By now the New York Jets’ lackluster approach to free agency has been well chronicled, as the team has chosen to forgo spending big money on veterans in favor of focusing on the draft. However, ESPN New York’s Rich Cimini has reported some interesting information about the effects of that strategy, as the Jets have the lowest cash payroll in the NFL for this season. That figure doesn’t include dead money against the cap for players like Antonio Cromartie and Mark Sanchez, but it does show how conservative the Jets have been with their money.
NFL teams are required by the CBA to spend at least 89% of the cap in cash over a four year period, and it looks like the Jets will need to spend some money to reach that figure. Given the Jets’ aversion to free agency, the obvious solution to this problem is to start extending some key players contracts.
David Harris, Jeremy Kerley, Bilal Powell and Kenrick Ellis are all set to be unrestricted free agents after this season, while Damon Harrison will be a restricted free agent. Demario Davis will be a UFA in 2016, and most importantly, so will Muhammad Wilkerson. All of these players have key roles on the Jets, and it makes sense for the Jets to make some moves to keep them around.
Let’s begin with the nose tackle Harrison, who was a revelation this season and will be the Jets’ highest priority if all the above players hit free agency in 2015. Harrison is just 25 years old and he emerged as a dominant run stopper for the Jets’ 3rd ranked run defense this season. It is absolutely essential that the Jets retain Harrison, because his presence in the middle is a huge part of what allows the rest of the Jets’ front seven to be successful.
Two of the players that benefit from Harrison’s presence are inside linebackers Harris and Davis. Harris has been the Jets’ defensive anchor in his seven years with the team, but at 30 years old there are concerns he will start to decline. However, his leadership, toughness and tackling are so valuable that the Jets would be wise to give him a reasonable extension. Next to him, Davis is an emerging star who will take over Harris’ role as the leading tackler. There is no rush to re-sign him, but locking him down now before he gets even better makes some sense. Finally, Ellis is Harrison’s backup and a valuable run stopper, and there is no reason not to retain him.
Offensively, Kerley has led the Jets in receptions and receiving yards each of the last two seasons, and he is an excellent slot receiver whom Geno Smith has total confidence in. With the importance of the slot receiver increasing every year in the NFL, the Jets would smart to ensure theirs never hits the open market. Powell is a valuable and versatile running back who is a favorite of the coaching staff, and keeping him around is the logical thing to do.
Finally there is Wilkerson, the team’s best player and one of the elite defensive ends in the NFL. Wilkerson is under contract for the 2014 season and the Jets hold a team option for the 2015 season. Following that, they could franchise Wilkerson at a reasonable price. However, it was the Jets’ failures to make concessions to their star that cost them Darrelle Revis in the first place, and they cannot afford to repeat those mistakes with Wilkerson. Technically the Jets don’t need to re-sign Wilkerson any time soon, but doing so would not only guarantee their best player stays in town and happy, but it would send a positive sign to their locker room and potential free agent targets.
Given that the Jets don’t really have any choice but to spend money due to CBA rules, the smart play is to start locking down their key young talent. The best teams develop players and then build around them, and the names listed above are some of the Jets’ best players. The Jets can’t afford to let young talent leave, it is time to take steps to prevent that from happening.