A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:
1. Can’t catch a break: For the Jets to surround quarterback Sam Darnold with quality wide receivers next season and beyond, they probably will have to buy them in free agency. General manager Mike Maccagnan tried to build a pipeline at the position, but it all but dried up when they released former draft picks ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen in a span of 18 days. Stewart is back on the practice squad after clearing waivers, but his stock has taken a precipitous fall.
Quincy Enunwa, Jermaine Kearse, Terrelle Pryor and Andre Roberts will be unrestricted free agents after the season, meaning the Jets have the 2019 rights to only two of the six receivers on the 53-man roster: Robby Anderson (restricted free agent) and Charone Peake (special-teamer).
In a perfect world, Stewart and Hansen — third- and fourth-round picks in 2017, respectively — would be ready to step into starting roles next season. That’s how winning organizations operate. When they lose good players in free agency, they replace them with up-and-comers from previous drafts. It’s the most cost-effective way to build a team under the salary cap.
Suddenly, the Jets have to budget for an unexpected expenditure. Yes, they’ll have a league-high $90 million in cap room for 2019, but they will have plenty of other items on their shopping list. Now they have to invest resources (starter’s money or a high draft pick) for two receivers to join Anderson. They’d like to retain Enunwa, 26, but his price is climbing with each top-shelf performance.
Maccagnan always says he wants to build through the draft, but his draft mistakes at receiver (let’s not forget about Devin Smith) and his failure to address the offensive line in a meaningful fashion have forced the organization into free-agency mode at those positions. You could also throw cornerback and outside linebacker into that category. It makes building that much harder.
2. Bad recipe for stew: Why hasn’t Stewart flourished?
During the scouting process, the Jets fell in love with his toughness and ability to gain yards after the catch. His college numbers weren’t eye-popping, but he played in a run-oriented offense at Alabama. The Jets’ scouts saw a prospect whose best football appeared to be ahead of him, so they picked him 79th overall — ahead of running back Kareem Hunt (86th) and wide receivers Chris Godwin (84th) and Kenny Golladay (96th).
As it turned out, Stewart wasn’t able to break tackles like he did in his college and his limited separation ability was magnified on the pro level. Some in the organization also wondered about his commitment. Truth be told, he probably would’ve been released at the end of the preseason if it weren’t for the two-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.
“You’ve got to compete for your job and some guys beat him out that way — and we like the core that we have,” coach Todd Bowles said. “We draft guys, but guys come in as free agents every year and we give everybody a fair shot to make the team, and those guys made the most of their abilities.”
Of course, the Jets wouldn’t have felt compelled to add free agents if they were confident in Stewart and Hansen.
Hansen is the opposite of Stewart in that he produced huge numbers in college. As it turned out, he was a product of the system, Cal’s Air-Raid offense. I remember an AFC scout telling me after the 2017 draft that Hansen benefited from the brand of the game balls used by Cal, a smaller ball that helped with throwing and catching. With the Jets, his inability to separate at the line was his downfall.
3. Where’s Robby? Anderson (six catches, 11 targets) has been a ghost this season. He has more fumbles (two) than touchdowns (one), which is driving fantasy owners crazy. He has been relegated to an afterthought in the new Jeremy Bates-Darnold offense, which revolves around short passing. This hurts Anderson, who never has been a bubble-screen kind of guy.
“[Opponents] are doing some things different this year with Robby in trying to take him away, and other guys have to step it up if they get somebody [on top of] him,” Bowles said.
They’re running most of the passing game through Enunwa, who has the ability to turn short passes into medium gainers. That’s fine, but Anderson is too much of a home run threat to be ignored. Darnold has attempted only two passes over 30 yards in the air, effectively removing Anderson from the offense.
4. Butt of controversy: Maybe I’m old-school, but I’d bench Isaiah Crowell for a quarter this Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. What he did in Cleveland, pretending to wipe his butt with the football and tossing it into the crowd, was classless and embarrassing to the organization. Crowell said he was merely expressing his “passion” for football. You can’t spell passion without … well, you can figure it out.
It’s time for Bowles to send a message.
5. Quiet start for Leo: Leonard Williams was held without a tackle in two of the three games, including the loss in Cleveland. All told, he has six tackles and no sacks, meaning he has only two sacks in his past 22 games. Bowles defended the former first-round pick, saying he has made a quiet impact.
“They sent two or three guys at him almost every other play,” Bowles said of the Browns. “But Leonard caused a lot of other people to make plays and that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet. I’m happy with what he did.”
I wonder if the Jets will be willing to pay big bucks for his nonstatistical impact when the two sides meet at the bargaining table after the season. Call me skeptical.
6. Penalty check: After the three games, the Jets have been called for 25 penalties — 20 accepted.
After the first three games last season, they had 25 penalties — 20 accepted.
7. Checking under the Hoodie: I highly recommend the new book, “Belichick,” written by ESPN.com colleague Ian O’Connor. It’s a fascinating portrait of a complicated man. Jets fans will love the chapters on Belichick’s relationship with Bill Parcells, his nasty divorce from the Jets and, of course, SpyGate, which stemmed from the 2007 season opener between the Jets and Patriots.
In the SpyGate chapter, O’Connor recounts a scene that unfolded during the game in the bowels of Giants Stadium, where Jets, Patriots, NFL and stadium officials argued over the camera and tape that were confiscated during the game. Compelling, behind-the-scenes stuff.
The book also reveals that Belichick, while coaching the Browns, asked one of their scouts to attend a Jets-Giants preseason game and search the garbage cans in the coaches booths for any relevant intel. Also included in the book are a couple of Belichick stories from his days as a Jets assistant, courtesy of a longtime beat writer. Wink, wink.
8. Sack attack: The Jets’ pass rush, which was supposed to be a weakness, actually is showing encouraging signs. The Jets recorded back-to-back four-sack games for the first time since 2015. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins leads the team with two.