Football

‘Culture guy’ Robert Saleh brings new energy to New York Jets

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — A look at what’s happening around the New York Jets:

1. Video star: Defensive end Carl Lawson researched coach Robert Saleh on YouTube. Wide receiver Corey Davis did something similar, going online to watch Saleh’s media interviews.

Welcome to 2021 NFL free agency. To paraphrase sportscaster Warner Wolf, players go to the videotape.

In Saleh’s case, they liked what they saw. They also came away impressed after speaking to him during the two-day “recruiting” period.

Frankly, this was one of the key takeaways from the first wave of free agency: The Jets found themselves a coach who can connect with players.

Let’s not be naive. Players always chase the money, but a charismatic coach with a strong reputation can play a role in the decision-making process. It’s just a gut feeling, but the vibe is different from past years. That shined through during Davis’ Zoom call with reporters. Here was an offensive player raving about his defensive-minded head coach, whom he described as “a culture guy.” That sort of cross-complimenting wasn’t common under former coach Adam Gase (offense) and coordinator Gregg Williams (defense).

“It starts with Coach Saleh,” Davis said. “He’s the right guy to come in here and turn things around. That’s what I believe. That’s why I came here. I believe his message and I believe what he brings to the table. He brings great energy, you can tell. It’ll be great to play for a guy like that.”

Some perspective: The biggest signing of the Gase era, running back Le’Veon Bell, spent his first media session commenting on reports that Gase didn’t want him.

Many predicted Saleh, 42, would charm some of the San Francisco 49ers‘ free agents to come to the Jets, but the only one he landed was running back Tevin Coleman. Take a closer look, though: While he missed on cornerback K’Waun Williams, the other so-called losses actually were dictated by money.

Like I said, money is king. But it helps to have a coach who can attract players, and Saleh can do that.

2. Ready for a first? The Jets’ quarterback decision might be the most talked-about personnel issue in the NFL. As I mentioned two weeks ago in this space, the sense I get is they will end up replacing Sam Darnold with BYU’s Zach Wilson in the 2021 NFL draft. If that’s how it goes down, it will be historic. They would become the first team in the common-draft era (since 1967) to pick two quarterbacks within the top three in a four-year span. That’s probably not something you want to advertise in the team media guide.

3. Don’t double down: There’s a scenario floating out there on social media about how the Jets could keep Darnold, trade down from No. 2 overall and pick a quarterback somewhere in the top 10. It’s intriguing but flawed. You get the windfall of a trade and plenty of quarterback insurance, but there’s too much downside.

The following reasons support how it just wouldn’t work, and ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. echoed those sentiments when I posed this scenario: For one, there’s a chance the Jets would get the third, fourth or even fifth quarterback on their board, depending on how far down they go. Two, they would miss out on an elite pass-catcher, either tight end Kyle Pitts or one of the Big Three wide receivers. Three, they would squander Darnold’s trade value; he could bolt in a year as a free agent. Four, it would be tremendously awkward, an instant quarterback controversy.

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Zach Wilson rolls to his left and unloads a perfectly thrown deep ball at his BYU pro day.

4. QB’s best friend: When the Jets’ quarterbacks threw the ball into a tight window last season, the odds of a completion were slim. That’s not a made-up opinion; it’s a fact. They completed a league-low 16% (12-for-75) on pass attempts in which the separation between the wide receiver and the nearest defender was less than 1 yard, per NFL Next Gen Stats. Five of the Jets’ 14 interceptions came on these plays.

Corey Davis can help bring those numbers up. He’s 6-foot-3 with a 77-inch wingspan, which explains why he’s so good at contested passes. He posted a league-high 63.2% catch rate on tight-window throws last season for the Tennessee Titans. The Jets haven’t had a big, physical receiver since Brandon Marshall.

“I do consider myself a wide receiver 1,” Davis said. “My ability to get open … my speed, separation and releases … I feel like I can do it all. Last year showed that.”

5. (Almost) Twin Titans: The Jets made a play for coveted tight end Jonnu Smith, according to ESPN colleague Jeremy Fowler. Pairing Smith and Davis, two of the Titans’ top pass-catchers last season, would have been a coup. It’s no surprise the Jets are looking to upgrade at tight end. Incumbent Chris Herndon, coming off a bad season, is entering the final year of his contract. Smith wound up signing a four-year, $50 million deal with the New England Patriots, so now the Jets will see him twice a season.

6. Dangerous corner: A lot of folks are upset by the Jets’ inactivity at cornerback. It’s a fair concern, considering the current depth chart, but know this: The draft is loaded. Kiper believes as many as 40 corners could be drafted, including four or five in the first round. That likely explains general manager Joe Douglas’ strategy.

7. Minshew? Joe Flacco‘s departure, not unexpected, leaves an opening at the QB2 spot. It might seem like wasted energy to spend time on this, considering we don’t know the QB1 yet, but it shouldn’t be dismissed.

Whether the starter is Darnold or a rookie or someone else (Houston’s Deshaun Watson?), the Jets need a veteran backup. James Morgan, a 2020 fourth-round pick, can’t be entrusted with the job; he doesn’t even have preseason experience. The only free-agent option who makes any sense is former Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith, who has an obvious durability issue.

Here’s a thought: What about Gardner Minshew II? He will be the odd man out with the Jacksonville Jaguars, who figure to trade him. He has starting experience and a friendly contract (two years, $1.6 remaining). It’s worth noting that Mike LaFleur was part of the 49ers staff that coached Minshew in the 2019 Senior Bowl.

7a. Philly/N.Y. special: Flacco signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, continuing the long-running “Jersey Turnpike” shuttle. Former Jets quarterbacks who went to the Eagles include Mark Sanchez, Josh McCown, Ken O’Brien and Pat Ryan. From Philly to New York: Michael Vick and Bubby Brister.

8. Still speedy: Coleman is a decent bargain addition to the backfield (one year, $1.1 million), but let’s make one thing clear: He’s a complementary back, not an RB1. The Jets still don’t have one of those.

One thing about Coleman surprises me, though: He has maintained his speed. His max speed last season was 21.78 mph (post-knee sprain), according to tracking data by NFL Next Gen Stats. For perspective, consider the max speeds of the Jets’ backs in 2020: La’Mical Perine, 19.72; Ty Johnson, 19.29; Josh Adams, 19.10; Le’Veon Bell, 18.31; Frank Gore, 18.08.

Speed always is important, but it’s especially so in the new offense, a zone running scheme that requires backs to make one cut and accelerate quickly.

9. By George: About half of George Fant‘s 2021 base salary ($4.45 million of $8.5 million) became fully guaranteed last Monday, according to Overthecap.com. This all but secures a roster spot. If the Jets draft a right tackle in the first round, it probably would require a position change for Fant or the rookie — unless they’re OK with Fant being one of the highest-paid backups in the league.

10. The last word: “It’s an incredibly huge decision to make. In the history of the game, do you remember a decision that was as critical to an organization as this one is to Joe Douglas and the Jets?” — Kiper on the Darnold/quarterback choice.

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