AFC East: New York Jets
The free-agency season is upon us, and the Jets have about $23 million in cap space, which will grow to more than $40 million if/when they dump Santonio Holmes, Antonio Cromartie and Mark Sanchez. It's "go" time for Idzik, whose long-term plan -- presented to owner Woody Johnson when he was hired 14 months ago -- is predicated on stockpiling talent in 2014.
People who know Idzik say he won't take a "shop-till-you-drop" mentality into free agency. They say he will spend, but won't forget his core principles. He won't give lucrative, long-term deals to players over 30 or those with injury concerns. He won't sell out to sign "the big star." He won't deviate from his "the-draft-is-our lifeline" philosophy. He won't pay top-dollar prices for middle-of-the-road players.
Pardon me, but I'm skeptical of the last one, because most teams overpay in free agency. Do you think starting-caliber receivers will be beating down the Jets' door to play with Geno Smith and the 31st-ranked passing offense? Of course not; the Jets will have to pay to attract the top talent.
Former longtime NFL GM Bill Polian, now an ESPN analyst, cautioned that free agency isn't a cure-all.
"The best players are signed,” he said on a media conference call. “These (free agents) are essentially ‘B’ players whose agents are looking for ‘A’ money. That, in itself, is not the best of buys. You recognize that as a general manager.”
Ideally, you want to use free agency to fill needs, allowing you to take a best-available-athlete approach in the draft. It's easy to preach that, but quite another to practice it. When the bidding starts and the money starts flying, it's easy to get sucked into the madness of free agency. Idzik is known for his deliberate approach; we're about the find out how deliberate. The "legal tampering period" begins at midnight; the signing period commences at 4 p.m. Tuesday.
A few thoughts on what to expect from the Jets:
1. Keeping their own: Unlike last year, the Jets are actually trying to retain some of their free agents-to-be, namely RT Austin Howard and TE Jeff Cumberland. They're deep into negotiations with both players. It wouldn't be a surprise if both re-up by Tuesday. They're interested in keeping LB Calvin Pace, 33, but they won't shower him with money because of his age. They told RG Willie Colon, almost 31, he's free to test the market. Once again, it's the age factor. Former second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse also is unlikely to return. In his case, it's not age, it's a talent thing.
2. Resolve the QB situation: If I were Idzik, I'd address this ASAP. How can you convince free-agent receivers to sign if you're selling the still-unproven Smith and a bunch of question marks at quarterback? They should make an immediate run at Michael Vick, with Josh McCown the No. 2 option. Vick isn't what he used to be, but he has more credibility than Smith at this point. If Idzik strikes out in free agency and the trade market, he might have to turn to Sanchez, whose cap charge ($13.1 million) and surgically repaired shoulder make him a less-than-ideal option.
3. Go wide: There are two ways to approach the wide-receiver search. Idzik can go long and invest significant money in Golden Tate, a solid No. 2 receiver, or he can go short and take a chance on Hakeem Nicks, who might be ammenable to a one-year deal. Nicks has No. 1 talent, but he hasn't played like a lead receiver since 2011. Obviously, there are other options as well, including Emmanuel Sanders. Stay away from Eric Decker; he'll cost too much and he's not a true No. 1. If the Jets can sign a No. 2, pairing him with Jeremy Kerley, Stephen Hill and David Nelson, they'd be in position to look for a No. 1 in a receiver-rich draft.
4. The big splurge: Even though the Jets have a ton of cap space, I can't see Idzik spending franchise-type money for one player -- unless he makes an exception for S Jairus Byrd. Even that would be a long shot. With the possibility of 12 draft choices (counting possible compensatory picks), Idzik can afford to be relatively patient, building for sustainable success and avoiding the quick fix. The goal should be to build around Smith, letting him grow with those around him. That was part of the problem for the previous regime. They put Sanchez in charge of a win-now team and, by the time Sanchez was ready to take the next step, the talent around him had eroded. They couldn't get it going at the same time. This is Idzik's chance to make that happen.
» AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South
Key free agents: RT Austin Howard, PK Nick Folk (franchise player), TE Jeff Cumberland, LB Calvin Pace, RG Willie Colon, S Ed Reed.
Where they stand: The Jets are trying to re-sign Howard before he hits the open market. He's not a household name, but he's a massive blocker with surprising athleticism. Howard has two years of starting experience and he's only getting better. They've expressed an interest in re-signing Cumberland and Pace, although it's unclear if deals will get done by Tuesday. Pace produced a career-high 10 sacks last season, playing for the minimum salary, but he's 33 -- and the Jets won't throw significant money at a player that old. The Jets are rebuilding at tight end, so Cumberland's role is undefined, which could affect negotiations. Colon and Reed are fallback options. In Reed's case, way, way back. Colon is recovering from biceps surgery and won't be healthy until the spring.
What to expect: With an anticipated $30 million in cap space, the Jets could be aggressive buyers if they so choose. They need a wide receiver (or two), a tight end and a veteran quarterback to push Geno Smith. There aren't any true No. 1 receivers on the market, so they'd better be careful not to overpay for the second-rate talent. Emmanuel Sanders and Golden Tate could be on the radar. They're likely to have interest in QBs Josh McCown and Michael Vick, who'd be ideal because he already knows Marty Mornhinweg's system from their days together in Philadelphia. If they strike out with free agents, the Jets could retain former starter Mark Sanchez, contingent on his health and a massive pay cut. The Jets could have 12 draft choices (counting possible compensatory picks), so they don't have to overpay to fix every need in free agency.
Player: Josh McCown, Chicago Bears
2013 salary: $865,000.
Sign him up: McCown, who turns 36 in July, is the quintessential journeyman. He has played for five teams, and it looks like it will be six because his mid-30s renaissance last season probably priced him out of the Bears' budget for a backup. In terms of role acceptance, he would be a good fit for the Jets because he would push Geno Smith in a non-threatening way -- if that is what they're looking for. He would be David Garrard, sans the chronic knee condition. At this point in his career, McCown knows he won't be handed a starting job. He won't come cheaply; quarterbacks of McCown's ilk can cost a team about $4 million for the first year.
Reasons to stay away: His magical, five-game run last season screams "aberration!" McCown was a mediocre quarterback his entire career, finally finding something special under quarterback guru Marc Trestman. It also helped that he had a couple of stud receivers in Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery; he wouldn't have that luxury with the Jets, that's for sure. McCown will parlay his right-time, right-place season into a relatively big payday, but it will be hard to duplicate last season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars are possible suitors.
Watkins is Ryan's second-favorite receiver at Clemson. As many of you know, Ryan's son, Seth, is a receiver for the Tigers. The Jets' coach told the Associated Press that he would like to add a receiver (what a revelation!) and that he likes Watkins a whole lot.
"But there's no way he'll be there" when the Jets pick, Ryan said. He's right; there's no chance he'll fall to them at No. 18.
Clemson has another intriguing wide receiver, Martavis Bryant, who is 6-foot-5 and projects as a third-round possibility, according to some. The Jets' contingent also got a good look at quarterback Tajh Boyd, a late-round projection.
About 60 NFL types were in attendance, but Ryan and the Detroit Lions' Jim Caldwell were the only head coaches, according to AP.
Lee was off the board for the Jets in McShay's previous mock draft (he had them taking Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks), but this time there's a run on defensive players from the 13th pick to the 17th, allowing Lee to fall. In this scenario, he'd be the third receiver selected, behind Clemson's Sammy Watkins (Oakland Raiders, No. 5) and Texas A&M's Mike Evans (Detroit Lions, No. 10). Interestingly, North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron still is there for the Jets, which would make for an interesting choice. Obviously, the decision could be based on how they address those needs in free agency.
If the Jets take Lee, they'd be looking past his disappointing 2013 season, betting that his 2012 performance (he won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top receiver) is a better gauge of his talent. A similar situation unfolded in 2012. Defensive lineman Quinton Coples was a beast at North Carolina in 2010, but slipped the following year for a variety of reasons. He became a human pinata before the draft, with critics taking shots at him. The Jets chose him 16th overall. How's it working out? Too soon to say. Coples' physical talent is undeniable, but he has given credence to some of the pre-draft concerns by displaying a lukewarm motor at times. Lee's work ethic is said to be outstanding.
Lankster is an underrated signing. In fact, he was ranked No. 6 on our list of the team's 16 unrestricted free agents. He didn't play much cornerback last season (only 29 snaps), but he was a core special teamer, finishing second on the team with 20 tackles. The Jets were concerned that he'd draw interest on the open market, so they made a preemptive strike.
Walls is coming off a weird year. He played a fair amount of football (three starts and a total of 289 snaps), starting opposite Cromartie whenever rookie Dee Milliner was in the doghouse. But when Milliner was in the lineup, Walls was the forgotten man. The Jets rarely used more than three corners in any package, so it turned into an all-or-nothing situation for Walls, who finished with no interceptions and four pass breakups.
Rex Ryan has plenty of bodies at corner, but he'll have a gaping hole if they cut Cromartie. Aside from Milliner, none of the others are starting-caliber players.
With Antonio Cromartie's future uncertain, it makes sense to stockpile corners, although Patrick is primarily a slot corner in the nickel package. In 13 games last season (four starts), he played 474 defensive snaps (48 percent). He recorded one interception, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and two pass break ups.
Patrick, 25, was a third-round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2011. The former Louisville standout lasted only two seasons in New Orleans. He was waived last February and scooped up immediately by the Chargers. Patrick has suffered multiple concussions and was placed on injured reserve late last season with an ankle injury.
The Chargers are rebuilding at cornerback and didn't see Patrick as part of their future, cutting him Tuesday. The Jets' top three corners (Cromartie, Dee Milliner and Kyle Wilson) are under contract, but Cromartie has a $15 million cap charge and likely will be released if he doesn't take a pay cut. Beyond the top three, their depth is sketchy.
Player: Hakeem Nicks, New York Giants
Stats: Caught 56 passes for 896 yards and no touchdowns. Despite the disappointing totals, he averaged 16.0 yards per reception, tied for 10th in the NFL. On the downside, he dropped seven passes. He played in 833 offensive snaps (81.2 percent), more than fellow receiver Victor Cruz. No player in the league caught more passes without a touchdown.
Salary: $2.675 million.
Sign him up: Some teams will look past his poor 2013 production and see the big picture: He's only 26 years old, already has two 1,000-yard seasons and still has the ability to be a legitimate No. 1 receiver when healthy and motivated. The Jets have an obvious need at the position. Nicks has a need, too -- the desire to show teams he's better than the receiver that was blamed for so many of the Giants' offensive problems last season. A free agent with a chip on his shoulder can be worth more than his price tag. Nicks is too risky for a long-term deal, but he could thrive on a short-term, prove-it contract.
Reasons to stay away: Knee issues aside, there were times last season when Nicks didn't seem motivated. That should raise a red flag. What kind of player, in a contract year, slacks off? The whole story probably isn't known, but it has to give teams pause before pursuing him. After four seasons of Santonio Holmes, the Jets should be leery of divas at the wide-receiver position.
Is the front office committed to Geno Smith? Does it try to build around him by buying skill-position talent in the free-agent market? Does it use the draft to upgrade the moribund offense? What about the defense? Yeah, the Jets finished 11th in total defense, a unit that always will be respectable under Rex Ryan, but shouldn't they add an edge rusher and beef up the secondary? Second-year general manager John Idzik has the resources to make plenty of moves, but prioritizing is the key.
This is a collaborative blueprint for the offseason , compiled by various ESPN insiders.
Position: Wide receiver
2013 stats: 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns -- all career highs. He averaged only 11.0 yards per catch, a career low. He played in 796 offensive snaps (75.7 percent).
2013 salary: $2.5 million.
Sign him up: The New England Patriots thought enough of Sanders last year to sign him to an offer sheet. They would've surrendered a third-round pick, but the Steelers decided to match the one-year, $2.5 million offer. Sanders responded with his best year, which included a long touchdown reception against the Jets -- a play in which he torched Antonio Cromartie. He had only two drops last season out of 112 targets, per ESPN Stats & Info -- one of the lowest drop percentages in the league. Obviously, the Jets need help at the position. Sanders is an ascending player (he turns 27 on March 17), although some believe he's already close to his ceiling.
Reasons to stay away: Sanders might have been a fit for the Patriots, who like smallish, slot receiver types, but the Jets already have a Sanders-like player in Jeremy Kerley. Sanders is steady, but his stats -- everything from yards after catch to catch percentage -- were no better than the league averages last season. He'd upgrade the receiving corps from a depth perspective, but for at least $5 million a year (the going rate for a wideout of his ilk), you expect better than average.
It should take a hard look at changing the philosophy now that Jairus Byrd appears headed for the open market.
Byrd will demand serious coin -- he reportedly rejected a deal that would have paid him $30 million for the first three years -- but he's so good that the Jets should investigate. Byrd is a younger version of Ed Reed, sans the dynamic return ability. He's a ball hawk with uncanny instincts, a presence in the deep middle. The Jets like to play a lot of single-high safety looks, and Byrd would be a terrific scheme fit. Their problems against the deep ball would disappear with him patrolling center field.
Obviously, the Jets are doing something right on defense (five straight years in the top 11), but they've done so with a glaring lack of production at safety. Since 2009, the Jets' safeties have combined for only 16 interceptions. (We're not including six by Dwight Lowery, a safety/cornerback hybrid who played mostly in sub packages.) Since 2009, when Byrd entered the league as a second-round pick, the soon-to-be-former Bills star has 22 interceptions. By the way, that includes six against the Jets.
So will the Jets pursue Byrd? My gut tells me no. It sounds like they will entrust the position again to Dawan Landry, Antonio Allen & Co., perhaps adding a player in the draft. Clearly, they have bigger needs on offense, but they have enough salary-cap room to plug those needs and make a big splurge on defense. Maybe a look at the list below will change their mind.
Safety interceptions since 2009:
Ed Reed, Eric Smith, Kerry Rhodes -- 3
LaRon Landry, Jim Leonhard -- 2
Dawan Landry, Antonio Allen, Brodney Pool -- 1
Position: Wide receiver
2013 stats: 64 receptions, 898 yards, 14.0 average and five touchdowns. Also returned 51 punts for 585 yards, an 11.5 average. Played in 762 of the offensive snaps (75.3 percent).
2013 salary: $630,000.
Sign him up: There's a glaring need at the position and general manager John Idzik has intimate knowledge of Tate from his days as a Seattle executive. Tate, who turns 26 in August, is entering the prime of his career. His receiving stats don't jump off the page because he has played in a run-heavy offense, but they've improved each year. He led the league in yards after catch per reception (7.75), according to ESPN Stats -- a dimension missing from the Jets' offense. He's not afraid to block and he's good in the locker room. They need leadership in the wide receiver room.
Reasons to stay away: If Riley Cooper can land a $5 million-a-year deal from the Philadelphia Eagles, it means Tate will be looking for a deal significantly north of that figure. Anything more than $6 million a year would be a lot for a No. 2 receiver.
1. The purge: Even though they have plenty of salary-cap space, the Jets will unload some dead weight. Wide receiver Santonio Holmes will be released any day, an $8.25 million savings. Cornerback Antonio Cromartie ($14.98 million cap charge) will be released unless he takes a pay cut for the final year of his contract, which includes a prohibitive $5 million roster bonus. When healthy, Cromartie still is a quality corner. My gut tells me Cromartie will end up playing for the Jets in 2014.
2. The Sanchez saga: General manager John Idzik has yet to reveal his hand with regard to his plans for quarterback Mark Sanchez. At this point, why would he? He has until March 25, when a $2 million roster bonus is due. Starting March 11, I expect the Jets to chase the top free-agent quarterbacks, namely Michael Vick and Josh McCown. If they get shut out, the possibility of retaining Sanchez becomes realistic. It would be contingent on a pay cut (his base salary is $9 million) and a positive medical report on his surgically repaired throwing shoulder. He spent last week at the team's facility, rehabbing under the watchful eyes of the trainers. While I still think Sanchez's ouster is likely, I wouldn't call it a foregone conclusion. Why cut the man unless you have a replacement?
3. Idzik's first big deal: In 13 months as the GM, Idzik has yet to dole out a big contract for a veteran player. By big, I mean at least $5 million per year. Who will be his first major investment? Chances are, it will be right tackle Austin Howard, who will be an unrestricted free agent. The Jets are trying to get him locked up before March 11. Other players they'd like to keep are tight end Jeff Cumberland and outside linebacker Calvin Pace.
4. Gentlemen, start your checkbooks: With a $133 million salary cap, the Jets are $21.2 million under the cap, according to ESPN's figures. They have the flexibility to be big spenders. Look for them to attack the wide-receiver market, with Golden Tate (Seattle Seahawks), Emmanuel Sanders (Pittsburgh Steelers) and Hakeem Nicks (New York Giants) among the most likely targets. Eric Decker (Denver Broncos) will be a hot commodity, but probably too pricey for the Jets. They could be looking for a tight end, perhaps Brandon Pettigrew (Detroit Lions), if they fail to re-sign Cumberland. The goal for the offseason is to upgrade the offense. By the end of the month, the skill positions could have a different look.
2. Little-known rule: Technically, the Jets couldn't stop Folk from hitting the open market unless they exercised the tag. Here's why: Because they used the minimum-salary benefit last year with Folk, the Jets were allowed to offer only another minimum-salary deal before March 11, the start of free agency. Obviously, that would've been insulting, considering Folk's performance. The two sides could've circumvented the rule, agreeing to a long-term deal and signing it after free agency started, but they apparently didn't get close. The Jets didn't want to take a chance on losing him to another team, so, in essence, they shut down the loophole by tagging him.
3. Folk not pleased: Folk should be thrilled, right? After all, if he plays for the tag amount (the deadline for a long-term deal is July 15), he'll make more in 2014 than he did in his five previous seasons combined ($3.2 million). Ah, but there's another side to it: The premier kickers have at least $4 million in guarantees. The Chicago Bears' Robbie Gould, who signed a new deal at the end of the season, has a $4.9 million guarantee. That's where Folk gets shortchanged. It's safe to assume that Folk, who said after the season he deserved a long-term contract, isn't happy.
4. Austin's power: With Folk tagged, there's an increased sense of urgency to get right tackle Austin Howard locked up by March 11. They probably wouldn't have used it on Howard anyway (the projected amount for an offensive lineman is a steep $11 million), but now they can't use it as leverage in negotiations.
1. Austin Howard, right tackle -- The Jets are trying to sign him to a long-term extension before March 11. He figures to land a deal somewhere in the neighborhood of $5 million to $6 million a year. ESPN NFL Insider Adam Caplan tweeted that Howard could get $7 million per year if he hits the open market.
3. Calvin Pace, linebacker -- There's mutual interest, but they can't re-sign him until free agency starts unless he agrees to another minimum-salary deal, per CBA rules. The reason is because the Jets received a minimum-salary cap benefit last season with Pace. However, in theory, the two sides can have a more lucrative agreement in place that could be quickly signed March 11.
4. Nick Folk, kicker -- By rule, he falls into the same category as Pace. After four consecutive one-year contracts, Folk deserves a long-term deal after a career year. Talks are ongoing.
5. Leger Douzable, defensive end -- He was an important backup last season, contributing 228 defensive snaps. The Jets would like to have him back, but they probably won't go much higher than a minimum salary.
6. Ellis Lankster, special teams -- The Jets want him back because he's a core special-teamer. Lankster may look around to see if there's a team willing to give him a shot at cornerback.
7. Willie Colon, guard -- His surgically repaired biceps will be ready for training camp, but it may not be with the Jets, who will consider in-house options and explore the free-agent market. Colon looks like a fallback.
8. Josh Mauga, linebacker -- He missed most of the last two seasons with injuries, but he's only 26 and the Jets are thin at inside linebacker. There's a chance he could return on a one-year deal.
9. Aaron Berry, cornerback -- He's coming off ACL surgery, never a good thing for a corner, but he flashed some potential before getting hurt. He could be a post-draft option.
10. Vladimir Ducasse, guard -- The former second-round pick has some talent, but he wasn't able to put it all together under three different line coaches. He's unlikely to return.
11. Ed Reed, safety -- Rex Ryan would take him back, but it's a long shot. He's not an every-down player anymore. He could be an emergency pickup down the road.
12. Josh Cribbs, kick returner -- He provided a brief spark last season, but he's coming off surgery for a torn pectoral muscle, and he'll be 31.
13. David Garrard, quarterback -- He was a good mentor for Geno Smith, but he's 36 with a bad knee. The Jets will look for a younger, more viable backup.
14. Lex Hilliard, fullback -- He's coming off shoulder surgery, but there's a chance he could be back. Tommy Bohanon didn't light it up.
15. Darius Reynaud, running back -- He had a late-season cup of coffee with the Jets. He's unlikely to return.
16. Kellen Winslow, tight end -- He will hit the market -- that's free agent, not Boston.