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How Jets should handle this offseason with or without Sam Darnold

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It would be hard for the Jets not to improve this offseason.

The team is coming off one of the worst seasons in its history, going 2-14 and at times looking like one of the worst teams in NFL history. So it feels like the only way to go is up in 2021. That said, general manager Joe Douglas has a huge task ahead of him in the coming weeks and months.

Douglas has positioned himself well to have flexibility and resources to execute his plan this offseason. The Jets are projected to have $67.9 million in salary cap space by Over The Cap. That number can grow if Douglas makes a few cuts. The Jets have nine draft picks — five in the first three rounds.

The resources are there to improve. Douglas now must do the hard part and find players to make this team better quickly. Building a team that can win more than two games should not be challenging. Building one that can be a playoff contender will be.

The Jets have holes all over their roster. For Douglas, this will be a Noah’s Ark offseason — he needs two of everything.

The offense needs playmakers and an upgrade on the offensive line — again. The question of whether to keep quarterback Sam Darnold or start over at the position looms over everything.

On defense, the Jets have a budding star in Quinnen Williams and not much else they can rely on at the moment.

Here is an overview of what Douglas faces as the offseason gets rolling:

The QB Decision

Douglas and new coach Robert Saleh don’t necessarily have to plot their course at quarterback immediately, but no decision will have a greater impact on 2021 and beyond.

Jets
Zach Wilson, Sam Darnold and Richard Sherman could all play a part in the Jets’ offseason.
Getty Images (2), N.Y. Post: Charles Wenzelberg

If I’m Douglas, I would be operating on two tracks when it comes to quarterback right now. On one hand, I would be checking in with the Texans weekly to see if Deshaun Watson becomes available. Watson would be my first choice and I would be willing to give up three first-round picks to land him. So far, Houston has said it is not trading Watson, but that would not stop me from asking often.

At the same time while he is waiting for Houston to blink, Douglas needs to figure out if any of the college quarterbacks are potential franchise quarterbacks. If he has a strong conviction on one of them, he should draft that player and trade Darnold for the best package he can get. Many around the NFL believe Darnold could fetch a second-round pick and an additional mid-round pick. BYU’s Zach Wilson is gaining momentum as the second-best quarterback in the draft after Trevor Lawrence, and if Douglas feels Wilson is legit, then take him No. 2.

If the Texans don’t buckle by the draft on Watson and Douglas is iffy on the college quarterbacks, sticking with Darnold and trying to upgrade the talent around him is a nice fallback. There are people inside the Jets who still believe in Darnold and feel better coaching and better players around him will make him realize his potential.

In-House Free Agents

Safety Marcus Maye is the priority here. Maye played very well last season in his contract year and flourished in his role as a leader with Jamal Adams gone. Maye will probably command around $15 million per year. The Jets need to lock up one of the few draft picks they have gotten right over the past 10 years. If they can’t agree on a contract, using the franchise tag on Maye is an option.

Beyond Maye, linebacker Neville Hewitt, edge-rusher Tarell Basham, backup quarterback Joe Flacco and cornerback Brian Poole all are worth considering bringing back.

In terms of cap cuts, the Jets can clear some space by releasing defensive end Henry Anderson ($8.2 million cap savings). The other players they need to consider are tackle George Fant ($7.8 million) and guards Alex Lewis ($5.1 million) and Greg Van Roten ($3.4 million.) Wide receiver Jamison Crowder ($10.3 million) would give the Jets major savings, but I think he is worth keeping. He was their most reliable offensive player over the past two years.

Outside Free Agents

Like every GM, Douglas would love to build his team through the draft. That’s great, but the Jets have too many holes to think the draft alone is going to turn this team around in 2021. Douglas is going to have to spend some money in free agency this year after shopping in the bargain bin last year.

The Jets biggest needs are wide receiver, offensive line, edge rusher and cornerback. Douglas needs to come out of free agency with answers at two of those positions.

The wide receiver market could be loaded this year depending on what happens with franchise tags. If they hit the market Chris Godwin, Allen Robinson, Kenny Golladay, Will Fuller and JuJu Smith-Schuster are all attractive options for the Jets. Douglas needs to give whoever his quarterback is a top target to go along with Crowder and Denzel Mims.

Douglas rebuilt the offensive line last year, but other than rookie Mekhi Becton, there were not many long-term answers found. If I’m Douglas, I would think about pursuing Packers center Corey Linsley and moving Connor McGovern to guard. The Jets were ready to pounce on Patriots guard Joe Thuney last year before New England franchise-tagged him. Thuney is an option again this year. If they decide to move on from Fant, Taylor Moton and Daryl Williams could be tackle targets.

While much of the focus around the Jets has been on the offense, the defense also needs help. The team has not had a true edge rusher in 15 years. Saleh’s scheme won’t be very successful if the Jets can’t get after the quarterback. It’s hard to see Tampa Bay letting Shaquil Barrett hit the market, but if he gets free, the Jets should be in on him. If they are looking for a cheaper option, Saleh knows Kerry Hyder well from San Francisco and he should be available on a reasonable contract.

Another free agent with 49ers ties is cornerback Richard Sherman. He makes sense for the Jets to give Saleh someone who can help teach his defense and reinforce his words. Sherman is 32, but a one-year contract is worth it if he can help Saleh sell his program to the team. If the Jets want to go younger at the position, William Jackson, Desmond King and Mike Hilton are all options.

The Draft

Do the Jets stay at No. 2 or trade the pick? That is the giant question. If they decide to stay with Darnold, Douglas could auction off the pick for a bounty that will help him build this roster. If he keeps the No. 2 pick, that could mean drafting Wilson or the top non-QB in the draft such as LSU receiver Ja’Marr Chase, Alabama receiver DeVonta Smith or Oregon tackle Penei Sewell.

Douglas’ first draft class was highlighted by Becton, who looks like a potential Pro Bowler. But the rest of the class came out of their rookie years with questions about them. Douglas did a great job when he traded Adams to Seattle and is now in position to add talent with all of these picks. Outside of left tackle and defensive tackle, the Jets have needs everywhere. Some of those should be plugged by free agency but Douglas will have a lot of different directions to go when the draft arrives.

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