It’s officially the worst time of the year. Not only are we without any football, but we are just days away from the beginning of free agency which means all we have to digest is a bunch of unsubstantiated wild speculation about possible free agency acquisitions and potential draft picks. It’s the time of year where any story or possible connection can be discussed ad-nausiam only be disappear into the ether once free agency/draft begins.
The good news is it’s almost over. Starting on March 8th teams can start negotiating with all free agents, though players can’t officially sign with new teams until March 11th, and while there will certainly be some speculation and a few twists and turns regarding certain players we will immediately start getting a sense of the free agency landscape once player’s start making their visits and signing new contracts.
The better news for you Jet fans is the Jets have a boatload of money to burn in free agency this year.
Any day (or minute) now you can expect to hear about the Jets releasing Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie and Mark Sanchez. Holmes is done here, there’s virtually no chance he returns even if it were at an incredibly discounted rate, but as it stands the Jets will save $8.25 million against the cap when they release Holmes.
Cromartie will certainly be released (saving the Jets $9.5 million in cap space) even he himself acknowledged he expects to be cut, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be a Jet next season. The Jets will let Cromartie test the market and if someone offers him a ton of money so be it, but the Jets don’t think the almost 30-year-old (turns 30 on April 15th) cornerback coming off a season where he struggled mightily due to hip issues will command big money elsewhere so there’s still a very good chance he could end up back here just at a heavily discounted rate.
As for Sanchez, I still expect him to be released (freeing up $8.3 million in cap space) and never come back. It’s possible the Jets could decide to rework a deal with Sanchez to dramatically lower his cap number, but it’s in the best interest of both parties to move on at this point.
I don’t buy into the idea that it would look bad for Idzik if he kept Sanchez cheap and Sanchez then beat out Geno Smith, Smith wasn’t a first-round pick so missing on him (if you were ready to write him off this early in his career) wouldn’t damage Idzik’s reputation. Smith definitely had his share of non-believers, but no one can blame the Jets for taking a chance on him in the second round, there was simply too much value in that pick. On top of that, if Idzik kept Sanchez and Sanchez won the job it would only prove that he believes in his mantra of competition all across the board, it’d show he was able to make the decision based on results not contracts or hope and a prayer.
But I don’t think any of this happens. Sanchez problems have been mental problems, he does a fine job of handling the New York media but he struggles to perform in this market and I don’t see him suddenly morphing into a different person. It’s best for Sanchez to move on and it’s best for the Jets to move on from him, even if he were able to bounce back and be a solid quarterback here he will never be the long-term answer here and when you come to that kind of crossroad it’s just best to go in a different direction.
Right now the Jets are currently $23,608,558 under the cap, with the releasing of Holmes, Cromartie and Sanchez they will free up an additional $26,050,000 giving them just over $49.5 million to spend in free agency (all cap numbers are according to Overthecap.com). Obviously they’ll need to save some of that money to sign draft picks and retain some of their own free agents and maybe give Muhammad Wilkerson and extension, but they can still be big spenders in free agency and have plenty of room for everything else. So let’s take a look at their options and see how they could go about best improving the roster.
Priority number one: Re-sign Austin Howard.
Howard was the Jets most consistent offensive lineman last season, he’s nowhere near the best right tackle in football but offensive linemen are hard to find in free agency and any good ones that do slip through will command outrageous money. Howard is good, but not break the bank good. The Jets need to re-sign Howard then move onto other areas of need, which certainly includes upgrading the guard position and depth along the offensive line.
Priority number two: Put the full court press on safety Jarius Byrd, overpay as needed.
What’s the point in having almost $50 million in cap space if you can’t target a few specific players and outbid everyone else for them? Front load the contract so most of the money counts against the cap this season and use the rest of that money to fill other needs, even if they gave Byrd the $8-9 million per season he is looking for that would still leave them with over $40 million to spend elsewhere. Carefully structure the contract so it won’t be a hindrance in the future and there’s no need to worry about possibly overpaying a player like Byrd.
You worry about overpaying players who aren’t worth it or aren’t a good fit, Byrd has proven he is worth it and he’d be a perfect fit as the ballhawking cover-1 safety this defense (and most defenses outside of Seattle) are desperately missing. The only concern with Byrd is his past foot injuries, but I’m not a doctor and have to assume if a team’s doctor’s are willing to sign off on his health that’s good enough for me.
Both wide receiver and tight end are bigger needs for the Jets than safety, but the Jets biggest need is playmakers and they should be looking at both sides of the ball for this. Byrd is a playmaker and one of the few safeties in the league capable of doing what he does and not only would he improve the defense but he would also dramatically improve the team as a whole.
Priority number three: Get Smith some weapons.
With Holmes on his way out the Jets really only have two receivers that can be relied upon, Jeremy Kerley and David Nelson. Stephen Hill will be entering his third-year, but with his inconsistent play, drops and injuries the Jets have to look at anything positive he does as a bonus, not something that can just expect to happen. Unfortunately for the Jets this isn’t the most talented group of receivers to hit the free agent market, but fortunately there are a few free agent receivers who would be very good fits for this team and better yet this might be the deepest draft class ever as far as receivers go.
There are two receivers at the top of my list and a third cheaper option if the first two aren’t signed. The top receiver on my list is Golden Tate, Tate isn’t a number one receiver (there aren’t any available), but he’s better than most people think because he does all the little things and he does them well.
Tate is a physical, strong receiver who attacks the ball in the air (no waiting on the ball to get to him, when he sees the ball he immediately goes after it), is a really good downfield blocker, exceptional after the catch and most importantly, and the most under looked aspect of the upside he offers, he is very adept of making his way back to the quarterback after his route has been completed and the quarterback is running around buying time waiting for someone to get open. When you have a quarterback who buys extra time with his legs it is imperative that you have a receiver like Tate who knows how to get open after the route and be in position to help his quarterback out.
Next on the receiver/playmaker list is Emmanuel Sanders. Sanders had a down year last season, but that was more of a result of the rest of the offense around him struggling, Sanders is a playmaker and a reliable target. Yes, Sanders is under 6′ tall and yes the Jets already have Kerley, but passing on a player like Sanders because you have Kerley is silly. There’s plenty of room for both to coexist and I’m not sure why you want to talk yourself out of adding another playmaker.
If the Jets can’t get both Tate and Sanders, or either of them, they should go after Jason Avant. Avant doesn’t have the upside of someone like Hakeem Nicks or James Jones, but he’s reliable and will give you exactly what you expect from him and he won’t cost nearly as much money. On any given play Nicks or Jones can offer much more than Avant, but they also tend to offer much less and at times when it’s needed most.
Avant has a history with Marty Mornhinweg and knows his system and Mornhinweg knows exactly what Avant brings. Solid route-runner, reliable hands, not going to be scorching defensive backs all over the field, but he can be trusted to do his job every time he’s out on the field. Receivers like Nicks and Jones are capable of much more, but too often their quarterbacks relied on them because of what they were capable of only to be burned by disappointment. Give me the lesser talent that lives up to expectations, for a lot less money, over disappointing talents who cost a lot more money.
At tight end the Jets only have Zack Sudfeld currently on the Jets roster, Jeff Cumberland (who the Jets have opened up negotiations with) and Konrad Reuland are both free agents. Re-signing Cumberland at a low salary is a wise move, it’s not good to have him as the number one tight end but as the second or third tight end option he presents a lot of upside. The Jets could look into signing a Brandon Pettigrew or Garrett Graham to provide depth at the position, but the best place for the Jets to find a true starting tight end is the draft. Whether it’s an Eric Ebron, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Jace Amaro or C.J. Fiedorowicz the Jets need to upgrade their tight end group by adding not only a tight end who can be a playmaker, but they also desperately need one that can block as well. Fiedorowicz is that guy in the draft, but they could sign a blocking tight end in free agency and focus on a playmaking tight end in the draft.
Priority number four: Sign a guard, hell maybe two, and add depth all along the offensive line.
Willie Colon brought a veteran presence and hard-nosed mentality to the offensive line last season, but at his age he isn’t near the player he used to be. Brian Winters made strides towards the end of last season and the Jets coaching staff had big expectations for him before he got hurt in training camp, it’s possible Winters could turn into the player they expected this year, but as with Hill the Jets can’t just expect that to happen. The Jets would be wise to sign Geoff Schwartz, who is solid in pass protection and an excellent run blocker. Sign Schwartz, maybe another lineman or two for depth, another player or two in the draft and let them battle it out to field the best offensive line possible.
Priority number five: Sign a veteran backup quarterback.
One could argue this should be higher on the list, but if the other pieces aren’t there it doesn’t matter if Geno Smith, Mike Vick or God himself were the quarterback this offense would continue to struggle. The only available free agents are backups, that’s why they’re available and as a backup, assuming he can’t get offered a starting gig, the best option is Vick. At 34 Vick’s best days are behind him and he surly can’t be expected to play all 16 games as a starter but if you need a backup who can fill in and win a game or two for you Vick is clearly the best option. Vick also has a familiarity with Mornhinweg. Regardless of who the backup is Smith will get every opportunity to be the starter, he’d have to look terrible in training camp/preseason for anyone else to claim the job, there are no instant answers available in free agency so take the best backup option and that’s Vick.
The Jets could certainly draft a quarterback as well, but having two inexperienced young quarterbacks doesn’t help much next season. The Jets need a veteran that can potentially be a shot in the arm for a couple games here and there.
Priority number six: Defensive pieces.
The heavy focus needs to be on improving the offense, but that doesn’t mean totally neglecting the defense. As good as the defense is, there are still holes to be filled (especially if Cromartie doesn’t return and if that’s the case this moves up the priority list) and there are a couple of attractive options besides Byrd.
If the Jets can’t sign Byrd than the should make a play for T.J. Ward (who is more of a in-the-box safety than a ballhawk like Byrd) or a Chris Clemons. With or without Cromartie the Jets should also go after Aqib Talib. Talib had his share of off-the-field issues that scared teams in the past, but it appears he got his act straightened out the past two years in New England and he’s easily one of the top five corners in the league. Talib is the excellent, press coverage man corner that Rex Ryan loves so much and while he’ll become one of the richer free agents signings this year the market for corners has dwindled a bit so he won’t be commanding anything near the $16 million Darrelle Revis got last year. Talib shut down the Saints Jimmy Graham all by himself last season, he’s a tough, hard-nosed corner who loves to get physical and can make plays on the ball in the air, plus the Jets signing Talib would not only improve their team but it takes him away from the Patriots.
Alterraun Verner and Sam Shields are a couple of other possibilities at corner, but neither are on Talib’s level and will likely cost around as much money and I’d happily pay more for Talib than I would for the other two.
If Brian Orakpo or Jason Worilds were available they would be perfect fits as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but Orakpo was franchised and Worilds signed a one-year tender leaving Calvin Pace and Sahun Phillips as the best outside linebackers available. The Jets could look to upgrade this position in the draft, but they will also be hoping Antwan Barnes can come back and stay healthy as he was on his way to having a very nice season before he got hurt last year.
The strength of this roster is all on the defensive line, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t use some help or depth, especially if Leger Douzable doesn’t return, and Arthur Jones would be a great fit in Ryan’s system and would immediately improve the rotation in both run and pass defense.
Priority number seven: Free agency is to fill needs and the draft is for the best-player available.
As stated earlier this is probably the deepest receiver class in the history of the draft and the Jets should absolutely look to draft, at minimum, two receivers from this class, but you don’t pass up on a signing a receiver who could immediately improve the roster because you can draft a couple of rookies. Everyone seems to have penciled the Jets in as taking a receiver or tight end with the 18th pick, but they’re going to draft the highest ranked player on their board, if that’s a receiver or tight end great, but if it’s a defensive lineman, offensive lineman, linebacker or safety that’s who they’ll take.
With at least nine picks (plus comp picks) the Jets will have plenty of chances to draft impact players, but they won’t be beholden to specific positions, that’s why they need to address their needs so heavily in free agency and $50 million in cash to burn gives them the ability to do just that.