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New York Jets only have one path forward; five high-value NFL free agents

Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. The topics of this edition include:

-- Five free agents who could provide maximum bang for the buck.

-- The new pass-rushing duo in the desert.

But first, a look at why the Jets' looming decision is a no-brainer ...

With free agency opening in less than two weeks and the 2021 NFL Draft kicking off at the end of next month, Joe Douglas and the New York Jets are facing a decision that will determine the fate of the franchise for the foreseeable future.

New York holds the No. 2 overall pick, providing an opportunity to reshape the organization with a true blue-chip talent. While it's widely presumed that the Jaguars will take Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence at No. 1, the Jets will have their pick of the remaining litter, which includes three more highly intriguing quarterbacks: Ohio State's Justin Fields, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and BYU's Zach Wilson. Thus, Douglas and Co. could move on from 2018 No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold and start anew with a young quarterback. This would enable the franchise, which just hired a new head coach in Robert Saleh, to hit the reset button on the rebuild and give Douglas a five-year window to stockpile talent around a QB on a team-friendly rookie deal.

This has become the most prominent modern blueprint for constructing a contender since the 2011 CBA introduced a rookie wage scale that changed the game for team builders. General managers could expend a first-round pick on a signal-caller without significant financial repercussions if he didn't pan out. Moreover, front offices realized the benefit of securing a cheap contract at the most important -- and most expensive -- position on the field. Without paying big bucks to the quarterback, general managers have been able to spend money on other positions to put the best team on the field. The formula has worked out well, with eight of the last nine Super Bowls featuring at least one team led by a quarterback playing on his rookie contract. Yes, I'm counting Carson Wentz, who didn't actually participate in Super Bowl LII due to injury, but played a critical role in his team hoisting the Lombardi Trophy that season. And sure, Cam Newton inked an extension prior to his Super Bowl season, but the extension years didn't kick in until the following campaign. Same deal with Patrick Mahomes this past season. So the cap benefits still existed.

With all of that in mind, it's hard to justify the Jets not taking a quarterback at No. 2. So, yeah, it seems like Darnold's on borrowed time in the Big Apple, and understandably so. Sure, he has been dealt a bad hand, with lackluster surrounding talent and underwhelming coaching. But elite quarterback play can overcome, or at least show promising signs of future upside. Darnold has been disappointing, with a sub-60 career completion percentage, nearly as many interceptions (39) as touchdown passes (45) and an unacceptably low passer rating (78.6). He just hasn't shown enough to warrant extended loyalty from the franchise, especially when his fifth-year option for the 2022 season would cost New York something in the neighborhood of $25 million.

That's why I agree with Douglas' willingness to entertain offers for the 23-year-old ahead of the 2021 draft.

"I will answer the call if it's made," Douglas said on Wednesday. "As it pertains to Sam, like I said, Sam, we think, is a dynamic player in this league with unbelievable talent who really has a chance to really hit his outstanding potential moving forward. But, like I said earlier, if calls are made, I will answer 'em."

Frankly, Douglas doesn't have a choice. As a team builder, he is responsible for assembling the best collection of players who fit together perfectly like a jigsaw puzzle. The quarterback is the most important piece of the puzzle, and everyone in the organization must know that the QB1 is worthy of his regal status or it disrupts the meritocracy within the locker room. While Darnold has been a good soldier in tough circumstances and displayed solid intangibles as a franchise quarterback (toughness, competitiveness and a strong work ethic), he has underperformed as a playmaker at the position. From his turnover woes to his accuracy issues to his overall inconsistency, Darnold certainly hasn't performed like a blue-chip player. His scattershot play makes it hard to validate his continued status as the franchise player in the locker room.

That's why the Jets would be better served to cut the cord and move on from the veteran quarterback. Although he could eventually realize his potential, there aren't any guarantees that he is going to do it with the Jets, despite the lavish praise he's fielded from Douglas, Saleh and others. The Jets must avoid wishful thinking and make the prudent decision that will put them on a path to respectability. Douglas has frequently discussed the importance of building through the draft, and pushing the reset button at quarterback would give Gang Green the opportunity to start fresh in 2021.

"For us to get to where the great teams are, the most consistent teams are, you do that through the draft," Douglas said Wednesday. "It's the most team-friendly market in sports. And so for us to really be that team that's consistently competing for Super Bowls, we have to hit on our draft picks."

If the Jets can hit on a young quarterback while adding other key pieces through the draft and free agency, it gives them a chance to be a viable contender by the 2023 season. It is not a quick fix, but it is the best path forward for this football team.

FREE AGENCY: Do not sleep on these five players

The 2021 free agency period officially opens when the new league year begins, at 4 p.m. ET on March 17. General managers, talent evaluators and coaches are putting the finishing touches on their scouting reports and rankings as they discuss which players are essential pieces to their team-building puzzles.

As a young player with the Green Bay Packers, I frequently heard then-general manager Ron Wolf talk about his team-building philosophy. The Hall of Famer stressed the importance of constructing the roster primarily through the draft, while addressing some particular needs with savvy free-agent moves. Although he acquired a few big-name free agents during his tenure, Wolf had a knack for scooping up undervalued guys with big-time potential.

With that in mind, I wanted to survey the free-agent landscape and spotlight a handful of players with the potential to yield huge returns on investment. Here are five players on this year's market who could offer significant bang for the buck:

Carl Lawson
EDGE | 25 years old

Don't judge Lawson's impact potential strictly from his stat line. Despite finishing with just 5.5 sacks in 2020, he ranked fourth in the NFL in pressures (64) and second in QB hits (24) among edge rushers, according to Pro Football Focus. The constant harassment and pressure created by Lawson disrupts the timing of the passing game and creates garbage-sack opportunities for his teammates. In a league where pass rushers are coveted at a premium, Lawson's potential as a disruptive playmaker should make him a top priority on free-agent boards around the league.

Curtis Samuel
ATH | 24 years old

Matt Rhule and Joe Brady unlocked Samuel's potential as a playmaker by placing him in an "ATH" (athlete) role that enabled him to touch the ball via handoffs, screens, swings and traditional routes on the perimeter. The speedster thrived in this capacity, with over 1,000 scrimmage yards and five total touchdowns on 118 combined touches (77 receptions, 41 rushing attempts). Samuel's success as a multi-purpose threat will prompt a team with a creative offensive coordinator to target him as a WR2/wing back in a multi-faceted offense.

Jonnu Smith
TE | 25 years old

The trend toward pass-catching tight ends could bode well for Smith on the open market. The 6-foot-3, 248-pounder is a crafty playmaker with a combination of speed, quickness and athleticism that makes him an ideal weapon between the hashes, particularly as a seam runner on play-action passes. As a dangerous red-zone threat (SEE: 10 red-zone scores since 2019, per PFF), Smith is the athletic playmaker many play-callers desire at TE. With the veteran also emerging as a strong blocker in the running game, Smith shouldn't be on the market long before a team throws a bag of cash in his direction.

Leonard Floyd
EDGE | 28 years old

Perhaps it was the Aaron Donald effect in his first season with the Rams, but Floyd finally looked like the disruptive edge defender that captivated scouts' attention during the 2016 pre-draft process, making him the No. 9 overall pick. The ultra-athletic rusher displayed cat-like quickness and burst racing past blockers while collecting 10.5 sacks and 19 QB hits last season. Floyd's combination of speed, quickness and agility also creates problems for blockers on running plays. The veteran defender routinely tracks down runners from the back side while also utilizing his athleticism to shoot gaps and split creases on runs to his side.

Mike Hilton
DB | 26 years old

The blitz-happy slot corner is one of the most disruptive secondary defenders in the league today. Hilton is coming off a stellar campaign in which he tallied 50 total tackles (eight for loss), seven passes defensed, three interceptions and three sacks. That stat-stuffing effort capped an impressive four-year run in Pittsburgh that has led some evaluators to tout him as the best nickel corner in the league. Considering his coverage skills, ball awareness and overall versatility, the soon-to-be 27-year-old should be a hot commodity on the open market.

DOUBLE TROUBLE: Cards' new pass rush

The news of a three-time Defensive Player of the Year picking the Arizona Cardinals sent shockwaves through the NFL, particularly in the NFC West. The combination of J.J. Watt and Chandler Jones gives the Cardinals the best pass-rushing duo in the league, and their disruptive talents could blossom in Vance Joseph's scheme.

I know I'm lavishing praise on a pair of 30-somethings who've dealt with various injuries throughout their careers, but their individual and collective talents as pass rushers will make offensive coordinators stay up at night fretting over their ability to pummel quarterbacks in the pocket. Since 2012, Jones and Watt rank Nos. 1 and 2 with 97 and 95.5 sacks, respectively. With the duo also combining for 52 forced fumbles during that span, the Cardinals' ability to create turnovers could be the difference in a potential playoff run.

"We really feel like he's going to be able to come in and to be able to play alongside Chandler Jones and create the type of pressure that those two can create ... obviously very exciting for us," Cardinals GM Steve Keim told reporters Wednesday during a Zoom conference call. "When you look at the Super Bowl or the playoffs, as talented as these quarterbacks have gotten across the league, the ability to create pressure and get quarterbacks off their spot has just become so critical."

Considering the Cardinals finished 2020 with the fourth-most sacks (48) and fifth-most total pressures (169), the decision to upgrade the front line is all about enhancing Joseph's aggressive scheme. The Cardinals ranked fifth in blitz percentage (39.4%), as the wily play-caller attacked opponents from a variety of subpackages and exotic fronts. Although the blitz-heavy approach and clever scheme is expected to create free runs for second-level defenders, the extra-man pressures are really designed to produce one-on-one opportunities for elite pass rushers.

Joseph's blitz tactics should be a welcome respite for Watt, who was the most double-teamed edge rusher in football in 2020, per ESPN, with opponents throwing two blockers at No. 99 on 30 percent of defensive snaps. That nearly doubles the percentage (16%) of double-teams Jones faced in 2019 as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate with 19 sacks and eight forced fumbles.

With the duo coming together like the Wonder Twins, opponents will be forced to single-block an elite pass rusher in obvious passing situations. In addition, play-callers must carry a wide variety of pass-protection schemes to account for the whereabouts of Watt and Jones, as Joseph moves them around to exploit a "Waldo" (marginal player) on the offensive line.

Remember, Watt won his first Defensive Player of the Year award as an interior defender with Houston Texans. Joseph was an assistant on that 2012 coaching staff, and he will certainly dust off the old playbook to maximize No. 99's talents. If Watt and Jones can avoid the injury bug in 2021, the Cardinals' front line could wreak havoc on opponents around the league.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter.

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