New York Jets' Blueprint to Winning Free Agency
The New York Jets begin the 2014 offseason with several key needs on both sides of the ball. This offseason is vastly different from what the Jets were forced to endure in 2013, though, as general manager John Idzik is armed with salary-cap space and an arsenal of draft picks.
The roster was noticeably devoid of playmaking talent on offense last season. That was a product of an offseason overhaul, which required Idzik to stand pat during free agency while being stingy in making personnel acquisitions.
This signing period will be different, as the Jets look to reassert themselves as potential contenders in 2014.
After finishing the 2013 season with a respectable 8-8 mark, the Jets have officially overcome the lament and criticism of their time with former glorified backup quarterback Tim Tebow in the locker room. Tebow, of course, was not the lone igniting proponent that devolved the Jets into a circus-like phenomenon in 2012, but he was an integral component of an ugly season.
The Jets have now flipped the page toward progress. Building a playoff-caliber roster this offseason won't be a simple feat to accomplish, but it's possible if the right steps are taken.
New York needs to retain certain in-house free agents, restructure lofty contracts, unload bad contracts and address each area of need in order to become a winning team in 2014.
The following slideshow examines the Jets' blueprint to winning the 2014 free-agency period.
(All salary cap numbers are courtesy of OvertheCap.com)
Retaining in-House Free Agents
The Jets have the cap space this offseason to bring back key in-house players who helped the team achieve a .500 mark in the 2013 season.
Austin Howard has become an integral part of the growing stability on the offensive line and has proved to be a viable candidate for a long-term contract. He has started all 32 games in two seasons as a full-time starter. He's been a rock on the right side of the O-line and continues to improve on a season-to-season basis.
The Jets would face the grueling task of reassembling their O-line for the second straight offseason if they allow him to walk, especially considering the unlikelihood of them re-signing injury-prone veteran guard Willie Colon. While he was solid in 2013, his impending health concerns remain an overarching question mark.
The Jets should look toward retaining their own pivotal difference-makers before venturing into the depths of exterior free-agent negotiations.
Other key players the Jets have prioritized re-signing include kicker Nick Folk, who enjoyed the best season of his pro career in 2013 and was rewarded the franchise tag because of it. Tight end Jeff Cumberland, who might not be good enough to start but supplies much-needed depth at his position, is another candidate for a new contract.
New York faces a difficult decision in regard to veteran edge-rusher Calvin Pace, who enjoyed perhaps the best season of his pro career on reprieve in 2013. He racked up 37 tackles, 10.0 sacks and two forced fumbles. He was an integral part of the Jets' reinvigorated front seven but might not be retained.
At 33 years old, Pace is expendable. The Jets could look to continue their revamping process on defense by adding a fresh outside linebacker, potentially through the draft.
Unloading Bad Contracts
The Jets are expected to grant disgruntled wide receiver Santonio Holmes his outright release any day now, according to Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk, per a league source.
Holmes has been a gigantic headache during his tenure with the Jets. He's played in just 15 games over the past two seasons due to injury, racking up 43 catches for 728 yards and two touchdowns.
Ridding themselves of his unwarranted antics will commence a much-needed healing process for the offense. It's no secret that the Jets' top priority this offseason is acquiring playmaking talent on offense.
Holmes simply doesn't fit the bill anymore. The Jets can save $8.25 million by cutting ties with their former No. 1 wideout.
His isn't the only bad contract that the team must dump this offseason, though. Former starting quarterback Mark Sanchez is also expected to be released before his workout bonus kicks in this spring. The Jets would save an additional $8.30 million by unloading Sanchez, who is still recovering from midseason shoulder surgery.
The most difficult contract issue plaguing the Jets this offseason is Antonio Cromartie, who suffered through an injury-riddled season in 2013 and didn't perform up to expectations. His numbers haven't depreciated considerably, but his vulnerability to giving up big plays has escalated.
He managed to play in all 16 games for the Jets last season, totaling 35 tackles, 10 passes defended and three interceptions. The Jets could save $9.50 million by releasing him, who could potentially return on a restructured deal.
The Jets can maximize their cap space this offseason by restructuring a few lofty contracts.
The most prominent contract that needs to be restructured is Cromartie's, although it's possible for the Jets to grant him an outright release and revamp that position altogether. He has been mostly solid during his four-year stint with the Jets but boasts a whopping $14.98 million cap number in 2014.
That money could be better spent elsewhere.
Other contracts the Jets could look toward restructuring include D'Brickashaw Ferguson and David Harris'. Ferguson owns an $11.70 cap number in 2014, which would be the largest figure on the roster if both Cromartie and Sanchez are released.
Ferguson has been a rock for the Jets on the offensive line. He's started all 128 games in his eight-year pro career, enabling the Jets' former "ground-and-pound" mantra on offense. He's worth his $5.95 million base salary but could further help his team by restructuring his deal for the third time in as many offseasons.
It would be an unlikely occurrence, but it would help the team moving forward.
Harris has been treated outrageously well by the Jets over the course of his seven-year career. He holds the crucial role of "Mike" linebacker in Rex Ryan's 3-4 base defense and is a pivotal proponent of the Jets' exotic blitz scheme.
Harris has racked up just 5.0 sacks over the past two seasons, though. He's due to make $4.9 million in 2014 but could potentially be asked to take a pay cut in an effort to help the team fill out the roster with optimal talent.
Addressing Areas of Need
The Jets need to address each area of need this offseason in order to maximize their chances of becoming a playoff team in 2014.
Their most glaring need is at wideout. They ranked as the least efficient receiving team in the NFL last season.
Jets' receivers combined for 13 touchdown passes to rank dead last in the league. They averaged just 204.4 receiving yards per game and recorded the second-fewest catches as a unit. Failing to improve the talent at receiver will stall Geno Smith's progression at quarterback and inhibit the offense from becoming more dynamic.
The Jets also need a starting-caliber tight end who can help supplement the passing game. Kellen Winslow Jr. proved to be a decent stopgap at tight end for most of the 2013 season, but he won't be back due to injury concerns and off-the-field issues. The Jets will likely look to retain Cumberland, although he proved himself to be a secondary tight end at best last season.
Aside from their offensive mishaps, the Jets also need to solidify their defense by acquiring more talent in the secondary. New York was susceptible to giving up big plays in 2013, largely because of the defensive backs' inability to shut down opposing receivers in coverage.
They need to bring in a cornerback who is capable of playing tight press coverage to minimize opponents' chances of racking up big gains after the catch.
The Jets should also look to address their exterior pass rush. They recorded 41.0 sacks as a team in 2013, which ranked in the middle of the pack in the NFL, although the Jets are capable of building on that figure.
Their interior pass rush is already solid, led by 2013 Defensive Rookie of the Year Sheldon Richardson. Acquiring an additional edge-rusher, who can also drop back into coverage, would possibly make New York's front seven the best in the NFL.
Acquiring Sufficient Offensive Talent
The most pivotal topic of discussion surrounding the Jets this offseason will revolve around which free-agent receivers they opt to target.
NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport recently reported on Twitter that vertical speed threat Jeremy Maclin has signed a one-year deal worth up to $6 million to remain with the Philadelphia Eagles. Maclin was thought to be heavily sought after by the Jets, per Manish Mehta of the NY Daily News, although it appears as though New York will have to look elsewhere to improve its receiving corps.
Acquiring sufficient playmaking talent on offense is a must for the Jets this offseason. Missing out on Maclin isn't a deal-breaker, though. The market isn't flush with difference-makers, but most of the free agents who are expected to become available are much more talented than what the Jets are currently working with.
Emmanuel Sanders is perhaps the Jets' best free agent option at receiver. He put up solid numbers in 2013, reeling in 67 receptions for 740 yards and six touchdowns. He'd be a viable receiving target for whoever starts under center for the Jets, although Smith seems to be the clear-cut choice to reclaim that position.
Other key positions of need for the Jets include cornerback, safety and tight end. They will also likely look to solidify their exterior pass rush and shore up their offensive line, especially considering the possibility of losing two starting lineman from 2013.
Most of their needs could be satisfied through the draft, although their gigantic sum of cap space will enable them to be competitive in free agency.