When the Jets hired Rex Ryan as head coach in 2009, he inherited a roster that had won nine games the year before. The roster did not lack talent, but Ryan had a priority in free agency — his guys.
The Jets added linebacker Bart Scott, safety Jim Leonhard and defensive end Marques Douglas in Ryan’s first offseason. They all came from the Ravens, for which Ryan had been defensive coordinator. They were critical additions for the Jets, who went to the AFC Championship game in each of Ryan’s first two years. Part of it was their ability on the field, but their bigger contributions might have been for Ryan off the field. The three of them were extensions of Ryan, helping teach his defense and also preaching the Gospel of Rex.
New coaches need allies in the locker room as they try to get their players to buy into their program. It is why looking at the 49ers’ pending free agents makes sense for the Jets and new coach Robert Saleh. After four years as San Francisco’s defensive coordinator, Saleh surely will be looking to bring some of his former defenders to the Jets. And he also will be looking at offense, because new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur came with him from the 49ers.
“There’s always comfort in familiarity,” Saleh said this week. “It’s almost human nature to gravitate to people you’ve worked with and people you’ve been around, but there’s still a process at which you go to. There’s a fit, there’s a value. There are all those different things, a lot of moving parts that go into it. While yeah, it’d be great, it’s not the main determining factor on whether or not we can get those people into the building, those players.”
Saleh may not try to create 49ers East, but it won’t be surprising if some San Francisco free agents end up as Jets when the negotiating window opens March 15.
Here are some of the 49ers free agents the Jets and Saleh could look to sign:
Richard Sherman, cornerback
No one has been a bigger fan publicly of the Jets hiring Saleh than Sherman. He said the Jets “got a great one” when Saleh was hired and has repeated that message. He will be 33 at the end of the month and is not the player he was in his Legion of Boom heyday with the Seahawks. Still, Sherman played well in 2019 for the 49ers before a calf injury limited him to five games last year. Sherman may be looking to join a contender, but if he is interested in a reunion with Saleh, he could be a great locker room leader for the Jets.
K’Waun Williams, cornerback
The Jets have many positions that need a lot of help. Cornerback is one of them, and the 49ers have a few corners about to hit the market. Brian Poole is going to be a free agent for the Jets and they may let him walk. Williams, a slot corner, would be a strong replacement. He has allowed one touchdown on 99 targets over the past two years, according to PFF.
Saleh spoke highly of Williams at the end of last season.
“The reason why everyone loves KK — especially yours truly — is the speed at which he operates and the instincts and the trigger, we call it trigger, and the way he triggers on game day and within each play,” Saleh told San Francisco reporters.
This could be a homecoming for Williams, who grew up in Paterson, N.J., and played high school football at Saint Joseph Regional in Montvale.
Kyle Juszczyk, fullback
The Jets have not had a true fullback in years. Their last four offensive coordinators did not use them much. Juszczyk has been the best in the NFL with the 49ers. He has been to the Pro Bowl in each of the past four seasons. If LaFleur wants to run his offense with a fullback, as he did in San Francisco, luring Juszczyk away makes a lot of sense.
Jason Verrett, cornerback
Verrett has battled injuries in his career, but had a healthy season in 2020. The Jets desperately need help at cornerback and general manager Joe Douglas may take a volume approach to the problem and add a bunch of cornerbacks.
Jaquiski Tartt, safety
The Jets may be happy with their safety situation if they re-sign or franchise tag Marcus Maye and Ashtyn Davis is healthy. If they have any doubts, though, Tartt could be an option for them.
Kerry Hyder, defensive end
The Jets desperately need to elevate their pass rush. There are some high-priced options in free agency and the Jets may go that way. A cheaper option is Hyder, who led the 49ers with 8.5 sacks last season.
Others to consider: CB Ahkello Witherspoon, WR Kendrick Bourne, QB C.J. Beathard, RB Tevin Coleman