By Steve Lichtenstein
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For many Jets fans, Mike Maccagnan may as well be Santa Claus.READ MORE: NYPD: Wounded Officer Wilbert Mora Transferred To NYU Langone Medical Center, Still In Critical Condition
Last week the Jets rookie general manager bore gifts that delivered on the fans’ wish list for talent upgrades with a wild spending spree in the free agency market. Among Maccagnan’s most prominent presents, Gang Green made major improvements to what was a minor-league secondary.
Certainly when compared to the Ebenezer Scrooge-like behavior of predecessor John Idzik, Maccagnan deserves to be fitted with a red overcoat. At the very least, Maccagnan proved he wasn’t going to subject the fans to another year of watching what happens to a roster earning many millions below the league’s salary cap.
And for that I am thankful.
Idzik’s penny-pinching backfired as the Jets stumbled out of the gate last season and crash-landed to a 4-12 mark, the Jets’ fourth straight playoff-less year. Owner Woody Johnson axed both Idzik and coach Rex Ryan and allowed Maccagnan to switch gears.
Maccagnan hired Todd Bowles as coach and set about to correct as many of the team’s deficiencies as he could when the new league year started on March 10.
There are those who are calling Maccagnan “Magic Mike” for his acquisitions of such stars as Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie and Brandon Marshall.
However, in order for Maccagnan to make a true believer out of me, I need to see what he does on April 30.
For it’s not the team that makes the most noise in the free agency market that typically wins Super Bowl titles—it’s the team that finds, drafts and develops young players.
Jets fans have been down this path before. I can recall the hoopla back in the 1993 offseason after a similar 4-12 debacle the prior year. Former general manager Dick Steinberg brought in quarterback Boomer Esiason (age 32), safety Ronnie Lott (34) and defensive end Leonard Marshall (31). Jets fans were ecstatic.
Then the Jets had to play the games.
Want to know why the Jets’ 8-8 finish that season was the best they could do in this era? Take a look at their draft picks around that time frame.
Outside of a few early-round successes, the list boasts more than a fair share of duds, which inspired a highly viewed YouTube clip:
From 1986-1992, the Jets’ first-round selections were: Mike Haight, Roger Vick, Dave Cadigan, Jeff Lageman, Blair Thomas and Johnny Mitchell.
That’s not what the fans meant when we prayed for the Jets to draft players who would prove to be bust-worthy.READ MORE: Nets Lose Shootout In Minneapolis, Fall To 2-2 Since Durant Injury
On the bright side, Maccagnan has the benefit of owning the sixth overall pick this draft and the experience from working in the college scouting department in the Texans’ front office since their inception.
Let’s just say expectations will be high come draft day. In order for the Jets to truly transform into a competitive team, this has to be Maccagnan’s time to reach into his bag of goodies and pull out a few gems.
The draft may be a crapshoot, but Maccagnan can’t roll snake eyes here.
Most eyes will be fixated on Marcus Mariota, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback from Oregon. My guess—and it’s purely a guess–is that he’ll be gone by the time the Jets are on the clock. Tennessee should view Mariota as either its franchise’s future QB (despite his reportedly unimpressive “Pro Day” workout on Thursday), or as bait for which they’ll look to dangle in the direction of Eagles boss Chip Kelly. Many believe Kelly is so enamored with Mariota from their Ducks Dynasty days that he’ll overpay to move up from his No. 20 perch. Who out there thinks that Sam Bradford and his twice-torn left ACL is Kelly’s top choice to run his high-octane spread offense?
The best consequence of Maccagnan’s trade for journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick is that the Jets at least have a quarterback to start on Opening Day not named Geno Smith. Should Mariota fall in the draft, Maccagnan can weigh all the information he has on him (Charley Casserly–Maccagnan’s mentor—tweeted that Mariota is “not a sure thing. If you’re going to take him, you’ve got to hold your breath.” Not too different from what many folks made of Smith when Idzik selected him in the second round of the 2013 draft) knowing he has an acceptable stop-gap in Fitzpatrick for this season.
Whether or not Mariota is there at six or not even valued that highly by Maccagnan, the Jets still have plenty of other needs that can be addressed this draft.
There’s a glaring lack of speed on both sides of the ball. The Jets bid adieu to their home run-hitting running back (Chris Johnson) and receiver (Percy Harvin) in order to clear additional cap space for their new blood. The linebacking corps is far from fleet and could use some young players with coverage skills as well as the ability to get to the quarterback. There should be multiple players on the board with those traits when the Jets are on the clock.
And as a bonus for performing so poorly last season, the Jets will have early slots in rounds two-through-four as well (their fifth and sixth-rounders were traded away for Marshall and Harvin, respectively). Here they can also look to add depth for their aging offensive line.
This is where teams that endure are built. As much as I blame Idzik for wasting away last season through his frugality, he is equally responsible for his failure to stock the roster with quality young players in the last two drafts.
We all love defensive end Sheldon Richardson and we need to give safety Calvin Pryor and tight end Jace Amaro more time to prove themselves worthy as legitimate NFL starters. But who else from those drafts is projected to make an impact on the 2015 Jets? Oft-injured cornerback Dee Milliner—Idzik’s first-ever pick—could be moved down to fourth-string on the depth chart this year even if he recovers from the Achilles tear from last season.
At best Maccagnan’s whirlwind splurging brought the Jets back in line with the other also-rans (Miami, Buffalo) in their division. Their defense should be formidable with the additions to the back end and the offense, though still lacking big-play capabilities, will hopefully be professionally managed.
However, I’m sure even Maccagnan knows there’s still quite a gulf between the Jets and the defending Super Bowl-champion Patriots. No one’s even expecting him to complete the bridge this season. Not without a better quarterback.
Now factor in that most of Maccagnan’s additions (including the re-signing of free agent linebacker David Harris and guard Willie Colon) will all be on the wrong side of 30 years old when the 2015 season begins and that his trio of 26-year-old free-agent signings (safety Marcus Gilchrist, cornerback Buster Skrine and guard James Carpenter) all received below-average grades from Pro Football Focus on their work from the 2014 season.
That will probably limit the treading-water period to a year or two before the Jets need to roll out their lifeboats. And with the Jets soon to be capped out (with Pro Bowl defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson in line for a monstrous pay raise after this season), those have to come in the form of players selected in the draft and then developed by the coaching staff into high-quality NFL starters.
This is where Maccagnan can earn his way into Jets folk lore. If he succeeds, and in a few years the Jets take off for lands not seen in many decades, then I’ll believe anything is possible.MORE NEWS: NYPD Officer Jason Rivera's Wake To Be Held Thursday At St. Patrick's Cathedral
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.