defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson ($11 million) and running back Matt Forte ($3 million).
The Jets also can create more room by restructuring the contracts of right tackle Kelvin Beachum ($9.5-million cap number) and cornerback Buster Skrine ($8.5 million).
Cousins is projected to seek a contract worth $25 million to $30 million per season, and it’s uncertain whether the Jets want to go that high to sign him. A source said they won’t break the bank for Cousins but plan on making a competitive bid for the 29-year-old.
When the season ended, Johnson said he doesn’t want the Jets to sign someone, only to see that player released in a few years.
If the Jets pass on Cousins, this is a draft in which at least five quarterbacks could go in the first round. The Jets met with Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield at the Senior Bowl and will hold another meeting with him this week.
Like most NFL teams, they also will talk with Sam Darnold, Josh Rosen, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen at the Combine and attend their pro days. Maccagnan attended the UCLA-USC game in November to watch Darnold (USC) play against Rosen (UCLA).
What the Jets do at quarterback could shape how they approach the rest of the draft.
They already believe the defense is slightly ahead of the offense. The Jets have gotten seven starters through the last three drafts, five of them on defense.
With the expected release of Wilkerson, finding a pass rusher is on the list of things for Maccagnan to do. Some mock drafts have the Jets taking North Carolina State’s Bradley Chubb at No. 6 overall. At 6-3, 275 pounds, he might be a little small compared to the other ends on the active roster. But if the Jets go down that path, he most likely will pick up some weight, as Bowles sometimes likes to utilize his defensive ends as defensive tackles. For example, Leonard Williams, the Jets’ best end, is 6-5, 302 pounds.
The other holes to fill are at running back, wide receiver and center. Penn State running back Saquon Barkley is deemed the best at his position and has expressed an interest in playing for the Jets, his favorite team when he was growing up. The wide receiver class isn’t considered strong and the Jets selected two receivers in the middle rounds last season, though neither one is considered elite. Getting an athletic center with position flexibility also is important.
Maccagnan has three picks within the first 64 selections of the draft, and that’s where starters are found. Last year, he found two starters in safeties Jamal Adams (first round) and Marcus Maye (second round), and if he again finds gems in the opening rounds, it would be a solid achievement.
What Maccagnan has done thus far has given the Jets confidence that they are building something. With additional building through this draft, they hope it will translate to more victories in 2018.
“I think we have made progress,” Maccagnan said in January. “I think like everything else, you want to get there as quick as you can get there, but you try to do things that you think will help move this forward. I do feel good about some of the young players we have on our team. I think they’re going to be good cornerstone players for us going forward. I’m excited about our cap space going forward and the ability to potentially add players from that standpoint.”