FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:
1. Different kind of QB: Twenty years ago, Robert Saleh was a graduate assistant at Michigan State when he heard a nugget of coaching philosophy that has stuck with him. It actually came from the school’s basketball coach, Tom Izzo, who said, “The best-coached teams are the teams that coach themselves.”
Saleh believes the 2023 Jets can be one of those teams, in large part, because of one player: quarterback Aaron Rodgers. He describes Rodgers as a proven winner (147-75-1 career record) who can “champion [the] message” from the coaching staff and “control the standard” in the locker room, something that takes a rare kind of player.
“To have a guy like him who embodies all of that, who embodies what you want out of a football player, and who has the track record and who has had success and who has a voice like he has, it makes our job easier because we’re not having to worry about things that we don’t have control over,” Saleh said.
“Easier” is a relative term. Because of the Rodgers-fueled expectations, the pressure to win will be much greater than before. Of the nine AFC teams that failed to make the postseason in 2022, the Jets are the only one with a better than 50% chance of making it this season, according to ESPN’s Football Power Index. Saleh himself said they’re one of six to eight teams with a realistic shot at the Super Bowl.
That kind of hype could make a coach’s job harder. On a day-to-day basis, though, it’s easy to see why Saleh feels the way he does about the Rodgers effect. For a change, he doesn’t have to coach up the quarterback on the ABCs of the position and the NFL. He has a quarterback who can coach them. This is unfamiliar territory for Saleh, who has been surrounded by inexperienced starters for his entire coaching career.
In four previous coaching stops as an assistant, Saleh never belonged to a team that went into a season with a quarterback who had more than 40 career starts. His most experienced quarterback was the Houston Texans‘ Matt Schaub, who began the 2010 season with 40 starts. After that, Saleh was with the Seattle Seahawks and Jacksonville Jaguars for the rookie years of Russell Wilson (2012) and Blake Bortles (2014), respectively. From there, it was on to the San Francisco 49ers, who in 2017 traded for an older, but still unproven Jimmy Garoppolo.
As a head coach, Saleh endured two years of growing pains with quarterback Zach Wilson, the 2021 No. 2 overall pick, before deciding it was time for a change. Rodgers has more career starts (223) than the combined total of Saleh’s previous quarterbacks. He also has a seasoned offensive coordinator in Nathaniel Hackett, significantly more experienced than predecessor Mike LaFleur.
This doesn’t mean Saleh can hit the auto-pilot switch. His job is to galvanize the entire operation and … well, win.
2. Odd couple: Rodgers has recorded at least 30 touchdown passes in eight of his 15 seasons as a starter. As a franchise, the Jets have done it only once in 63 years. (Ryan Fitzpatrick had 31 in 2015.) That is just wild.
3. Moving money: The Jets have created a whopping $45.2 million in salary cap space by restructuring seven contracts this offseason. That includes all the key free agent acquisitions from 2021 and 2022, including safety Jordan Whitehead, the latest to rework his deal. The glaring exception is wide receiver Corey Davis, who figures to be the next man up.
The upside is the added cap flexibility. The downside is having to pay the credit card bill that will arrive a year or two down the road.
In six of the seven renegotiated contracts, the Jets added void years, which spreads the cap hit over the term of the contract. The negative: Instead of an expiring contract, which comes off the books entirely, there’s an added “dead” charge when the contract voids — the acceleration of the pro-rated amounts.
Let’s use defensive end Carl Lawson as an example. He was due to count $15.7 million in the final year of his contract. By restructuring, they lowered it to $3 million, but there’s a $6.3 million charge next year when it voids and he becomes a free agent. If the contract had remained untouched, there would’ve been no cap hit in 2024.
All told, the Jets have $9.6 million in void money hitting the cap in 2024 and another $14.2 million in 2025. A lot of teams do it this way: Save today, pay tomorrow.
The good news is the Jets currently have the fourth-most cap space at $24.5 million, according to Over the Cap. A chunk of that will be used to absorb Rodgers’ contract, which likely will be restructured in the coming weeks.
4. Blind side: Duane Brown, still not practicing after having rotator-cuff surgery at the end of the season, was noncommittal on whether he will be cleared for the start of training camp. This creates another layer of intrigue at the all-important left tackle position. If he isn’t ready, it could open the door for Mekhi Becton. He, too, is rehabbing from surgery (right knee, last August), but he’s ahead of Brown and expected to be ready for camp.
Becton has made it clear he wants to play left tackle, not right tackle. Brown has played left tackle his entire career — 15 seasons, 215 starts — and doesn’t sound interested in flipping to the right side.
“It’s not something I’ve practiced over the years,” he said, diplomatically. “Not to say I can’t do it, but I’ve been solidified [at left tackle] for a while.”
5. Did you know? Based on 2022 records, the Jets have the hardest schedule in the league from Week 1 to Week 12 — a 2022 .616 winning percentage for their opponents, eight of whom made the playoffs. It gets a lot easier after that. From Week 13 to Week 18, their schedule ranks 27th in difficulty (.422).
6. BFFs: Rodgers and wide receiver Randall Cobb are extremely close. How close? Rodgers was an usher in Cobb’s wedding and served as the godfather to Cobb’s youngest son, Cade.
“I had a birthday party [in January] for my son, his godson, and [Rodgers] flew in for it — for a 3-year-old’s birthday party,” Cobb said. “That’s the type of person he is.”
7. Security blanket: If you think Cobb is just going to be a spare part on offense, think again. Not only is he the only pure slot receiver on the roster, but he has the trust of Rodgers — and that counts for a lot. The 32-year-old Cobb still was targeted on 20.6% of his routes run last season, according to ESPN Stats & Information data — his highest percentage since 2014.
If Cobb can stay healthy — an issue in recent years — he will be part of the receiver rotation.
8. Picky, picky: The coaches have issued a challenge to cornerback Sauce Gardner: Catch the ball.
The 2022 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year led the NFL with 20 passes defensed but recorded only two interceptions. He still made first-team All-Pro in what defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich called “an amazing year,” but a few more picks would elevate Gardner to rarefied air.
9. Hardly knocking: Still no word on this summer’s featured team for HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series. A year ago, the Detroit Lions were announced in late March. HBO isn’t giving any hints, not even a timetable. The Jets are one of the eligible teams.
10. The last word: “He’s going to change the course of these young players’ careers forever.” — Ulbrich on Aaron Rodgers’ potential impact