Sports on Earth's NFL writers Mike Tanier, Dan Pompei, Russ Lande and Robert Weintraub will be providing an offseason assessment of all 32 NFL teams -- identifying the most pressing problems facing each one and proposing the best solutions. Click here for links to every entry in the series.
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"The Jets are the Jets are the Jets," a fellow writer once told me. Few teams can so easily turn a beat scribe into Gertrude Stein.
But the Jets do not have to be the Jets forever. They seem different lately. Rex Ryan has curbed some of his worst impulses. General manager John Idzik has curbed many of owner Woody Johnson's worst impulses. The Jets appear to be taking their rebuilding effort seriously. They are now a few easy roster moves away from being young, affordable, semi-talented and well around the corner from the era of the Butt Fumble.
That said, the Jets are still a .500 team with a scattershot quarterback prospect and an offense full of Bilal Powell-types. No GM for a Day could build a true contender out of these guys in 2014, but we can finish building a foundation. With a little help, the Jets can become 100 percent joke free this year, then start to do some laughing of their own in 2015.
Problem: Dead wood.
Solution: What do you usually do to dead wood?
Mark Sanchez costs over $14 million against the salary cap this season, and the team can save over $8 million by cutting him. Cut him.
Santonio Holmes costs nearly $11 million against the cap and represents $8 million in potential savings. He is also so disinterested in playing for the Jets that he practically drags his feet while running routes. Cut him.
Antonio Cromartie earns a $5 million roster bonus if he is still a member of the Jets in just a few days. Cromartie is still a very good cornerback, but his cap number brushes up against $15 million, and he expects to be cut and may want to play the market for a longer-term deal. Cut him.
This is the perfect season to gobble up some Sanchez-Holmes-Cro dead money: The cap has been bumped up a few million bucks, and the Jets are suddenly a young team with a little bit of maneuverability. They can pay the piper without feeling too much pain in 2014, then slingshot into 2015 in fine cap shape.
So what is Idzik waiting for? The Combine to end, probably. He wants to have a look at the draft class, chit-chat with the agents at the steakhouse, draw a bead on what veteran free agent quarterbacks will expect to be paid or the cost of replacing Cromartie. The Jets are not the Saints, who had to start dumping players early to achieve cap compliance. They have time, and they have options: One more year of Cromartie would not burst their budget if they release Sanchez and Holmes, for example, and Idzik might do it if Cro is willing, the draft class at cornerback is weak, and Rex Ryan holds his breath. The Jets are being calm and prudent, but they will ultimately part ways with some of the emblematic players from the bad old days.
You just read the phrase "the Jets are being calm and prudent." We'll give you a few seconds to let the dizzy spell pass before continuing.
Problem: Geno Smith comes with more red flags than a Swiss alpine resort.
Solution: Trust a little. Verify a lot.
There are several things to like about Geno Smith. The Jets don't have that much invested in him, for one thing. He rebounded somewhat in December from one of the ugliest four-game stretches in history last year. December victories against awful teams don't tell you much, but they show that Smith may be more resilient than advertised, and the weaponless supporting cast did not help him much.
Now the bad news: He went through a month where he completed 39.1 percent of his passes, threw eight interceptions without a touchdown and could not hit a tugboat sailing slowly on a crossing route.
Geno is a polarizing character, and there are two sides to every Geno Smith story. When Smith gets into an argument in January about removing his headphones with a flight attendant, it makes news and is cited as an example of his immaturity. When the airline later apologizes, and Smith thanks them for taking their professionalism, it makes (a little less) news and is cited as an example of his maturity. In other words: Geno may be the worst possible New York quarterback or the best, depending on whether your goal is to win games, generate controversy, or both.
Either way, he is very talented, but a month of sub-40 percent completion rates cannot be whisked away as "rookie lumps."
Scanning the free agent wires, we discovered the perfect quarterback to back up, support, and push Smith. He knows Marty Mornhinweg's offense well, has experience in the glaring media spotlight, and is capable enough to start some games while providing both guidance and a jolt to Smith's complacency. His name is Mark Sanchez. Oops.
Scanning the free agent wires a little harder, we found someone else who fits the description above: Michael Vick. Vick is combination living legend/cautionary tale of the dangers of being a nitwit. Few humans on earth know more about shooting themselves in the foot, removing the bullet with their own teeth, bandaging the wound like Rambo in the woods, healing, running around for a while, then shooting themselves again like Vick. He can provide invaluable life lessons. Also, he knows Mornhinweg and can still do Michael Vick things.
Okay, the combination of "Michael Vick" and "New York" is legitimately terrifying. So we scanned the free agent waiver wire one last time and found Matt Cassel. Cassel started to find his stroke last season, once the Vikings let him throw a few passes more than five yards downfield. He does not have any Mornhinweg experience, but he is a capable ball distributor off the bench who can run a little. He knows his way around a quarterback crisis, and the coaching staff won't break down in tears if Smith has another Month of Sorrows and Cassel is forced to finish the year.
Cassel's primary job will be to make sure he is ready to play despite minimal practice reps. The Jets should devote most of their quarterback practice resources to Smith. The rest can go to a 2015 developmental project contingency plan passer, someone available in Day Three of the draft. This class is full of big, smart kids with decent arms but hinky deliveries who thrived in "millions of screens" collegiate systems, so let's just pick one: Cornell's Jeff Matthews, a size-arm-brain prospect who looked like he belonged during Shrine Game practices.
While Cassel sips Gatorade and chats with Mornhinweg, Matthews can take some second-team reps while Smith gets a full opportunity with the first team. The whole "practice allocation" issue is a big deal for young quarterbacks, who can get lost among the third stringers or fail to establish rhythm if they don't get ample first-team opportunities. This two-pronged approach to Smith management accounts for every possible contingency, even the one where Smith actually develops and achieves his potential.
Problem: Skill position talent barely suitable for the Big 12.
Solution: An insanely deep wide receiver draft class.
The Jets must take a wide receiver in the first round. Let's pencil in Mike Evans, a king-sized specimen with a knack for catching bad passes far from his body: perfect for the Jets! He can be the player the Jets thought Stephen Hill would become, because waiting for Hill has become like waiting for the Great Pumpkin.
With so much talent in the receiver draft pool, and with the Jets so needy, let's double down. Jeff Janis of Saginaw Valley State got better every day during Senior Bowl practices, then ran a blistering 4.42-second time at the Combine. He should be available in the middle rounds. Janis plays like a possession receiver, doing his best work on comeback routes and in traffic. But as a rookie he can be used as a defensive lid-lifter, something the Jets have needed for years.
Running back is also a problem position for the Jets, who have a strange tendency to stockpile large between-the-tackles plodders. The middle rounds of the draft will be loaded with quick all-purpose backs. Wisconsin's James White combines power with quickness, good hands, and some blocking ability. He is not a 20-carry workhorse, but he can add value and playmaking ability to the Jets rotation.
At tight end, let's spend a little of the free-agent money the Jets will create by cutting the 2012 embarrassment brigade. Jeff Cumberland is an in-house free agent who is likely to move on. Garrett Graham emerged last season as an ideal safety valve, and the Texans probably cannot afford to keep him. Ed Dickson is a similar player in a similar situation. If the Jets want to be more aggressive, there's Brandon Pettigrew, an exceptional specimen whose production waned over the last two seasons. The Lions need to do some salary cap boat bailing, and Pettigrew may need a change of pace.
A veteran tight end gives Smith a reliable source of seven-yard completions in the flat. Rookie receivers give the Jets the seam-stretching talent they have lacked for years. David Nelson and Jeremy Kerley will look much better when a little less is asked of them. With a few draft picks and a little cash, the Jets can assemble a functional offense.
Problem: A rocky road behind, an uncertain path ahead.
Solution: Set a tone by extending Mo.
You will notice that we cleared lots of cap space when solving the first problem, then spent relatively little cash solving later problems: Matt Cassel and a second-tier tight end are not exactly budget busters. The Jets should focus their newfound cap cleanliness on players within the organization, and they should start with Muhammad Wilkerson.
Wilkerson is a 24-year old coming off a 10.5 sack season, though the sack total does not do justice to his impact. He is a versatile, high-energy defensive lineman, and he will join Sheldon Richardson as the core of the next great Jets defense, assuming the Jets can keep them together and build around them. Wilkerson is in the fourth year of one of those new CBA contracts that comes with a fifth-year option or the right to renegotiate at the end of the third year, which is where we are now. Idzik should avoid the quick-and-easy "option" option and lock Wilkerson in for the long term.
The Jets can then do the same thing next year to Quentin Coples, assuming Coples continues to progress the way he did between 2012 and 2013. If Richardson becomes the player he looks like he is becoming in two years, the precedent for a long-term is set. The Jets, off the financial hook for their past mistakes, can make a habit of locking down young internally-developed players. After years of loopy extensions and organizational flailing, they get to be the team with a plan.
Stability, cap consciousness, offensive weapons, a logical quarterback plan and a regret-free roster. Are these even the Jets anymore? If not, my mission as GM for a Day is officially accomplished.