By MICHAEL FAIRLIE //
On the eve of the unofficial opening of NFL free agency, it is safe to say that the Jets will not be making the splash they made with last year’s spending spree. After handing out over $75 million in guaranteed money and using up approximately $50 million in cap room during last year’s free agency period, the team will have much less room to work with in 2016.
Following the release of Antonio Cromartie, which saved the team about $8 million, and the franchise tagging of Muhammad Wilkerson, which cost around $15.7 million, the Jets are left with roughly $6 million in cap room.
With only six draft picks in the upcoming draft and holes to fill at multiple positions, we are truly going to see just how creative and effective General Manager Mike Maccagnan can be. It is one thing to inherit a team with more than a third of their cap room staring you in the face and another to be dealing with barely enough money to re-sign one of your several impending free agents.
Following a season in which the Jets increased their win total by six games and fell within 60 minutes of a playoff berth after a 4-12 stinker in 2014, the pressure is on Mr. Maccagnan to bring his team to the next level. He and the Jets’ organization have some incredibly difficult decisions to make in the next few days.
The first order of business facing Maccagnan is what to do with the team’s 19 remaining pending free agents. More importantly, what is he going to do with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Damon Harrison and the backfield duo of Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell?
Much more secretive than the team was in years past, it is hard to get a gauge as to what is going on behind closed doors at Florham Park these days. We know that they made an initial offer to middle linebacker Erin Henderson, but as far as we know they are prepared to let Fitzpatrick, Harrison, Ivory and Powell walk out the door to test the free agency waters. Like I said, as far as we know.
In order to realistically have a chance at bringing back these key pieces to the puzzle, Maccagnan is going to have to sever ties with some veterans and possibly rework the contracts of others to free up space in 2016.
Some of the more obvious candidates to be let go are Jeremy Kerley, Jeff Cumberland and Breno Giacomini, which would save the team about another $7.5 million. That would still leave the team with less than $14 million in cap space and leave a hole at RT and TE. While it is true that Giacomini and Cumberland have been much less than spectacular, they still need to be replaced if cut. So now you are looking at filling more vacancies.
A less frequently heard name in the possible Jets’ cuts is kicker Nick Folk, which would save the team approximately $2.156 million (according to overthecap.com). It would also result in a cap penalty of $1,186,667 and leave the team without a kicker, and a clutch one at that.
Geno Smith is another possibility that would save the Jets $1,089,491, resulting in $507,655 of dead money. In addition, it would leave them with only Bryce Petty under contract at QB for the 2016 season.
The team could look into trading the recently franchise-tagged Muhammad Wilkerson. Finding a team that will not only fork over at least a first round pick, but also agree to take on his hefty salary when he is coming off of a fractured right fibula, is going to be difficult to say the least.
If they can find a trade partner for Mo, it will open up another $15.7 million in cap room, but they may have to lower their asking price to mid-round picks to get it done, and for a player of his caliber that is not easy to justify.
Then there is the outside possibility of cutting or restructuring the contracts of the core of their offensive line in Nick Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Cutting them would create enormous holes on the line and restructuring them would most likely mean adding more years onto the contracts of players that have a limited number of years left in their bodies.
Cutting the two would save the Jets almost $18 million, with around $5 million in dead money. Although the team believes they may have an answer at LT in Brent Qvale, he is far from a proven commodity at this point. Wesley Johnson filled in admirably at C when Mangold was injured in 2015, but he is nowhere near the force Nick is in the middle of the offensive line.
Dee Milliner is another name that I have heard mentioned, but that one would make absolutely no sense. The Jets are already on the hook for his full salary of $4,028,532, so they would be best served seeing what they can get out of the highly talented, but often injured, former first round pick in the last year of his rookie contract.
There are other players that they could look to either trade or cut in order to save a few bucks, but no one that is going to provide them with enough room to go on any kind of excessive shopping spree.
The fact remains that the team has needs at numerous positions and limited resources to do so with. Hopefully that will change between today and Wednesday’s official opening of free agency, but I would not expect the Jets to be big spenders this year no matter what. If they can find a way to re-sign Fitzpatrick, Harrision and one of the running backs, they will surely use up a lot of the space that they create.
As things stand now, the Jets have major needs at quarterback, halfback, nose tackle, outside linebacker, tight end and inside linebacker. They are also going to need a punter and could certainly use an upgrade at the RT position. Additionally, there is much debate over how effective Brian Winters is at the RG position. He has surely shown improvement, but an upgrade is not out of the question there either.
It goes without saying that we are going to see how Mike Maccagnan and his front office can operate under pressure. The team’s six draft picks can only fill so many holes and you never want to be put in a position where you have to reach for a need in the draft process, so they are going to have to do something in free agency.
The next few days are going to go a long way in showing just how Maccagnan intends to handle the situation. Be prepared for some surprising and controversial moves as the Jets prepare to go to war in 2016, hoping to get to the playoffs and beyond in Year Two of the Maccagnan/Bowles era.
There is no doubt that Maccagnan is loading up on coffee and burning the midnight oil in search of solutions to the questions the Jets are facing. Let’s just hope that he and the front office can find the answers.