National Football League
10 free agents Jets should target to set up Aaron Rodgers for success
National Football League

10 free agents Jets should target to set up Aaron Rodgers for success

Updated Mar. 6, 2024 9:01 a.m. ET

There might not be a harder job in football than New York Jets GM. Not in 2024.

Joe Douglas is expected to rebuild the Jets into a Super Bowl contender this offseason, and while quarterback Aaron Rodgers wants to call it a retooling, he must not have looked at his offensive line. New York has only two starters returning: Joe Tippmann (a rookie in 2023) and Alijah Vera-Tucker (torn Achilles).

New York will need one interior offensive lineman and two tackles. That's where the Jets will focus their efforts before they get to receiver, which is another position of need. Or safety, another position of need. Or defensive tackle … another — well, you get it.

The Jets have about $25 million in cap space in 2024 and $110 million in 2025. That should help. But it's hard to imagine them filling their biggest needs without a little luck. Because what they need — receiver, tackle — doesn't come cheap.


With that in mind, here are some potential targets for New York when the free-agency signing period opens on March 13.

Tyron Smith, OT, Cowboys

Smith is sort of an older and more competent version of Mekhi Becton. And with that comment, I've probably lost half my Jets readers. But seriously, I need to state the obvious about the 33-year-old Smith: He is set to hit the market for many of the same reasons as Becton. Smith missed four games last season, 13 games in 2022 and six games in 2021. 

The difference between Smith and Becton? While Becton has yet to prove he can play at a truly high level, Smith has done exactly that. If you're going to bank on a guy who's a clear injury risk, at least Smith gives you real upside.

There seems to be a wide range of where Smith's value lies., for example, has his value listed as around $7 million per year. It's $10 million on PFF. I don't see it. If the Jets want Smith — and I'd bet they do — they are going to have to give him something in the range of $12 million per year. The duration could be anywhere between one and three years. Maybe they can get him for $10 million with incentives. But he's the best left tackle on the market. (Michael Onwenu is properly hyped up, and is going to get paid. But he's either a right guard or right tackle.)

Can Aaron Rodgers take Jets to playoffs in 2024?

Ezra Cleveland, guard, Jaguars

Cleveland put together a really impressive start to his NFL career. There's a lot to like about him as a long-term signing given that he's just 26 years old. It's tough for Douglas to break the bank on another guard after whiffing on Laken Tomlinson, a big-ticket signing the team released as a salary cap casualty last month. But if at first you don't succeed? 

If the Jets add Smith, Cleveland and a rookie tackle, they should shore up their personnel issues on the offensive line. They have depth, with Wes Schweitzer, Max Mitchell and Carter Warren. It's just that they need to bring in starters they can trust ahead of those players.

Another name to keep in mind: Jon Runyan. We all know how much Rodgers likes to bring his former teammates over to New York from Green Bay. Well maybe Rodgers can work his magic on Runyan, who is due for a big deal like Cleveland. But here's the hitch (and the reason why I didn't tap Runyan over Cleveland as the top option at guard) — Runyan plays right guard. That's the side of the line where things are most solid, with AVT and Tippmann playing there last year. New York needs to solidify the left side.

But if the Jets nab Smith and Cleveland, then their offensive line could look like this:

LT: Smith (FA) $10M/1 year
LG: Cleveland (FA) $30M/3 years
C: Joe Tippmann
RG: Vera-Tucker
RT: Taliese Fuaga/Olu Fashanu (Rookie, Round 1)

Andre James, C, Raiders

The guard class might get expensive. Center sometimes comes at a discount (when compared to tackle and guard). And for the Jets, they might need to find discounts where they can find them.

James is one of the top centers on the market. The other name the Jets might monitor is Aaron Brewer

With center Connor Williams, the Jets might have trouble locking him down until he's recovered from his injury. (At least, that's what his agent Drew Rosenhaus said — that Williams would slow-play the market.) And with Lloyd Cushenberry, the talented center might not love the idea of reuniting with Nathaniel Hackett, who flopped in Denver.

If the Jets want to go this route, they'll keep Tippmann at guard — and maybe even move AVT to tackle permanently. Either way, they'll be putting players out of position. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Because they'll be getting good value across the offensive line. It's just a question of whether that means sacrificing quality.

Michael Thomas, WR, Saints

Both Odell Beckham Jr. and Thomas make sense for the Jets. New York probably can't afford the younger receivers set to hit the market. What New York will need to bank on is a veteran who wants to help Rodgers win a Super Bowl. That's where Thomas and Beckham come in. And Thomas is the cheaper option. He makes sense as a complement to Garrett Wilson and Xavier Gipson — and, yes, also to Rodgers' cronies Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb.

If the Jets don't shop at the top of the market on the offensive line (like I suspect they will), then I think they could go bigger at receiver. Calvin Ridley will be free agency's top option. Gabe Davis makes some sense, though he feels a bit redundant given his price and similarities to Lazard. His contract remains a truly strange conundrum for New York. He is extremely overpaid, but given that he's there for Rodgers, they can't get rid of him. But if they are willing to reduce Lazard's role (which they should be), then they might put more money into the receiver position.

Sauce Gardner wants 49ers WR Brandon Aiyuk to play for Jets

Jordan Whitehead, safety, Jets

There was so much to like about Whitehead, who was a solid centerfielder on the back end of New York's defense. His interception stats got a bit inflated after nabbing three against Josh Allen and the Bills in Week 1. But he will be a much harder player to replace than strong safety Chuck Clark. So while New York needs two safeties, the priority should be keeping Whitehead as the net for the team's elite cornerbacks.

If the Jets want to look out of house, they could see what the market holds for Rams safety Jordan Fuller and even Dolphins safety DeShon Elliott — two excellent coverage safeties. There are a handful of coverage safeties on this market, so Whitehead is hardly their only option, even if he is their best option.

Quadre Diggs, safety, free agent

New York could seek a new deal with Chuck Clark, who tore his ACL before the season began but made a lot of sense for the defense. And it's honestly likely that he and the Jets can find a middle ground. 

But how about Quandre Diggs, recently released by the Seahawks?

Diggs also makes sense for this defense. If the Jets need a thumper, their other options include Adrian Phillips, Alohi Gilman or Jeremy Chinn.

Jets' tunnel vision on Aaron Rodgers reportedly upset teammates

Javon Kinlaw, DT, 49ers

This is a bit of a shot in the dark. But maybe head coach Robert Saleh can pitch Kinlaw on a one-year deal that will improve his market. Kinlaw, a former first-round pick, was on the upswing at the end of his 2023 season but didn't demonstrate the high-level talent over his rookie contract to necessitate anything substantial. So maybe Saleh, who has gotten big bags of cash for a number of defensive linemen, will entice Kinlaw to New York. They worked together in 2020 during Kinlaw's rookie season.

Kinlaw could be one of multiple players the team adds at defensive tackle, where New York has the following pending free agents: Quinton Jefferson, Al Woods, Solomon Thomas, Jayln Holmes.

The Jets might have really liked what Jefferson brought on passing downs, but given what he costs and that he really only plays on passing downs, they might look for more of a well-rounded player. And, in turn, they won't break the bank for a situational player. In theory, Quinnen Williams is going to support production for those around him on the defensive line.

The tricky thing is that Saleh typically likes slimmer players than are on the market. There are a lot of 330-pound defensive tackles who could work for the Jets' budget. But they're not a good fit for Saleh's scheme.

Denico Autry, DT, Titans

Speaking of taking a few shots at the DT position, let's talk about Autry. He's 34 years old and has made $42 million in his career. Maybe he wants a ring. And if he's willing to take a team-friendly deal, he could chase one with the Jets. 

Kicker Greg Zuerlein and punter Thomas Morstead

Neither of these stud special teams players had amazing seasons. But neither of them should go anywhere. New York can chalk up their struggles to a tough year. They're experienced and proven contributors whom the Jets will need to rely upon when Rodgers returns. So New York can let them test free agency, but the Jets should match any incoming offers.

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.


Get more from National Football League Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more