As the organization continues to lick its wounds left behind by the previous administration, the New York Jets must look to the future as they try to turn their franchise around into being a respectable, competitive organization once again.
While turnarounds in the NFL realm can be relatively quick, new general manager John Idzik knows his team is not ready to compete anytime soon. Yes, the Jets have a few pieces in place, but a “few pieces” is not going to buy a Super Bowl ring.
Most rebuilding projects take fewer than five years to complete—after all, the 0-16 Lions were able to make the playoffs just three seasons later under new management.
Just how far away are the Jets from getting back to their winning ways? First, we need to take a look at what they have to build on moving forward.
What to Do With the Core Veterans?
The Jets have a handful of very talented players under contract. The problem is, many of them are in the prime of their career and by the time the team is good again, their performance will decline with age.
Here are the players who can be classified as players who are peaking with age and performance in the immediate future, and how long they are under contract for:
|Player||Position||Age||Years Left on Contract|
What does this mean? The good news is, two of the Jets’ best offensive lineman, Mangold and Ferguson, are under contract for perhaps the rest of their careers. Offensive linemen tend to age very well, as experience and technique is able to overcome diminishing physical skills. The Jets will not have to worry about the center or left tackle position for quite some time.
However, there will be several holes opening up at key positions in the next few years. Even if the Jets re-sign some of all of these players, they will have breached the dreaded “30” mark in age. Santonio Holmes’ Lisfranc injury only blurs the picture further.
Under a new regime, there is no guarantee that all of these players are going to be in New York next year. As their contracts begin to escalate with age, the more expendable these players become to a team that is not interested in playing premium prices for 30-year-olds.
Therefore, the Jets only have a couple of key veteran pieces that they can build around that will help them when they are ready for contention a few years down the line.
The Building Blocks
Whatever the Jets can squeeze out of their veterans from this point out is a bonus—they were supposed to be the cornerstones of a championship team that was supposed to be contenting this year, not going through a rebuilding process.
The catalyst that will speed up the rebuilding process lies in the younger players that are still on their rookie contract. These are the strongest, fastest players on the team with the least amount of wear and tear on their bodies.
Most importantly, they have time to continue to develop and improve. Many of these players will produce at the same or higher lever than the more expensive veterans, while still playing on the relatively cheap rookie contracts.
In other words, outside of a franchise quarterback, these are the most prized players a franchise can have.
Comprised of mostly high draft picks, here are the players who will be the face of the Jets into the middle and latter part of the decade:
Many of these players are rookies, and there is no telling how they will respond once they put on a game jersey and take the field under the bright lights. Players from Idzik’s first draft—Sheldon Richardson, Dee Milliner, Brian Winters and Geno Smith—are vital to the Jets' rebuilding efforts.
If they fail, the Jets’ timetable for a return to relevancy can be pushed back several years.
As much as he dismantled his championship-caliber rosters from 2009 and 2010, Mike Tannenbaum left behind several young pieces in his final two years that could become cornerstone players for years to come.
Muhammad Wilkerson is already a star after two seasons, grading out as the second-best defensive lineman in football (behind J.J. Watt, of course) in Pro Football Focus’ rankings.
Quentin Coples has been able to produce in limited action, notching 5.5 sacks as a rookie in a rotational role. On the offensive side, Austin Howard has been an excellent find at right tackle as a former undrafted free agent, grading out in the top 32 of all tackles (right and left) in PFF’s rankings.
The jury is still out on players like Stephen Hill and Demario Davis, but both players are still very young and can only get better from this point forward.
Finding “The Guy”
There have been countless rebuilding projects in the NFL that were ruined by insecurity at quarterback. In fact, Tannenbaum’s Jets are a perfect example as to how a team is unable to overcome deficiencies at quarterback.
Geno Smith will be treated very much like Sanchez as a potential franchise quarterback with great expectations, but the truth is, Idzik has a lot more flexibility in terms of how much he has to rely on Smith to produce, particularly early in his career.
As a post-CBA second-round pick, Geno Smith’s contract is going to be much more palatable than Sanchez’s mega-deal, which at the time was the richest in team history.
Meanwhile, according to overthecap.com, Smith should fetch a contract worth about $5 million—about $23 million cheaper than Sanchez’s deal. With the presence of Sanchez and the team in a rebuilding mode, there is no pressure to start Smith right away like there was when Sanchez stepped into a contending team.
While the nature of Smith’s contract makes it much easier to part ways if he is unsuccessful, there is no doubt that he will have as much of an impact on the Jets’ rebuilding process as anyone. If Smith is a smashing success, he can help the Jets be true playoff contenders within a year.
The sooner Smith can become a winning NFL quarterback, the faster the Jets can start fixing other parts of their roster. Because of his relatively low cap space, resources that would normally be reserved for a big-time quarterback contract can be used on other free agents to plug holes in a hurry.
For example, the Seattle Seahawks were able to spend so much on free agents this offseason because Russell Wilson is under a relatively low-paying contract.
However, as exciting as it would be to see Smith take the league by storm like Wilson did a year ago, it is simply unrealistic to expect so much out of Smith so early in his career. Wilson is a special case, as the vast majority of young quarterbacks never see the kind of immediate success he has enjoyed.
The Cap Situation
As much as the salary cap weighed down the organization in free agency in 2013, things are only going to improve form here on out from a financial standpoint.
As bloated contracts begin to expire, such as the one given to Mark Sanchez in 2012, much-needed breathing room is going to open up for the Jets into 2014 and beyond. According to overthecap.com, only six teams are scheduled to have a payroll lower than the Jets' total of $95,525,709. With the salary cap likely to be in the $125 million range, the Jets should have about $15 million to play around with in free agency, not counting the cuts they make next spring (taking into account the money needed to sign rookies).
How much the Jets wind up spending next year in free agency is largely dependent on how close they think their team is from contention. However, it is unlikely that Idzik will be willing to take so many risks in the open market so early in his career as general manager.
How Long is This Going to Take?
Picking a specific date for the Jets to be “rebuilt” is nearly impossible, as there are so many unknowns that go into such an equation.
Ultimately, the timetable for Idzik’s rebuilding project will be dependent on these three factors:
- Success of 2013 rookie class
- How quickly Smith can earn the starting job
- Development of second- and third-year players
Obviously, there are varying degrees of success and failure. Here are some possible scenarios that could play out over the next 12 months:
Best Case Scenario: Smith has a Wilson-like season, and all of the top draft picks are valuable starters. Coples develops into a star, and the Jets’ offensive line is solidified with their new guards. As a result, the Jets make the playoffs and they appear poised for a championship run the following year.
Worst Case Scenario: Smith is unable to beat out Sanchez, and the Jets rotate quarterbacks all season long to try to light a spark in either player. Dee Milliner can’t stay healthy and the rookie offensive linemen are not ready to start. Coples is a disaster at outside linebacker and Hill continues to struggle. Rex Ryan is fired, and the Jets are in the same position they were a year ago. The Jets, now in a new coaching search, are several years away from even thinking about the playoffs.
Most Likely Scenario: Smith takes over halfway through the season with solid-yet-unspectacular results. Coples and Hill continue to develop into more complete players. The offensive line takes some time to solidify, but the kinks are worked out by season’s end. Chris Ivory is effective, but struggles to be available on a weekly basis. The pieces are starting to come together, but not at an ideal rate. Within two or three years, this roster will be fully developed and stocked with young talent.
Any way you spin it, the rebuilding of the Jets is no easy project. As they continue to work their way out of bad contracts left behind by the previous administration, the Jets are hoping their rookie class can expedite the rebuilding process.
No one knows exactly how things will play out for the green and white over the next year, but they have given themselves more flexibility and breathing room to react to missteps and recover from mistakes than the previous administrations. If Smith fails, it will set the franchise back, but it won’t completely ruin Idzik’s plan.
As we begin to enter the middle stages of the decade, we are entering a brand new era of Jets football, filled with a new cast of core players that the Jets can build around for years to come.
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