In general manager Mike Maccagnan's three-year rebuilding project, which sometimes seems to be moving slower than rush-hour traffic at the Lincoln Tunnel, the plan for the New York Jets -- in simple form -- looks something like this:
2017: Strip down the roster. (Did they ever.)
2018: Find a quarterback. (Hello, Sam Darnold.)
2019: Build around the quarterback.
The Jets took a major step early Wednesday toward their 2019 objective, agreeing to terms with star running back Le'Veon Bell, one of the most coveted free agents on the market. It cost them a fortune -- four years, $52.5 million, $35 million guaranteed -- but Bell is worth the investment because he instantly upgrades Darnold's supporting cast and gives the Jets their most competitive offense since 2015. New coach Adam Gase, offensive boss, is a happy man.
Some people will criticize the move, saying it's a desperate GM throwing crazy money at a running back who already has 1,541 career touches, but the move makes sense for the Jets and here's why:
Darnold is their most valuable commodity, and they had to do something to give him a chance. Sure, the contract is enormous, and there are questions about Bell's controversial one-year layoff from the Pittsburgh Steelers, but this is a case where the potential reward outweighed the risk. The Jets have Darnold on his rookie contract for another three years, so this was the right time to take that chance.
The Jets absolutely needed a playmaker on offense. Isaiah Crowell produced one historic game -- a franchise-record 219 rushing yards -- but he was a largely mediocre free-agent signing. He made more headlines for his butt-wiping touchdown celebration than he did as a running back, and that should tell you everything about Crowell, who will be released before a $2 million guarantee kicks in Friday.
Let's be brutally honest: The offense was awful last season (29th in total yards), in part because of Darnold, whose growing pains were pronounced. But he finished with the NFL's highest QBR over the final month, convincing the organization it was time to move on to Phase III of The Plan.
"We're definitely excited about the idea of putting players around Sam," Maccagnan said at the scouting combine, "and that will be one of our focal points this offseason."
Indeed, it has. On Sunday, they agreed to acquire left guard Kelechi Osemele in a trade with the Oakland Raiders -- an upgrade on the offensive line. On Monday, they finalized a deal with slippery slot receiver Jamison Crowder, formerly of the Washington Redskins.
Now, Bell, is a true No. 1 back who can also make an impact in the passing game. That, quite frankly, is what sold the Jets on him. You can find a 1,000-yard rusher in free agency or in the middle rounds of the draft, but not many players can do what Bell does.
Bell, 27, should add five points to Darnold's completion rate, 57.7 percent, which ranked 31st out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks. He wasn't very good in the short-area zone, finishing dead last in completion percentage (62.9) on throws between 1 and 10 yards, but that number should spike with Bell on the field. The man had 160 catches in his last two seasons in Pittsburgh.
His presence also should create play-action opportunities for Darnold, who, despite his late-season flash, still isn't good enough to carry an entire offense. Bell will bring balance to the passing game, freeing up wide receiver Quincy Enunwa to run a full route tree. Much to his dismay, he often was confined to short routes last season.
Concerns? Sure, Bell brings some baggage to the Jets. He has had two substance-abuse suspensions and there are questions about his motivation. Did he quit on the Steelers last season after refusing to sign a $14 million franchise tag? Did he pick the Jets just because they offered the most money?
A year ago, Bell, answering a fan on Twitter who "offered" $60 million in cash to play for the Jets, said that "ain't enough to come run with the Jets." Now, suddenly, their money is good enough? The Jets have a long history of whiffing with big-name free agents, and it's fair to wonder if Bell will join the list.
In the big picture, though, he's worth the gamble. In a lean free-agent class, and with no second-round pick in the draft, he represented the Jets' best chance to get better. One of the biggest football sins is to waste the "cheap" years of a promising young quarterback. The Jets recognize that, and they made a bold attempt to make sure it doesn't happen.