INDIANAPOLIS — Jets coach Robert Saleh went to bed with a stomach bug Tuesday night and woke up knowing he wouldn’t be able to make it to the NFL combine for the team’s second meeting with quarterback Derek Carr.
“I’m sad I couldn’t make it,” Saleh said via video call Thursday.
Saleh wasn’t originally planning to come to the combine anyway — he didn’t last year, either — but this was obviously a unique circumstance, as the Jets (and others) are pursuing Carr in free agency. Owner Woody Johnson and general manager Joe Douglas were both at the meeting, and now the Jets — and the rest of the league, really — are in a holding pattern as everyone waits for a decision from Aaron Rodgers about his future, and the domino effect that will have on Carr and others .
The Jets didn’t have a full contingent in Indianapolis — many coaching staffs skip the event now — but there were some Jets assistant coaches in town to help with position drills with draft prospects, plus Douglas, assistant general manager Rex Hogan, the team’s scouts. employees and other front office members.
Well, I was in town too.
Here are some things I’m hearing about the Jets, their quarterback pursuit and much more after speaking with six league scouts, coaches or professional executives who are familiar with the team’s discussions and were granted anonymity so they could speak freely.
I hear that… The Jets are willing to wait Rodgers out. No one really knows what Rodgers thinks about his future, even after he talked about it on a podcast this week, his first public comments since going on a four-day blackout. He didn’t sound like someone who planned to retire, and pushed back on the idea that his skills are declining.
So the next question becomes: Which team will he play for? The Raiders appear to have removed themselves from the running, while the Titans have said they have planning to bring back Ryan Tannehill. It’s shaping up to be Packers, Jets or bust for Rodgers, unless some mystery team plans to enter the fray.
Around the league, there is an expectation that if Rodgers doesn’t retire, he probably will go back to the Packers – and that they would welcome him back with open arms. But Rodgers hasn’t communicated with Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst recently, so it’s mostly guesswork. The Jets hired one of Rodgers’ closest friends (Nathaniel Hackett) as offensive coordinator, but I’ve heard that hasn’t helped provide any insight into his decision yet.
Despite all that, the Jets are willing to wait for Rodgers to make a decision because they believe the quarterback, even at 39, gives them the best chance to not only make the playoffs, but compete for the Super Bowl. Yes, it would cost a lot, both in terms of financial and trade compensation, but the Jets see getting a quarterback of Rodgers’ caliber as worth all that — even if it also means adding the drama that follows him around.
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“You always want it done yesterday, but we appreciate everybody’s process,” Saleh said of finalizing the quarterback decision. “We appreciate the time everyone needs. It’s just being deliberate in our process and taking care of our things and also being mindful and respectful of other people as well.”
I hear that… If Rodgers ends up back in Green Bay, the Jets should be considered the favorite to land Carr. His meeting in New Jersey recently with Saleh and others went well and the Jets see Carr as a quarterback who can get them over the hump and contend in the AFC.
But that doesn’t mean it fits perfectly.
Carr must be able to handle the scrutiny and criticism that comes with being the Jets quarterback. One NFC scout also mentioned concerns about how Carr handles pass-rushing pressure in games, noting that he became contact-averse after suffering a broken fibula at the end of the 2016 season and as he struggled with a rib injury in 2022 .
The Jets are aware of this perception of Carr, but have also expressed confidence — both privately and publicly — that the offensive line will be much better in 2023, that was just destroyed by injuries this past season.
Saleh compared Carr to Matthew Stafford, who toiled on bad Lions teams for most of his career before landing an elite supporting role with the Rams and winning a Super Bowl.
“He’s been asked to do a lot in his career,” Saleh said of Carr. “He’s more in line with what Stafford’s career has been in terms of: If you could just get him to a place that can surround him with all the pieces so that he can only play quarterback 10-15 times a game, it was cool.”
Saleh also said Carr has “elite mental makeup” and “tremendous accuracy and arm strength.” He applauded his ability to “put the ball anywhere you want” and said Carr is “underrated” in terms of his ability to distort and avoid pressure.
If the Jets go all out in their pursuit of Carr — they haven’t offered him a contract yet — how much will it cost? The expectation is that his next contract could average in the $35 million to $40 million range, although the structure of the deal (in terms of guaranteed money and cap hit) is what really matters.
I hear that… The Jets are expected to keep Zach Wilson on the roster — and they’re not worried about his presence being a distraction this season. This is a unique benching: Wilson is a highly drafted quarterback who nobody thinks should be a starter right now. There won’t be people clamoring for Wilson to start if the QB1 struggles in 2023, and the Jets think the ability to coach and develop him behind the scenes without as much scrutiny could be good for him.
Wilson can still bounce back from the historically poor start to his career, but the Jets also realize he may never get better.
Regardless, his role will be as a backup in 2023.
“The focus is to just help (Wilson) get better as best we can,” Saleh said. “If his best is showcased as a New York Jet, fantastic. If not, still fantastic, because all we want is what’s best for him and his development.”
I hear that… it wouldn’t be a shock if the Jets ended up drafting a quarterback. Maybe not in the first round (unless someone they see as a potential franchise quarterback fell to No. 13), but on Day 2 or Day 3. The Jets could be in a position to trade back from the 13th pick as well – if that pick is not moved in a Rodgers trade.
I hear that… The Jets hope to return tackle Duane Brown in 2023. Brown has yet to decide whether to continue playing or retire, though what the Jets do at quarterback could factor into his decision. Brown, who turns 38 in August, will have a cap hit of $11.3 million, but the Jets would welcome him back if he chooses to continue playing. He would likely start at left tackle again as well.
Brown recently had surgery on his left shoulder, fixing an issue he battled all season, earning him a lot of respect in the Jets building.
“Duane is a goddamn rock star, man,” said Saleh, who recently spoke with Brown. “The way he battled through pain and injury and he did what 98 percent of players wouldn’t have done, which is play when he didn’t have to. All his money was already guaranteed, he still stuck around and played (12) games for us. If he’s here, that would be wonderful.”
If Brown returns and can be ready to play in Week 1, the Jets will have to decide if they trust Mekhi Becton or Max Mitchell enough to lock in a starter at right tackle, or if they need an upgrade in free agency or the draft .
“The more the merrier,” Saleh said, smiling. “Joe (Douglas) would have 52 offensive linemen on the roster and a quarterback if he could.”
I hear that… The Jets really want to run back their 2022 defense — which was ranked the best in the NFL by Pro Football Focus — as much as they can, Saleh said Thursday. A handful of notable defensive players are set to become unrestricted free agents: defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, linebacker Quincy Williams, safety Lamarcus Joyner, linebacker Kwon Alexander, defensive tackle Nathan Shepherd and defensive tackle Solomon Thomas. Defensive end Bryce Huff is also a restricted free agent likely to return.
The Jets could also move on from defensive end Carl Lawson for $15.4 million in savings, but I’ve heard the coaching staff is working on him coming back.
Of that group, Rankins and Williams would be the most important to keep, though it will be interesting to see how much Douglas is willing to open the Jets’ wallet to keep them around. Rankins signed a two-year, $17 million deal in 2021 and should be able to get that again. Williams could have a robust free agency market and could price himself out of the Jets lineup, even if they want to bring him back.
If Williams leaves, keep an eye on Bills linebacker Tremaine Edmunds, also a free agent.
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I hear that… There will be much more turnover on offences. Center Connor McGovern could be priced out of what the Jets are willing to pay, and tackle George Fant is not expected to return. Guard Nate Herbig, also a free agent, may not have a starting job available with the Jets — Alijah Vera-Tucker and Laken Tomlinson both return — and he’s good enough to start elsewhere.
Saleh said he wants to bring back quarterback Mike White, but he is expected to get a lot of interest in free agency as an advanced backup and could be too expensive.
Wide receiver Corey Davis is still expected to be released for cap savings, and Braxton Berrios could also be on the way out. Expect the Jets to add new contributors at wide receiver, offensive line, quarterback and possibly at running back as well, with Breece Hall still recovering from his ACL injury.
If the Jets get Rodgers, Packers wide receiver Allen Lazard — a free agent — could follow him to New York.
(Photo: Stacy Revere/Getty Images)