The Jets are hoping Adrian Jones (79) can be the heir apparent to the departed Kareem McKenzie (67) (Jets Insider.com Photo)
The free agent period has been an interesting one for New York Jets’ fans. As with every offseason in the salary cap era, there have been comings and goings, which is par for the course. However, for those who bleed Green and White, there were too few comings and not enough goings. As the team lost some of its most high-profile players, they filled some of these holes through lower-tier free agents, but some glaring holes still remain. Where does the team go from here? We will analyze this in-depth during this two-part Jets Insider.com series.
Upon closer inspection, there is a growing contingent of “chicken-little” fans that need keep in mind that the sky is not falling. General manager Terry Bradway is a man that has a plan, and it has been in place for some time. In fact, he has been quite honest about the team’s intentions dating back to the post-season press conference in January 2005: Keep the core of the team intact and use free agents of value and the draft to fill holes.
As a new season dawns with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick declaring “offensive coordinator by committee” and the Jets’ hiring of their new offensive coordinator Mike Heimerdinger, it appears that Gang Green has covered some ground in their mission to dethrone the Patriots next season. Recent events surrounding the club reveal the blueprints of the team’s construction and how this 2005 Jets team could actually be superior to the 2004 model.
In this salary cap era, when a team is recognized among the league’s elite, free agency becomes a time to preserve their core talent, not to spend lavishly and upgrade positions of need with high-priced splashes in the talent pool. While the local sports columnists have been quick to criticize the Jets two weeks into free agency, the reality of the situation is that the Jets recognized early on that they had too many high-profile free agents this offseason to retain.
Obviously, it would great to keep every talented player on the squad for their entire career… and it would also be great to win the lottery. Neither are realistic expectations.
Ranking these players by priority, there are three groups: the elite high-profile free agents, the very good high-profile free agents and all others. The 2000 first round picks featuring DEs John Abraham and Shaun Ellis and QB Chad Pennington were potentially elite high-profile unrestricted free agents. Offensive tackle Kareem McKenzie, RB LaMont Jordan and DT Jason Ferguson were potentially very good high profile unrestricted free agents. The difference between “elite” and “very good” lies in the value of these players and their importance toward capturing the Lombardi Trophy.
This distinction may seem like splitting hairs, but by locking up Pennington and Ellis to reasonable long-term deals and tagging Abraham as the franchise player, the Jets insured that their most elite players will remain in green and white for the foreseeable future. For all those that say the Jets are sitting on their hands this free agency period, keep in mind that this year the team committed over 43 million of guaranteed money to the aforementioned players. Overall, the team prioritized their free agents and kept the most valuable ones. Hopefully, in the years ahead, fans of the team can look at this sizable investment as a key step on the road toward winning the Super Bowl.
The next step in the process for the Jets is to figure out how the holes on the roster can be filled.
AREAS UNDER CONSTRUCTION
Before we talk about the newest Jets, let’s look at the holes that remain. According to Bradway, the team needs to get younger in the secondary and fill holes as players leave via free agency. The Jets have flirted with several big-name NFL stars since free agency began March 3, but have been unable to strike any deals. CB Ty Law, formerly of the Patriots, has been the subject of frequent rumors, and epitomizes the team’s desire for playmakers in the secondary. The one-time perennial Pro Bowler is scheduled to visit the Jets and the Chiefs next week to entertain offers.
The Jets appeared poised to strike early in the open market, only to see two former Buffalo Bills (OT Jonas Jennings and DT Pat Williams), land lucrative deals with the San Francisco 49ers and Minnesota Vikings, respectively. Former Houston Texans DT Seth Payne visited the club early in the free agency period and would have been a great fit, but Payne decided to re-sign with Houston. The Jets are clearly in need of a pass-catching tight end, as evidenced by the team’s unsuccessful attempt at snagging Denver Broncos restricted TE Jeb Putzier. However, through these near misses, Bradway and company have revealed what they believe is the needs of the team.
With the Broncos matching the Jets’ deal and retaining the services of Putzier, the team is left with lower-tier free agent TE options such as Freddy Jones (Cardinals), Stephen Alexander (Lions), Ken Dilger (Buccaneers) and Boo Williams (Saints), who is reportedly on the trade block. The Jets had considered bringing back TE Anthony Becht if he was willing to sign a cap friendly deal, but he has since defected to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If the Jets’ staff identifies one of the aforementioned players as potential upgrade, then odds are the club will make a move prior to April’s draft. Overall, it’s obvious that the pickings are getting slim.
For those “draftniks” out there – due to the high-profile nature of the Putzier contract situation, it is possible that Virginia TE Heath Miller will be projected to be the Jets’ draft pick by many so-called internet gurus. It is my contention that the Jets drafting Miller is highly unlikely. Beside the strong possibility that Miller will be off the board by the Jets’ pick, team needs and player value at cornerback, offensive line and perhaps even defensive tackle would probably take precedence over need at tight end. All indications point to the Jets signing a veteran tight end rather than investing a draft choice on the position. In the unlikely event that April 23 rolls around with only two tight ends on the roster (Chris Baker and James Dearth), this draft class has interesting middle round value with prospects such as Adam Bergen (Lehigh), Joel Dressen (Colorado State) and Bo Scaife (Texas).
Another unstable situation with limited suitable options is at offensive tackle. With OT Kareem McKenzie signing for big money with the cross-town rival New York Giants ($12.5 Million guaranteed as opposed to the Jets’ best offer of $10 Million), the right tackle position has now become a big question mark. Most top-tier free agent tackles have since latched on with other NFL clubs, with the Jets’ lowball effort toward Jonas Jennings the only evidence the team has attempted to address the position.
If the team believes that LT Jason Fabini can remain on the quarterback’s blind side despite his regression last season, then the most likely scenario has 2004 fourth-round selection OT Adrian Jones getting a shot as the starter at right tackle. While Jones would probably have an easier time at the right side, the Jets have indicated Jones is being groomed as the club’s future left tackle. In the best case scenario, albeit unrealistic, either Jones or second-year OT Marko Cavka will have progressed enough to hold down a starting position while Fabini reverts to his original right tackle spot where he started his career. Bradway will undoubtedly monitor the free agent market, particularly after June 1, when teams cut ties with veterans with high salary cap figures.
Should any of the top three offensive tackles be on the board at the No. 26 pick - Alex Barron (FSU), Jammal Brown (Oklahoma) or Khalif Barnes (Washington) - the Jets would have to think long and hard about the selection. The unknown variables in this equation are the development of the mentioned tackles Jones and Cavka, and it will remain unknown for at least a few more weeks, as the team has not reported for offseason training activities (OTA) yet. It should be noted that there will be no guarantee that a rookie tackle, no matter how highly regarded, will be able to contribute right away. It is for this reason that the projection of another position, such as cornerback, at the No. 26 spot is still the most likely option.
Coming Next In Part II: 2005 team additions and more possible moves.
In addition to contributing to Jets Insider.com, Matthew Bitonti is the publisher of DraftDaddy.com a website that covers all aspects of the NFL draft.