Are the Jets Super Bowl contenders with Dalvin Cook? Pros, cons, verdict

Aaron Rodgers is under center, "Hard Knocks" is in town, Sauce Gardner could be the second coming of Darrelle Revis and now Dalvin Cook is signing with the green and white. The hype train has pulled into Florham Park, but the question remains: Is it just steam or are the New York Jets really Super Bowl contenders this season?

The answer is ... complicated. The Jets clearly have improved at key positions, and they found stars in Round 1 of last year's draft with cornerback Sauce Gardner and wide receiver Garrett Wilson winning rookie of the year awards. But they also have a few question marks on the roster and play in a tough conference.

Let's make the case for both sides, and you can see where I stand in the end. We'll start with the cons:

Five reasons the Jets aren't Super Bowl contenders

Receiver depth isn't championship-level

I'm a believer in Wilson as the top wideout, but I'm less convinced about who Rodgers will target after him. Allen Lazard, who was signed in the offseason, doesn't cut it as a No. 2 receiver on a Super Bowl team. Corey Davis had a Receiver Tracking Metrics overall score of 35 last season, which ranked 77th out of 82 receivers and sandwiched him between the declining Julio Jones and rookie Romeo Doubs. Plus, Mecole Hardman, another free agent signing, never impressed in the Kansas City Chiefs' offense.

Consider the second wide receiver on other Super Bowl contenders: Tee Higgins, Jaylen Waddle, Mike Williams, DeVonta Smith, Brandin Cooks and Brandon Aiyuk. The Jets' group doesn't stack up. Sure, the Chiefs and Buffalo Bills have a weakness in this area, too, but they also have outstanding quarterbacks that make up for deficiencies. Can Rodgers still do that? Without Patrick Mahomes, a team needs more than one good receiver.

Had the Jets simply cut Davis and signed DeAndre Hopkins to the deal the Titans gave him in mid-July, it would have cost only an extra $1.5 million in 2023 cash (neither deal has any 2024 guaranteed money), per OverTheCap. That would have been an easy upgrade.

Rodgers could be toast

Is it so bizarre to say? He's a 39-year-old quarterback coming off what was likely the worst season of his career (he ranked 26th in QBR and threw double-digit interceptions for the first time since 2010). Before Tom Brady excelled until he was 45, we probably would have taken that as a sure-fire sign a signal-caller's career was coming to an end.

There are reasonable explanations for Rodgers' 2022 play -- we'll get to that in a little bit -- but we have to allow the chance he simply has aged out of playing at an elite level, which would be disastrous for the Jets, who gave up premium draft capital to acquire him in April.

The defense could regress

Since 2012, among teams that ranked in the top five in expected points added (EPA) per play on defense in a season, only 34% repeated as a top-five defense the next season. This New York defense looks great right now, but every defense coming out of a top-five performance looks pretty good -- and it's important not to overlook the historical variance of that side of the ball.

In some ways it's particularly scary for the Jets because their success was built on corner play. While Gardner and D.J. Reed were excellent, cornerback is a notoriously variant position year to year. If the Jets don't get the best out of those two again, it could change the complexion of the defense in a hurry.

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The offensive line could stymie the offense

One thing Rodgers enjoyed in Green Bay in recent seasons was strong pass protection. From 2017 to 2022, the Packers never ranked worse than sixth in pass block win rate in a season. The Jets, meanwhile, ranked 21st in the same category last season.

I'll throw in a caveat at the end, but at first glance, this line looks dicey. From left to right on the depth chart:

  • Left tackle: Duane Brown. Brown is still fine in pass protection -- he had a slightly above average 90% pass block win rate a year ago. He's a liability in the run game, however, ranking 62nd out of 64 tackles in run block win rate. Plus, he turns 38 in August. His age has to be a concern. Former first-round pick Mekhi Becton is there too, but he's played just 15 games since being drafted in 2020 and has already had to take a day off in training camp.

  • Left guard: Laken Tomlinson. A somewhat disappointing free agent signing from a year ago, Tomlinson was average in pass protection but weak against the run. He was better in both areas two seasons ago in San Francisco.

  • Center: Connor McGovern, Wes Schweitzer or Joe Tippmann. That Tippmann, their second-round pick, is seemingly running third in this battle is an ominous sign, because neither McGovern nor Schweitzer have great track records. McGovern has been a below average pass-protecting center, per pass block win rate, in four of the last five seasons. And Schweitzer would have ranked bottom-3 in both pass block win rate and run block win rate at center last year in Washington had he qualified.

  • Right guard: Alijah Vera-Tucker. The one piece of the line with no major concerns, though he had surgery to repair a triceps injury in October and missed the rest of the season.

  • Right tackle: Billy Turner or Max Mitchell. Turner is actually a former pass block win rate darling, ranking 11th among tackles in 2021, though he was only a shade above average last season in eight games with the Denver Broncos. Mitchell is largely unproven, with 328 snaps last season. His pass block win rate would have been slightly below average had he qualified.

The good news for the Jets is you can squint and see the line being totally fine, at least in pass protection. Maybe Brown can hold off aging and Tomlinson and Turner regain their form from two years ago. But it could easily all go the other way, and that would sink the offense.

The AFC is incredibly difficult

Everyone on the planet would put the Jets behind the Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals and Bills in the conference entering the season. Right? I would comfortably put Miami ahead of the Jets -- the Dolphins' roster is loaded -- and I would lean toward putting the Los Angeles Chargers ahead, too. That makes New York, in my mind, the sixth-best team in the AFC, with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens nipping at their heels.

ESPN's Football Power Index (FPI) is slightly more bullish, as it rates the Jets as the fourth-best team in the conference but almost in a dead heat with team Nos. 5 and 6. FPI gives them a 25.1% chance to win the AFC East and a 7.4% chance to play in the Super Bowl. Ultimately, if things break well for the Jets, they are going to have to go through a gauntlet to reach the title game.

Five reasons the Jets are Super Bowl contenders

They have a strong defense and Rodgers

Let's keep it simple to start. The Jets had a top-five defense last season -- in fact, they ranked first EPA per play on non-turnover plays. Despite what I wrote above, the core of that defense is back, and there is top-five upside for that unit again. Also, it's not like this is an aging unit running it back one more time. Outside of linebacker C.J. Mosley, the key players -- most notably Gardner and defensive tackle Quinnen Williams -- are either young or in their prime.

Now, add Rodgers and the New York offense has an upside that it didn't have a year ago, when it ranked 29th in EPA per play with Zach Wilson, Mike White and Joe Flacco at quarterback. The best-case scenario is Rodgers returns to his 2020 and 2021 form, when he won the league's Most Valuable Player. Now, 2022 was another story but ...

Rodgers played hurt last season

This is an easy counter to the notion his 2022 is a sign of his decline. In addition to playing with a weak receiving group (which isn't insignificant) in Green Bay, he also played with a broken right thumb, which could have been a significant factor in his poor play. That would certainly raise expectations for the future Hall of Famer in 2023, and he'll have better playmakers around him in New York.

Gardner is an incredible corner

We don't have perfect quantitative methods to evaluate corner play, but the numbers on Gardner's rookie season were strong; he ranked second among outside corners in EPA allowed as the nearest defender (minus-29) and eighth in yards per coverage snap (0.9), per NFL Next Gen Stats. One of the players that beat him in the latter category is his teammate Reed.

When I was calling people in the league to ask for feedback on my 100 most valuable players story last season, one executive I trust said I was too low on Gardner (I had him at No. 20) and that he had been the second-most valuable defensive player in the league.

Wilson is a legitimate No. 1 wideout

That Wilson managed to put up over 1,100 receiving yards with Zach Wilson, Joe Flacco and Mike White throwing to him is pretty much all you need to know. Still, we have more evidence to support that he already was an upper-echelon receiver in 2022.

Wilson recorded a 69 overall score in our Receiver Tracking Metrics, and crucially it was a 77 open score -- the most important and predictive category -- that led the way, which ranked 13th among receivers. To be a Super Bowl contender, the Jets probably need Wilson to be a little better than that, but it's probably not a huge ask for a step up in Year 2.

The flexibility to upgrade

The Jets are tight against the cap over the next two years; they had $16 million in cap space this year before the Cook signing, according to OverTheCap, but only $16.1 million in cap space next year, when they'll have a few free agents they'll need to bring back for 2024. If they want to be all-in, there's room to maneuver, using that 2023 cap space (and they could restructure C.J. Mosley's $17 million salary if they need a little more space for this season) to acquire a missing piece.

The one weakness that really might need some outside help is at receiver, and the Jets could enter the trade market for a veteran at the deadline - or earlier - to help in that department. That Aaron Rodgers was willing to shave $35 million over the next two years on his deal significantly helps the team's long-term cap health, of course, too.

Does signing Cook move the needle?

Cook is a declining player at the least valuable position on offense and should, hopefully from the Jets' perspective, be no more than a second-string player. He recorded minus-0.1 rush yards over expectation per carry last season in Minnesota, making him slightly below average in the category.

Meanwhile, rookie back Breece Hall averaged 1.4 yards over expectation per carry for the Jets last season, playing seven games before he tore the ACL in his left knee in October. In other words, Hall generated an additional 1.5 yards per carry relative to expectation than Cook did. If Cook is given a backup's workload that seems fine, but a backup running back should have little impact on our forecast for a team.

One way signing Cook could make a difference is what it could signal about Hall. Coach Robert Saleh said in May he was "very optimistic" about Hall playing in Week 1, but if the team has signed Cook because it is worried Hall might not be ready for the start of the year, that would be a bad development.

The verdict: Are the Jets actually a Super Bowl contender?

The key metric for Super Bowl chances isn't really a team's mean outcome -- it's the realistic upside.

The main concerns for the Jets are all beatable: Perhaps Rodgers regains his form, the defense remains consistent, the offensive line holds its own and either one of their receivers steps up or the team acquires a No. 2 receiver at the trade deadline.

Hit that four-leg parlay and New York has a chance against the AFC's other goliaths. Yes, it's a long shot, but to be a contender means simply having a chance. FPI gives the Jets a 4% chance to win the Super Bowl, and that feels about right to me. So yes, they're championship contenders.

It's what they traded for when they added Rodgers, and it's more than Jets fans have had in over a decade.