The 2019 NFL Draft was the breaking point for Jets CEO Christopher Johnson.
He watched his general manager, Mike Maccagnan, during that draft and saw someone who was indecisive and unwilling to incorporate everyone in the organization into his decisions. Maccagnan and head coach Adam Gase barely spoke during the draft, and Maccagnan rolled the dice on players with character concerns and ones unpopular with the coaching staff.
Less than three weeks after that draft, Johnson fired Maccagnan and a month after that replaced him with Joe Douglas. At the time, the Maccagnan firing was criticized for its timing and for seemingly letting Gase win a power struggle.
As the 2021 draft unfolded over the past few days, that decision looked better than ever.
Now, it is too soon to pronounce the Jets draft (or any team) a winner or a loser. Ultimately, we won’t know for several years. If you want to assign a letter grade to the draft, it should be TBD. But here is what Douglas did: He had a plan and he executed it. That is something the Jets have failed to do for too long.
Douglas had a conviction on players and was not afraid to go get them. Start with BYU quarterback Zach Wilson at No. 2. This pick does not feel like a reach now after months of draft talk, but if you went back to the fall and said Wilson would be the second quarterback taken, you would have gotten funny looks. But Douglas has been eyeing Wilson since then. He fell in love with Wilson’s arm talent first and then his football IQ during Zoom calls over the past few months. The more popular pick may have been Ohio State’s Justin Fields if the Jets locked into him after the college season. Instead, Douglas is trusting his scouting acumen and took Wilson.
The second pick was Alijah Vera-Tucker, a player Douglas moved up nine spots to get. The Jets knew they had to add another piece to an offensive line that has struggled for years. They identified Vera-Tucker as a player they loved during the predraft process. The decision to trade up for him was not spur-of-the-moment. The Jets decided weeks ago that if Vera-Tucker were available in the mid-teens, they would go up and get him. Douglas laid the groundwork with the GMs drafting in that range that he may want to move up and figured out what the cost would be.
Douglas gave up a good amount — two third-round picks — to get Vera-Tucker, but if he becomes an All-Pro guard, no one will remember that.
Think about the last player the Jets drafted No. 14 overall, the pick they got Vera-Tucker with. That was Darrelle Revis in 2007. GM Mike Tannenbaum traded second- and fifth-round picks to the Panthers to move from 25 to 14 to get Revis. Do any Jets fans wish they had held onto that second-round pick rather than take Revis?
What impressed those who watched Douglas work in this draft was the way he incorporated people from every area — scouting, coaching, analytics — into his draft decisions. This was something Maccagnan paid lip service to, but people inside the Jets felt he often ignored input from everyone except his right-hand man, Brian Heimerdinger.
Douglas leaned on new coach Robert Saleh and their staff to find players who fit their scheme. In the later rounds, the Jets took fliers on players who had something on their résumé that pushed them down the board. Douglas again consulted with Saleh before taking a player with any risks to see if he was comfortable with the pick.
Douglas also is giving Wilson a fighting chance, something the Jets failed to do for Sam Darnold. Taking offensive players with the first four picks should breathe life into the Jets’ moribund attack. Yes, it would have been nice to get a Day 1 starter at cornerback, but Douglas could not solve every issue this offseason and something was going to be left for another day.
Time will tell whether Douglas got this right, but there is a chance he landed more pieces for his young core in Wilson, Vera-Tucker and Elijah Moore. He took five players who were on NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah’s top 150. He landed three players the Jets had in their top 25 and two from their top 10.
We can look back at the decision Johnson made two years ago to change GMs and know it was the right one. Perhaps in two years we’ll look back at this draft as when things began to turn around for the Jets.