Unlike last season, the New York Jets figure to be big players in free agency this year with newfound salary-cap flexibility. Now, all the Jets have to do is figure out how they want to allocate their precious cap resources to build the perennial winner general manager John Idzik envisioned when he took the job.
Most of their focus will be on the skill positions, as their current group makes up for one of the worst in the league. There are also a few spots on defense and along the offensive line that need addressing as well and should not be overlooked.
In many instances, simply retaining their own players or allowing rookies to compete in training camp to round out roster spots will be adequate. In others, signing several big-name free agents will be necessary to fix a position.
Here is a free-agency primer for every position, featuring players the Jets should target at each position.
The Jets are still holding out hope that Geno Smith can be their face of the franchise, but they will need to add insurance in case Smith flails out in his sophomore season. The Jets are looking for a backup who can still be a capable starter if need be.
Michael Vick: He may have lost some of his luster after letting the starting job slip away to Nick Foles this season, but when considering what the Jets could be looking for in a free-agent quarterback, Vick is an ideal candidate.
Vick's age is creeping up on him (he will be 34 when the season starts), but he still has a cannon for an arm in addition to his signature speed and elusiveness as a runner. Vick is too old to be a long-term franchise quarterback, but he is more than capable of winning a lot of games if given the opportunity to start.
Vick won't be cheap, but he would be a perfect candidate to compete with Geno Smith in training camp and be a high-end backup in case Smith fails.
David Garrard: Garrard was on the Jets last year as an emergency quarterback, and bringing him back in a similar role makes plenty of sense. Now that he has had a full year to let his knee heal up, Garrard is an ideal insurance quarterback who can get the team through a rough patch.
Chad Henne: Henne falls into the same category as Garrard as a veteran backup who can get through a game without embarrassing himself (usually). While he does not quite have the experience that Garrard has, Henne does carry with him a clean bill of health.
The Jets appear to have a solid set of running backs in place with Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell, but the third spot is in flux with Mike Goodson coming off an ACL injury. The Jets are probably content with filling the roster with young rookies until Goodson is healthy, but here are some veterans they can look at in case they do not trust any of their young players:
Jonathan Dwyer: Dwyer is a bruising runner who would be a terrific insurance option in case Ivory was to suffer an injury (which, given his history, is more than likely). He does not offer much in the passing game, however.
LaRod Stephens-Howling: Howling could provide value as both a third-down runner and a kick returner, which is an area the Jets have not been able to fill since parting ways with Joe McKnight last August.
This position will be one of the most heavily targeted positions in free agency. Look for the Jets to add at least one high-end free agent in addition to a few depth players as Idzik rebuilds this unit from the ground up.
Eric Decker: It would be easy to point to Eric Decker's success as a result of him playing with Peyton Manning (which is certainly true to some extent), but he was already a good player with Tim Tebow throwing to him back in 2011.
Decker is not the fastest player on the field, but he is a terrific boundary receiver who can make contested catches. He would be an ideal No. 2 receiver, but his numbers this season (1,288 yards) will earn him No. 1 receiver money.
Jeremy Maclin: Maclin would have been the top receiver on the market this year, but his value has taken a nosedive after suffering an ACL tear in training camp.
The good news for Maclin is that tearing his ACL so early in the season gives him extra time to heal up, making teams a bit less nervous that he will be ready for the upcoming season. If he is willing to accept an incentive-laced contract, the Jets should be all over Maclin from the start of free agency, especially considering his connection with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
James Jones: Jones' value has always been underrated because he was buried at the bottom of a deep receiver depth chart in Green Bay, but he has managed to produce when given the chance. While he does have a tendency to drop too many passes, his 817 yards in 14 games (many of which were without Aaron Rodgers) speaks for itself. He has No. 2 receiver potential if he can clean up his drops.
Golden Tate: Tate makes a lot of sense because of his connection with John Idzik back in Seattle. While he lacks ideal size at 5'10", he is a tough player who is willing to go over the middle and can make contested catches better than one would expect, even if he doesn't always get great separation. Tate, however, is a bit of a character on the field, which could hurt his value in the market.
With their top two tight ends set to enter free agency (joining what was an average group to begin with), the Jets will spend plenty of time in the tight end market this year. Starters and backups are needed.
Dennis Pitta: The Baltimore Ravens will do everything they can to retain their homegrown talent, but if Pitta hits the open market, the Jets should swarm to sign him. Pitta has emerged as one of the best pass-catching players at his position and would be a huge upgrade over anything the Jets had on the roster last year.
However, if he does hit the open market, Pitta won't be cheap. He will likely be the most sought-after tight end on the open market (unless the New Orleans Saints let Jimmy Graham hit the open market) and would put quite a dent in the Jets' cap space.
Brandon Pettigrew: Pettigrew may make the most sense for the Jets for a few reasons. For one, he is a "two-way" tight end who can block and be effective as a receiver. Pettigrew has had an up-and-down career in Detroit, but he is at least adequate in both areas.
Because of his disappointing 416-yard season, Pettigrew's value is as low as ever. Signing Pettigrew will leave more room to bolster the rest of the roster while upgrading the tight end position.
Fred Davis: Davis has fallen out of favor with the Washington Redskins after losing his job to rookie Jordan Reed and dealing with a slew of injuries, but Davis carries with him a lot of untapped talent. Ideally, Davis would be a low-risk, high-reward signing that could pay dividends for the Jets—as long as they have a backup plan.
Ben Hartsock: The Jets also have a desperate need for a blocking tight end, where Hartsock, who was with the Jets in 2009 and 2010, would fit in perfectly. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Hartsock was the best blocking tight end in football (by a significant margin).
The Jets would be swallowing a bit of pride by bringing back Hartsock, but his presence in the run game would make a huge difference.
The Jets are hoping they don't have to be in the offensive line market much at all, as their top priority will be to retain the two free agents they have on the right side of the offensive line.
Austin Howard (RT): Austin Howard is the single most valuable free agent on the Jets this year, and they need to do everything they can to keep him. Since being thrust into the starting role in 2012 at right tackle, Howard has been arguably the most consistent player on the offensive line.
Now that he was able to prove that his 2012 season was not a fluke on a one-year tender this season, Howard has earned a high-end free-agent deal—and the Jets should give it to him.
Willie Colon (RG): Another player who is set to cash in on a one-year "prove it" deal is right guard Willie Colon. Not only did he prove that he could stay healthy for a full season, but he was also excellent in pass protection. Colon's value has undoubtedly gone up after the season, but the Jets cannot afford to let Colon walk to open up another spot on the offensive line, especially if Howard hits the open market.
The Jets feature one of the best defensive lines in football, but there is one player on their roster they should at least attempt to retain. If Leger Douzable does find the open market, filling the final roster spot in training camp should be the route they take.
Leger Douzable: While Muhammad Wilkerson and Sheldon Richardson stole the spotlight, Leger Douzable was playing better than most starting 3-4 defensive ends in a part-time rotation.
Douzable is likely going to look for a starting gig with a more defensive line-needy team on the open market, but the Jets should at least attempt to keep him in the rotation to maintain their unusual depth.
There is only one open spot in the Jets linebacking corps: the outside linebacker position that was occupied by Calvin Pace last season. Unless the Jets are able to land a young stud, bringing back Pace for one more season seems to be the most logical option.
Brian Orakpo: if the Jets decide to go cheaper on the skill positions than most expect, they would have enough to sign the top linebacker on the market, Brian Orakpo.
Orakpo, however, will not come cheap on the heels of a 10-sack season. Orakpo will be a huge upgrade over Calvin Pace in the pass-rushing department, but he will consume a significant portion of the salary cap if signed.
Jason Worilds: If Orakpo proves to be too expensive for the Jets' blood, Virginia Tech product Jason Worilds could be a much cheaper option. In his first season as a full-time starter in place of James Harrison, Worilds notched a solid eight sacks.
He is also versatile enough to drop into coverage, making him an ideal player for Rex Ryan's multiple-front defense.
Calvin Pace: His 10-sack 2013 campaign may be a bit deceiving, but there is no doubt that he was a better player in 2013 than in 2012, improving as both a run defender and as a pass-rusher.
Pace has a better chance of declining than maintaining his level of play in 2014, but the Jets would be able to make do with Pace for just one more season if need be.
The Jets have a set of starting cornerbacks (for now), but with several depth players set to hit free agency, adding some lower-tier free agents will be a priority.
Javier Arenas: Not only would Arenas provide value as a dime cornerback, but he could also provide a huge boost as a punt returner, which is a position the Jets have struggled to fill since they parted ways with Jim Leonhard.
Darrin Walls: Walls has been one of the best scrap-heap finds the Jets' scouting department has made recently. He deserved to start over Dee Milliner early in the season and proved that he could play with starters when given the chance.
Walls may be looking for more playing time with another team with less depth, but the Jets should make keeping their best-kept secret on their roster a priority. The good news is, Walls is a restricted free agent, which would force another team to give the Jets a draft pick for the right to sign him.
The Jets appear to be set at the safety position for 2014, but they could at least consider taking one swing at an elite player from a division rival.
Jairus Byrd: If the Jets are going to bring in a free-agent safety, it may as well be the best one on the market. Byrd is a true ball hawk, which is something the Jets have not had at the position since they traded Kerry Rhodes after the 2009 season.
Byrd is going to command a ton of money on the open market, so the Jets should only consider bringing him in if they whiff on all of their other free-agent plans. Otherwise, the Jets should save their money for other more needy positions and look to upgrade this position next year when Dawan Landry is a free agent.
With Nick Folk hitting free agency, the Jets will be back in the kicker market if they let their late-game hero enter free agency.
Nick Folk (K): Ideally, the Jets would love to keep their kicker, who was the difference in so many games this season, but he is not going to be cheap. Coming off the best season of his career in which he missed just three kicks, Folk is going to get premium kicker money.
If the Jets are willing to shell out a couple million extra dollars on a kicker, it would be taking cap space away from other positions.
Steven Hauschka (K): Hauschka has established himself as one of the best young kickers in the league, hitting 94.3 percent of his field goals this season. Like Folk, Hauschka won't be cheap, but his age may make him a more attractive free agent.
Phil Dawson (K): Dawson is a option if the Jets choose to go the cheaper-yet-reliable route. Dawson hit 32 of his 36 attempts this season, but his age (38) makes him a short-term solution.
Advanced statistics provided by ProFootballFocus.com (subscription required).