The inside story of Jets GM Joe Douglas, HC Robert Saleh, and their 2021 season

What's going on inside Jets HQ? Can GM Joe Douglas & Co. escape unscathed? PFN's Insider Tony Pauline spoke to multiple sources for details.

Once again, the New York Jets are a franchise in disarray. They’ve fallen well below expectations, their rookie quarterback is not playing well, and people are questioning head coach Robert Saleh. But there are always two sides to every story, and the devil is in the details. Over the past couple of months, I’ve spoken with league sources, players, some inside the organization, and others that have experience with the team to get their take on what’s happening. Let’s begin with Jets GM Joe Douglas.

Joe Douglas under the microscope

Joe Douglas was hired as the general manager of the New York Jets in June 2019, barely a month after the franchise fired Mike Maccagnan. With increased expectations, the team went 7-9 in his first season as general manager — albeit without Douglas having the benefit of a free-agency period or a draft.

The following year, the Jets’ record was much worse (2-14). And while there’s still plenty of football left to be played in 2021, there’s an argument to be made the Jets are even worse on the field this season than a year ago.

Free-agency missteps

Since becoming Jets general manager, Douglas has had two free-agency periods to work with, and both times the team had plenty of money to spend under the cap. But the results have been minimal at best.

With the offensive line in shambles, Douglas chose the inexpensive route and signed George Fant over Jack Conklin in 2020. There were various reasons offered for making this decision, but it ultimately came down to money. Fant has done a solid job for the Jets playing both tackle spots the past two seasons. However, Conklin was named All-Pro in 2020.

The team hoped to re-sign Robby Anderson entering the 2020 free-agency period but would not meet his asking price. They opted for Breshad Perriman instead. Anderson is off to a slow start this season, but he did have 95 receptions for 1,096 receiving yards in 2020.

Perriman? 30 receptions for 505 yards a year ago.

Frustrating roster construction

I’m told the negotiations to extend the contract of Marcus Maye — one of the few Jets draft picks that have panned out recently — has been like “pulling teeth.” For the record, it was Maccagnan who drafted Maye, not Douglas.

One long-time league insider told me, “It’s criminal the Jets had no veteran quarterback on the roster through camp and the season to help mentor Zach Wilson.” The Jets wanted to sign Brian Hoyer during the offseason for just this purpose, but Douglas gave him a lowball offer. Hoyer rejected the offer, signed a nice deal with the Patriots, and is doing wonders mentoring New England’s rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Jones put up 54 points against the Jets last Sunday, beating them for a second time this season.

Seemingly out of necessity, the team traded for veteran Joe Flacco this week. The Jets offered Flacco a contract close to the veteran minimum this offseason after he started four games for them during the 2020 season. After being courted by the San Francisco 49ers, the veteran quarterback signed a nice-sized contract with the Eagles before being dealt back to New York.

Areas of need such as the secondary and tight end are worse off today than when Douglas took over the franchise in 2019. It looked like Douglas finally hit the mark in free agency this year with Carl Lawson, but the pass rusher tore his Achilles before preseason games ever began.

Douglas’ drafts

Though more time is needed to fully assess his drafts, the early returns on selections made by Douglas have been suspect at best.

Of the nine selections Douglas made during his first NFL Draft with the Jets, just three have panned out: Braden Mann (punter), Bryce Hall (cornerback), and Mekhi Becton (offensive tackle).

Receiver Denzel Mims, New York’s second-round pick in 2020, produces when he’s on the field. Yet, the franchise seems to have a love/hate relationship with him. The front office loves him while the coaching staff hates him.

So what’s the problem?

According to many I’ve spoken with who deal directly with Douglas, “He spends money in free agency as though it was the last dollar coming from his wallet.”

Multiple people tell me Douglas doesn’t approach free agency with a mindset of winning, rather he hopes not to lose. In other words, he’s afraid of signing a big-name free agent to a big contract, then having it all blow up in his face. While there’s something to be said for not frivolously handing out huge contracts, it’s equally as bad to pass on quality players time and time again to save a few bucks.

How secure is Douglas’ job?

In front of a group of reporters at an NFL owners meeting in Manhattan on Tuesday, Jets owner Woody Johnson expressed his “unwavering, steadfast confidence” in Douglas and head coach Robert Saleh.

What else were you expecting him to say? Remember — a year ago, Woody’s brother Christopher Johnson (then running the organization) told reporters he thought Adam Gase was a “brilliant offensive mind.”

Douglas is in the third year of a six-year deal. If he is fired at the end of the season, the Jets will owe him a lot of money. And if they fire Douglas but keep Saleh, the franchise would be back in the rut of hiring a general manager who will inherit a coach he’ll be forced to keep.

Obviously, it’s too early to determine whether or not Douglas maintains his job after the season. However, those with intimate knowledge tell me this — the Jets’ front office (Douglas, Rex Hogan, David Socie) are all very nervous. They point to the trade for quarterback Joe Flacco from Philadelphia as proof. They desperately need a quarterback to mentor Wilson, and they don’t want to get blown out week after week.

The Jets in one word? Dysfunctional

In conversations with players, the word that often popped up to describe the Jets was “dysfunctional.” Several players who were on the 2020 roster say the situation today is not much better than it was a year ago under Gase.

There is no animus towards Saleh — everyone I spoke with personally likes him. But the excitement and momentum that was building during the offseason have turned into frustration and disappointment. And it has little to do with wins and losses.

Players tell me there is no sense of direction and things are often in disarray. Multiple people told me Saleh overworks the team during the week, and players are gassed come Sunday’s game. I’m hearing similar criticisms coming out of Jacksonville.

There is a strong belief, both in the league and from some who cover the Jets daily, that offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur is over his head. This was initially told to me from multiple sources early in the season, and the situation has only gotten worse. They question his game plan and his use (or misuse) of players. Furthermore, for a team that can’t put the ball in the end zone, many believe the Mims situation is being handled poorly.

Sources believe if the Jets continue to be non-competitive and Saleh is forced to make changes to the coaching staff, LaFleur will be the first casualty at season’s end.

Could this just be growing pains?

To be completely honest and transparent, several people in the league who I know, people who I trust, believe these are just growing pains being experienced by Saleh and LaFleur. Additionally, they believe the Douglas-Saleh relationship is also experiencing growing pains.

And this point must be made: Saleh has not lost the locker room. While some are concerned and frustrated, the roster is still behind their head coach.

Mistakes have been made, yet, according to many in the league, it would be premature to get rid of Saleh at the end of the year, despite the final results.

What of Mekhi Becton?

While on-site in London covering the Falcons-Jets game, Pro Football Network learned from Jets sources on hand that the team is not happy with Mekhi Becton — the No. 11 pick of the 2020 NFL Draft and the first player Douglas selected for the franchise.

Researching the situation further, I’ve been told by people close to the organization that they feel Becton has a bit of growing up to do. One source said Becton taps out a lot — he taps out of plays, taps out of games, and does not work very hard. The team was upset when Becton showed up to camp this summer overweight and out of shape. Becton’s injuries are another concern, especially for a lineman of his size.

While I was told unequivocally the Jets are not giving up on Becton, the team feels he has a ways to go and must start relying on more than God-given ability if he’s to meet his potential.

Once again, the Jets are at a crossroads with the fan base

As we’ve seen repeatedly, Jets fans are not just frustrated and fed up — they’re becoming apathetic. And there’s nothing worse than fans who don’t care. They are sick and tired of seeing the same rerun time and time again with the same ending — and you can’t blame them.

Amongst many things, the fans are disgusted that almost every season come October and November, the team is playing for draft positioning and not a postseason berth. Draft positioning for picks that more often than not don’t work out.

Any Jets season ticket holder (which I am one of) will tell you that in the days leading up to home games this season, we are bombarded with emails from the franchise offering tickets and parking availability for the upcoming game. Another bad sign.

This coming Sunday, the Jets play just their third home game of the season, and it could be a sign of things to come. I would expect a half-empty stadium to greet the Jets as the Cincinnati Bengals come to town — the once downtrodden franchise now sitting at the top of the AFC North. I would also expect a fair number of Bengals fans in attendance at the game, despite the fact they are not a team whose fan base is known to travel well.

As the Jets’ woes grow worse and worse, the number of empty seats in the stadium will grow larger and larger.

Next week — how to fix the problem.

Tony Pauline is the Chief Draft Analyst for Pro Football Network. You can read all of Tony’s work here and follow him on Twitter: @TonyPauline.

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