NFL free agency is off and running, and we’re keeping track of every major signing, trade and release of the 2021 offseason, with analysis from our NFL Nation reporters and grades from our experts. The new league year began March 17, meaning free-agent signings could be made official after that. The first round of the 2021 NFL draft begins April 29 on ESPN.
The New York Jets addressed three big needs in Day 1 by agreeing to contracts with defensive end Carl Lawson, wide receiver Corey Davis and linebacker Jarrad Davis. They’re only 26 years old (opening-day age), with Lawson and Corey Davis coming off their best years. The Jets still have work to do at guard, running back and cornerback. Then, of course, there’s the lightning-rod position — quarterback. Sam Darnold is in limbo, but his replacement likely won’t come via free agency. The Jets have nine draft picks, including five in the first three rounds, which reduces the pressure to address every hole in free agency.
Here’s a breakdown of every 2021 NFL free-agent signing by the Jets, and how each will impact the upcoming season:
Lawson will receive a three-year, $45 million deal, a source told ESPN. His $15 million-a-year average makes him the highest-paid player on the team.
What it means: The last time the Jets made a significant financial investment in an edge player was 2008 (Calvin Pace). They had to do something because coach Robert Saleh’s 4-3 scheme demands a pass-rushing presence at defensive end. Lawson is a quick-twitch rusher who can line up alongside defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, giving Saleh an inside-outside combo. Lawson recorded 38 pressures from right end/right outside linebacker in 2020, the most in the NFL. He’s an ascending player.
What’s the risk: The Jets paid huge bucks ($30 million guaranteed) for Lawson, who was a situational player for the first three years of his career. In 2020, Lawson became an every-down player for the first time and finished with 5.5 sacks. He has 20 sacks in four years, hardly an eye-popping amount — but welcome to life in the edge-rusher market. They’re hard to find and cost a premium. Lawson is known for his relentless style, and that’s the mentality Saleh is trying to create on both sides of the ball.
The wide receiver’s deal with the Jets will be for three years and $37.5 million, sources told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
What it means: He’s a starting-caliber receiver for Sam Darnold — or whoever plays quarterback in 2021. Davis is in the Denzel Mims mold, giving them two 6-foot-3 receivers on the outside. That should help with contested balls. The issue with Davis is … well, he has underachieved. Drafted fifth overall in 2017, he has yet to reach 1,000 yards in a season. He was supposed to be the Titans’ WR1, but he lost that to A.J. Brown. Davis perked up last season after the Titans declined his fifth-year option — 64 catches, 984 yards and five touchdowns. He had an impressive 71% catch rate. Is that his ceiling or the start of a career turnaround?
What’s the risk: There’s considerable risk, considering the guarantee — $27 million, which ranks ninth among wide receivers (pre-free agency). That’s a lot of money for a player who hasn’t reached expectations. Essentially, the Jets are betting on potential over past performance. That can be dicey in free agency, especially when it’s tied to one good, if not stellar, season. It’s a daring move by general manager Joe Douglas, who evidently didn’t want to jump into the Kenny Golladay sweepstakes.
What it means: No, he’s not JuJu Smith-Schuster, whom the Jets engaged in talks. Cole is a versatile, borderline starter who projects as the Jets’ WR4, behind Corey Davis, Denzel Mims and Jamison Crowder. For a change, they actually have depth. Cole also can return kickoffs (91-yard TD last season), an added bonus. No, this isn’t a “wow” signing, but he can be productive. Playing on one of the worst offenses, he posted career numbers in 2020 — 55 catches for 642 yards and five touchdowns. He played primarily in the slot, but he has played extensively on the outside. So, no, this probably doesn’t mean the end for Crowder.
What’s the risk: The $5.5 million contract is fairly pricey for a WR4, but several teams were interested in Cole. It’s a relatively safe move, though. Unlike the injury-prone Breshad Perriman, who agreed to a deal with the Detroit Lions, Cole never has missed a game in his career. By attacking the receiver position in free agency (Cole and Davis), GM Douglas seems to be indicating he won’t go in that direction early in the draft.
Sheldon Rankins signed a two-year deal worth up to $17 million on Sunday.
What it means: The Jets already had a good interior tandem with Quinnen Williams and Folorunso Fatukasi, but there’s one thing you need to know about coach Robert Saleh’s 4-3 defense: It starts with the front four. The defensive line has to be good and deep or the system doesn’t work. Rankins, the 12th overall pick in 2016, provides depth and flexibility in the middle. Not only can can spell Williams as the 3-technique tackle, but can rotate with Fatukasi as well. The man has talent (see: eight sack season in 2018). In 2020, he had a career-low 1.5 sacks, but he ranked 15th out of 74 defensive tackles in pressure percentage (minimum: 250 snaps), per NFL Next Gen Stats.
What’s the risk: With Rankins, it’s all about his health. Therein lies the risk. Check out his injury history: Broken fibula. Broken foot. Sprained MCL. Torn Achilles’ tendon. In fact, he’s had surgery on both Achilles’ tendons; the second (2019) was preventative. He suffered from Haglund’s Deformity, an enlarged bone spur on his heels that puts pressure on the Achilles’ tendons. Rankins says the issue has been resolved and he’s good-to-go. If he’s right, the Jets scored a free-agent coup. A source said the deal is worth up to $17 million; the base value wasn’t immediately available. It’s not an insignificant investment, giving this a boom-or-bust feel.
The Jets agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the former Las Vegas Raiders safety.
What it means: Joyner, 30, provides flexibility and depth at safety — yes, safety. After playing the slot-corner position last season in Las Vegas, he will return to safety, his natural position. The deal is worth up to $4.5 million, so he’s not coming to ride the bench. Saleh has plans for him; he wants to use him in a safety/nickel role. This will be a welcome change for Joyner, who didn’t like the slot. He hasn’t been a terribly productive player — only one interception and six passes defensed in 643 snaps last season.
What’s the risk: Basically, the Jets have three free safeties — Marcus Maye, Ashtyn Davis and Joyner. This should be interesting because Saleh likes to play with a single-high safety. Maye and Davis have the ability to play strong safety, but they’re better away from the line of scrimmage. Could Joyner be Maye insurance? Maye can’t be happy with his franchise tag after his agent blasted the Jets for refusing to commit a long-term deal. If the situation goes sideways, they have an experienced backup plan in Joyner.
The Jets have agreed to terms on a one-year, $5.5 million contract (fully guaranteed) with the former Detroit Lions linebacker.
What it means: To say the Jets were desperate for a linebacker would be an understatement. It was their thinnest position on the roster, and that’s saying something. But here’s the catch: Their only proven holdover, C.J. Mosley, plays the same position as Davis — middle linebacker. They could keep both and slide Davis to outside linebacker in the 4-3 front, but the Jets are open to trading Mosley, sources said. They would love to unload Mosley’s onerous contract, but it won’t be easy because it still contains $14 million in fully guaranteed money over the next two years. This move to add Davis feels like the Jets are ready to move on from the disappointing Mosley.
What’s the risk: There’s not much risk in a one-year contract, albeit for a healthy $7 million. Davis, a first-round pick in 2017, is a run-and-hit linebacker. His coverage skills are poor, but he is effective as a blitzer (10.5 career sacks). He fell out of favor with Detroit’s previous coaching staff and was benched last season; he played 29% of the defensive snaps. Ex-coach Matt Patricia never figured out how to use him. Davis is a team-oriented player with a good work ethic. Saleh has big plans for him; Davis is the first signing of the Saleh era.
What it means: Feeney is expected to replace Pat Elflein, which is to say he projects as a top backup/rotational player. The Jets tried to re-sign Elflein, but he went to the Carolina Panthers. At $3.5 million, Feeney, 26, is a good depth signing because he has a ton of experience — 16 starts at center, 41 at left guard. The analytics folks haven’t been kind to him. In 2020, he ranked 35th out of 35 centers in pass block win rate, per ESPN Stats & Information. In 2019, he ranked 50th out of 69 guards.
What’s the risk: This is a low-risk move. Douglas, a former offensive lineman, likes to collect experienced, tough-minded guys to fill out an eight- or nine-man depth chart. Feeney fits the bill. He can be the top backup to left guard Alex Lewis and center Connor McGovern.
The Jets have agreed to terms on a three-year deal with the former New Orleans Saints special-teams standout.
What it means: The Jets’ special teams, among the league’s best in 2018 and 2019, took a dip last season. Hardee will help the unit get back to past form. He’s outstanding, especially as a gunner. Over the past three years, he led the Saints with 24 tackles on special teams, also recording a blocked punt that he returned for a touchdown. He’s a former college wide receiver who transitioned to cornerback upon arriving in New Orleans in 2017. He can play corner in a pinch (only 111 snaps over the past three years), but he will earn his keep on “teams.”
What’s the risk: The financial details weren’t immediately available, but the three-year agreement indicates there’s a nice chunk of guaranteed money in the contract, relatively speaking. Even so, there’s not much risk. He’s only 27 and doesn’t have an injury history. This shows a commitment to rebuild the special teams.
The Jets have agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the former Buffalo Bills tight end.
What it means: This is another inexpensive depth signing by Douglas. Essentially, Kroft replaces Daniel Brown (free agent) on the depth chart, behind Chris Herndon and Ryan Griffin. He won’t put up big numbers as a wide receiver (only 22 catches over the past three years), but he can play in two-tight-end packages and contribute on special teams.
What’s the risk: Kroft’s best season was a 42-catch campaign for the Cincinnati Bengals in 2017. He parlayed that into a nice contract in 2019 (three years, $18.8 million), but he never panned out for the Bills after foot surgery in OTAs that year. He eventually reworked his contract, eliminating the final year. There’s no risk for the Jets.