The New York Jets charged into NFL free agency and secured two blue-chip players within a 24-hour period -- a dynamic quarterback helper (Le'Veon Bell) and a quarterback for the defense (C.J. Mosley). The Jets are crushing it, sparking the familiar question that surfaces every March:
Can a team buy a Lombardi Trophy?
History says no, but free agency can make a bad team better and restore it to relevancy. The Jets have accomplished that, capitalizing on their "Sam Darnold window" and using the Chicago Bears as their guide. (More on that later.)
The Jets have doled out a league-leading $108 million in total guarantees to Bell, Mosley, cornerback Brian Poole and wide receivers Jamison Crowder and Josh Bellamy. They also made a pre-emptive strike, trading for guard Kelechi Osemele before free agency opened. This kind of action excites the fan base, which has suffered through eight straight seasons out of the playoffs, but is it really wise to spend this much?
In the Jets' case, the answer is, why not?
They have a three-year window with which to operate -- the number of years remaining on Darnold's rookie contract -- so they can afford to take more financial gambles than a team paying its quarterback, say, $20 million a year. Not only do they have their quarterback on the cheap, but they have only one potentially big contract looming on the horizon -- defensive end Leonard Williams will be a free agent in 2020.
This is the time to strike. In many ways, it's the perfect storm -- a relatively low quarterback salary and a boatload of cap room. Much to the delight of agents, general manager Mike Maccagnan is under pressure to win now. Put those three factors together, and you're talking a serious spending spree.
"I'm not a Maccagnan fan, and the Jets have done enough stupid things over the years to get the building fired, but I'm not going to knock him here," said a longtime personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "I think they've done a good job."
Some might criticize the Jets for throwing big money at a running back and a middle linebacker -- nonpremium positions in the NFL's economic order -- but Bell and Mosley immediately became the two best players on the team. They've combined for seven Pro Bowls and both will be 27 on opening day, which means they still have prime years ahead of them.
The sense from personnel people around the league is Bell will be refreshed and motivated after sitting out the 2018 season because of his contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers. He didn't get what he wanted in free agency, providing fodder for those who believe his holdout was ill-advised, but that should put a chip on his shoulder. The concern, they said, is that his weight has fluctuated throughout his career.
That scares people, especially with runners and receivers. Some believe skill-position players lose their special qualities faster if they're constantly gaining/losing weight. Though Bell posted big numbers in 2017 -- 1,946 yards from scrimmage -- the analytics indicate he didn't perform at an elite level. For instance, he posted a pedestrian 4.0 yards per carry. A bad harbinger or just a blip on the screen? If the Jets get the best of Bell, he will be Darnold's best friend on offense.
In Mosley, the Jets get a signal-calling "Mike" linebacker whom they believe is a premier, culture-changing player, a less vocal version of Jamal Adams. He will bring an element of toughness that was lacking with Darron Lee, who likely will be shipped out. A current NFL player who has played against Mosley told me he was "the straw that stirs the drink" on the Baltimore Ravens' defense.
The personnel executive called Mosley "one of the best signings in free agency." An AFC scout said, "He's a stud. We wish we could've gotten him, but not at that price."
The price is steep -- $17 million per year, a record-shattering deal for an off-ball linebacker. It includes $43 million fully guaranteed at signing, the largest amount in team history, eclipsing Darrelle Revis' $39 million in 2015. It's exorbitant for a player who doesn't sack the quarterback or shut down No. 1 receivers. At this rate, Mosley needs to be Ray Lewis for at least three years. Did the Jets overpay? Of course they did, but everybody overpays in the first wave of free agency.
Again, Maccagnan is trying to capitalize on his "Darnold window," which is exactly what the Bears did last year. With quarterback Mitchell Trubisky entering his second year, the Bears' front office tried to help him and new coach Matt Nagy by spending lavishly on free agents. It culminated with the monster trade for pass-rusher Khalil Mack.
The Bears spent a league-high $102 million guaranteed in free agency (not counting Mack's new deal), per ESPN Stats & Information, and they saw a seven-win improvement and won the NFC North. In 2017, the Jacksonville Jaguars led the league in free-agent spending and they, too, improved by seven wins and won the AFC South. You have to go back to 2014 to find a spending leader, in this case the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, that went backward in the win column.
Problem is, it's not the way to achieve sustained success or win a championship. You can point to the Los Angeles Rams, who reached the Super Bowl after a go-for-broke offseason, but let's not forget they made the playoffs the previous year. They were good and got better. The Jets weren't good last season. They will be better in 2019, but they won't reach the championship level unless Darnold blossoms into a star and they find and develop homegrown talent.
That's a problem. The Jets are in this position because they've drafted poorly, dating to before Maccagnan's tenure. In 2014, a draft loaded with talent, they pretty much whiffed on their top picks. They chose safety Calvin Pryor with the 18th pick, and he no longer plays football for a living. Drafted one spot ahead of him was Mosley.
Hey, if you can't get it right the first time, get the good ones the second time around. It'll buy a few wins, but not a Lombardi.
This, of course, isn't a new approach for the Jets, who also hit the $100 million mark in free-agent guarantees last year -- making them the third team to reach that plateau since 2016. The others: the 2018 Bears and the 2016 New York Giants. Only one failed to make the playoffs.
You guessed it ... the Jets.