New York Jets – Wilkerson Choices and Roadmaps

Daniel Aitken on all the available courses of action the New York Jets can take with Muhammad Wilkerson and which one would be the most logical

Whether or not to trade Muhammad Wilkerson following receiving the franchise tag is a point of major contention among New York Jets fans. I highlighted the arguments of both sides in my Five Difficult Decisions piece last month, but here I’ll try to provide a better visualization of the Jets offseason options depending on moves. I’ll look at three scenarios: trying to keep both Wilkerson and Harrison, keeping just Wilkerson, and trading Wilkerson but keeping Harrison.

Note: All salary cap information that follows is courtesy of www.overthecap.com

Prior to tagging Wilkerson, the Jets had about 21.9 million in cap space. With the franchise tag valued at about 15.7 million for Wilkerson, that number currently sits at around 6.2 million. There are still more cuts, pay cuts and restructures yet to come, but the Jets also have several key free agents. Jeremy Kerley, Breno Giacomini and Jeff Cumberland are three other predicted cuts, which would relieve about 7.6 million further from the cap.

Next comes reworking the contracts of current players. The Jets have a number of options on reworking deals, depending on how much risk the Jets are willing to take long-term. It is well explained here under “contracts to modify.” For the purpose of this, we’ll estimate that Ferguson’s likely pay cut and big contract restructures free up an additional 7 million for 2016.

This puts the cap space before any re-signings at about 20.8 million. Keep in mind that the Jets in reality will have a little more to spend in total than this number, as the cap will be finalized for a 53-man roster and the Jets currently have 59 players on the roster. As teams sign players, they naturally replace other players and these released players have base salaries cleared from the cap. Throughout the off-season up until the regular season begins there is something called the “Top 51 Rule” in effect, which counts only the 51 highest salaries against the cap. Going by this guideline, the Jets have roughly 4 million more to spend. For the purposes of this though we will ignore it, given it’s close to the projected amount the Jets will need to set aside for their rookie pool anyway.

We’ll go with Ryan Fitzpatrick and Erin Henderson as “definite returns.” Sam Bradford’s deal should help us predict Fitzpatrick’s eventual deal to some extent, and with Bradford’s 2016 cap hit reportedly at 12.5 million, we can look for Fitzpatrick to be in the ballpark and a little less. We’ll put their combined cap hits at 11 million. This leaves 9.8 million to spend on free agents prior to any Wilkerson decision.

Keeping Wilkerson and Damon Harrison

To retain Damon Harrison, the Jets are paying him as the best 3-4 nose tackle in the league, which means he is at least making more than the 6.25 million annual contract that Dan Williams signed to play in Oakland last year. A figure in the ballpark of 7-8 million is a safe bet. The Jets would probably look to backload Harrison’s deal to some extent to still hit some other needs. We’ll say Harrison’s 2016 cap hit for a five-year, 38 million dollar deal will be 5 million, though on a strongly backloaded deal feasibly could be less.

Holding onto Wilkerson and re-signing Harrison leaves roughly 4.8 million to spend on the market. This is before bringing back any of other free agents besides Fitzpatrick and Henderson. With immediate gaps to plug at outside linebacker, right tackle and running back in addition to needing depth elsewhere, the Jets will be doing mostly bargain basement shopping. It’s commonly accepted the Jets will likely get one of their key running back free agents back this offseason, but with so little to spend I’m hesitant on calling this a definite. Powell could end up being a little more costly than expected, and Ivory should already be looking at making at least four million annually. Rather than being active in the market at other spots, the Jets are probably looking back toward Calvin Pace and Breno Giacomini on a cheaper deal.

The Verdict: Getting better in this scenario is all about the draft, where the Jets have six picks. The little money spent will be largely allocated to retaining players and the Jets may struggle to even do this as it pertains to the running backs, where Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell are sure to be valued above bargain prices. Wilkerson’s long-term future will largely be tied to Sheldon Richardson’s behavior throughout the next season, and if Richardson is clean Wilkerson most likely leaves for nothing in 2017.

Keep Wilkerson, Damon Harrison Walks

The Jets will have roughly ten million to spend should Harrison be let go. Retaining one of Powell and Ivory shouldn’t be too much of an issue in this case, with the player let go being replaced by a value free agent. One of the more interesting questions in this scenario is how the Jets actually replace Harrison. A veteran stopgap like Terrance Knighton or Steve McClendon makes sense but the key will be value spending here with an opportunity to hit needs elsewhere. Knighton for example was a four million cap hit on a one-year deal last year for Washington – the 2016 cap hit for Harrison probably wouldn’t be that much different if on similar value. Nonetheless, we should expect the Jets to be a little more ambitious. At right tackle the Jets could take a shot on a player like Joe Barksdale, Bobbie Massie or Michael Harris in addition to a depth player that could push Brian Winters like Geoff Schwartz. A corner with some starting experience like Patrick Robinson and a tight end like Scott Chandler could also be targets.

The Verdict: Similar to the first option, the Jets will be focusing mostly on the draft with free agency providing some stopgaps. Some upgrades however are still possible at positions of need like tight end and right tackle, and if stopgaps prove competent the Jets can look to bring these players back in 2017 with more cap space. Once again Wilkerson’s long-term future with the team would be related to Sheldon Richardson’s behavior, with Wilkerson likely to leave in free agency in 2017 if Richardson is clean.

Trade Wilkerson, Keep Harrison

Trading Wilkerson would give the Jets about 25.5 million in cap space before making a move to retain Harrison. Using the same deal mentioned before, Harrison would bring the amount of cap space to roughly 20.5 million before any other moves. There’s some wiggle room with that amount to plug some holes, re-sign one of Ivory or Powell (or even go all-in on a Lamar Miller potentially), and still make another solid signing at a position of need. The big question though is at what point would a Muhammad Wilkerson trade be agreed? If Mike Maccagnan demands first-round compensation, a trade could come right before the draft or quite possibly afterward. This doesn’t help the Jets in terms of 2016 shopping, but sometimes hardball pays off. Alternatively, if Maccagnan is actively looking to offload Wilkerson and comes to an agreement within the first week or two of free agency, it would be timely enough to make improvements in the market in addition to draft picks.

If the Jets do trade Wilkerson, the suitors to watch are the losers of the Malik Jackson sweepstakes. Two teams especially worth watching are Jacksonville and Atlanta. Not only do these franchises have the cap space and need at the position, but will also be feeling pressure to make a run toward playoffs in 2016, making a trade more likely. For the purposes of this, we’ll say Jacksonville bites and trades a second rounder and a fourth rounder for Wilkerson soon after missing out on Jackson.

With the cap space afforded, plugging holes and retaining at least Powell or Ivory won’t be an issue. The Jets will probably be able to retain both if they so choose, but may decide the money better spent elsewhere. A definite upgrade either at guard or right tackle would be attainable, with names like Mitchell Schwartz, Brandon Brooks, and Jeff Allen available. If a trade happens soon enough, perhaps the Jets are enticed to swing for the fences and sign Kelechi Osmele to a backloaded deal. I wouldn’t consider it probable, but it’s a possibility afforded by the increased space. Other options include Tamba Hali, Kelvin Beachum, Dwayne Allen, Sean Smith, or one of the premium guard stopgaps like Richie Incognito or Evan Mathis.

Verdict: Even if it’s one of the first moves of the new league year, trading Wilkerson is not going to cause another spending spree like last year’s. Instead, it’ll allow the Jets to comfortably retain players they wish and plug some holes with some left over cap to make a small splash if the right opportunity comes along. It’s important to keep in mind that the Jets are still rebuilding the backend of their roster due to many years of roster mismanagement and poor drafting prior to Bowles and Maccagnan. As one of the league’s oldest teams and slated to have just six picks, quality draft picks are going to be an attractive haul in exchange for Wilkerson.

Photo Credit: NewYorkJets.com