During the 2020 NFL season, the New York Jets had, by far, the worst passing offense in all of professional football. Accordingly, the 2021 Jets offseason started with much hope to address these shortcomings. General manager Joe Douglas was quick to begin the rebuild of the receiving corps, certainly impressing with his choices on the 2021 market.
How We Got Here
The numbers prove the Jets’ air struggles throughout last year’s 16 games very avidly.
Firstly, the team had the third-worst air raid when it comes to collective passer rating. With a produced rating of 75.9, the only teams that turned in a more terrible display in that department were the Denver Broncos and the Philadelphia Eagles.
Furthermore, the unit also put on the third-lowest completion percentage, as well as the second-fewest yards through the air. As regards the latter of these lowlights, the only teams below the Jets, the Baltimore Ravens, made fewer throws than any teams in the league. That effectively makes New York last in that field.
The 2020 Jets had a historically shallow receiving core en route to a historically weak 2-14 campaign. As noted frequently, the players to blame were primarily deep-threat weapons. Both Breshad Perriman and Denzel Mims posted catch-percentage figures below the 55.0% mark. In contrast, Jamison Crowder, Braxton Berrios, and tight end Chris Herndon all put on figures over 65.0%.
As the 2021 Jets Offseason started in mid-March, Douglas was quick to react. Perriman, leaving for Detroit, was the only real departure but the corps still needed serious rebooting with depth and quality in mind.
Economically, that seemed true about New York’s two pass-catching acquisitions. First off, the team brought in Corey Davis for three years on a $37.5 million contract. That equals roughly $12.5 million per year, which was near his projection of $10.5 million and amongst the biggest bargains amongst receivers of Davis’s caliber.
However, business was not over for Douglas in that department.
The Jets also signed Keelan Cole on a one-year, $5.5 million contract. He has never been a regular part of an NFL air raid so even his past numbers provoke concern. Nevertheless, the risk New York takes with him is low and, in the best-case scenario, according to the limited credibility his figures hold, he could even have his inaugural breakthrough campaign.
A more detailed analysis shows that the duo of Davis and Cole is sharply different from what Perriman had to offer. Moreover, the whole Jets corps could experience a change of style after a 2021 Jets offseason campaign that brought in promising pass-catchers, neither of which is a typical downfield target.
2021 Jets Offseason: What Davis and Cole Bring
Both Corey Davis and Keelan Cole arrived in New York at a price that benefits the Jets in their quest to establish balance in the roster and provide depth to the receiving corps. However, no cheap deal is worth it if the incoming assets don’t cut it. Therefore, both Davis and Cole would need to up their game to amount to upgrades as compared to Breshad Perriman and some of the other inconsistent Jets pass-catchers.
Wild Productivity and Safe Bet
As regards the former Tennessee Titans wide receiver, there is no reason for concern or worries. Corey Davis was not only cheap but his performance has seen a continued improvement over the last three NFL campaigns. As a result, in 2020, he reached a level that earned him a place amongst the league’s best at the position. While that meant a stiffer price, the average value of $12.5 million per year is more than worth it given his potential and the other options in the market.
Just three seasons ago, Corey Davis experienced a serious hit on his reputation concerning the early part of his pro career. As a second-year wide receiver out of Western Michigan, Davis was given the green light, starting 16 games and getting 112 targets. With 13.7 yards per reception, his role as a short-game weapon is beyond apparent.
Yet, Corey Davis was a major disappointment that year, making just 65 catches, or just 58.0%. Even for a deep threat, that would be underwhelming. When it comes to a pass-catcher in a role that would expect him to be involved much more frequently, that is a total car crash.
However, the next two years proved that he has a higher ceiling. Corey Davis’s catch percentage grew to 62.3 percent in 2019, and subsequently to 70.7 percent the following year.
Furthermore, this figure is likely to remain in that range. Davis’s value really increased by the end of his rookie contract. He is just 26 years old, four years removed from the bet the Titans placed on him in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. He is now entering his prime and, with a lot of years in front of him, a great deal of his best seasons are yet to transpire. That means more potential consistency, which is what makes that deal so beneficial at a price of over $10 million.
Joe Douglas did a great job putting the bigger picture and consistency first and not succumbing to the most talked-about, most expensive free agents. Moreover, he also bought a productive asset by prioritizing quality over getting a deep threat to replace the downfield target that is Perriman. Davis has clearly managed to put his tenure on the right path as a consistent, high-workload receiver, and slotting him in the deep wide-out role would be reckless.
Fifteen yards per reception is the mark that defines a deep threat most accurately at the NFL level and Corey Davis averaged a tick over that in 2020. However, that is dramatically lower than both Perriman’s 16.4 before his Florham Park arrival and his 16.8 as a Jet. Also, it is about on par with Robby Anderson‘s 14.8 yards per catch during his four campaigns in East Rutherford.
That similarity, as well as Jamison Crowder’s role in the intermediate portion of the air raid, could prompt the Jets to return to a system that used to be more successful when Anderson was involved. But details on that later.
Increased Risk and System Change
If you need another reason why the Jets might be making a nod of changing their air raid tactics, look no further than the team’s second receiving addition in the 2021 NFL Free Agency.
Keelan Cole’s signing was a move where quality corresponds with resources very efficiently. Although he will get $5 million over the next NFL season, he has had an up-and-down track record even as a short-game under-the-radar target. Still, as the middle part of his career looms, the logical improvements have occurred and he promises to be a great low-workload asset.
The other significance this move represents is a further indication that the Jets could be closer to a more methodical intermediate passing game. However, Keelan Cole has displayed that he wouldn’t be prolific if an injury to another member of the unit forces him to be an avid part of the passing group.
Keelan Cole was picked up by the Jacksonville Jaguars four years ago as an undrafted free agent out of Kentucky Wesleyan, an NCAA Division II program based in Owensboro. The Jags decided not to bring him back despite having $70 million in cap space in hopes of acquiring better replacements.
Paying Keelan Cole $5.5 million might seem like an overinvestment considering that it’s not only more than his original deal but also over the $3.26-million second-round tender he was assigned last spring while not proving he is significantly more reliable than initially thought. At the same time, that’s an unimportant piece of cap hit for his potential efficiency in a more limited amount of playing time.
Through the first four campaigns of his NFL tenure, Cole has a catch percentage of 57.6% on 276 targets. In detail – he failed to reach the 55% mark in his first two years and posted a figure north of 62% percent in his latest two efforts.
However, during the former year, Cole registered just 35 targets with a discredited 68% catch success, starting career-worst one game. In 2020, Keelan Cole justified the hazardous tender offered by Jacksonville with a catch percentage in the 62% range.
What Cole has shown is that his peak offers a catch percentage near 60%, with the potential to reach 65% in his career prime. That applies in a workload close to his 2020 number – near the 80-target range. But the catch is that Keelan Cole is definitely not going to average anything near that value. In fact, in the past three years, there have been just four instances of a Jets receiver posting more than 80 targets. Even in the talentless Jets corps, Cole’s workload will be significantly under that, amounting to a further increase in catch success. If he averages 67% or higher, this move could confidently be pronounced successful by Douglas’s staff.
The bottom line is that Cole would be a very welcome addition with a few conditions. Firstly, New York has to get at least another reliable mid-to-high-workload pass-catcher to ease Cole’s task. Secondly, the Jets have to finish the job by transitioning to the methodical passing unit of the past. Otherwise, New York will have problems moving the ball yet again, while Cole won’t make much impact.
2021 Jets Offseason: The Passing Unit Is Improved but Not Complete
The Jets are likely shifting to a more short-game-focused passing group. But, more importantly, they are moving towards a more efficient unit.
Let’s start from the bottom. So far, they have replaced Breshad Perriman with Corey Davis and Keelan Cole. Here is their compared roles (yards per reception) and catch success, both of which are in sharp contrast:
Note: We are assuming that, while he averaged 15.1 yards per reception in 2020, Corey Davis, who has a career average of 13.8, will probably be a frequently-used short-distance weapon.
It is clear – the Jets are replacing Perriman with short-game efficiency. Given the lack of depth that is still apparent on the WR roster, the situation is very similar to the Jets’ passing unit from the previous two years. This system saw that group post much more impressive numbers:
As you can see, the lowest usage of deep threats perfectly corresponds with the Jets’ highest collective passer rating and completion percentage. Unsurprising as most passing offenses in recent memory has been more solid in a methodical, short passing way (examples: 2018-2020 Saints, 2019 Texans, 2018: Vikes, Cowboys, Seahawks, etc.) or, if embracing the long-distance game, have enough consistency for a steady completion percentage (2018-2020 Chiefs).
The Jets need more depth to accomplish either of those two scenarios. However, the former surely seems very close to being the primary system of the team’s passing unit. Another receiving weapon could alter that, though.
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