The New York Jets had Super Bowl aspirations this season.
As we know, that all fell apart in inglorious fashion amid in-house squabbles, disgruntled players and unfulfilled guarantees as the Jets watched their division rival, the New England Patriots, jaunt to yet another Super Bowl appearance.
Now the Jets have to deal with a few holes that were exposed during the season, but lack massive amounts of cap space to sign someone to a massive deal (according to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini, their cap space is a little over $8 million, though I'm not sure if this includes D'Brickashaw Ferguson's restructuring).
This means to me the Jets are going to have to go bargain-hunting, making the task of finding realistic free-agent options for the team harder for me to compile.
With the NFL heading towards the start of free agency on March 13th, I think the Jets have five areas of need above the rest: wide receiver, running back, safety, right tackle and pass rush.
As with any year, once the clock ticked down to zero on the Jets' season, speculation began as to what the Jets would target in the offseason.
In the name of free agency, I'm going to look at the realistic and unrealistic options for the Jets at the positions of need I mentioned. Some of the players I mention have been discussed by reputable sources, while some have not.
Those that seemed to be headed for designation as a franchise player were not considered for this list.
Let's start with an area that was supposed to be our strength at the beginning of the season.
Now, it's almost like Mason was never a Jet (traded to the Houston Texans in October), Plaxico wants to be a Philadelphia Eagle (via The Brian Baldinger & Harry Mayes Show) and dances around Jets questions (via Brian Costello of New York Post) and Santonio Holmes is currently trying to patch up a damaged relationship with Sanchez.
The Jets need another receiver, that's clear, so let's look at the unrealistic option first.
Mike Wallace is as fast as lightning and is a restricted free agent with the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are up against the cap and are reluctant to franchise Wallace, so another team could pry him away from Pittsburgh.
Wallace was a Pro Bowler this year and has become Big Ben's favorite target since taking over for Holmes in 2010. Since that time, Wallace has 132 receptions for 2,450 yards (an 18.6 average) and 18 touchdowns.
Wallace considers Holmes a good friend (via James Walker of ESPN.com), so perhaps he'd be open to a reunion with him in New York.
It'd be great to have Wallace, but it just won't happen. He is restricted so the Jets would have to give up a first-round pick to get him.
More importantly, they'd have to offer a massive contract to make sure the Steelers wouldn't match and, with limited cap space, the Jets just can't do it.
Wallace, still only 26 at the start of next season, would be a great addition to any team; the Jets just can't realistically make it happen.
Braylon Edwards played parts of two seasons with the Jets after being acquired from the Cleveland Browns in 2009.
Braylon left the Jets last offseason after he failed to secure the big deal he expected from the team. He ended up signing a modest one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers, battled injuries for most of the season and was waived in December.
Braylon had 88 receptions for 1,445 yards and 11 touchdowns while a Jet. Now there are rumors that the Jets want him back (via Manish Mehta of NY Daily News).
This is a realistic option that would make a lot of sense for New York. Sanchez is comfortable with Edwards, he played well alongside Holmes in New York and, for a team with some cap issues, he could come on the cheap.
If Braylon's injuries haven't completely diminished his ability, he could really help the Jets. He was a tall, big-play threat and helped open up Holmes in the passing game.
The deal would have to be for very little or incentive-laden and the Jets would have to be able to cut ties very easily if the receiver isn't past his woes from last season.
This is something that could happen and, if the deal is right and if he is healthy, would be a steal.
This season the Jets running game wasn't anywhere near where it had been the previous two seasons.
LaDainian Tomlinson's days as a starting running back are long behind him and he is probably done with the Jets. Also, Shonn Greene might be best suited for more of a time share than he had last year.
Greene averaged 4.2 yards on 253 carries for 1,054 yards and added six touchdowns, but the running game failed to get going on occasion with Greene as the starter and he only went over 100 yards twice.
This is the unrealistic slide and since the Jets need someone to replace Tomlinson and share duties with Greene, let's go for the best running back available.
Marshawn Lynch, in my opinion, is the best free-agent back on the market that won't be franchised.
He averaged the same 4.2 yards a carry as Greene, but doubled him in touchdowns with 12. He also rushed for over 1,200 yards and replaced Frank Gore on the Pro Bowl roster. Lynch seemed to get better as the season went on.
It would be cool to welcome Mr. Beast Mode himself to New York to run alongside Greene. But, I don't think he is light years ahead of Greene and, for the money he'd get paid, he should be.
He is going to hit the open market and get paid well and perhaps the Seattle Seahawks will bring him back, but the money is not going to work for the Jets.
I understand Ryan Grant won't excite many fans; he doesn't excite me either. He will turn the dreaded 30 during next season, is an average running back and suffered a serious injury to his ankle during the 2010 season.
But he'd be a fit for the Jets if they choose not to address this need during the draft or don't give Joe McKnight/Bilal Powell a shot to be Greene's backup/running mate.
At this point in Grant's career he is better suited to split carries with another back, he could come relatively cheap and the Jets might be able to squeeze a productive season or two out of him before his wheels fall off.
He ran for 559 yards on 134 carries and two touchdowns last season in Green Bay.
I don't think the Jets will sign a free-agent running back, but I think they will at least have conversations with Grant this offseason.
I think he is the most realistic option and I've seen his name connected to the Jets, but I'd rather pass.
The Jets had a need at safety before Jim Leonhard tore his right patellar tendon late in the season.
Leonhard might have to begin the 2012 season on the PUP list and is a free agent. Brodney Pool is a free agent but really isn't that good, and Eric Smith can stop the run and blitz but can't cover and is overmatched as a starter.
The Jets might have to blow it up at safety and they need a playmaker in that department badly. So the unrealistic option would be one of the better playmaking safeties on the open market: Michael Griffin.
Griffin has great athletic ability, the talent is there and he could be a great safety in this league. He can be very solid in coverage and good against the run, but the biggest knock against him is his inconsistency.
At this point in his career he probably is what he is: a very good safety at times and annoyingly frustrating at others.
I still have a feeling he is going to get paid more like an elite safety than an inconsistent one. The Jets, under Rex Ryan, don't seem that concerned with bringing in a top-flight safety, which probably means he will be out of their price range.
Tom Zbikowski and Haruki Nakamura are two safeties for the Baltimore Ravens that haven't gotten a ton of opportunities in the NFL.
I know a lot of people think that I just have these Raven free agents on this list because Rex Ryan was with the Ravens when both players were drafted.
Partly that is true, but I had to take into account how Ryan gushed about these guys.
When it comes to Zbikowski, Ryan raved about him in a 2008 interview with Sports Illustrated.
"As soon as I saw Zibby in the ring," Ryan recalled last week, "I said, 'We have to have him.' He just destroyed that guy! My kind of guy! We don't chase the pretty girl. We chase the passionate, mean s.o.b. who loves football."
As for Nakamura, Ryan was interviewed and in the video clip says, "[His future] looks bright, he's going to play in this league a long time." He added, "We try to draft the toughest kid out there and it was Haruki Nakamura."
Ryan also coached two years as the Cincinnati Bearcats defensive coordinator, which is Nakamura's alma mater.
Zbikowski has been compared by some to Jim Leonhard. These two would be given a bigger chance to make an impact with the Jets and, most importantly, they would come cheaper than most options.
The Jets need to replace Wayne Hunter.
Hunter was bad this season. He graded out as the fifth-worst offensive tackle by Pro Football Focus.
According to ESPN.com, Hunter gave up 8.5 sacks and 11 penalties. His penalty total was more than double the next-closest Jets offensive line starter.
He just isn't a starting-quality player. So naturally, the Jets didn't cut him in early February and guaranteed his salary for the season.
Regardless of what he is paid, they need to move him to his more natural fit of being a backup.
Enter Jared Gaither.
Gaither was largely ignored last offseason due to his struggles with back issues. He eventually signed with the Kansas City Chiefs, but was cut in late November. He was claimed by the San Diego Chargers and played lights-out in the final five games, starting in place of Marcus McNeill.
Gaither will only be 26 next season and, if his back problems are behind him, will probably be out of the Jets' price range. Gut instinct tells me next season he will be someone's left tackle.
Gaither has had his work ethic questioned, so he might not be a good fit for the Jets locker room right now anyway.
Still, if interest around the league for the youngster is low again this offseason, it wouldn't hurt the Jets to talk to Gaither and his agent.
Anthony Collins has experience starting at right and left tackle, but is stuck behind Andrew Whitworth and Andre Smith in Cincinnati.
I talked about Collins in a previous article, so I got familiar with what this big man can do.
As Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com points out, the Bengals are 7-2 in the nine games Collins has started the past two seasons, averaging 110 yards rushing per game.
An article on revengeofthebirds.com references Pro Football Focus and states that Collins took 89 pass-blocking snaps last season and allowed only one pressure, zero sacks and zero quarterback hits.
In another article on Bengals.com, Whitworth also speaks highly of Collins.
“I think Anthony Collins continues to show that he deserves to be a starter in this league. And every time he’s had an opportunity he’s done that,” Whitworth said. “Having been a guy that’s been around him the whole time and mentored him since the day he showed up, I remember having him over to eat the first day he was here with the wife and just realizing he was a special kid. It makes me proud every time I see him get on the field and play the way he plays. He plays great and continues to prove he deserves to be a starter."
“He just continues to mature and fix things. That’s one of the things I’ve always encouraged him to do is just keep working on his craft and game and how it can be better. And that’s what he’s done. When you have guys who have an opportunity to have guys that aren’t playing or guys that are good enough to play that aren’t, that helps you be good as a line. He is one of those guys that continues to show that he has the ability and just proud of the way he goes in there and plays.”
Collins will only turn 27 in November during next season and will come at a fair price. He can't be any worse than Wayne Hunter was this year and his hard-working attitude is something the Jets locker room needs.
Pass-rusher is the Jets' biggest need. Right now, the Jets have to get too creative to get pressure on opposing teams' quarterbacks, leaving the defense vulnerable.
The Jets leader in sacks for the season was Aaron Maybin with six sacks, though he disappeared in the final four games. Maybin was written off as a bust and released by Buffalo before signing with the Jets.
The Jets tied with the Pittsburgh Steelers for 17th in the league in sacks with 35. The Jets need to find a guy that can get pressure from the outside all on his own.
There is one name that perks the ears of Jets fans more than any other free agent right now, and that's Mario Williams.
I've seen fans ask sports reporters on Twitter if there was any way Williams would come to New York with the Jets.
The Jets will have interest—they'd be crazy not to—but Williams is going to be the cream of this year's free-agent crop and is likely going to be out of the Jets' price range.
This season, Williams proved he can rush as a linebacker in a 3-4, registering five sacks in five games before getting injured and put on IR.
The former No. 1 pick has 53 sacks in his career so far and would add a new dimension to the defense, but it just seems too unlikely to happen.
I guess we can always hope for a Nnamdi Asomugha-type push for the 27-year-old sack machine.
This need is going to have to be fixed via trade or the NFL draft.
I didn't feel this way until Ahmad Brooks signed a new deal with the San Francisco 49ers this week. The deal is worth $44.5 million over six years.
After this deal was signed, two reasons popped into my head as to why the Jets have no realistic option in free agency this year for a pass-rusher.
One, I don't think the Jets can afford anyone. I know it's a recurring theme, but Ahmad Brooks' contract may have set the market and, if so, pass-rushers are going to get paid a premium.
Two, is there anyone better than Aaron Maybin and Calvin Pace that the Jets could sign on the market? I don't know if I can say yes.
Jarrett Johnson is going to be out of the Jets' price range; Manny Lawson has experience in a 3-4 but he is best suited for a 4-3; the Dallas Cowboys have toyed with franchising Anthony Spencer; Robert Mathis would be making a transition after nine years at defensive end—I've considered many people.
The only person I could kind of come around to is Matt Roth, who isn't great but does have some pass-rush ability.
Maybe Rex Ryan could get something out of him.
Should be an interesting offseason for the New York Jets.