When the Jets start their sales pitch to Kirk Cousins, he's going to want to know about more than just the size of their check. He's going to want to know, among other things, how they plan to protect him.
That's a project they can get started on right now.
The Jets should begin by re-signing center Wesley Johnson before the free-agent market opens on March 14, and solidify what was a young and better-than-you-think offensive line last season. Together with right guard Brian Winters and right tackle Brandon Shell, it would give the Jets a strong young corps on the line to build around. And with two solid veterans on the left side -- tackle Kelvin Beachum and guard James Carpenter -- it's a line that could actually be pretty good.
No, last season wasn't great for the Jets' line. They gave up 47 sacks, tied for seventh in the league, and their rushing attack ranked only 19th, gaining 106.4 yards per game. Across the board, their Pro Football Focus Grades -- that fans love to quote, no matter how flawed they are -- weren't very good.
But don't look at the numbers (especially the PFF grades), because offensive line play is about much more than that. Keep in mind that several Jets players complained (correctly) about how former offensive coordinator John Morton skewed all the offensive numbers by abandoning the run game too early and becoming far too pass-happy -- a big reason why Morton lost his job. And the sack numbers were hurt by coverage sacks -- when the Jets' middling receiving corps couldn't get open, forcing Josh McCown (and later Bryce Petty) to hold the ball.
That's not to say it was a good season for the line, but it was better than the numbers indicate. The truth is there's a lot of potential there. And as offensive linemen constantly say, continuity is incredibly important at that position. So in this case, stability is good. There's no reason to blow everything up.
And they don't have to, since the 27-year-old Johnson is the only one of the starting five headed towards free agency, after playing last season on a $2.7 million restricted free agent tender. But letting a young, versatile center hit the market would be a mistake. When the Jets gave him that RFA deal, they were hopeful he was the heir apparent to the great Kevin Mawae-Nick Mangold line of centers they had enjoyed.
Why would they give up on that idea now?
It's not clear exactly what the Jets' plans are at center since according to multiple sources the two sides haven't had any substantive discussions on a new contract. Johnson's agent, Brian Parker, was unavailable for comment, but it's a good bet he'll be meeting with Jets' officials at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis next week.
And that's good, since at a position that was devastated by injuries last season, the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Johnson has proven to be durable. And the center market in free agency is largely considered to be weak. Weston Richburg of the Giants is largely considered to be one of the best on the market, and he wasn't playing well at all last season before he missed 12 games with a concussion. Baltimore's Ryan Jensen could be an option, but he could be an expensive one given the thin field.
It makes no sense to overspend on someone else's player when the Jets can pay someone they've already worked to develop. It won't be cheap, necessarily. Parker had the highest-paid center in free agency twice in the last six years (Scott Wells, who got a four-year, $25.5 million deal from the Rams in 2012, and Evan Smith, who got four years, $14.25 million from the Bucs in 2014) so he has a handle on the market for that position. But it doesn't have to be crazy money either. The 49ers just re-signed their young center, Daniel Kilgore, for three years and $12 million with $7 million guaranteed.
Johnson, at $4 million per year, would be a bargain and easily affordable for the Jets. And it would save them on having to overbid on the open market, using resources they'd be better off spending on an edge rusher or a top receiver. If they want reinforcements on the line, they're better off looking to the draft to develop long-term replacements for Beachum and Carpenter.
For now, though, the Jets have five solid linemen under 30. Give them a chance to grow together, and keep Johnson in the middle of it all. The worst thing the Jets could do is break it up and make Cousins think they're going to just patch things together in front of him. A quarterback wants to know he's protected. The last thing he needs is uncertainty up front.