Upgrading Jets offense for Aaron Rodgers will cost Robert Saleh on defense

It might just be time for New York Jets coach Robert Saleh to start making some sacrifices.

It feels like general manager Joe Douglas has been dead set on working with Saleh to build one of the best defensive lines in the NFL, which makes sense given that is the position that Saleh cut his teeth coaching. First-round picks? Saleh can have them: DE Jermaine Johnson and DE Will McDonald. Big contracts? DT Quinnen Williams got his massive extension. 

New York has been doing what good teams do: set up their head coach to succeed.

But then there’s the other thing that good teams do: set up their quarterback to succeed. And New York has Aaron Rodgers at QB. The Jets have run marathons to make Rodgers happy. The man has a reputation for making his preferences known.

And, frankly, it’s not just that he has strong opinions. It’s that those opinions have a massive amount of influence in the Jets organization. Rodgers is LeBron-like in taking an assistant GM role for his team. His influence is so immense that a source told The Athletic: “Rodgers isn’t the assistant GM. Joe Douglas is the assistant GM.” 

“I think it’s important for me to put my stamp on this offense,” Rodgers told “The Pat McAfee Show” in December. “We’ll have some new pieces and I want to make them in the same page.”

Rodgers added: “I’m a pretty decent recruiter, so if they have a person they want, making sure to have the right conversations with that free agent. I enjoy those conversations. … Joe and I got a great relationship, so the lines of communication were wide open.”

Later in the interview, Rodgers reviewed the state of the roster and praised each of the defensive starters. And he mentioned a pair of top-tier impending free agents.

Jordan Whitehead has been great for us in the back end,” Rodgers said of the safety, while noting the performances of just about every defensive starter. He then added: “Bryce Huff has made himself a lot of money this year. … Most of those pieces will be back. Some of those guys will get opportunities to get paid somewhere else. Hopefully they do. I want to see everyone get paid.”

Huff, for example, is exactly the type of player the Jets need to stop paying. New York signed the edge rusher as an undrafted free agent and Saleh developed him into a 10-sack player in 2023. The tough part about being a good NFL coach is that, with a player like Huff, you have to do it again. Bill Belichick, for example, let guys like Huff go, because he had confidence he’d figure out how to develop another mid-rounder into an elite player.

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To better help Rodgers, the team needs Saleh to step up.

In 2023, Saleh’s defense ranked third in the league in yards allowed per game (292.3) and 12th in points allowed per game (20.9). The Jets offense was second to last in the NFL in yards per game (268.6) and fourth worst in points per game (15.8). Saleh has to figure out how to maintain that production on defense, even if he loses some of his key contributors like Whitehead and Huff.

Why is Saleh almost definitely going to lose those guys? Rodgers, Douglas and the Jets have only about $7.5 million in salary cap space. They need to free up some cash.

The Jets need to trade quarterback Zach Wilson. If I were New York’s general manager, I would also try to unload receiver Allen Lazard — but that’s not happening. He and Rodgers are best friends. Rodgers is the reason why Lazard is there. The QB isn’t letting go of one of His Guys. But maybe tight end C.J. Uzomah will get released with a post-June 1 designation, which would free up $8 million in cap space. 

The next steps would be to restructure Quinnen Williams and C.J. Mosley‘s deals. That money can go to fixing the tackle position, where starters Mekhi Becton and Duane Brown (who underwhelmed) are headed into free agency. It’s hard to imagine either returning, given that their injury histories made them difficult to trust on a week-to-week basis. Once the Jets fix the tackle spot, they should also get a receiver.

New York should have what it needs in the interior with guards Laken Tomlinson, Alijah Vera-Tucker and center Joe Tippmann. They have receiver Garrett Wilson, running back Breece Hall and tight end Tyler Conklin to start at their respective positions. (Yes, New York could upgrade on Conklin, but historically speaking, Rodgers hasn’t made good usage of his tight ends, so I’m not sure if that’s a shrewd use of money.)

One of the quickest and most cost-efficient ways to get a starter at tackle will be through the draft. The Jets own the 10th overall pick. This year’s class boasts at least four players who will be ready to start on Day 1, perhaps even on the left side. It sounds crazy to make such a proclamation about something as uncertain as the draft. But I feel pretty good about predicting the following: One of the following linemen will be a Jets starter in 2024: Notre Dame‘s Joe Alt, Oregon State‘s Taliese Fuaga, Penn State‘s Olu Fashanu or Alabama‘s JC Latham.

“Everybody is talking about the Jets [at 10]. Do you go wideout? Do you go tackle with that first pick?” NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah said on a conference call Thursday. “I know one thing: If you can get the tackle, I feel a lot better about the third-round wideouts than I do about the third-round tackles. I would lean more in that tackle direction early because in the third round you got some really, really interesting guys [at receiver].”

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Jeremiah said that those four tackles should plug and play, with Fuaga looking like an NFL right tackle and the rest likely slotting in on the left side. So that’s one key position settled, preferably left tackle.

That leaves free agency or the trade market (or even pick No. 42) for the Jets to find another tackle and another receiver. If the Jets think their rookie can play on the left side, I think they should pursue Michael Onwenu, the Patriots offensive lineman who played both guard and tackle in 2023 — not unlike Vera-Tucker. Between those two, a pair of elite offensive linemen, they can shore up right guard and right tackle. Onwenu might be expensive, but he won’t price out like tackle Tyron Smith or Andrus Peat, the top left tackles slated to hit free agency.

So here’s where things get tricky: The Jets can add top-50 free agents at tackle and receiver. But do they want to?

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Given that they’re paying Lazard $11 million annually (22nd-most among receivers), the Jets might have a hard time stomaching another major investment at wideout. Rodgers surely believes Lazard can hold up as WR2 and Garrett Wilson should continue his ascent as the team’s WR1. 

Still, those two players did not look dangerous enough in 2023, even when considering the issues the team had at quarterback. If the Jets really want to go all-in for Rodgers this year, they will need to sacrifice money down the road and add another receiver. Maybe they get one in Round 2 of the draft — along with adding a veteran.

Might Odell Beckham Jr. take a reasonable salary to play with Rodgers?

What about Michael Thomas?

Those are two veterans who are going to be ring chasing.

If they won’t go for a friendly deal, the Jets could even go for Noah Brown, who profiles with the right combination of youth, upside and budget-friendly.

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It’s tempting to consider the Jets adding one of the premier possession receivers, like Mike Evans or Tyler Boyd. There’s also a lot to love about Calvin Ridley, who might be simultaneously expensive but also buy-low — given that he spent 2023 knocking off rust after two years away from the sport. He didn’t look consistent with the Jaguars, but it’s easy to imagine he could fully return to form in 2024.

And, finally, the top tier of receivers includes Darnell Mooney, who has some similarities to one of Rodgers’ best friends, Randall Cobb. But the Jets already have talent at the receiver position — unlike tackle where they have basically zero. New York will have to be realistic about how much it can put into the position. 

It’ll likely be a top-flight veteran receiver who wants to forgo earnings to play with Rodgers. Or it’ll be a younger guy they think they can make into a starter.

That’s the clearest way for the Jets to shore up their offense. It’ll start with a painful set of moves on defense for Saleh — followed by some exciting ones on offense for Rodgers.

Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @henrycmckenna.

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