Here’s when you’ll know how these early free-agent deals are good: in two years.
That’s when you’ll see whether the teams are cutting the players they signed this year to clear cap space to sign more players, or keeping them for the duration of their contracts because they have worked out so well.
So, let’s avoid grading the Jets free-agent signings for now. No one, not even general manager Joe Douglas, knows how they will work out. But what we can evaluate is the logic of the decisions they have made, particularly with the two big free agents they reached agreements with on Monday night.
The Jets’ roster needs lots of help. Douglas wisely wants to build through the draft. But he won’t be able to fill every hole via the draft, so he had to dive into the free-agent market. He did not just throw money around, though.
Douglas identified edge rusher and wide receiver as two positions in this market that had more talent than usual, because the reduced salary cap forced teams to make some difficult decisions and prevented some players who would usually get the franchise tag from getting it.
Next, he drilled down on two players in Corey Davis and Carl Lawson who were not going to be looking for the highest contracts at their position and also were young (both will be 26 on opening day) enough that their best football should be ahead of them.
Davis and Lawson are intriguing players because the Jets are betting on potential over production. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the draft, when you take a player without much experience but loaded with talent, hoping he develops. They gave Lawson $30 million guaranteed, and he has never had double-digit sacks. They gave Davis $27 million guaranteed, and he has never had 1,000 receiving yards in a season.
The tricky part of free agency is identifying why a player is a free agent. The best players rarely ever see free agency. Their teams retain them through long-term deals or the franchise tag. It is usually age, ineffective play or poor habits that leads a player to get on the open market. Good GMs must identify why players are free then decide if there is an opportunity there.
The Bengals made an effort to keep Lawson. He most likely hit the market because the Bengals did not want to structure the contract the way he wanted. They pivoted to pass-rusher Trey Hendrickson and paid him the same $15 million a year that Lawson received, but for four years instead of three.
Lawson is an intriguing player. He is a darling of the analytics crowd but has not put up big sack numbers. He has just 20 sacks in four seasons and did not become an every-down player for the Bengals until last year. But the analytics website Pro Football Focus ranked him 14th out of 109 edge rushers in 2020. Though he had just 5.5 sacks last year, he did affect the quarterback. He was fourth in pressures (64) and second in QB hits (24) among edge rushers, per PFF.
The Jets hope that by putting him on a line with Quinnen Williams, new coach Robert Saleh will have a strong pass rush.
Lawson is in an interesting position now. He goes from being a fourth-round pick in Cincinnati, where any production he had would be viewed as a bonus, to being a highly paid free agent who will get questions each week if he does not get sacks.
Davis has already lived with the pressure of being the No. 5-overall pick in 2017. It won’t be new for him. The question for Davis is whether he can continue to improve after a career year in 2020 (65 caches, 984 yards, five touchdowns) and whether he can go from being a complement to A.J. Brown to being the No. 1 receiver for the Jets.
It is hard to quibble with Douglas’ plan right now. He signed two young, ascending players for reasonable contracts. We can meet back here in two years to see how it worked out.