Thursday’s efforts in Cleveland will help the New York Jets compete in a modern NFL that worships offense.
East Rutherford’s Meadowlands Sports Complex hasn’t exactly been a hotbed for high-scoring affairs. The New Jersey Devils’ championship squads of the mid-90s and early aughts at the arena (then sponsored by Continental Airlines) made their fortune through legendary defense and goaltending. When the NBA’s Nets were still based in New Jersey, their finest hours featured strong defensive efforts (ranking 2nd in the NBA in defense during their run to the 2003 NBA Finals).
Alas, the New York Jets have been adding to this trend in the worst ways possible through their recent endeavors at MetLife Stadium. Despite employing the services of an “offensive guru” as a head coach in Adam Gase over the past two seasons, no team in the NFL has scored fewer points than the Jets, whose final tally stands at 519. To put that number in perspective, last year’s Green Bay Packers came 10 points short of tying that number by themselves. Thus, the Jets were ill-equipped to survive and succeed in the modern NFL, where seven of the 25 highest-scoring games in league history have occurred in the last decade. Numbers predictably don’t improve for the Jets in that span, as they’re 31st in points scored over the last two seasons, besting only Jacksonville…and the Jaguars at least have the consolation prize of coming a few snaps away from the Super Bowl.
The Jets find themselves in a macabre yet almost inspirational situation going into the weekend’s NFL Draft in Cleveland: things have gotten so dire in New York that no matter what they do, they can emerge from the affairs as winners. One would assume that with their search for their latest franchise quarterback, revealed to be Zach Wilson on Thursday night, that their draft plans would center around offensive endeavors. General manager Joe Douglas, however, has stressed finding a balance in the Jets’ expansive capital.
It’s hard and, frankly futile, to argue with that logic. The Jets have plenty of young projects that they can’t wait to work with on defense but can they truly feel comfortable going into Week 1 of the 2021 season with Marcus Maye overseeing raw talents like Bless Austin, Ashtyn Davis, and Bryce Hall. These are areas they’ll have to address at some point as the draft continues on Friday night (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ABC/NFL Network), a quest that becomes much harder with each of their third round choices now hanging out with Lou Solverson in Minnesota.
But Thursday night was a night of offensive indulgence, a couple of hours that are finally going to give the Jets offensive momentum.
With the second pick in the draft, the Jets chose BYU’s Wilson, who becomes the fourth first-round quarterback the Jets have taken in the new century. Unlike these prior occasions, the Jets have opted to provide immediate blocking help. With the 14th pick, one obtained from the Minnesota Vikings, the team selected USC interior blocker Alijah Vera-Tucker, ironically ensuring that a former Trojan would play a major role in their offense for years to come.
Immediately grading NFL Drafts, placing letters in articles before the stitching is completed on the draftees’ jerseys, are a fruitless exercise. It’s a task that only creates fodder for the “Freezing Cold Takes” accounts, creating hypotheses with very little evidence. But Douglas and the Jets have set themselves up to compete in an NFL that has spent a decade trying to leave them behind.
“I feel like this ballclub’s improved, and I feel good about the two people and players that we brought in and the leadership that they’re going to bring,” Douglas said of his early selections, per Alex Smith of SNY. “(I’m) just ecstatic really about these two young men.”
Everyone who’s watched a minute of football over the past year knew that Wilson was heading to New York. Once Trevor Lawrence was off the table, the Jets did their due diligence on what was a sizable passing class and eventually came to the conclusion that Wilson was the right man for them. But the abyss beyond the second overall choice was one where utmost caution had been raised, one where the immediate aftermath would bestow passing grades no matter what…any form of improvement looks like a complete makeover when you’re coming off a two-win season…but the Jets had to spend their draft gifts wisely.
With a bit of boldness, a bit of boldness that raised questions that will take months to answer, Douglas made a move that will leave his personal mark on the franchise.
Douglas has made it clear that he’s going to do his utmost to rectify the sins of the Mike Maccagnan era, a tenure of offensive line negligence that set the franchise back years. Blocking renovations have been the defining moves of his tenure thus far. Endeavors beyond the draft have misfired (luring Ryan Kalil out of retirement, spending big on mediocre vets like Connor McGovern, Greg Van Roten, and George Fant), he’s gained elite talents from the draft that will serve as the foundation for what the Jets want to build.
The dedication that Douglas has to this cause was perfectly on display through the arrival of Vera-Tucker, winner of the Morris Trophy annually bestowed to the Pac-12’s best linemen on both sides. It’s an honor previously worn by Bruce Matthews, Tony Boselli, and Jonathan Ogden, it’s the exact kind of good vibes the Jets need in this starting lineup. Putting Vera-Tucker on the same side as Becton creates a strong foundation that’s going to immediately make Wilson comfortable. In the end, it might be the Vera-Tucker gambit that might come to define Douglas’ tenure rather than the obvious choice of Wilson. A verstaile, accomplished talent like Vera-Tucker could the jolt of like this dormant unit, a group looking for any sort of clarity since the bliss of the D’Brickashaw Ferguson-Nick Mangold era ended, needs.
Vera-Tucker may come from the opposite coast, but he knows the deal when it comes to the Jets’ ongoing futility. Unlike many who would drone on about the talent that’s already there…though he did have some kind words for Wilson in his first New York statements…Vera Tucker’s looking to be a player that can make a major difference and embracing the high expectations that come with his new role.
“I’ve been in this position before just playing so many sports growing up,” Vera-Tucker said, per Brian Costello of the New York Post. “Not every year is going to be the greatest year. I’m going to come in, I know what the Jets fan base is like, I know they’re pretty intense. I love that type of atmosphere. I’m going to come in and embrace it.”
“I liked their vibe. I liked what they’re doing there, how they’re trying to change things up. I got a good feeling from them. They traded up to get me, so I’m excited.”
There’s no use in grading the Jets’ draft at this point or any in the near future. Meaningful downs of football are needed to fully assess that. But the draftings of Wilson and Vera-Tucker do provide wins in new forms: accomplishing goals and turning themselves into an attractive destination. There are no grades, but there is a path. Douglas showed just how far he’s willing to go make his vision come true, how dedicated he is a worthy cause that has earned positive reviews across the league.
The hire of Robert Saleh was step one, a move that was praised not by the hot take artists but rather the players on the field both abroad (Richard Sherman) and domestically (Quinnen Williams). Much like the Vera-Tucker trade it was a unconventional but bold move that made football-sense, a move made for the purpose of getting wins. Sure, the Jets are still trapped in a rebuild…there are simply too many contenders in the AFC to make much headway in the playoff standings…and paid a hefty price to pull off the endeavor.
But through these moves, and possibly what’s to come on Friday and Satuday, Douglas has shown off his most prestigous draft day hault yet: a vision.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags