Lichtenstein: Trumaine Johnson Is Perfect Cautionary Tale For Douglas In Free Agency

By WFAN Sports Radio 101.9 FM/66AM New York

If ever Joe Douglas needed a cautionary tale as he heads into his first NFL free agency foray as the Jets general manager next week (assuming no delays due to the new collective bargaining agreement negotiations), he can revisit the Trumaine Johnson file.

The Jets reportedly will release the overpriced cornerback, who managed to secure a five-year, $72.5 million contract from prior GM Mike Maccagnan in the ultimate panic move two years ago at this time. 

The official departure date will be sometime before the beginning of the new league year, when Johnson’s $11 million salary for the 2020 season would have become guaranteed. The Jets are hopeful that the new CBA will allow them to spread the ensuing $12 million dead-money salary-cap hit over two years. It’s a big difference — $11 million in 2020 cap savings versus $3 million.

Johnson suited up for 17 of the team’s 32 games in his two seasons.  Some absences were injury-related. Others were healthy scratches. 

Trumaine Johnson looks on during his game against the Atlanta Falcons at MetLife Stadium. USA Today Sports Images

When he did play, his performances were at best uneven. He earned’s 20th-ranked coverage grade in 2018 out of 86 cornerbacks with at least 500 snaps. Still, his season was defined by the first play of a November home game against lowly Buffalo. Johnson was burned for a 47-yard bomb from Bills backup quarterback Matt Barkley to Robert Foster, who was just promoted from the practice squad. Johnson was eating Foster’s dust while trailing the play, the harbinger of a 41-10 humiliation. 

By last season’s midpoint, Johnson’s days as a Jet were over for all practical purposes. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams had zero faith in him, playing guys rounded up off the scrap heap over him.  

That Johnson took plays off was a known quantity at the time he entered free agency. That’s why the Rams let him walk away for nothing in the first place. But the Jets were desperate. They were flush with salary-cap cash.  They spent it foolishly.

Douglas’ current situation is not too far removed from that. The biggest difference is that he has a franchise quarterback in Sam Darnold on a rookie contract. But his shopping list for next week is just as extensive, and he could have as much as $80 million in cap space to work with. In many cases, the pool of available players at those positions is equally weak as in 2018.

There will be temptations. The Jets have gaping holes all along the offensive line. They could also use a whole set of cornerbacks (re-signing slot man Brian Poole would take care of one opening), a real edge pass rusher and maybe two big-play wide receivers. They have four of the first 79 picks in April’s draft, but that might plug only a few of those leaks.   

That doesn’t mean that Douglas should succumb to the allure of free agency. Is right tackle Jack Conklin worth $16 million per over five years to lure him away from Tennessee? Or $14 million over the same term for New England guard Joe Thuney? Making them the highest or among the highest-paid players in the league at their respective positions?

Of course not. The best deals Maccagnan made last offseason were value plays, like Poole’s $3 million, one-year contract and getting wide receiver Jamison Crowder for $28.5 million over three years (of which $10.5 million can be excised with a $1 million dead-money hit in 2021, if necessary).  

Unfortunately, free agency has too often been looked at as the cure-all for this team. Why not? It’s just money. Jets history is rife with examples of how doling out large sums to other teams’ average players never works. 

The Johnson signing will be deemed the worst in that woeful history. There is no need for Douglas to risk topping it.

For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Devils and Jets, follow Steve on Twitter at @SteveLichtenst1.