Jets mull free agent decisions, including a tough call on QB Mike White

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- The conversation surrounding the New York Jets has focused on (what else?) the quarterback position -- specifically, Zach Wilson's future and potential veteran replacements. There hasn't been much chatter about the quarterback who galvanized the Jets' locker room, who inspired some teammates to wear his likeness on a T-shirt and who displayed extreme toughness by playing with five broken ribs.

Mike White, who for a minute had a chance to secure the QB1 job, is now just a blip on the radar, his future in New York uncertain. The Jets have been linked to the biggest names on the market, like Derek Carr and Aaron Rodgers, leaving White -- a pending unrestricted free agent -- in a precarious position. If the Jets do what they've been saying -- sign a veteran and keep Wilson in a backup role -- it likely means White is the odd man out.

Looking ahead to his first crack at free agency, White said there's an "excitement" level because he hopes to find "some stability" with his next contract.

"With these past couple of years, everything is so up and down with no guarantees, especially in this profession," he said at the end of the season, alluding to the Jets' quarterback chaos. "If anything, just for my wife and I, [we'd like] some stability, hopefully, is what we’re looking for. I just want the right situation, and I’m sure that’ll present itself at some point."

White, whose career record is 2-5, figures to command between $4 million and $8 million per year on the open market. The argument can be made he's a better quarterback than Wilson (62.2 career completion percentage vs. Wilson's 55.2), but the organization appears set on keeping Wilson, probably because of his draft status (No. 2 overall pick in 2021). Even if the Jets make White an offer, he could look elsewhere for a better playing opportunity. One possibility is a backup job with the Los Angeles Rams, who hired former Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur.

White is one of 20 players on the Jets poised to hit unrestricted free agency on March 15. The NFL scouting combine (Feb. 26-March 6) is where the front office often lays the groundwork for deals. Here's a pre-combine projection on how the Jets will approach their own free agents:

Priority free agents

For different reasons, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and linebacker Quincy Williams -- both starters on the NFL's fourth-ranked defense -- are the only players in this category.

Rankins, who will turn 29 before next season, plays a premium position -- a position where the Jets have no depth. In fact, the only interior defensive linemen under contract are star Quinnen Williams and former practice-squad player Tanzel Smart. After completing a two-year, $11 million contract, Rankins probably is looking for something in the $8 million-to-$10 million range per year.

Known mostly for his pass rushing, Rankins opened some eyes by playing well against the run. When he was in the game, the Jets allowed only 3.82 yards per rush, compared to 4.13 without him -- the best differential among their starting defensive linemen, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Williams, 26, is an ascending player coming off his rookie contract -- the sweet spot in a player's career when it comes to investing money, based on general manager Joe Douglas' thinking. Outside linebackers in a 4-3 defense usually don't score monster paydays, so Williams probably is looking at a multiyear deal in the $6 million to $9 million range per year.

He may have some leverage because the Jets want to keep his younger brother happy; Quinnen hopes to land a long-term extension by April.

"We're looking forward to playing on the same team together," Quincy said. "The biggest thing is putting it on tape. We did that. Now it's just business, nothing personal."

The 'maybe' crowd

Decisions and price points on players in this category often hinge on whether the team can find upgrades in free agency and/or the draft. Two starters can be placed here -- center Connor McGovern and linebacker Kwon Alexander.

The Jets could certainly try to replace McGovern, 30, who completed a three-year, $27 million contract. He's durable (didn't miss an offensive snap in 2022) and terrific in the locker room, but the offense ranked 23rd, 27th and 25th in rushing over the last three seasons and he finished 24th out of 32 qualified centers last season in pass block win rate, per ESPN Stats & Information. Thing is, the free agent market is light on centers. So maybe ...

Alexander, 28, was a spark-plug leader on defense who made 69 tackles while playing 49% of the snaps. He finally beat the injury bug and will be looking for a nice raise on the $1.3 million he made last season.

Another player to watch is running back Ty Johnson, 25, who was overshadowed for most of the season but could be a depth piece with Breece Hall returning from major surgery on his left knee.

Lower priority

Starters and former starters in this category are safety Lamarcus Joyner, tackle George Fant, guard Nate Herbig and kicker Greg Zuerlein, who set the franchise record with a 60-yard field goal but made only 81% of his field goal attempts. Eddy Pineiro, beat out by Zuerlein in training camp, wound up making 93% of his tries with the Carolina Panthers.

Herbig did solid work as a starter and could return in a backup role behind Alijah Vera-Tucker, who returns from a triceps injury. Joyner, 32, led the team with three interceptions, but the safety position could be revamped. A balky knee got the best of Fant, who missed nine games and probably will move on.

Defensive tackles Nathan Shepherd and Solomon Thomas, both favorites of the coaching staff, could return in backup roles. Ditto, defensive end Vinny Curry, 34, who will decide if he wants to give it another run.

And then there's quarterback Joe Flacco, 38, a valuable mentor who started nine games over the last three seasons. It would be an upset if he's back with the Jets, but he didn't sound like someone ready for retirement.

"It's so much fun to be out there with all those young guys and still do [something] I love," he said. "That’s what I plan on doing until, you know, I’ve said it before: I’m going to do it as long as I can, and that’s my plan, and we’ll see what happens this offseason and what kind of opportunities there are."