How Far Away Are the New York Jets from Future Playoff Contention?

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How Far Away Are the New York Jets from Future Playoff Contention?
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports

For all intents and purposes, the 2013 New York Jets season is over.

With the playoffs out of the question, the Jets are getting set to execute the second stage of their rebuilding process, which is to build upon their now-desolated roster to get them back into contention. 

The Jets may have missed the playoffs this year by losing four of their last five games, but that does not mean that this season was unproductive. They broke in several rookies and have played out of many lopsided veteran contracts to declining players.

After they trim the remaining fat from the previous regime, the Jets can get started on making big-time moves to turn the team around. 

Still, one question remains: Have the Jets set themselves up for a contending season next season, or will 2015 be the year in which they definitively turn the corner and get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2010?

To answer this question, we must first break down how the Jets roster will look by the time free agency opens next March. 

 

Cutting the Dead Weight

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

Here is a list of several veterans on the Jets who are likely to see their contracts terminated. These players may have some good football left in them, but for a rebuilding team like the Jets, it makes no sense to hang on to players who will not be in their long-term plans at their current price.

Jets Likely to be Cut
Player Position 2014 Cap Hit Money Saved if Cut
Santonio Holmes WR $10.75 million $8.25 million
Antonio Cromartie CB $14.98 million $9.5 million
Mark Sanchez QB $13.1 million $8.3 million

OverTheCap.com

This leaves the Jets with a ton of cap room to work with (especially relative to last season), but past restructures (that were designed to clear up immediate cap space) will leave the Jets with about $6 million in dead money.

Plus, losing these players opens up several new holes the Jets will need to fill. 

The departures of Antonio Cromartie, Santonio Holmes and Mark Sanchez create holes at the cornerback, wide receiver and backup quarterback position—which were already positions that needed upgrades even if these players were still on the roster. A free agent or two is not going to solve the Jets' issue at wide receiver or in the secondary. 

Of course, this is not even taking into consideration the free agents that will be leaving the Jets after the season with expiring contracts.

2014 Jets Key Free Agents
Player Position Status
Austin Howard RT UFA
Nick Folk K UFA
Willie Colon G UFA
Darrin Walls CB UFA
Calvin Pace OLB UFA
Matt Simms QB ERFA
David Garrard QB UFA
Ellis Lankster CB UFA
Garrett McIntyre OLB RFA
Vladimir Ducasse G UFA
Jeff Cumberland TE UFA
Kellen Winslow TE UFA

Sportrac.com

The Jets may have finally trimmed the fat left over from the previous regime, but the real work begins when John Idzik begins to add his own ingredients to the recipe.

 

What Is Already in Place?

Rich Schultz/Getty Images

The good news is the Jets do have a handful of young pieces that they can build around. 

I organized the rest of the Jets roster under three different categories: "blue chip" players, "red chip" players and short-term solutions. 

The blue-chip players comprise the future superstars of the team. These are the players that will sell tickets, jerseys and be on the background of iPhones everywhere. If they have not already, the Jets need to ensure that these players are locked up for years to come.

Blue Chip Players
Player Position
Muhammad Wilkerson DE
Sheldon Richardson DE
Demario Davis ILB
Damon Harrison DT
Quinton Coples OLB

Opinion

In other words, this is the Jets' starting defensive line. 

The second category, the red-chip players, are young players that may not quite have superstar potential, but can be at least solid starters for several years. Their best football is still ahead of them.

Red Chip Players
Player Position
Jeremy Kerley WR
Chris Ivory RB
Bilal Powell RB
Antonio Allen FS
Kenrick Ellis DT
Dee Milliner CB

Opinion

Finally, the short-term solutions are just that—short-term solutions. These are older veterans that have a couple years left in them before they start to decline, and replacements for them must be found. If the Jets want to make a championship run next year, they can be a part of that. But asking them to hold down their position for another five years is asking for trouble. 

Short-Term Solutions
Player Position
Nick Mangold C
David Harris ILB
D'Brickashaw Ferguson OT

Opinion

The good news is that the Jets have a lot of star power on the defensive front. The bad news is the same cannot be said for just about any other position on the team, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. 

Outside of Jeremy Kerley, the Jets are void at just about every position on the roster, having filled just a couple of positions on the offensive line. The secondary is also void of solutions, as Dawan Landry is the only somewhat-reliable player in the defensive backfield.

The Jets have a lot of pieces to work with this offseason, but rebuilding this team may become quite the project if they are unable to retain at least a few of their free agents.

There is also the burning question as to how Idzik will handle the quarterback situation, which is a decision that will have rippling effects on the rest of the development. 

 

The Quarterback Conundrum

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Outside of deciding on whether to extend or retain their head coach, how they handle the ultra-important quarterback position this offseason may very well define the John Idzik regime. 

Based on his up-and-down play this season, it would be nothing short of reckless for the Jets to enter the 2014 season with Geno Smith as the assumed starter. On the other hand, Smith has shown flashes of greatness that make it impossible for the Jets to give up on him after just one season. 

The Jets need to bring in competition for Smith. The real question is the type of player they bring in—a free agent or a high draft pick. 

Going the free-agent route would be considered as the "safe" route. Bringing back David Garrard or signing a free agent of a similar caliber of skill (and age) has two advantages: It gives real competition to Geno Smith in training camp, and it provides the Jets insurance in case Smith falls flat on his face. 

After all, if Geno falls apart in 2014, the Jets may as well start the reliable veteran and win as many games as possible to appease their fans. 

The alternative is to use a high draft pick on a franchise-caliber prospect. Using a mid-round pick on a developmental player sounds nice in theory, but the odds of such a player developing into a star are slim—and the Jets are in desperate need of a star at the game's most important position. 

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sport
Taking a first-round quarterback like Johnny Manziel would make headlines, but it could solve the quarterback situation much faster.

Adding a high draft pick in the mold of Johnny Manziel would certainly ruffle a lot of feathers, as it would immediately put a number on Geno Smith's time as a starter and would go against conventional wisdom. 

However, the Jets cannot be timid about their approach to this position. If they have a chance to add (who they believe is) a franchise quarterback in the draft, they cannot be shy to pull the trigger.

This may seem like an unfair way to treat Geno Smith after one season—because it is. However, there are very few players who truly get a "fair" shake in the NFL. If the Jets want to win, they cannot be afraid to make brash moves, especially when it comes to solving the quarterback situation. 

 

How Far Away Are They?

The Jets may not have a ton of talent on their roster, but they do have a lot of pieces to play with this offseason.

While fans may not like the sound of waiting another year to contend, the reality is that the Jets have too many holes in their roster to win with any kind of consistency. Even if the Jets splurge to fix their lack of offensive talent this offseason, there are still questions in the defensive secondary.

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports
Allowing free agents like Austin Howard to walk will only make it harder for the Jets to compete in the near future.

The Jets do not have an overly strong free-agent class to care for themselves, but if they let a few key players (such as Austin Howard) walk, the timetable to contention will only increase. 

Unless Idzik can lure every single free agent he targets to play at a reasonable price, the Jets are looking more like a team that is set to compete in 2015 rather than 2014. 

As long as they have a reasonably high success rate in free agency and the draft, the Jets will eventually field a roster that can compete with the rest of the league. How fast this happens, however, will be directly connected to how quickly they solve the quarterback position. 

If the Jets play it safe this year and back up Geno Smith with a tested veteran, they risk wasting yet another season to a quarterback who is incapable of taking them to where they want to go. If Smith fails, they are back in the market of drafting a young quarterback and will have to wait until he develops, wasting more time. 

On the other hand, taking another blue-chip quarterback prospect will ruffle a lot of feathers, but it could be the only way to turn around their fortunes without waiting around for one to develop.

Either way, until the Jets solve the pesky quarterback position once and for all, the goal of competing in 2015 will seem more and more unrealistic by the day. 

Salary cap information provided by spotrac.com and overthecap.com.

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