The New York Jets have already been through the growing pains of a regime change. Aside from developing young talent, 2013 was a transition year, as the team rode out the final years of bloated veteran contracts—a hangover from mistakes of the past.
Loaded with over $50 million of cap space after making some obvious cuts, the Jets are in a position to spend money like best friends at a bachelor party, sparing no cost to upgrade their roster as much as possible over the next few weeks.
That is, however, if they want to replicate the failures that led to the downfall of the previous regime under Mike Tannenbaum.
Thus far, general manager John Idzik has done an admirable job of keeping the Jets afloat from a competitive standpoint while maintaining his long-term plan.
Because he was willing to bite the bullet on the Mark Sanchez and Santonio Holmes contracts for one more season and restrain himself in free agency a year ago, the Jets are in prime position to make their move.
With that said, now is not the time to forgo all restraint and employ every last dollar into the Jets’ need to fill short-term problems.
If the Jets want to be in a similar position of power on an annual basis, timing their spending and being on the constant lookout for value-maximizing contracts should always be the goal.
Money Does Not Equal Production
It is hardly a secret to NFL fans that big-money contracts forged in free agency often nourish feelings of regret months down the line. Mike Wallace, Albert Haynesworth and Santonio Holmes are just a few recent examples of players who have yet to give an equal return on their team’s investment.
On the flip side, the Jets themselves proved that it is possible to find comparable or better players near the bottom of the market.
Because of their restricted cap space, the Jets were forced to take gambles on players like Willie Colon, Dawan Landry, David Nelson and Kellen Winslow.
While none of those players were elite game-changers last season, the Jets do not have one ounce of regret for the contracts they gave those players.
Yes, the Jets did take on a more risk with those players from an injury standpoint—Colon was recovering from a torn triceps, Nelson was rehabbing from an ACL injury and Winslow has dealt with an almost unprecedented amount of injuries throughout his 10-year career.
The Jets were fortunate that they fell into luck's favor last year, especially given the amount of risky players they brought in, but they won't have to live so dangerously thanks to their newfound cap freedom.
More than anything else, the extra money the Jets have will allow them circumvent the risks that come with bottom-of-the-barrel signings.
For example, the difference between the Jets keeping Matt Slauson and signing his replacement, Colon, in free agency was significant in terms of money. However, the actual on-field difference was minimal.
|Matt Slauson vs. Willie Colon|
|Player||Guaranteed Money||Sacks Allowed||Hits Allowed||Hurries Allowed|
|Matt Slauson||$4.9 million||2||9||15|
|Pro Football Focus|
Spending a lot of money in free agency will make a team look great in the spring and summer, but when the games are actually played, the teams that find value in free agency win out over the teams that add the biggest names.
Though big-money signings can make an impact, when compared to the production of far less expensive options, the output of the prized free agents rarely justifies the money spent on them.
Building for the Long Haul
The Jets' brass is certainly enjoying the fact that it will not have to stress about treading above the salary cap this offseason. As rare as it is for an NFL team to have so much cap flexibility, this favorable situation does not have to be as rare as a solar eclipse.
Because they have so many needs and roster holes, the Jets will make several significant acquisitions to build up their roster—especially as fan expectations have begun to increase.
Treading water to ride out bad contracts is no longer the primary goal for the Jets.
However, this does not mean that the Jets are forced to spend every last dollar they have for the sake of spending it. While they can afford a top-tier free agent such as Buffalo Bills safety Jairus Byrd, they should not feel compelled to spend a dime on a player they do not think will provide good value.
No one knows yet exactly how much Byrd will make in the coming days, but he certainly won't come at a discounted price:
Outside of the fact that there is always a chance that the player will simply not produce—which the Jets saw firsthand with Holmes—there remains the basic principle that every dollar spent this year is another dollar that cannot be used in future years.
Yes, the Jets have positioned themselves to take steps in their second season under Idzik’s management, but this is not the end of the road.
Even if the Jets make the playoffs and have a successful season, all will be forgotten if they mismanage their money from a long-term standpoint.
It is important to remember that salary-cap room not spent carries over to next year, rewarding fiscally responsible teams and punishing those who spend wildly.
This year's free-agent class has one elite free agent the Jets should have at least mild interest in: Byrd. While he would certainly be an upgrade over what the Jets currently have at the position, safety is hardly a pressing need with Antonio Allen and Dawan Landry holding down the fort.
Instead of blowing their cap space to fill a position that is more than adequate headed into next season, why not save the cash and wait until a top-caliber free agent pops up at a position of much greater need?
Let's say the Jets splurge and get their playmaking safety in Byrd. Next season, they won't have a chance to compete for the likes of Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall or Roddy White if or when they hit the open market.
After reaching heights not seen from the franchise in decades by building a team that made two straight AFC Championship Game appearances, Tannenbaum was relieved of his duties as Jets general manager in 2012.
Tannenbaum accumulated a lot of talent to engineer a team that was capable of reaching such heights without a proven quarterback, but the deterioration of his once-elite roster occurred so quickly that the Jets were forced to make a change.
Unless Idzik wants to suffer a similar fate, he needs to spend wisely and abide by one more important principle of roster building: timing.
In theory, setting a team up to have a favorable cap situation is not overly difficult. As long as a team is willing to endure the growing pains that go along with riding out bad contracts and developing young, cheap talent, the payroll number will go down eventually.
The final piece of the puzzle when it comes to building a contender is timing the big moves to build a roster that is as qualified to win a championship as its quarterback is—and vice versa.
Under the Tannenbaum administration, the Jets had built a roster that was light-years ahead of its quarterback, Sanchez, in its development.
Sprinkled with elite, developed talent and veterans on their last legs, the Jets were a team that was built to win in the short term with a quarterback that was not quite there yet.
By the time Sanchez gave the Jets reason to believe that he was developing into a capable starter, the roster had already rotted to a core, leading to a regression in Sanchez's play and costing just about everyone in the front office their jobs.
Two years later, Idzik finds himself in a similar situation with Geno Smith. Relative to their low expectations, the Jets can consider 2013 a success, but that does not mean they are ready to contend just yet.
The jury is still out on Smith and the Jets need to hold off on any reckless acquisitions until they are convinced that their franchise quarterback is on their roster.
Idzik can take notes from his former team, the Seattle Seahawks, about how to properly build a winner. It was not until after Russell Wilson’s spectacular rookie season that the Seahawks went on a shopping spree for toys to play with on both sides of the ball.
|2013 Seattle Seahawks' Key Additions|
Wilson was ahead of schedule in his development, but unlike Smith, he was more than ready to lead a contending team to a championship.
The result was a Seahawks team that was talented enough to win a championship in one of the biggest Super Bowl blowouts in history against one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time.
The Seahawks were so talented that they were even able to absorb a few ill-advised transactions, such as their blockbuster trade for Percy Harvin, without falling short of their ultimate goal.
While it would not be an ideal situation, there is still time for Idzik to move on from Smith if he needs to and find a franchise player in a hurry. However, if Idzik were to build an elite, veteran roster that is capable of winning a championship before Smith is ready, it would put a time bomb on his tenure as general manager of the Jets.
Again, this is not to mistake the fact that the Jets should and will be active players in free agency. They must make strides next season with rising expectations and have too many needs to sit on the sidelines and count their money.
The key for Idzik and the Jets will be to find a balance, making significant upgrades to their roster in the second year of their program without splurging at the expense of the future.
If Idzik can find a way to build his roster without maxing out his potential too early in the rebuilding process, the Jets will never find themselves in the ugly situation that got the previous regime fired.