After one of the New York Jets' worst NFL seasons of all time (2-14), their GM Joe Douglas and new head coach Robert Salah have plenty of work to do during the off-season.
Douglas, in particular, will be charged with strengthening the Jets' roster by seeking out and signing the absolute best young talent available at this year's 2021 NFL Draft. The Jets currently have three of the first 35 picks to go off the board come April, including the second overall pick. If Douglas gets it right, the Jets could be a real team to watch in the AFC East come September.
New York also have close to $70 million in available cap room, meaning it won't just be the NFL Draft that Saleh and Douglas will target in their quest to galvanize an uninspired-looking roster. The Jets have money to spend in free agency, too.
On that note, let's try to nail down a few positions of need the New York Jets must surely address this off-season, assess where those positions are best filled (i.e. in the Draft or free agency) and take a look at some of the top college football prospects that the Jets might target at the 2021 NFL Draft.
First things first, though...
What draft picks do the New York Jets have at the 2021 NFL Draft?
Round 1: 2nd overall, 27th overall (from Seahawks/ Jamal Adams trade).
Round 2: 34th overall.
Round 3: 66th overall, 91st overall (from Seahawks/Jamal Adams trade).
Round 4: 98th overall.
Round 5: 130th overall, 138th overall (from Giants/Leonard Williams trade).
Top three needs the New York Jets need to address in the 2021 NFL Draft
There's little disagreement among fans and analysts that the Jets need to add an edge rusher and a cornerback during the off-season.
The NFL draft, however, might not be the best place to do that this year. Both positions (Edge/CB) tend to be played better by experienced NFL talent than by rookies. While a few talents are coming through in both positions, it's not the strongest year ever in terms of coverage and pass rush. There is no Chase Young this year (according to most), which is why I'd personally like to see Robert Saleh and Joe Douglas plug these holes via free agency.
A Saleh reunion with Richard Sherman on the East Coast would provide some much-needed experience and nous at cornerback, and there is a host of great edge-rush talent about to hit the free agency, too: New Orleans DT Trey Hendrickson and Tampa OLB Shaq Barrett are two names that spring to mind. Numerous other options will be available to the cap-rich Jets via the NFL free agency wire, too.
That's not to say the Jets shouldn't try to draft the next generation of talent at cornerback, or on pass rush -- they should, but maybe not by using their first three picks.
There's also the Sam Darnold situation to ponder. Last year, the Jets QB played in just 13 games, throwing for 2,208-yards and managing more interceptions (11) than TDs (9). Nevertheless, these lackluster stats weren't necessarily Darnold's fault.
They might have been the fault of Jets' GM Joe Douglas, who provided Darnold with -- let's face it -- not a lot of talent to aim at or hand the ball off to... or even to protect him at the line. Obviously, it's a subjective question, but in my opinion, Darnold deserves another NFL season surrounded by offensive talent.
The University of Southern California alumni has been bringing a knife to a gunfight in each of his first three years in New York, and it's time to throw him a whole arsenal. It's time for Joe Douglas to back his man.
So, back to the question of what positions the Jets should aim to fill with their first three picks at this year's 2021 NFL Draft. My picks would be as follows:
Round 1: 2nd overall pick: Offensive Line.
Round 1: 27th overall pick: Wide receiver.
Round 2: 34th overall pick: Running back.
But what players can we reasonably expect to be on the board for these Jets' picks? Well, I ran my Jets' picks through PFF's mock draft simulator, so let's take a look at the results:
2021 NFL Draft: First Round - Offensive tackle, Penei Sewell, Oregon (pick #2)
I know, some of you may have opted for Zach Wilson at QB with this pick, and I understand why. But for me, Darnold deserves another shot behind a better line (ranked 29th/32 via PFF), and Penei Sewell could be a big part of the answer to that.
Sewell averages a 94.8 career run-block grade, first among all linesmen in the 2021 class. The numbers don't lie: Penei Sewell is the stud OL heading into this year's NFL Draft and is certainly worthy of the Jets' consideration.
At last year's NFL Draft, New York may have found a starting member of its OL for the next five years in Mekhi Becton.
Bekton has often struggled with injury, but his 74.3 PFF grade still had him ranked 19th out of 38 left tackles in the NFL. The Louisville product's athleticism proved to be a serious problem for defenders when he was in full flow. Though, like Beckton, Sewell primarily operates at left tackle, both he and Bekton would be effective on the right, and the pair could go on to dominate at the line together in the future.
Drafting Sewell becomes even more interesting when you factor in New York's available cap room and the fact that OL personnel such as C Corey Linsley (Packers) and the underrated Alex Mack (Falcons) will be available in free agency.
With Sewell, Linsley and Bekton manning the gates ahead of him, perhaps Jets fans would finally get to see the best of Sam Darnold -- something I (for one) still really want to see.
2021 NFL Draft: First Round - Wide Reciever, Rashad Bateman, Minnesota (pick #27)
Averaging over 20-yards per reception in the NCAA in a +1,000-yard 2019 campaign, Minnesota's Rashod Bateman would be an excellent addition to the Jets' receiving corps.
Coach Robert Saleh already boasts the serially underrated Jamison Crowder among the ranks at wideout. Crowder racked up almost 700 yards and six TDs in an injury-ridden 2020. He's still a potent offensive weapon when fit.
The Jets will likely add a WR from free agency, too: Will Fuller and Curtis Samuel are two guys who would both do a great job at stretching the field for Saleh's team.
If the Jets' receiving corps featured the reliability of Crowder, the speed of someone like Will Fuller and the flair and hands of the rookie Rashod Bateman, the rest of the AFC would take note.
Besides that, Bateman is just a sensational talent. He makes spectacular catches and is just the kind of player fans would want to see on new offensive coordinator Mike LeFleur's offense in the NFL this year.
It's New York. Entertain!
2021 NFL Draft: Second Round - Running back, Travis Etienne, Clemson (pick #34)
The Jets running backs toiled for yards in 2020 and were overly reliant on veteran back Frank Gore, who, to his credit, finished with 652 yards on the ground.
With LaFleur heading up the offensive practice sessions, you'd expect a lot more running plays in New York next season. So adding another talent behind the line is essential: step forward Clemson's RB, Travis Etienne.
Etienne amassed +3,500 yards from scrimmage in his final two seasons at Clemson and is a genuine dual threat in the backfield. If he's on the NFL Draft board, it's a no-brainer that Joe Douglas brings him in for LeFleur, surely.
With the NFL third-round picks - Edge, Patrick Jones ll (Pittsburgh) and CB Shaun Wade (Ohio); fourth-round: LB Chazz Surratt (North Carolina), in case you were wondering.
If you would prefer to see Jets draft QB Zach Wilson at number two overall and then pick up someone like OL Trent Williams via free agency, I hear you. I just want to see Sam Darnold get a fair crack of the whip.
With the new coaching set-up they have in New York, if the Jets line up on day one of NFL 2021 with Darnold/Wilson behind Bekton, Linsley and Sewell/Williams; with Crowder, Fuller and Bateman to aim at, and Etienne to support in the backfield and someone like free agent Jared Cook in the TE slot, they'll be a real problem for anyone.
Jets fans can have their fingers crossed.