New York Jets Free-Agency Do's and Don'ts
The New York Jets have been too cap-strapped to make any big moves in free agency for the past couple of years.
In the words of Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, "Those days gone."
With roughly $23.3 to spend on the cap this season, the Jets have an opportunity to finally be aggressive with their spending. They could even add to that number by making a few key cuts or by restructuring a contract or two.
They must be careful, though, not to get overzealous to the point where they wind up in cap jail again in a few years.
So, what are some of the moves the Jets should make? What are some moves they shouldn't make?
All contract and salary information provided by Spotrac.
Do: Trim the Fat
John Idzik and the Jets front office have done a fantastic job of getting rid of the bad contracts signed by former GM Mike Tannenbaum. Their work is not done, though, with a few more raw deals remaining on the docket.
Three contracts in particular come to mind. The first belongs to quarterback Mark Sanchez, who is set to count for $13.1 million against the salary cap in 2014. Releasing him would free up $8.3 million in cap space.
He is due a $2 million roster bonus if he's still on the roster on March 25, so releasing him before that date would be a smart move. That's especially true if the Jets have faith in Matt Simms to be their backup. Simms played three games in 2013 in relief duty for starting quarterback Geno Smith.
The next up is wide receiver Santonio Holmes. He will count $10.75 million against the cap in 2014, but the Jets could get back $8.25 million of that by releasing him. The Jets lack depth at wide receiver, but that's not an excuse to overpay an aging receiver with diminishing skills.
The final name on the list is cornerback Antonio Cromartie. His $14.98 million cap hit is the second-highest for any cornerback behind Darrelle Revis ($16 million). The Jets could save $9.5 million by releasing Cromartie, but he is amenable to restructuring his deal.
There are other players the Jets could consider cutting or restructuring. David Harris enters the final year of his deal and is set to count for $7 million against the cap, but only $2 million of that would be dead money if they cut him. The Jets could save around $1 million by cutting tackle Ben Ijalana, who was inactive for all 16 games in 2013.
If they take care of the big cap numbers for Sanchez, Holmes and Cromartie, they will position themselves even better for big moves in free agency.
Don't: Break the Bank Unnecessarily
With so much cap space and potentially more cap space on the way, the Jets have an opportunity to fill a lot of needs on their roster. They also have an opportunity to screw it all up and put themselves right back in the cap jail. They've been on their best behavior, and they've finally reached their parole date. The last thing they want to do now is make rash decisions that will come back to bite them in a few years.
Restructuring Cromartie seems like a good idea on its face, but that's the kind of decision that has hurt the Jets in the past. They restructured Sanchez's contract in 2012 and have had to wait until now to get out from under it. The same goes for Holmes and his albatross contract.
The Jets did a fantastic job of identifying talented free agents at the bottom of the barrel last year.
Defensive end Antwan Barnes was brought in on a low-risk three-year deal with only $900,000 guaranteed. The Jets also signed several players to one-year deals, including guard Willie Colon, tackle Austin Howard, defensive tackle Antonio Garay, and tight ends Jeff Cumberland and Kellen Winslow (although Cumberland and Howard were restricted free-agent tenders).
Those deals all worked out well for the Jets. They can move on from players they feel they can upgrade (Cumberland and Winslow), and they can try to re-sign valuable starters (Howard and Colon).
Also, as Bleacher Report Jets featured columnist Ryan Alfieri points out, the Jets should hang onto some of their cap space for next offseason. By then, they will have a good idea of what they have in Geno Smith. The Jets can identify some needs and spend money accordingly, but teams that spend big in March rarely win big in February. With that, the Jets should not get overzealous with their windfall.
Do: Identify Good Fits at Wide Receiver
The Jets need wide receivers. That much, everyone can agree on. Where the divide begins is with which one in particular or what kind of receiver the Jets should target.
From this perspective, it starts at the X receiver position. The Jets selected Stephen Hill in the second round of the 2011 draft. The pick has yet to pan out as the Jets hoped it would.
Hill remains a developmental project, and his head coach even still to this day calls him "raw"—although admittedly, he still thinks Hill can be productive. The Jets would be foolish not to provide an insurance policy to Hill in the event that his development remains stagnant.
For a big-bodied outside-the-numbers presence, Decker is the top fit. He has the rare combination of size and speed, and he ran a 4.54 40-yard dash in 2009 at 6'3" and 217 pounds. Reports are estimating Decker to make between $9 and $10 million per year, in line with top receivers like the Vikings' Greg Jennings and the Texans' Andre Johnson.
Decker wants to be paid like a No. 1, but he should be paid like a No. 2. Spotrac predicts a team will meet his demands, but if he's willing to meet the Jets halfway, they should pull the trigger on the signing.
If not, Sanders would be the more economic option. He doesn't have Decker's size-speed combination, but he has plenty of speed (4.41 40-yard dash at the 2010 combine) and plenty of experience as an X receiver.
He ran just 14.3 percent of his routes from the slot in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert didn't seem in any big rush to re-sign Sanders, who is one of the receivers the Jets "covet" in free agency, according to Seth Walder of the New York Daily News.
Those are just two names the Jets could target, but there are others.
Don't: Worry About the Running Backs
Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell won't be drawing any comparisons to Walter Payton anytime soon. They're just two serviceable backs who get the job done.
That should be good enough for the Jets.
For years, the Jets focused on building a "ground and pound" philosophy into their offense. At times, this focus came at the peril of their passing game. The Jets allowed several receivers to leave in that time, including Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery.
The Jets need upgrades at receiver far worse than they need upgrades at running back. Neither Ivory nor Powell are dominant, but they work well together as a two-headed rush attack. They combined for 1,530 rushing yards in 2013.
When it comes to the passing game, they leave something to be desired. Powell caught 36 passes, and Ivory caught just two. If the Jets want to get more versatile in their backfield, though, the draft is a good way to do it. None of this year's backs will warrant a first-round selection, so the Jets can be patient in addressing the need.
Do: Bring Back the Right Side of the Offensive Line
The Jets have some question marks on their offensive line. Center Nick Mangold had his worst year as a pro in 2013, and the left guard spot is a duel between rookie Brian Winters and veteran Vlad Ducasse. The Jets can't afford to create more holes on the offensive line.
It's fair to wonder to what lengths the Jets will go to re-sign their starters on the right side of the offensive line. Austin Howard is reported to be seeking a contract similar to the one inked by the Patriots' Sebastian Vollmer (four years, $17 million with $8.5 million guaranteed). As a young, up-and-coming right tackle, he should be able to get that contract, and the Jets could be the ones to give it to him.
Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News reports the talks are still ongoing between the two sides.
Willie Colon had two knee surgeries and missed a combined 35 games from 2010-2012. The Jets signed him on a one-year deal last offseason, and he played at a high level and stayed healthy for a full 16 games. The Jets, however, see Colon as a "fallback option," according to ESPN's Rich Cimini.
They can't possibly have abundant confidence in backups Oday Aboushi and William Campbell, who were both inactive for all 16 games in 2013. If the Jets can find a way to get both Colon and Howard back without defying the first "don't," they should do so. Ideally, both players can be retained for under $9 million per year on average. The higher the number climbs above that, the less likely these two return.
Don't: Accept the Status Quo at Tight End
Tight ends are a young quarterback's best friend. Unfortunately for Geno Smith, the Jets did not have a dynamic presence at the position last year.
According to Pro Football Focus, Kellen Winslow played 342 snaps, primarily as a pass-catcher, and logged 31 receptions for 388 yards and two touchdowns. Jeff Cumberland played 685 snaps, splitting time as a blocker and receiver, and came down with 26 receptions for 398 yards and four touchdowns.
Those two combined for 57 receptions, 786 yards and six touchdowns, worse numbers than those put up by Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski in 11 games in 2012 (55 catches, 790 yards, 11 touchdowns).
Clearly, the Jets can do better. There are plenty of tight ends coming available this offseason: the Packers' Jermichael Finley, the Lions' Brandon Pettigrew, the Bills' Scott Chandler and the Texans' Garrett Graham.
It's just a matter of what kind of tight end the Jets are looking to add to their offense. If they want a tight end who will be primarily a pass-catcher, Finley and Graham are the top fits. If it's a more versatile tight end they desire, Chandler and Pettigrew would be good options.
None of the tight ends listed above are expected to haul in big contracts. The Jets should find the best fit for what they need and offer him no more than $4 million per year annually. If they can't get their guy for that number, they can move on to another player.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.