Grading the Strength of Each Position on Jets' Roster Heading into Free Agency
It may seem early to talk about the New York Jets and free agency when the playoffs are not yet over. Nevertheless, the first free-agent deadline comes less than two weeks after the Super Bowl.
February 15 is when the Canadian Football League free-agent season begins. Mock it if you like, but stars like Miami's defensive end Cameron Wake owe their professional starts to the CFL, as does Jets reserve linebacker Garrett McIntyre. McIntyre spent two seasons in the CFL before coming south in 2011.
The point is not to extol the CFL. It is to explain why a team would contemplate the free-agent market in the midst of the NFL playoffs.
Despite this article's title, assessing the free-agent market is more than defining a wish list. That is probably the easiest part. The next easiest is projecting available salary-cap space. The most difficult step is determining if there are free agents available who will address a team's needs within budget.
We begin by addressing the Jets' salary-cap position.
The projected unadjusted cap for 2014 is $126.3 million. The Jets will add a rollover (surplus) from 2013. That could be anywhere between $1.5 million and $2.8 million. Using the $1.5 million gives the Jets a 2014 adjusted cap of $127.8 million.
The Jets have 41 players under contract for 2014 that represent a cap value of $101 million, which leaves $26.8 million available.
From that $26.8 million must come money to pay draft picks, the so-called "rookie cap." The amount varies based on both the quantity and placement of a team's selections.
The Jets get the 18th pick. They should get an extra third-round pick from the Darrelle Revis trade plus compensatory picks for the free agents they lost in 2013 such as LaRon Landry, Mike DeVito, Matt Slauson, Dustin Keller, Shonn Greene and Yeremiah Bell. Because of the potential for multiple extra picks, we will make this pool $10 million. That leaves $16.8 million available.
Cutting the following players adds more cap room:
- Antonio Cromartie: $9.5 million
- Mark Sanchez: $8.3 million
- Santonio Holmes: $8.25 million
- David Harris: $5 million.
Those cuts add $31.05 million to the salary cap pool. Spare Harris, and the Jets still save $26.05 million.
In other words, the Jets could have between $42 million and $47 million of cap room to use this coming free-agent season. Even if they only cut Holmes and Sanchez, the moves most widely predicted, they would still have over $33 million available. That is a huge improvement over this time in 2013, when they had to make cuts to achieve cap compliance.
One more thing: Whatever cap room the Jets have must eventually accommodate the 53-man roster, practice squad and any injured players whose compensation continues to count against the cap. During the offseason, only the top 51 cap figures matter; however, that changes soon after the teams announce their final cuts.
Now that the budget talk is done, here is a look at the grading system. Each position or function receives one of the following grades:
- A: No free-agent signing needed
- B: No free-agent signing needed if key personnel re-sign
- C: Minor-to-bargain free-agent signing
- D: Veteran free agent needed to compete for starting job
- F: Impact starter free-agent signing needed
These grades consider the state of the free-agent marketplace as well as the Jets' level of need.
For example, many might give a grade of "F" to the Jets' quarterback position, hoping that a high-profile veteran can take over unchallenged. If there are no free-agent quarterbacks available who have earned that privilege, a grade of "F" would be unrealistic. The appropriate grade in this scale would be "D," signing a veteran who might be capable of starting but would have to win the job in training camp.
Do not be alarmed by the lack of "A" grades. That reflects the uncertainty over if current starters and key backups will return.
Unlike last year, however, the Jets are financially capable of making competitive bids to keep starters like Austin Howard, Nick Folk, Calvin Pace and Willie Colon as well as reserves like Leger Douzable, Jeff Cumberland and McIntyre. Free-agent Jets who join other teams in 2014 will do so because the Jets have no plans for them, not because of the salary cap.
It is time to move from discussing ground rules to assessing each position.
Folk was the star of the Jets special teams in 2013. He is also the only one whose contract is up for renewal.
Folk has endured a series of one-year minimum-wage contracts and training camp competitors. After a year in which he converted 92 percent of his field goals, the Jets' "Folk Hero" may have finally earned himself a significant raise and some long-term security.
But he will probably get a salary in the $1.25 million to $1.5 million range, if that. Folk's career year came in a season where 10 other kickers attempting 25 or more field goals equalled or surpassed his accuracy. His kickoffs only averaged 63.4 yards, good for 20th place in 2013. He may get a great new deal and still face competition from a kickoff specialist.
The other specialists, punter Ryan Quigley and long snapper Tanner Purdum, should return in 2014.
Purdum should benefit from having only one blocked punt in 2013. As for Quigley, he replaced Robert Malone early in 2013 to provide more consistency to the Jets' punting game. Although Quigley lacks Malone's leg, he still came within 0.8 yards of matching Malone's average yards per kick. The Jets may look into available punters and even bring one into camp, but punting won't be a priority this spring.
Folk, Purdum and Quigley are the only players assigned exclusively to special teams. The Jets could use an upgrade to their kickoff and punt return specialists as well. However, these men—such as Jeremy Kerley, Kyle Wilson and Cromartie—have other duties. Nevertheless, Josh Cribbs showed the power of a dynamic return game during his limited tour of duty.
As the Jets evaluate players, their potential to return kickoffs and punts may help them make the team.
Because of the uncertainty of Folk's return:
Improved linebacker speed helped the Jets become the NFL's third-ranked run defense in 2013. Expiring contracts and salary-cap considerations could change that unit's look.
Harris and Pace might not wear green and white in 2014. Pace's contract expires, and while he and Muhammad Wilkerson were the only Jets who recorded double-digit sacks, it is unclear if the Jets want him back.
Harris' issue is the $5 million in cap savings the Jets would gain by his release. Since he becomes a free agent in 2015, restructuring his contract without an extension is not an option. He will either negotiate an extension or work out a new deal after his release.
Garrett McIntyre is the most prominent reserve linebacker to reach free agency. He is a restricted free agent, so the Jets can make a qualifying offer.
If Harris, Pace and McIntyre return, the unit should be solid. There is still talk about the need for an outside pass-rushing specialist, but considering the team's other needs it is probably of low priority.
Plus, in addition to Pace's 10 sacks from outside, Antwan Barnes contributed two in an injury-shortened season, Quinton Coples contributed 4.5 and McIntyre added two for a total of 18.5 sacks from outside linebackers. Coples warmed increasingly to the outside linebacker role as the season progressed, so there should be plenty of quarterback pressure from there if everyone returns and stays healthy in 2014.
Medical news and the wheels of justice will determine the strength of the Jets' 2014 running game. If all goes well, the backfield should be set. Otherwise, the Jets need help.
The running game was the brightest light in the 2013 Jets offense. The Jets didn't have a 1,000-yard rusher, but their 2,158 rushing yards placed them sixth in the NFL. Quarterbacks accounted for 403 of those yards, but that will be a staple of the rushing attack as long as they have a mobile quarterback like Geno Smith.
Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell each had over 175 carries and averaged 4.0 yards or more per carry. However, the running game really reached another level when the Jets had an outside breakaway threat as well, which they did for two games when Mike Goodson was healthy.
Goodson's seven carries for 61 yards and two catches for 19 yards provided a hint of his potential. Ironically, what ended his season was an attempt to make a tackle after a Smith interception.
His recovery from ACL and MCL injuries is on schedule. But he also must stand trial on weapons and drug charges stemming from his arrest in May of 2013. Conviction could end his NFL career.
The Jets proved that they could mount a credible running attack with Ivory and Powell. Goodson's presence would add a speed back who can catch passes and return kicks. If medical or legal issues make Goodson's return impossible, they may need to re-sign Cribbs.
If starting talent alone were the issue, the Jets defensive line would need no augmentation. Wilkerson, Damon "Snacks" Harrison and Sheldon Richardson became the rightful successors to the New York Sack Exchange, earning the nickname "Sons of Anarchy."
On paper, however, the line has questionable depth, with Kenrick Ellis and Leger Douzable the only backups. In reality, however, Coples could assume a line position if necessary, Richardson could play any line position and even Pace would assume a three-point stance occasionally.
However, both Douzable and Pace become free agents this spring, which raises the depth issue once more. There are plenty of linemen of Douzable's approximate age and price range from whom the Jets could choose. Philadelphia Eagles defensive end Clifton Geathers is one example.
In Pace's case, many linebackers in his price range are considerably younger. If the Jets release Pace, they will have to determine if his successor should be able to play as both a conventional outside linebacker and on the line of scrimmage.
Because of the uncertainty around Douzable and (to a lesser extent) Pace, look for the Jets to shop for potential reserves.
This unit may be the most difficult to analyze in terms of free-agent needs. That is because the right guard Willie Colon and right tackle Austin Howard become free agents themselves. How the Jets proceed depends on the following factors:
- Performance assessment: Ask 10 different Jets fans how the line performed in 2013 and you will probably get 10 different opinions. Someone will say, for example, that pass protection was bad because the Jets gave up 47 sacks. Someone else will blame Smith for protection breakdowns because he held the ball too long.
- Howard's demands: Howard and kicker Folk are probably the top Jets' free agents. If they're looking for bigger paydays than the Jets will accommodate, they will not return. Howard star is still rising; he may be the best lineman the Jets have.
- Colon's health: After an injury-plagued career, Colon started all 16 games for the Jets. Then in Week 17, he suffered a torn biceps that requires surgery. Recovery time is four months, meaning the Jets must decide the right guard question before Colon is ready.
- Replacements' capabilities: The Jets drafted tackle Oday Aboushi and guard William Campbell, placed them on the 53-man roster and did not activate them for any games. Perhaps the Jets drafted them with 2014, not 2013, in mind. This year may have been Aboushi's and Campbell's development year, an opportunity to learn the complexities of Marty Mornhinweg's offense without game pressure. If the strategy worked, Howard and Colon may be looking for new jobs this spring.
On the left side, the Jets must decide if guard Brian Winters is ready to be a starter. As a rookie, Winters took over for a penalty-prone Vladimir Ducasse and experienced growing pains of his own. The Jets may want to bring a veteran aboard to provide some competition, as they did with Stephen Peterman in 2013.
More confident quarterback play and the return of a speed-rusher like Goodson to the Jets' lineup should help the line reduce its sack count and open more holes for ball-carriers. If Colon returns, however, he will have to reduce his penalty count, which led the line by a wide margin.
This grade reflects the situation at left guard.
For the second consecutive year, the Jets secondary may see major changes. Unlike 2013, when salary-cap considerations and free agency compelled the makeover, in 2014 performance is equally significant.
Cromartie was the only returning starter from the 2012 secondary that helped the Jets finish No. 2 in NFL pass defense. He was supposed to anchor the unit in 2013, to shut down opponents' top receivers. Unfortunately, a hip injury hampered Cromartie's effectiveness. He might need surgery.
In 2014, the combination of Cromartie's health and salary-cap economics may compel the Jets to release him, freeing $9.5 million.
If they go that route, the Jets will need a cornerback and safety for 2014. They will need to help resolve two issues that plagued the defense in 2013: surrendering 15 plays of 40 yards or more and intercepting only 13 passes. (Seattle led the NFL with 28.)
Washington cornerback Josh Wilson represented a cap value of $3.3 million in 2013. He participated in 92 tackles of which 68 were solo. Wilson recorded two sacks, eight pass defenses and one interception. He is not the ball hawk the Jets might prefer, but he could provide quarterback pressure from a part of the field the Jets did not have last year.
Even more tempting would be New England cornerback Aqib Talib. Talib did not record a sack; however, he intercepted four passes and defended 13 others, making the Pro Bowl.
History says, though, if the Patriots do not re-sign a top free agent, it means one of two things. They either feel that his best years are behind him, or as in the case of Wes Welker, they do not want to pay his asking price.
Talib's cap number was $5.3 million in 2013. Ideally, the Jets would use no more than Cromartie's $9.5 million cap space to obtain both a cornerback and safety.
Buffalo safety Jairus Byrd could be the ball hawk the Jets need. In his rookie year, 2009, Byrd led the NFL in interceptions with nine and made the Pro Bowl. Byrd intercepted 22 passes in five years and made the Pro Bowl in 2012 and 2013. His 2013 cap value of $6.9 million was high, but it was the result of a franchise tag. The Bills could impose the franchise tag again, but it would give Byrd a 120 percent raise. He will not get that kind of money from the Jets.
These are the types of upgrades the secondary needs to stop being the defense's weak link.
No matter what you thought of the Jets tight end play in 2013, the position will see new faces in 2014. It is a case of everyone's contract except Zach Sudfeld's ending in the same year.
Tight ends Jeff Cumberland, Kellen Winslow Jr., Sudfeld and Konrad Reuland combined for 63 catches, 856 yards and six touchdowns in 2013. Their combined cap value was approximately $2.2 million.
They will have to spend more to improve the position. The best free agent available, Jimmy Graham of the New Orleans Saints, was a bargain last year. His cap hit was approximately $1.5 million. After leading NFL tight ends with 86 receptions for 1,215 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, he will want a significant raise. If Dustin Keller could represent a cap value of $4.5 million in 2013, Graham deserves that and more.
Of the remaining free-agent tight ends, most spent at least part of 2013 on the sidelines. One exception is the Buffalo Bills' Scott Chandler.
Chandler did not set the league on fire with his production, but his numbers have improved steadily over the past three years:
- 2011: 14 games, 38 catches, 389 yards, six touchdowns
- 2012: 15 games, 43 catches, 571 yards, six touchdowns
- 2013: 16 games, 53 catches, 655 yards, two touchdowns
The 6'7", 260-pound Chandler's cap value in 2013 was just under $3 million. Cumberland's cap value was just over $1.3 million. Signing Chandler and re-signing the 6'4", 260-pound Cumberland could easily consume $5 million.
However, their combined productivity for 2013 would have been 79 catches, 1,053 yards and six touchdowns. Dustin Keller consumed $4.25 million of the Dolphins' cap and produced nothing. Which represents the better buy?
At any rate, tight end is a position where the Jets must make a move, even if the only thing they do is preserve what they already have. Expect them to look for something better.
The Jets had not even opened training camp when complaints began about the quality of their wide receivers. Even in minicamp there was concern about the number of dropped passes. However, the overriding issue is not drops—it is productivity.
Kerley, Dave Nelson, Holmes, Stephen Hill, Clyde Gates, Greg Salas and Ben Obomanu combined for 147 catches, 2,017 yards and seven touchdowns. Cleveland's Josh Gordon caught 87 passes for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns by himself. That should speak volumes about why a wide receiver upgrade is necessary.
Numbers do not tell the whole story.
The Jets need receivers with the ability to separate themselves from defenders and with the athleticism to get passes not thrown directly at them. Matthew Stafford, for example, can do the football equivalent of an "alley-oop" with Calvin Johnson, in which he counts on Johnson's leaping ability to retrieve high passes that defenders cannot touch. Smith has the arm strength to throw such balls; he needs people who can catch them.
Decker will probably consume more than the $1.5 million in cap space he commanded in 2013 after his 87-catch, 1,288-yard and 11-touchdown season. However, he was a beneficiary of Peyton Manning's record-setting year, so his output may drop elsewhere.
Edelman was even more economical in 2013, consuming $765,000 of cap room in exchange for 105 catches, 1,056 yards and six touchdowns. He will command more in 2014, the question is how much of a raise New England will offer.
Nicks might seem the more expensive option because of his $3.7 million cap value in 2013. However, 56 catches for 898 yards was a subpar year. He could be a one-year rental at an affordable price.
The important thing is that the Jets have options. One should work for them.
While many felt Smith's play improved as the 2013 season ended, few will give him the keys to the Jets' starting job without another competition. Many would like to see Smith compete against both an established veteran and a high-round draft pick.
Matt Simms deserves consideration. The Jets must determine his place in the competition. Given his improvement last season and adequate play in relief of Smith, Simms should get more first-team repetitions in 2014, with a chance to appear with the starters in at least the first two preseason games.
Regardless of Simms' fate, there will be a quarterback competition in 2014. When the Bears re-signed Jay Cutler, they took the only free-agent quarterback who may have deserved to receive a starting job unchallenged. There are other available veterans with starting experience, like Josh Freeman, Chad Henne, Michael Vick, Matt Flynn and Matt Cassel.
All of these men face issues that would hurt their candidacies. Vick is 33 and injury-prone. Henne and Cassel have never been better than average. Freeman may be the most promising. He's 25, only consumed $2 million in cap space and has already enjoyed one 4,000-yard season. If Rex Ryan, Mornhinweg and David Lee think they can fix him, he would be worth a look.
Other candidates for the 2014 competition, such as Matt Schaub and Washington's Kirk Cousins, would require either an outright release by their current club or a trade.
Whoever wins had better not get hurt during preseason.
Follow Philip Sschawillie on Twitter: @digitaltechguid.
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