New York Jets' draft plan comes into focus after first wave of free agency

The Jets desperately need a difference-making pass-rusher like Oregon's Kayvon Thibodeaux. AP Photo/Stephen Brashear

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The New York Jets checked four boxes during the first wave of free agency -- guard, tight end (twice), cornerback and safety -- but here's the thing about teams that lose every year:

Each offseason is like the start of a Wordle game -- so many empty boxes.

For the Jets, it magnifies the importance of next month's draft. Despite a positive week, they still have to address two of their biggest needs -- edge rusher and wide receiver. That can be accomplished with their two first-round picks.

It would be an upset if they don't take an edge rusher with the fourth or 10th pick, considering the number of viable options. Coach Robert Saleh needs an edge rusher almost as much as he needs oxygen. That explains why they flirted with free agent Chandler Jones, who accepted a huge deal with the Las Vegas Raiders. The consensus among talent evaluators is that four could be picked in the top 10 -- Aidan Hutchinson (Michigan), Kayvon Thibodeaux (Oregon), Travon Walker (Georgia) and Jermaine Johnson (Florida State).

The Jets, who finished 25th in sacks, need one. Badly.

"There’s some really cool prospects at the top of the draft," Saleh said recently. "I get that there’s not that splash name, like a Nick Bosa or Chase Young, but these guys are really good. They’re really, really good."

It's really the same situation on the other side of the ball. General manager Joe Douglas did Zach Wilson a solid by signing tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Tyler Conklin, not to mention re-upping with slot receiver Braxton Berrios, but the second-year quarterback still needs another front-line weapon.

A handful of wide receivers could be in play with the 10th pick, most notably Garrett Wilson (Ohio State) and Drake London (USC).

If Douglas falls in love with a certain player, maybe he goes in another direction. The additions of cornerback D.J. Reed and safety Jordan Whitehead won't preclude him from using a high pick at those positions. Safety Kyle Hamilton (Notre Dame) and cornerback Ahmad "Sauce" Gardner (Cincinnati) are widely regarded as top-10 talents.

An offensive lineman seems less likely after signing guard Laken Tomlinson, who received a hefty $27 million guarantee.

What the Jets need are difference-makers, meaning dynamic players who can tilt the field. They don't have any of those guys despite having a top-11 pick in five straight drafts. There are a handful of players who might develop into legit stars, but they're not there yet. The draft is where you find them, not free agency.

Douglas picked up five good players in Tomlinson, Uzomah, Reed, Conklin and Whitehead. They're all proven starters ranging in age from 24 (Whitehead turns 25 on Friday) to 30 (Tomlinson), but they're not going to change the course of the franchise.

Tomlinson was the 13th-rated guard last season by Pro Football Focus, but guards don't alter the landscape. We're talking about complementary players who should fit nicely into the schemes and the locker room, which is all you can ask when you wade into the choppy waters of free agency.

They're glue guys. The Jets are starting to accumulate a bunch of them, but they need impact players. Barring trades, the Jets will have four draft picks in the top 38 -- "a real opportunity to add four dynamic difference-makers to this team," Douglas said.

Let's call it a unique opportunity to change everything.