New York Jets Offseason: The Big Picture?

 In 2015 Mike Maccagnan arrived to the New York Jets with a bang en route to Executive of the Year honors, but this year is an altogether different challenge. Whereas last year was a surge toward respectability again, this year focuses more on tough decisions for the long-term health of the franchise.

Ask Eric Mangini or John Idzik, and they’ll tell you that surpassing expectations in year one can be more a curse than a blessing with this franchise. Mike Maccagnan and Todd Bowles find themselves in a similarly impressive but dangerous position. The two men inherited one of the most desolate rosters in the league in 2015, and one that was going to continue heading on a downward slope on the basis of many years of bad drafting. Rather then take the slow-build approach and focus entirely on a youth movement, the ample cap space left by John Idzik was used to bring in a number of quality players that helped make the Jets a respectable team instantly. The Jets pushed for and should have made the playoffs in 2015, and now there is pressure to push onward. A good deal of fans now expect a “win now” mentality. 

Putting pieces in place that makes the team competitive immediately is obviously a good thing, but it is important to remember the reason Bowles and Maccagnan were hired. Maccagnan with his scouting background was attractive because this is a franchise that wants to build a consistent contender from within. This requires patience, because the basis of consistent contenders is the culmination of several good years of drafting. 

After the 10-6 season the team just had, Maccagnan and Bowles could have easily planned this offseason around taking the next step. They didn’t. Breno Giacomini and D’Brickashaw Ferguson could have had their cap situations handled from the very start. A full-court press effort to trade Wilkerson early, even if the Jets got less than ideal value for the franchise tagged player, would have opened up ample space in the early days of free agency. The success of so many free agent signings last season made restructuring some of these front-loaded deals an option, albeit one that would push risk further down the line. It’s evident this is something that Maccagnan wanted to avoid. Only James Carpenter, one of the youngest signings from last year and on one the most manageable deals, had money pushed from 2016 into future seasons.

Instead, the approach this offseason has been reactionary. Deals were reached for Matt Forte and Bilal Powell, but not before the market dominoes fell in a way that identified them as players that make sense in terms of value. Jarvis Jenkins and Steve McLendon were low-key, effective signings made after the initial rush of free agency. Big name free agents have left on big contracts. Mo Wilkerson at this point remains a Jet. Perhaps reaching an agreement with Kelvin Beachum would have led to releasing Ferguson or Giacomini, or the signing of a player like Olivier Vernon. Instead, we wait and see whether the draft changes their roster status. And of course Ryan Fitzpatrick remains a free agent, the Jets unwilling to budge from a shockingly low evaluation. Surely a team that was all-in for 2016 would prioritize bringing back their signal caller a little more seriously. 

Something else to consider is that the Jets seem heavily interested in this draft’s crop of quarterbacks. I mentioned in last week’s roundtable that the Jets have shown a lot of interest in the draft’s top handful of guys. It’s clear the Jets need to find an answer long-term at the position, and Maccagnan will probably have to use a pick in the first few rounds to do so. Such picks are essentially guaranteed to offer no help in 2016, but could pay huge dividends in the years after.

Instead of putting major stock into the 2015 season, Maccagnan is acting like a man operating on a multi-year plan. He inherited a poor roster but with a ton of cap space, so he spent big money and front loaded contracts. The focus now is building a core of youth behind these veterans while expecting those 2015 signings to keep the team competitive in 2016.

The lack of urgency in 2016 makes more sense when looking at the forecast for 2017. As it stands right now, the Jets are built for another big offseason next year. Only Wilkerson, should he remain on the roster this season, will be the team’s only major free agent. Calvin Pryor, Leonard Williams and Matt Forte are the only three players the Jets will be “stuck with” in terms of lacking cap relief in 2017. This means the Jets will have maximum flexibility in the event any well-paid veterans sharply decline, in addition to having money to spend on the market again. Crucially, the lack of spending in 2016 coupled with the loss of several big free agents means the Jets are primed for a haul of compensatory picks in the 2017 draft – the first year such picks will be made tradeable.

A few days ago Joe posted some eerie parallels between the offseason that followed the 2006 10-6 playoff berth and what the Jets are going through right now. It’s enough to send some fans into a panic about what 2016 might hold (the 2007 Jets finished 4-12), but let’s clear some things up. The 2006 team was inferior in several contexts. Both teams benefited from an easy schedule, but the 2006 team had several embarrassing defeats. There was a 41-0 Jacksonville loss in 2006, a 31-13 loss to the Bills at home, and also another shutout to the tune of 10-0 at home to Chicago. The 34-20 loss in Oakland last season seems weak in comparison. The 2006 team could neither run the ball nor stop it, a quality of much greater importance ten years ago. Last year’s offense was also simply a lot more reliable, scoring at least 17 points every game and ranking 15 spots higher in yards-per-game than their 2006 counterparts. 

Nonetheless, there is a real possibility that 2016 does have a “step back to take a step forward” feel to it. A more difficult schedule in 2007 made several areas of weakness more apparent, particularly on the offensive line and limitations at quarterback. It’s not a shock to think 2016 could have a similar twist. With that said, we’ve still yet to see what this upcoming draft will bring, and here are a number of players to reasonably expect modest to large improvement from in house: Leonard Williams, Marcus Williams, Calvin Pryor, Quincy Enunwa, Bilal Powell, Jace Amaro, and Lorenzo Mauldin. Less likely, there is Dee Milliner, a host of young recent mid-round picks on the offensive line, Brent Qvale, Taiwan Jones, and Deion Barnes. Devin Smith may also factor into the equation, depending on his return from injury. If the Jets end up taking a step forward in 2016, this is where it’ll come from. Critically, if last year’s top veterans maintain their level of play, a pitfall similar to 2007 is nothing to worry about.

Going back to the 2007 offseason and 2016 offseason comparisons, it’s important to remember the offseason following 2007. In 2008 Mike Tannenbaum used significant cap space to make several big moves for quality players. The elapsed time also allowed good players drafted in 2006 and 2007 to be further settled. The Jets didn’t make the playoffs in 2008 but clearly had a decent team with a strong core of both veterans and young talent. Most of that group became the core of the teams that would reach the AFC Championship game twice in a row the next two years.

It is that – the culmination of several years of successful drafts and free agency decisions – that will make the Jets a team consistently able to win games. The 2016 offseason, just like 2015, is one piece of the puzzle toward building a year-in, year-out competitive franchise.

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