The most recent team to sign a franchise quarterback as a free agent presented a strong foundation, but one that hadn’t proven much.
While the Denver Broncos advanced to the divisional round two months before landing Peyton Manning, that ranks as one of the flukier runs in modern NFL history. Prior to that, the Broncos had gone five seasons without making the playoffs.
However, the team Manning joined had young talent at just about every position. Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, Von Miller, Elvis Dumervil, Ryan Clady, Chris Harris and others had the makings of a nucleus Manning could elevate. There were numerous promising 20-somethings on that team — many on their rookie contracts — and most of those players became integral cogs on at least one of the subsequent Super Bowl rosters.
Six years later, Kirk Cousins will have his choice of a few needy suitors. The team that is currently favored in these sweepstakes has some high-ceiling talent. Leonard Williams, Jamal Adams and, should he be able to avoid future legal trouble, Robby Anderson give the New York Jets possible long-term cornerstones.
The team deemed by oddsmakers as the Jets’ closest competition, the Broncos, may not be able to say that given the ages of their best players.
But the difference between the 2018 Jets and either the 2012 Broncos that wooed Manning, or the current (older) Denver roster that again needs a quarterback, is depth. Beyond a few players, there are gaping holes on this Jet roster. That could pose a problem given Cousins’ comments about targeting a team best equipped to win right away.
New York will have a significant advantage in the category that usually decides these races, but beyond its cap space, there is not much for Cousins to go on. The 29-year-old quarterback will have to overlook just about everything else if he is to believe Gang Green can equip him with what he needs to form a contending team.
Last year’s purge of veterans became necessary and has the Jets armed with finances to be a player in this pursuit, but the jury is still out on Mike Maccagnan‘s ability to construct a roster. Similar doubts aren’t attached to John Elway, Viking general manager Rick Spielman, or top Cardinal executive Steve Keim. It’s unclear how serious Minnesota or Arizona are about entering the Cousins derby, but Elway appears to be ready to battle the Jets.
The Broncos will have checkmarks in tradition (both all-time and recent), roster pedigree, front office success, wide receivers, and on defense. The Jets probably have the better coach, and their new offensive coordinator is a Mike Shanahan disciple. They again have more money. Maccagnan looks ready to make a financial commitment to Cousins that would outflank Elway.
If Cousins signs with the Jets, he will be a historically wealthy NFL player. But he’ll be entrusting this organization to make immense upgrades. What’s on the roster now is worse than what Cousins will be leaving behind with the Redskins.
Trouble spots exist along the offensive line, at linebacker and cornerback. While Anderson’s football resume indicates a player destined for future Pro Bowls (as an actual selection, not replacement fodder), he may be one legal strike away from being shown the door. The rest of the pass-catching situation does not look stable, either, with Austin Seferian-Jenkins a free agent and Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enunwa unrestricted free agents in 2019.
The Jets will have plenty of work to do in the draft and in free agency, and thus far, it’s hard to trust that this regime will make the right calls.
Williams fell to the Jets during Maccagnan’s first draft in 2015, and Adams looks like a long-term safety answer. However, other high picks have contributed next to nothing or shown they’re not worthy of their draft statuses. Darron Lee graded as Pro Football Focus’ worst full-time linebacker in his second season. The 2016 first-rounder has started 24 games in two seasons, 21 more than Devin Smith (2015 second round) or Christian Hackenberg (’16 second round) made combined.
This current Jet regime’s two biggest signings proved to be disasters.
By 2016, Darrelle Revis was stealing money from the Jets. His prime came to a screeching halt early in his second Jet tenure, and the team had to absorb an extensive dead-money hit last season. Muhammad Wilkerson went from All-Pro-level talent to a player whose impending release will stick the Jets with even more in dead money at $9 million.
The structure of Antonio Cromartie’s contract didn’t cost the Jets when they opted to release the cornerback, but he didn’t even last as long as Revis did when the pair agreed to return to the Big Apple in 2015.
Cousins agreeing to take the Jets’ presumably unprecedented offer would mean placing a lot of faith in the idea that everything will turn around soon. Having (possibly) $90M-plus in cap space is valuable, but little over the past three years suggests this money will be correctly allocated.
For Cousins to have a better chance at contending in the near future than he did in Washington, the Jets are going to have to make a lot of smart decisions to fortify this roster.
Some will surely call Cousins disingenuous if he signs with the Jets because of the various comments he made about wanting to join a team in position to contend. That’s a tough sell. But if the Jets’ offer is significantly better than the other suitors, it would be hard to blame him for accepting.
Yet, if Cousins really is committed to landing in a winning situation, the Jets are in trouble.