The 2017 New York Jets’ season will likely be remembered as the ‘tank’ that never was. Despite entering the year the presumptive favorites to attain the coveted No.1 overall draft pick, it’s become apparent that the Jets are neither terrible nor excellent — a condition with which fans have become intimately familiar. This is, ultimately, an ‘okay’ team burdened with a nightmarish schedule. New York could well be worth a couple more wins this year, but 5-11 is really the ceiling.
At 3-5, the Jets find themselves in that awkward spot: Likely out of the mix for a playoff place, but with enough wins to rule-out acquiring the rights to draft Sam Darnold or Josh Rosen. Indianapolis, San Francisco, and Cleveland are simply too abysmal this year to allow New York to climb back into the No.1 pick sweepstakes. Moreover, it’s entirely plausible that fellow East Rutherford residents, the New York Football Giants, could also finish the season with an even worse record than that held by the Jets. With all this in mind, Gang Green could realistically arrive in Arlington next April carrying the No.5 overall pick.
Jets fans have known for some weeks that Plan A — the tank — was fast being erased. Wins against Miami and Jacksonville, combined with solid performances against last year’s Super Bowl participants, demonstrated that Todd Bowles’ team was far from the monstrosity it was billed as during the off-season. Against seemingly all expectation, the Jets have somehow found a way to move the ball and take early leads. And it’s typically not until the second half that talent disparities begin to crystallize, and from there, the Jets usually come up just a hair short. Since the Week 2 loss to the Raiders, the Jets have either won or found themselves within a touchdown of doing so in every game. This is, it’s true, a rebuilding team, but New York is not the car crash many of us expected to see wheeled-out at Metlife.
With the Jets surpassing expectations (and a host of other teams falling short of theirs), observers have started to ponder the possibility of Mike MacCagnan trading up. There will be options: Indianapolis will be keen to amass picks; and following the acquisition of Jimmy Garoppolo, a rebuilding San Francisco will have little need for a top three pick. However, for a team — and a fan-base — hoping to find itself with the No.1 overall pick next spring, the trade route is far from ideal, threatening to undermine the Jets’ careful rebuilding process which is being structured around the draft.
Until today, the Jets were stuck with Plan B: leveraging future draft picks in order to climb up a couple of spots in the order, before taking an unproven prospect, likely from the mediocre PAC-12. This would have necessitated a trade with the Colts, presumably involving next year’s first rounder as well as the Seahawks second rounder, possibly among others. However, since the Patriots’ decision to trade Garappolo to the 49ers, Plan B is no longer the Jets only, or even primary, option.
With San Francisco now presumably content at quarterback, the front runners to sign Kirk Cousins have left the race. The field will remain crowded, but this is no bad thing for the Jets — a team that will have the second most cap space in the league next year. With a projected $82 million in (carryover) cap space, the Jets are in a stronger financial position than Cousins’ other potential suitors. Both Jacksonville and Denver will have to work hard to clear the necessary space, and it could well be an impossibility for Pittsburgh to do the same. There’s still Washington, of course. But it remains to be seen whether Cousins would want to sign long-term with a franchise that has tagged him twice. The Redskins do still have the option to place yet another franchise tag on Cousins, but this would come at a cost of $34.5 million — an eye-watering amount, even for a team in good financial health.
The advantage for the Jets is that they already have the necessary cap space. Crucially, this gives the team not just the option to sign Cousins, but also the leverage to trade with teams like San Francisco and Indianapolis if MacCagnan wants to get back into the hunt for Sam Darnold. If the price for the No.1 or No.2 picks is too high, the Jets can simply walk away and target the free agent market.
It’s not, however, just money that makes the Jets the new Cousins front runner. Belichick’s move has inadvertently made the AFC East a more enticing prospect for a quarterback with Cousins’ level of ambition. Tom Brady, of course, cannot play forever, and the Patriots have just jettisoned their gold-plated insurance policy. Elsewhere, Buffalo and Miami might have constructed good teams, but neither has a QB with the acumen of a Kirk Cousins. Based on the present state of the division, it’s possible that a Cousins-led Jets could have the best offense in the AFC East within two years.
Contrast this with the other leading contenders. Denver plays in the toughest division in football; Jacksonville in an oasis of emergent QB talent; and Washington in the Prescott-Wentz driven NFC East. If you’re Kirk Cousins, where would you rather be playing in four years time?