The latest edition of the Jets Mailbag delves into why Sam Darnold – not Tom Brady – will be the best quarterback in the AFC East in 2019, the roster holes that remain, a curious free-agent signing, the Nick Bosa mirage and much more.
You predict Sam Darnold has better stats than Tom Brady in 2019. So, if that happens, do you predict the Jets will win the division?
My recent prediction that Darnold would indeed be the best quarterback in the AFC East in 2019 prompted Brady loyalists to claim blasphemy. How dare anyone suggest that any signal caller have a better season than the square-jawed, irritatingly handsome G.O.A.T … especially a soon-to-be 22-year-old kid on the Jets!!
First and foremost, let’s get something clear: Brady is the best quarterback that I’ve ever seen in my life. I used to be on Team Peyton before TB12 went into overdrive in the twilight of his career. Brady’s greatness and place in NFL history are undeniable. He is a stone-cold killer.
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That being said, he’s going to be 42 in August. As much as Patriot Nation believes that Brady will be dominating until death, the reality is that he is an old man by football standards. And old men – even football gods like Mr. Giselle Bundchen – get old men injuries.
He gutted through an MCL sprain for about a month (Week 11-15) late last season. Every objective observer will tell you that Brady absolutely didn’t play to the level that we’ve seen in the past regardless of what the numbers will tell you.
Sprinkle in the fact that his single most dominant weapon – Rob Gronkowski – will either retire or sputter through another injury-ravaged season and you have the makings of a clear decline for No. 12.
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Oh, sure, I know Brady still will be throwing to future Hall of Famer (INSERT EYE ROLL HERE) Julian Edelman, but losing Gronk will be massive. (Full disclosure: I’m a big Sony Michel fan, but Brady’s going to need a lot more help). I don’t believe that a 42-year-old Brady can carry a subpar-to-mediocre supporting cast.
The other part of the equation, of course, is Darnold’s jump from Year 1 to Year 2. It’s no secret that I believe that this kid has got the goods. He showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie despite a less-than-idea supporting cast.
Superstar running back Le’Veon Bell will help Darnold’s development immensely. Bell will be able to do for Darnold what Todd Gurley did for Jared Goff in L.A. New head coach Adam Gase will be a big reason why Darnold will take a significant step forward this season.
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Darnold’s successes – and most importantly, failures – as a rookie will help him immensely in his second season.
So, what does this all mean? Well, it’s certainly possible that Darnold will have a better season than Brady given all the dynamics at play. I know Brady lovers can’t envision Superman ever breaking down, but nobody would be surprised if Father Time finally caught up with him. Plus, the depleted supporting cast is a factor that cannot be ignored.
So, I’m sticking with my AFC East rankings for 2019: Darnold, Brady, Josh Allen and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
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Sorry, Bills Mafia. You got a running back behind center right now, but Allen can develop into a good quarterback.
Will Darnold’s ascension and Brady’s decline mean that the Jets will finally win the AFC East?
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Although there are some flashy names that the Jets signed, wouldn’t you agree there is much work to do?
There’s no debating that Le’Veon Bell and C.J. Mosley will make the Jets better, but it’s naïve to believe that all of Gang Green’s issues have been solved.
They whiffed at center during free agency by letting the top two players (Mitch Morse and Matt Paradis) go elsewhere without every actually making an offer to either one of them. They weren’t nearly aggressive or fast enough to keep up with the Bills for Morse. They had serious reservations about Paradis’ health (broken fibula). A veteran center can help out a young quarterback more than most people know. The Jets, frankly, have done a poor job to this point giving Darnold a quality veteran under center.
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For Darnold’s sake, I hope they address the position in the draft. There are some quality Day 2 options at center. (They might have to acquire a second-round pick, however, to land one of the coveted prospects at that position).
The Jets also obviously need an edge pass rusher after they missed on Anthony Barr (through little fault of their own) and others. Oh, and they still need another cornerback, a true No. 1 wide receiver and better depth everywhere.
Speaking of depth, I’m still scratching my head at why the Jets gave offensive lineman Brent Qvale a 1-year, $1.4 million deal that included $550,000 guaranteed ($250,000 signing bonus and $300,000 of his $1 million base salary guaranteed at signing) plus an additional $1 million in playtime incentives.
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Qvale could have been easily had for the veteran minimum. He’s the type of player that would have been available for months too. And if he decided to sign elsewhere sooner, who really cares?
Qvale, who has 14 career starts in four seasons, didn’t exactly distinguish himself last preseason or in limited opportunities in the regular season (159 offensive snaps). Some might conclude that he was not good at all at tackle. The NFL minimum salary for players with his experience is $805,000. So, why did the Jets pay a penny more than that? He’s just a backup who is easily replaceable.
Since the 49ers traded for Dee Ford, does that leave the door open for Nick Bosa to drop to No. 3? – Oshie
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Don’t be fooled by Ford’s five-year, $85.5 million deal with San Francisco. Truth be told, it was among the worst new contracts for any top-flight player in the past couple weeks. In other words, the 49ers got a team-friendly deal that could easily turn into a 1-year, $21 million deal. The team will have the option to cut bait with minimal adverse financial ramifications if Ford underperforms (and doesn’t suffer a catastrophic injury) in 2019. They essentially can go year-to-year with Ford … and dump him any time.
So, I doubt this will affect their desire to draft Bosa if he’s still on the board. I would be surprised if the Ohio State pass rusher slides to the Jets.
Do you think the Jets are going to make the playoffs next season? – Michael Gause
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They better be in the playoff conversation, which means somewhere in the nine-win neighborhood. Christopher Johnson doesn’t believe in playoff mandates, but I’m sure he expects significant improvement from the five-, five- and four-win seasons since 2016. With the money doled out, he should expect that.
Our team’s young. Now how much do you value veterans and experience?
There needs to be veteran voices in every locker room. Look no further than Josh McCown’s influence and value to Sam Darnold last year. Nose tackle Steve McLendon offers similar value on defense. The Jets were smart to bring back McClendon on an affordable one-year deal. As Henry Anderson said this week, when McLendon speaks, everyone listens.
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I can tell you with great certainty that McLendon has rubbed off on the team’s best player in a big way. McLendon and Jamal Adams are locker room neighbors. The vet has given Adams lessons that the Pro Bowl safety will carry for the rest of his career … and life.
Oh, and McLendon is still a productive player in the trenches.
So, veterans are very important to this building process.
Fourteen hours after his cameo at Rockwell, Bell is stuck in traffic on his way to a photo shoot in Miami’s Art District. His mother, Lisa, calls to check on his whereabouts, even if the past year has given her plenty of practice in waiting patiently. “I just want to see him play again,” she says. Last year Lisa bought front-row seats to each of the Steelers’ first three games, even though she knew her son wouldn’t be playing. She wore a camouflage team ball cap but realized she wasn’t quite as incognito as she’d believed when receiver Antonio Brown spotted her in the front row, Week 3 in Tampa Bay, and waved.Bell has played football since he was four; by high school, Lisa’s most effective disciplinary maneuver for her son was threatening to not let him play in that week’s game. As Le’Veon sat out last season, he ribbed his mom about that old tactic, pointing out how much they both missed the game.
To scratch his football itch Bell played endless hours of Madden and called Lisa when the Steelers were on TV, analyzing Pittsburgh’s game plan and displaying Tony Romo–like predictive powers. He texted James Conner, his backfield replacement, congratulating him on big plays—but he also fixated on how much work Conner was receiving on the goal line, more than he’d gotten himself.
Back in the summer of 2017, the first time the Steelers offered Bell a long-term deal, reportedly five years at $12 million per, Lisa wanted her son to take it. So did Bell’s agent, Adisa Bakari. “Everyone thought I was tripping,” Bell says of his declining and choosing to play that season on the one-year, $12.1 million franchise tag.
From Bell’s perspective, though, he’d earned more than what was being offered. “They took every ounce from me until I couldn’t go no more,” he says. “When it was time to get paid, it was like, Y’all knew what [I’d been through].” Meaning: He’d just gutted through the 2016 playoffs with a painful groin injury that at one point left him unable to sit up in bed. He’d played an entire divisional-round game against the Chiefs, despite telling teammates at halftime that he was unsure if he could finish, and then he received a Toradol injection before the AFC Championship Game against the Patriots. The first time he was tackled in that game at New England in January 2017 he felt like his left leg was about to rip off; when he went back in, he couldn’t hit a hole even if it opened up. His day, and eventually the team’s season, was over. “I feel like that was our Super Bowl year,” Bell says. “I just ended up getting hurt.”
At the same time, the market for running backs was sagging. Devonta Freeman’s extension with the Falcons, signed in August 2017, averaged just $8.25 million per year. As player salaries rose across the NFL, the franchise-tag number for backs—calculated as an average of the top five salaries at the position that year—actually dropped. Citing his value in the passing game (and the fact that he was Pittsburgh’s No. 2 receiver behind Brown), Bell tried to counter this trend, asking for $15 million per year from the Steelers.
Instead, he played the 2017 season on the one-year franchise tag. Then, he says, the day after a playoff loss to the Jaguars in January ’18, Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin pulled him into an office alone. The team would tag him for a second consecutive season, this time at $14.5 million, but Bell says they told him that day they’d get a long-term deal done. When the Steelers eventually made an opening bid well below what Bell was looking for, he told Bakari to counter by asking for $17 million per season. In the end, Bell hoped, they’d end up at his $15 million benchmark.
Pittsburgh’s final offer, Bell says, fell short: five years, $70 million—$14 million per, with the only fully guaranteed money being a $10 million signing bonus. (The Steelers have a policy of not offering future guarantees in veteran deals.) But it was structured to pay out $33 million over the first two seasons, and Pittsburgh has never cut a player one year into a contract that lucrative.
“I was so close,” Bell admits now. “Like, I almost [signed] it.”
Many NFL pundits believe Bell should have taken that deal, as it offered more money through both two and three years than his new Jets contract does. But Bell, who watched teammate Ryan Shazier’s career potentially end on a single play, cared foremost about the guaranteed money. Plus, the decision, he says, wasn’t just about money.Back in 2013, when Pittsburgh drafted Bell, he was ecstatic: His mom raised him outside Columbus, Ohio, but she’d come from a family of Steelers supporters, and she already had a team flag hanging by her front door. Flash forward five years, to when Bell turned down last summer’s extension offer, and he was starting to think: It’s time for a fresh start.There have been inklings all offseason of other factors that played a part in Bell’s departure. After Brown forced a trade to the Raiders earlier this month, he expressed frustrations with Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Another former Steeler, running back Josh Harris, was more pointed, asserting that Roethlisberger once intentionally fumbled the ball to protest a play call. Bell says Roethlisberger wasn’t the only factor in his wanting to leave Pittsburgh—but “yes, it was a factor.”
Bell says he and Roethlisberger didn’t quite vibe; Bell wishes they’d shared a “more open, more genuine, more real” relationship. He says players didn’t feel like they were treated by the QB as being on the same level as him. “Quarterbacks are leaders; it is what it is,” Bell says. But “you’re still a teammate at the end of the day. You’re not Kevin Colbert. You’re not [team president Art] Rooney.” (On the subject of quarterbacks in general, Bell says that, given the chance to do everything over, “I’d be playing QB.” Or, he says, in the NBA, where contracts are fully guaranteed and players are compensated by production, not position.)
Despite his output in 2017, when he was named an All-Pro for the second time, Bell says he didn’t feel as if the Steelers’ game plans were designed to feature him or that he had a stake in what plays were being called. He acknowledges, “Ben is a great quarterback,” but says Roethlisberger’s personal preferences played a role in who was given the opportunity to make plays.
Says Bell, “The organization wants to win. Tomlin wants to win. Ben wants to win—but Ben wants to win his way, and that’s tough to play with. Ben won a Super Bowl, but he won when he was younger. Now he’s at this stage where he tries to control everything, and [the team] let him get there.
He adds: “So if I’m mad at a player and I’m not throwing him the ball—if I’m not throwing A.B. the ball and I’m giving JuJu [Smith-Schuster] all the shine or Jesse [James] or Vance [McDonald] or whoever it is, and you know consciously you’re making your other receiver mad but you don’t care—it’s hard to win that way.”
At times last season, Bell’s feelings about wanting out of Pittsburgh were mutual. When he didn’t report for Week 1 after missing camp, as he had the previous season, his linemen spoke out publicly. Center Maurkice Pouncey called Bell “a little selfish”; guard Ramon Foster said Bell “doesn’t give a damn.” Bell says he never told anyone he’d be there Week 1, though it’s clear his plan was fluid, influenced by the feelings hurt in negotiations and by his teammates’ public comments.
The missed opportunity, for a team with a now-37-year-old QB, isn’t lost on anyone, including Bell, who says, “If I’d played this year, we would have won the Super Bowl. Think about the weapons we had. I would have been unhappy as hell, but if I was sprinkled in. . . . When we were winning games, it wasn’t bothering me how much I was getting the ball. Last year was our year, that’s why I didn’t understand why they didn’t just get it done. They had the money. Get it done and go win a Super Bowl.”
Bell says he first planned to show up after Week 1, and then his target shifted to the Week 7 bye, but the Steelers wouldn’t assure his agent that they wouldn’t trade him (potentially compromising his value as an upcoming free agent by inserting him into a new offense midseason) or use its (limiting) transition tag on him for next season.
Later in the year, one week before the Nov. 13 deadline, Bell tweeted “farewell Miami” and flew from Miami to Pittsburgh. “I was gonna go back to play, forget everything that happened all year, bite the bullet and hope they respect me,” he says. “Because I just wanted to play football.” (He also confirms what Roethlisberger told the press around that time, that the QB texted Bell, saying he hoped to have Bell back, but that Bell did not reply.)
Why then, did Bell make the trek and not return to the field? He refers loosely to being turned off again by comments some teammates made to the press around that time, although he can’t recall who said what, specifically. He also points out that if he’d returned that late in the season, his prorated yearly earnings would have been low enough that the Steelers could have transition-tagged him at a lower fixed value, making it more likely they would have some control over his rights in 2019.
Ultimately, Bell says, it got to the point where he knew he couldn’t go back. “I felt like: For me to get my full potential and be the player I know I can be, I gotta go play with different players. I gotta go play with people who want to see me succeed, who want me to be great. Getting a fresh start, [that’s] the best thing for me.”By last December, Bell was already looking ahead to free agency. The football world, meanwhile, was going to have something to say about that. Rumors surfaced that his weight had ballooned to 260 pounds. He fact-checks that: more like 240, the same as his playing weight at Michigan State. Bell says he now has that down to 230, after five-times-a-week workouts. More important than his waistline, he says he doesn’t feel his football aches anymore, like the chronically sore right wrist that had been nagging him for years.In the end, Bell’s free-agency decision came down to the Jets and the 49ers, who he says offered a three-year, $40 million contract. He and Brown didn’t stay in touch last season, but Bell says he had discussions with his old Steelers teammate and Brown’s new quarterback, Derek Carr, about joining the Raiders.
Instead, the Jets—an early favorite to land Bell, a team with salary-cap space to spare and a desire for a splashy headliner—are now heralding Bell as second-year QB Sam Darnold’s new best friend: one of the most dynamic runners in the NFL and a guy who can also serve as an outlet in the passing game. Darnold, along with safety Jamal Adams, led the recruiting charge, but the franchise also got an assist from Curtis Martin, the Hall of Fame running back who spent eight seasons with the Jets and whose patient running style Bell grew up admiring. The two backs spoke four weeks ago and Martin encouraged Bell, he says, to “go with my heart and my gut.”
A more practical factor in picking New York: The team was willing to bake into Bell’s contract a chance to meet the $15 million per-year average that he has long sought (although the escalators and incentives needed to get there include hard-to-reach criteria such as NFL MVP and Offensive Player of the Year). “People think, You are an athlete, so you’ve got your money—keep quiet and play,” Bell says. “Yeah, I could’ve taken what [the Steelers] gave me and been quiet and been unhappy. But I chose not to. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to do what I felt was right and move forward. And now I’m here. And I wouldn’t think twice about changing it.”
Bell, ever confident in his own skin, arrives at his photo shoot unchanged from his party uniform: white T-shirt, chains, Louboutin gear. He slips on a green-hued blazer and plants himself at a poker table, where he’s directed to push a pile of chips to the middle. Lisa Bell, looking on, remarks that she likes the shot where he’s pushing the tallest stacks, in her mind representing the biggest odds against her son.Many in the NFL don’t believe Bell’s gamble was worth it; they think he’d have been better off taking the long-term deal the Steelers offered last year, or playing on the $14.5 million tag and then cashing in. His face scrunches up at this suggestion. “How didn’t I win?” he asks.
He set a new mark for the most fully-guaranteed money for a running back (larger deals also count guarantees related to injury only), and he points to the fact that after he asked for $15 million per year, challenging the paradigm for what running backs are worth, the Rams gave that much to Todd Gurley, last July.
“Receivers make [roughly] $19 million per year—why can’t I make 17?” he asks. “The fact that I put that number out there, that opened it up for Todd. So when Zeke [Elliott] comes up, or Saquon [Barkley], if they’re the best running back they’re gonna beat Todd’s deal. I [took] the bullet. [We] can’t sit here just taking what y’all [offer]. It’s gonna go: 15, then 16. . . . Then at some point it’s gonna stop and 10, 12 years from now there’s going to have to be another Le’Veon Bell who’s gonna take a stand.”
This is his view. Perhaps it’s not one that others share. But if the last 420-odd days have confirmed anything about Le’Veon Bell, it’s that he’s going to do things his own way.
There’s little doubt that the Jets’ moves in free agency make them better today than before the frenzy commenced two weeks ago, but did Mike Maccagnan hit all the right cords?
Here’s my report card for the notable signings by Gang Green. Warning: I’m a tough – but fair – grader.
Le’Veon Bell (Keith Srakocic / AP)
RB Le’Veon Bell Grade: A
The Jets delivered on giving Sam Darnold the dynamic weapon that he needs to take his game to the next logical level, but let’s not pretend that there’s no risk with Bell. Truth be told, the Jets were indeed divided on making a push for Bell. They ultimately agreed (begrudgingly for some) to hop on the Le’Veon Express. At this point, it makes no sense to come clean about reservations, but there are plenty of folks who believe that Adam Gase would have been just fine if the three-time Pro Bowler didn’t wind up in green-and-white. A look at Gase’s offenses through the years shows that he can get production out of running backs regardless of pedigree. Regardless, Bell is here now. Will he be motivated to prove that he’s the same dual-threat, game-wrecking force that he was before he took his year-long hiatus? Will he stay healthy? The Jets wisely dressed up a de facto two-year deal to make Bell’s camp happy. The team has protection beyond 2019, so kudos to the money men on One Jets Drive.
ILB C.J. Mosley Grade: A-minus
There’s no denying that Mosley is an aggressive tackling monster, but, oh man, that contract. The four-time Pro Bowler became the highest paid inside linebacker in history by shattering Luke Kuechly’s deal ($14 million/year). The Jets didn’t set out on giving Mosley $17 million per season (as part of a deal that includes $51 million in guarantees over the first three years), but they had some stiff competition. The Ravens wanted him back badly, but the money just got too crazy. The Colts identified Mosley as one of the few players in this year’s free agency class who was actually worth pursuing too. The Browns were among the other teams that wanted Mosley too. Mosley will be an anchor, but he’s not particularly adept in coverage. He’s a terrific talent, but this was a steep price to pay.
LG Kelechi Osemele Grade: B
The Jets swapped late-round picks with Oakland to land the former Pro Bowler with two non-guaranteed years left on his contract before the start of free agency. It was a classic, low-risk, high-reward move by Maccagnan. Some of those types of deals have worked out in the short term (see: Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall), while others have been duds (see: Ryan Clady). Osemele, who will turn 30 this summer, has transformed his body after being plagued with lower leg issues last season. Some scouts that I touched base with believe this was a sneaky good move by the Jets.
Jamison Crowder (Mark Zaleski / AP)
WR Jamison Crowder Grade: B-minus
The Jets targeted Crowder from the jump. He’s a quality player, but I’m not so sure that this was a particularly good contract for the team. It’s a three-year, $28.5 million pact on paper, but it’s really structured like a 2-year, $17.8 million deal. The Jets have an escape hatch after 2020. The nearly $18 million in cash is a pretty sweet deal for a player coming off a 29-catch, 388-yard, 2-touchdown campaign. Crowder battled through an ankle injury last year, so kudos to him for getting this type of contract. He’s a solid player, who should help Darnold.
Kicker Chandler Catanzaro Grade: C
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The Jets let Pro Bowl kicker Jason Myers walk out of the building, because they A) didn’t believe that his talent warranted his asking price and B) they wanted to save some cash at a position that they don’t value that much for some odd reason. You could make a case that Myers was the most valuable player on the team last year not named Jamal Adams. The Jets, however, chose to take a cheaper route by bringing back Chandler Catanzaro on a one-year, $2.3 million deal. Myers will get $5.5 million in cash from the Seahawks in 2019. In other words, Gang Green saved about $3 million in 2019. Catanzaro had a solid season for the Jets in 2017. Special teams coach Brant Boyer repeatedly raved about him before the kicker signed with Tampa Bay last offseason. The Cat Man was a train wreck for the Bucs, who cut him after missing four of 15 field goal attempts. (He also missed four PATs in nine games). Catanzaro finished up the season with the Panthers. Cutting corners with your kicker can be dangerous. The Jets better hope that this cost-cutting measure doesn’t blow up in their faces.
CB Brian Poole Grade: C-plus
You can’t help but raise an eyebrow as to why the Falcons didn’t tender Poole after three seasons. The undrafted slot corner logged over 1,000 snaps as a rookie for a team that appeared in the Super Bowl. He was solid in his first year before a decline in his play in 2017 and 2018. Poole, 26, will replace the Buster Skrine in as the nickel corner. Poole has been a sneaky-good blitzer in his career, so look for Gregg Williams to utilize that part of his repertoire.
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QB Trevor Siemian Grade: B
The best-case scenario would probably have been to bring back Josh McCown on a cheap one-year deal, but Siemian is a solid fallback. He’s got previous starting experience (13-11 with the Broncos), who should be a help to Darnold. The backup quarterback crop wasn’t exactly loaded with great options. The Jets would have likely wound up with Brock Osweiler or David Fales, who both played for Gase in Miami, if Siemian wound up elsewhere.
Henry Anderson (Nam Y. Huh / AP)
DE Henry Anderson Grade: B-plus
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Adam Gase has made it clear since his arrival that one of the biggest traps for new coaching staffs is to misevaluate/overlook quality players in-house. Well, Gase & Co. wisely decided that Anderson was worth bringing back after a thorough look at his production and value last season. The Jets, frankly, loved everything about Anderson.
CB Darryl Roberts Grade: B-minus
The Jets still need help at cornerback, but there was nothing wrong with bringing Roberts back on a three-year, $18 million deal, which is really a 1-year pact with $4.5 million in cash for 2019. There’s no guaranteed money beyond Year 1, so the Jets can move on easily after this season if they choose. Roberts played well last season, so it made sense to retain him with an easy escape hatch after 2019.
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NT Steve McClendon Grade: A
This was one of my favorite signings. The Jets retained a valuable leader who can still make a contribution on the field. And they got him for a good price: $2.5 million in 2019. There is nobody more respected in the locker room than this guy.