The New York Jets are making a big splash in free agency. Four-time Pro Bowl inside linebacker C.J. Mosley signed a five-year, $85 million contract that includes $51 million in guarantees. Former Washington Redskins wide receiver Jamison Crowder inked a three-year deal worth $28.5 million — $17 million guaranteed — on Monday. And then late Tuesday night the team brought in running back Le’Veon Bell, a two-time all-pro who sat out the entire 2018 season on the franchise tag, on a four-year, $52.5 million contract that includes $35 million in total guarantees.
On paper, this all looks great. Mosley is solid against the run, can defend the pass and has had fewer than 10 missed tackles in each of the past two seasons, according to the game charters at Pro Football Focus. Crowder set career lows in catches (29) and receiving yards (388) in 2018 but missed seven games with an ankle injury; when healthy in 2017 he led all slot receivers in yards of separation per target. Bell touched the ball a league-high 406 times in 2017 for 1,946 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns.
In reality, this is an inefficient use of cap space, one that could do more harm than good.
Let’s start with Bell, whose average annual salary, $13.1 million per year, ranks second among running backs behind Todd Gurley’s $14.4 million average. The average team spend on this role per player, by comparison, is $1.6 million, nearly a fifth of what teams spend on quarterbacks ($7.2 million, on average) and a few hundred thousand dollars less than what organizations shell out for receivers ($2.4 million). Why? Because running backs, even those that catch passes out of the backfield, don’t affect the game enough to warrant big money.
For example, when the Pittsburgh Steelers targeted Bell out of the backfield in 2017, the team scored less than a half point more per game than expected after accounting for the down, distance and field position of each throw, per data from TruMedia. On his carries, the Steelers produced 1.7 points per game less than expected. Football Outsiders ranked Bell 11th out of 47 running backs in 2017 for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average, a number that represents value, per play, over an average running back in the same game situations. They also ranked him 11th in success rate, which measures a player’s consistency to produce successful running plays adjusted for down and distance.
Surprised? You shouldn’t be, because the NFL is a passing league, and the best way to generate points is by taking shots downfield rather than trying to grind it out on the ground. Will Bell be an upgrade over Isaiah Crowell and Elijah McGuire? Maybe — the Jets had one of the worst run-blocking units in the league last year, allowing their rushers to be stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage a league-high 26 percent of the time. Jets running backs also saw 39 percent of runs on third or fourth down, of two yards or less to go, fail to achieve a first down or touchdown; the league-average fail rate was 34 percent.
Running backs, as a group, peak at 26 years of age with a dramatic drop off in production after the age of 28. Bell turned 27 in February and saw a precipitous decline in yards per carry from 4.9 in 2016 to 4.0 2017. There is an injury risk with running backs, too. Five rushers started all 16 games last season and just one running back, Frank Gore, has started 16 games in three of the last four years. Just four running backs have managed to start 12 or more games in each of the last four years: Gore, Gurley, LeSean McCoy and Lamar Miller. Gurley, if you remember, played 11 snaps in the Super Bowl at least in part because of arthritis in his left knee, the same knee that required ACL surgery in 2014.
The average inside linebacker makes $2.7 million against the cap; Mosley will make $17 million. Teams are hesitant to commit huge salaries to inside linebackers because they do not typically rush the passer. Mosley was on the field for a league-high 148 pass-rush snaps among inside linebackers, making one sack with one hit and 12 hurries for 14 total pressures, a rate that placed him 24th out of 26 qualified players at the position, per Pro Football Focus. His pass rushing was graded so low by PFF he ended the regular season ranked 30th overall among 61 inside linebackers playing at least 25 percent of the team’s snaps.
Crowder joins Quincy Enunwa on the roster, who ran 156 of 321 routes (49 percent) from the slot for the Jets in 2018. He was targeted on 33 of those routes, hauling in 20 passes for 273 yards and a touchdown, producing 1.8 yards per route run. Crowder hasn’t been as productive as Enunwa as a slot receiver: if you combine his 2017 and 2018 production he produced only 1.5 yards per route run on these routes.
And who is going to be the Jets No. 1 receiver? Enunwa ranked 66th out of 125 qualified wideouts per Pro Football Focus in 2018, Robby Anderson ranked 90th and Crowder ranked 100th after ranking 32nd in 2017.
The Jets are coming off a 4-12 season in the same division as the defending champion New England Patriots, so you can’t blame them for spending money in an effort to catch up. Yet it is clear there were higher priority needs that deserved to be addressed.
The offensive line is in dire need of run blockers. Only six teams in the NFL gained fewer yards per game on the ground (101.4 rushing yards per game) than the Jets in 2018, and if you remove the team’s 323-yard performance against the Denver Broncos in Week 5, that drops to 86.6 yards per game rushing over their other 15 contests. The team could have upgraded the pass protection as well: Quarterback Sam Darnold saw his passer rating drop from 93.9 to 39.7 under pressure last season, the latter of which is roughly equal to the passer rating you get for an incomplete pass. The defensive line was credited with 39 sacks and was ranked as the 24th-best pass-rushing unit per Pro Football Focus.
Still not convinced? The Westgate Superbook improved the Jets’ odds of winning Super Bowl LIV from 80-to-1 to 60-to-1 after all the moves have been completed, which is equivalent to moving their chances from 1.2 to 1.6 percent.
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