Jets answer Patriots with free agent spending spree of their own

Joe Douglas Jets GM at the NFL Scouting Combine
Joe Douglas Jets GM at the NFL Scouting Combine

For seven ugly hours at the start of free agency on Monday, the New England Patriots were the kings of the NFL again. They were spreading money around at an unprecedented rate for them, seemingly determined to reinstate their dynasty with Robert Kraft’s credit card.

And for those seven tense hours, the blood pressure rose as Jets fans wondered why this was happening to them. Again. The Patriots had rebuilt their team in the blink of an eye, while the Jets, with the same $70 million in salary cap space had done virtually nothing.

But all that changed before the eighth hour was over when Jets GM Joe Douglas finally got in the big-spending game. And by the time he was done, he filled two huge holes, landing a No. 1 receiver and a dangerous edge rusher – leaving probably about $40-50 million in cap space to spare.

Time will tell who won the day in free agency, and whether that even matters. But the Jets couldn’t have hoped for much more than they got out of this big-spending spree. They landed receiver Corey Davis on a three-year, $37.5 million contract with $27 million guaranteed, according to one source. And they signed defensive end Carl Lawson to a three-year, $45 million deal with $30 million guaranteed according to another.

And just like that, the Jets’ two biggest needs were filled.

Of course, spending big money in free agency doesn’t always guarantee success – a lesson the Jets learned under Mike Maccagnan in 2018-19 with the likes of Trumaine Johnson, Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley. Davis and Lawson could be busts. So could middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, the Jets’ first signing of the day who got a one-year, $7 million deal.

But what feels different about these three players is the upside they bring. Corey Davis, the former fifth overall pick who never quite lived up to that billing, had 65 catches for 984 yards and five touchdowns in 14 games after the Titans declined to pick up his fifth-year option for 2022. He’s a big receiver (6-3, 210) who is seemingly getting better. The Lions passed on Jarrad Davis’ option too, in part because for four years they couldn’t seem to figure out how best to use him. As for Lawson, he’s been trying to live up to the promise he showed as a rookie when he had 8 ½ sacks, and he finally seemed to come close when he had 5 ½ sacks and ranked fourth in the NFL with 64 pressures last year.

They are all ascending players. And young. All three will be 26 on Opening Day. Douglas still wants to mostly build his team through the draft, but good young free agents like this are still part of what his program needs.

Of course, the Patriots did well, too. They received reluctant applause around the NFL for their targeted spending spree, which included deals for tight end Jonnu Smith (four years, $50 million), nose tackle Davon Godchaux (two years, $16 million), cornerback Jalen Mills (four years, $24 million), edge rusher Matthew Judon (four years, $56 million), receivers Nelson Agholor (two years, $26 million) and Kendrick Bourne (three years, $22.5 million) and ex-Jets defensive end Henry Anderson (two years, $7 million).

They spent like Tom Brady had left his bank card and PIN in New England and Bill Belichick had just found it while cleaning out his locker room. The seven-hour flurry had to drive Jets fans crazy, especially as they watched one of the Jets’ top targets – ex-Patriots guard Joe Thuney – sign a five-year, $80 million deal with the Kansas City Chiefs.

That, and the parade of big-name edge rushers signing elsewhere – like Shaq Barrett (who got four years, $72 million to return to Tampa) or Yannick Ngakoue (two years, $26 million from the Raiders) – had to be maddening. But Douglas wasn’t shopping for big names, nor was he interested in crazy bidding wars. He was asking Jets fans to trust that he had a sensible plan.

It’s understandably hard for Jets fans to have faith. GMs and coaches have been asking them for that for 50 years. And Douglas’ bargain-hunting approach to his first free agency last March only rewarded fans with the core of a 2-14 team.

Will Davis, Davis and Lawson be any better? The Jets certainly hope so. And Douglas isn’t done yet. He still has plans to rebuild the interior of his offensive line, according to a source, even though there aren’t great options available in free agency. He’d like to add a cornerback a running back and he might still sign another high-priced edge rusher, like perhaps New Orleans’ Trey Hendrickson or San Francisco’s Kerry Hyder.

And that’s all before the Jets get to the draft, where they still have those two first-round picks and plenty of options if they choose to deal down from No. 2 or sell off quarterback Sam Darnold.

So yeah, the Patriots went wild. It was uncharacteristic and, given the genius of the Patriots’ empire over the last two decades, it was understandably frightening. But the Jets had an answer. And who knows? Their answer might turn out to be better.

It just took a little patience to let the Douglas plan begin to play out. That’s not something Jets fans always have, understandably. But for the first time in a while the Jets seem to have a GM who deserves a little patience. Maybe a little faith in his rebuilding plan, too.

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