After a disappointing four-win season that led to the dismissal of head coach Todd Bowles, the New York Jets have a lot of work to do this offseason—on both sides of the ball.
Fortunately for Gang Green, they have construction supplies at their disposal. In addition to the third overall pick in April's draft in Nashville, Tennessee, the Jets are flush with cap space—over $102 million, according to Over the Cap.
Only the Indianapolis Colts have more.
When the legal tampering period opens March 11, the Jets need to put all that cabbage to work by making what many would call the biggest splash signing of 2019—one that would remake the Jets offense and greatly improve quarterback Sam Darnold's chances for success in his second NFL season.
The Jets need to Godfather tailback Le'Veon Bell by making him an offer he can't refuse.
After weeks of speculation that the Pittsburgh Steelers might use the transition tag on Bell in an effort to facilitate a trade, we know that isn't going to happen. And when general manager Kevin Colbert told reporters last week that Pittsburgh wouldn't tag the 27-year-old, Bell wasted no time taking to Twitter to make his feelings known.
Geez. Tell us how you really feel, dude.
With Bell officially set to hit free agency March 13, there's been no shortage of column space dedicated to where he might land. Teams from coast to coast have been mentioned, from the Buffalo Bills to the San Francisco 49ers.
Vinnie Iyer of Sporting News is just one of many sportswriters who have singled out the Jets as a potential landing spot:
"The Jets in 2018 did not get justifiable returns from Isaiah Crowell, and Bilal Powell will be a 30-year-old free agent coming off neck surgery. Elijah McGuire and Trent Cannon have flashed, but they are change-of-pace types. Sam Darnold needs a legit back to ease the pressure, as Baker Mayfield (Nick Chubb), Josh Rosen (David Johnson) and Josh Allen (LeSean McCoy) had to varying degrees as rookie first-round QBs. Bell could be a major asset for new coach Adam Gase."
He's right about the sad state of the Jets backfield.
The Jets were 26th in rushing last season with 101.4 yards per game, and Crowell's first year in New York was unimpressive. He averaged 4.8 yards a carry on the fewest totes (143) of his five-year career. The Jets can save $3 million against the cap by ending the Crowell experiment, and Matt Stypulkoski of NJ.com (h/t CBSSports.com) reported the team may be planning to do so.
Combine that less than imposing running game with one of the weaker receiving corps in the NFL (73 yards per game), and it's not hard to see why Darnold struggled as a rookie. He was set up to fail.
Darnold needs help. A back who can remove some of the pressure and serve as a safety valve in the passing game. Say, a tailback who had at least 1,200 yards on the ground, 1,800 yards from scrimmage and 75 receptions in each of his past two seasons.
"He needs someone that he can dump it to and can create after he gets the ball in the open field," Cruz said.
Cruz also believes the fit works in the opposite direction: "I think the Jets are a good fit for him. I know he wants to be in a major market."
Markets don't get any bigger than New York.
Of course, there's something Bell wants even more than a big spotlight. Something he just sat out an entire season over.
Cold, hard cash.
As NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reported in July, Bell turned down a five-year, $70 million contract from the Steelers that included $33 million in guarantees. It's believed he's looking for a deal that exceeds the $14.38 million in average annual salary and $45 million in guarantees that Todd Gurley got from the Los Angeles Rams.
Per CBS Sports analyst (and former agent) Joel Corry, recouping the $14-plus million Bell lost last year is going to be tough to do:
"Using the average of the available information about the rejected offer. Bell is essentially betting that there will be a team willing to pay him at least $72.5 million on a four-year deal, which has an $18.125 million average yearly salary. That's Bell's break-even point of the money he turned down from Pittsburgh. Such a deal would average more than Odell Beckham, Jr.'s $18 million per year extension with the Giants signed last preseason, which made him the NFL's highest paid wide receiver. Beckham's contract has $65 million in overall guarantees, where $40.959 million was fully guaranteed at signing."
That's a lot of zeroes and decimal points, folks.
Now, the reality is that Bell's likely not getting that dream deal. Not in today's running back market. But there's one team that's best-positioned to give Bell a knee-buckler of a contract without crippling itself relative to the salary cap.
That team is the Jets, and the reason is Darnold. Darnold's under contract on a rookie deal that averages about $7.6 million a season through 2021. That's three years (at least) in which the Jets will be paying their starting quarterback peanuts relative to many other teams.
Yes, the Colts have more scratch. But their backfield duo of Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines was decent in 2018, and the consensus in Indianapolis seems to be that Chris Ballard wants no part of Bell after he sat out last year—that the GM's comments on 1070 The Fan may have suggested Bell doesn't fit the "culture" there.
The relief Darnold's rookie deal affords the Jets against the cap frees up the money for Bell. Or at least most of it. And if general manager Mike Maccagnan front-loads the guarantees for Bell, the team will be out from under most of them by the time the bill comes due for Darnold. If Bell is not staying healthy and piling up gaudy yardage totals, buh-bye.
If he is? That's a good problem to have.
This doesn't mean there isn't risk involved in driving a Brink's truck full of money to the Casa de Le'Veon. It's a gamble to pay a tailback with an injury history and two suspensions on his NFL resume $15 million a season (or more).
The Jets have other areas to address—chief among them the offensive line, which allowed a middling 37 sacks last campaign, and a defense that is making a scheme switch under new coordinator Gregg Williams. And per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News, the Jets have a "concern" that Bell let himself go in his year away and is 35 pounds over his playing weight of 225.
But New York's massive war chest and top-three pick leave plenty of room to add more pieces. The reports of Bell's weight ballooning could indicate interest as much as concern—an effort to influence the running back's price tag with a smokescreen.
And the simple, inescapable fact is that the Jets need playmakers as much as (if not more than) any team. Playmakers of Bell's caliber don't come along every year. It's an extra bite at the (big) apple for a franchise that's had about as much success with high draft picks of late as I have winning the Powerball.
Give that latest high first-rounder a fighting chance. Give Bell his money, and pull off the biggest signing of 2019 free agency. Rejuvenate the offense, and energize the fanbase.
And then we can talk about using the third overall pick to take a run at Antonio Brown.