The 8 Moves New York Jets Must Avoid in Free Agency
Now that the New York Jets have achieved salary cap compliance, it's time for John Idzik to start earning his money. He must show the football world how good he is at playing the free agency game.
The Jets still have a limited amount of cap space with which to work. It's important to make every dollar count and straddle the fine line that separates excess conservatism from unnecessary risk. That's why the "moves to avoid" described here emphasize strategic errors.
Idzik's success or failure during this free agency season depends on how well he does at handling the following issues:
- Creating salary cap room
- Spreading the wealth among as many key players as possible
- Minimizing the upheaval from free-agent losses
- Using the draft to build a stable core of talent
The "moves" that these slides describe represent obstacles to achieving these goals.
Salary Cap Complacency
Just because the Jets are under the salary cap doesn't mean Idzik can rest on his laurels. The more space he can free, the more flexibility he will have in his free-agent strategy.
Jason Fitzgerald, creator of nyjetscap.com, has published a three-part series on the topic. Fitzgerald combines roster cuts, salary adjustments and contract restructurings to give the Jets almost $30 million of free cap space in 2013. Even better, that's after allocating $5.6 million for signing draft picks.
Fitzgerald's proposals affect the following players:
- Roster cuts: Calvin Pace, Bart Scott, Eric Smith, Jason Smith, Tim Tebow
- Salary adjustments: Sione Pouha
- Contract restructuring: Antonio Cromartie, David Harris, Santonio Holmes, Nick Mangold, Mark Sanchez
Excluding Tebow, the Jets have already made the roster cuts and added one of their own, reserve tight end Josh Baker. Baker's departure saves $555,000.
In other words, the easy part is almost complete. It's negotiation time.
So far, we only have predictions, not results. For example, in his evaluation of Jets' wide receivers, Rich Cimini wrote, "Don't be surprised if the Jets try to get Holmes to take a pay cut..."
This one is worse. Rotoworld.com cited a New York Post report in which Brian Costello tweeted that the Jets had yet to approach Sanchez. The reasoning: Sanchez has no incentive to restructure. In fact, not restructuring would make if more difficult to afford viable competition for the starting quarterback job.
Costello is right if the sole criterion is dollars and cents. However, Sanchez has something else to prove this year. He must prove himself to be a team leader, someone who values team accomplishments above his own gain.
Joe Flacco gambled on his own ability when he postponed renegotiating his contract until the close of 2012. An offer by Sanchez to restructure his contract would do more than serve as an example of leadership. It would demonstrate Sanchez's willingness to gamble on his own ability, an important step in reviving his career.
Darrelle Revis Debacle
Next to quarterback, the personnel issue that is drawing the most attention for the Jets this offseason is the fate of Darrelle Revis. It's a complex matter that lacks a perfect solution. Here are Idzik's alternatives and their consequences:
Keep Revis long-term: On paper, the Jets will have two Pro Bowl cornerbacks. That assumes that Revis returns to pre-injury form and that Antonio Cromartie maintains his 2012 performance level.
Two shutdown cornerbacks might make losing safeties LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell easier to take. Again, in theory, corners of Revis's and Cromartie's caliber would require less help in coverage. The Jets might get by with starting safeties Josh Bush and Antonio Allen.
However, they'll have to make Revis the highest-paid defensive player in football. That will cost salary cap space that the Jets might need for other things, unless the higher payments are scheduled for the end of the deal.
Trade Revis now: Trading or releasing Revis means absorbing a $3 million salary cap hit. What's more, teams will offer less for him because he has yet to play after last year's injury. However, the Jets will spare themselves the expense of the long-term deal that Revis will inevitably demand. If they make the trade before March 17, they will save the $3 million cash outlay in reporting, roster and workout bonuses. The trade-off will be diminished cap space with which to rebuild the secondary.
Play Revis now: Revis can become an unrestricted free agent after 2013. If the Jets do not trade him quickly, they risk receiving no compensation from his next employer, who will benefit from the opportunity to evaluate him on the field.
If the Jets trade Revis soon, they can save out-of-pocket cash but receive less in exchange. If they delay, they risk losing bonus money. Plus, Revis's impending free agency might cause potential trading partners to wait until his contract ends.
It looks like the best thing for Idzik to do is to commit himself one way or the other before the bonus deadlines. It's time to let Revis go or begin renegotiating his contract. Otherwise, he becomes a new sideshow, which is not a good start at regaining football credibility.
Cutting Corners at Quarterback
The Jets' team motto this season is "competition through and through." Internally, no one's job is supposed to be safe. Hopefully, that internal competitiveness transforms the Jets into a team the opposition fears.
Jets fans will demand that this competition be most pronounced at quarterback.
Many begrudgingly accept that Sanchez will be on the team in 2013. The prospect of him starting, however, is not so easily tolerated.
Sanchez must convince a skeptical media and public that he is the best man for the job in 2013. To do that, he will have to outplay an established veteran in the preseason. That veteran should have been on an NFL roster in 2012 and have held a starting role at some point.
On the other hand, if the Jets can't sign Moore, the competition will be suspect. Brady Quinn has been identified as a prospect, but his lackluster career to date would either make a Sanchez victory seem illegitimate or a Quinn victory cause for alarm. Fans would prepare for another season of stagnant offense.
All the more reason for the Jets to draft a quarterback this year, someone like USC's Matt Barkley, North Carolina's Mike Glennon, Florida State's E.J. Manuel or Syracuse's Ryan Nassib. Despite this year's lamentations about a poor quarterback class, having a top prospect at camp could create more positive buzz than would watching Sanchez compete for his job against an over-the-hill veteran.
Passing Up Bargains
The New York Jets may have lost a cost-effective solution to their search for a feature running back—Chad Kackert of the CFL's Toronto Argonauts.
Kackert assumed a starting role as a mid-season replacement. All he did was generate 850 yards of total offense, including 638 yards rushing on 100 carries. In the postseason, he earned the Grey Cup MVP Award by rushing 20 times for 133 yards and catching eight passes for 62 yards.
He worked out for the Jets in December and was negotiating a contract with former general manager Mike Tannenbaum. However, the deal was not complete before Tannenbaum's ouster.
It sounds like the Jets' front office transition may have cost them Kackert's services. By February 15, when he officially became a free agent, the Jets had yet to make an offer. However, the Argonauts did. Kackert re-signed with Toronto for two more years.
The Jets lost a potential bargain. However, there may be another similar opportunity out there in the person of Brandon Whitaker, a free-agent running back from the Montreal Alouettes.
In 2011, Whitaker generated over 2,000 yards of total offense. He might have done the same in 2012, had a knee injury not ended his season prematurely. However, that very injury may be what gives the Jets their chance to sign him.
Had Whitaker been healthy, it's likely a team would have signed him soon after CFL free agency began. However, Whitaker won't be ready to work out until May. CFL preseason games start in June.
That recovery schedule fits NFL training calendars better than the CFL's. Free-agent signings will be well underway and the draft will be over, but some teams may still seek a feature running back. If the Jets are one of them, Whitaker deserves a look. He's potentially a bargain that the Jets can't afford to miss.
Using Franchise or Transition Tags
With so many starters headed to free agency, you'd think the Jets would consider using the franchise tag to keep one of them for an extra year. Here's the problem: It's a budgetary disaster.
Plus, according to Mike Florio of ProFootballTalk.com, only one player is worthy of such consideration. It's Pro Bowl safety LaRon Landry, who has a clause in his contract prohibiting the move.
More importantly, in many cases tagging would more than double the player's salary.
Here are some representative examples:
- Defensive end Mike DeVito: 2012 base salary $700,000, franchise tag value $8.306 million
- Kicker Nick Folk: 2012 base salary $700,000, franchise tag value $2.926 million
- Running back Shonn Greene: 2012 base salary $615,000, franchise tag value $8.079 million
- Tight end Dustin Keller: 2012 base salary $3.0525 million, franchise tag value $5.962 million
In other words, franchise tagging most of the Jets free agents would give them a larger raise than they'd achieve in the open market. The concept, while well-intentioned, is inappropriate for this team at this time.
Using Free Agents Where Draftees Would Do
- OLB Jarvis Jones (Georgia), DE/OLB Dion Jordan (Oregon), DE/OLB Barkevious Mingo (LSU)
- ILB Alec Ogletree (Georgia), RB Eddie Lacy (Alabama), QB Matt Barkley (USC)
- FS Matt Elam (Florida), QB Mike Glennon (North Carolina State), QB Ryan Nassib (Syracuse)
- SS Philip Thomas (Fresno State), CB Jordan Poyer (Oregon State), OT Justin Pugh (Syracuse)
- K Dustin Hopkins (Florida State), QB Tyler Bray (Tennessee)
- WR Kenny Stills (Oklahoma), G Oscar Johnson (Louisiana Tech)
- SS Bacarri Rambo (Georgia), NT Kwame Geathers (Georgia)
It's tempting for teams like the New York Jets to try to solve all of their problems at once. They sign established players expecting to revive their careers.
However, in this age of the salary cap, the draft's significance as a rebuilding tool cannot be overstated. Teams that build themselves through the draft profit by paying young players relatively little during their first contract. They build a core of homegrown talent that helps coaches communicate the team's values and work habits to new arrivals.
A team built through the draft uses free agency to supplement its talent core, not establish it. Free agents fill gaps that the draft does not address.
This year's draft is considered strong in defensive skill positions. That's fortunate for the Jets, who already have linebacker openings to fill and may have additional openings at cornerback and safety.
The following list is not a draft proposal. Instead it is the result of sorting combine participants by grade, then projecting who might be available each round to fill possible Jets' needs.
However, seven draft picks cannot fill the Jets' 2013 starting lineup. Other than quarterback, what positions might call for free agents?
Rich Cimini suggests wide receiver is one position where the Jets might need free-agent help. One of his suggestions, Braylon Edwards, would probably fit within the Jets' budget. His second, Miami Dolphins wide receiver Brian Hartline, might not.
That is, of course, unless John Idzik succeeds at his contract restructuring efforts.
Losing Their Strengths
The Jets will probably have three new starting linebackers next year. Depending on how free agency turns out, they may have to replace both starting safeties, both starting guards, a starting tackle and a starting defensive tackle.
These aren't the only positions where the Jets could lose starters to free agency. However, the secondary, defensive line and offensive line are considered the strengths of the 2012 Jets.
Free-agent safeties LaRon Landry, a Pro Bowl selection, and Yeremiah Bell formed half the secondary behind the NFL's second-ranked pass defense. Free-agent defensive tackle Mike DeVito was part of an up-and-coming defensive line with first-round draft picks Quinton Coples and Muhammad Wilkerson. Finally, free-agent guards Brandon Moore and Matt Slauson, as well as restricted free-agent tackle Austin Howard, started for an offensive line that ProFootballFocus considered the NFL's third best.
It will be almost impossible to keep everyone. Landry is expected to seek $6 million a year. Moore's 2012 cap value was approximately $4.4 million, of which salary was $2.75 million. They may be too expensive.
However, Bell, DeVito, Howard and Slauson may be more affordable, especially if no one makes an offer right away. Re-signing these players will maintain core continuity in their respective units and make it easier to integrate new talent.
With the possible exception of quarterbacks, it behooves the Jets to avoid entering the free-agent fray too quickly. They'll get more for their money that way.
Free agency signings come in waves. The first wave comes quickly, soon after the NFL's new year begins. That's when the high-profile free agents such as Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco or Buffalo Bills' safety Jairus Byrd are likely to go.
It's most likely that the Jets won't have enough cap room to compete in this free-agent tier, with one exception. They'll have to pursue a veteran quarterback like Matt Moore aggressively. That's to convince media and fans that their intent to make Mark Sanchez compete for his job is genuine.
Other than that, the Jets' best strategy is to sit back and wait for free-agent expectations to drop. That way more players will consider contracts in the $1 million to $1.5 million range. Given the tightness of the Jets' budget, that's all they can probably afford.
Of course, things could be different should players like Santonio Holmes and Mark Sanchez help their team add cap room by agreeing to restructure their contracts. However, until such restructurings are complete, the Jets will have to stretch every dollar to fill their roster's gaps.
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