By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — As much as the Jets would like to see what’s behind door number 3 this offseason, they really have no choice but to play the hand they’ve been dealt if they hope to get back to the NFL’s version of the showcase showdown.
I’m talking a return to the playoffs, something that will only happen in 2012 if they mostly figure out how to make due with what they have and put out of their minds this notion of a new car, or, as the case seems to be, a soon-to-be 36-year-old once phenomenal but now in need of a full body makeover classic.
If you cornered General Manager Mike Tannenbaum and coach Rex Ryan and forced them to come clean on whether or not starting last season with Mark Sanchez throwing all over the place was a good idea, they’d probably first try to bum rush you, but would eventually relent and admit it really wasn’t in the franchise’s best interest.
Yes, Sanchez’s early numbers were good, but they didn’t convince anyone that basically abandoning the running game in favor of a high-octane passing attack, a departure as shocking as it was unexpected, was going to get the Jets not just deep into January but also into early February.
It was as if the front office finally felt the need to justify trading up to get Sanchez in the 2009 draft, when in reality no explanation was needed because the Jets, through use of a tried and true concept of running the football and tackling people, had developed into very much an upper echelon team. They didn’t need to answer to anyone. They didn’t need to radically alter the team’s offensive approach.
Yet, they did and it proved to be a colossal mistake, one they tried to rectify on the fly but the long-term damage in the locker room and on the field had already been done.
The Jets, once again, found themselves struggling to find an identity, something that shouldn’t have happened because they had nearly everything they needed to be great. They just couldn’t help themselves. They just couldn’t leave well enough alone. The result was mediocrity that felt like doormat status. But that’s the price you pay sometimes for trying to reinvent the wheel.
So here we are a few weeks out from free agency and the Jets reportedly just freed up $7.5 million in cap space thanks to D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s restructured contract. Prior to that move, they appeared to be in the neighborhood of the projected 2012 cap, and they had barely made any player personnel moves. That is if you think re-signing Patrick Turner was an important decision.
In Part I of this report I emphasized the Jets’ need to solidify their defense, the one aspect of their team that’s more advanced than the rest. I remain of the belief that the amount of money needed to make major splashes simply won’t be there and that the Jets are better suited using the draft to find the present and the future.
But if Tannenbaum can rebound from a rather poor lockout-influenced 2011 offseason and find a way to get far enough under the cap to free up a decent amount of cash, on the offensive side of the football is where he should spend it. I still believe the Jets will need around $10 million to re-sign their eventual rookies and players they covet, including defensive tackle Sione Pouha, who looks like he won’t get tagged but may instead be enticed by a multi-year deal.
But after Pouha, and if the Jets do indeed tweak the defense through the draft and with minimal spending, they still have to find a way to plug holes on offense. They need another offensive lineman and perhaps two wide receivers for starters.
They don’t, however, need another quarterback, unless that quarterback is going to replace Mark Brunell as the backup.
Okay, let’s address Peyton Manning one last time because he is the 800-pound elephant near the room. If you honestly think he will be available and then healthy enough to be the player he once was you will expect the Jets to at the very least inquire about his services. Many of you have been demanding he replace Sanchez, and in a perfect world maybe this would be the right decision. But the Jets have never, ever operated in anything close to resembling a perfect world, and that includes when they’ve been sky high and actually taken very seriously.
As much as a player of Manning’s caliber is enticing, he simply doesn’t fit, be it within the team’s loose concept of what it wants its offense to be, as the focal point of a run-oriented offensive coordinator’s scheme and, most importantly, financially. Even if Manning would accept a backloaded or “prove it” contract, unless the Jets could somehow unload Sanchez’s huge contract or other deals, such moves would severely hamper what Tannenbaum could do to shore up the rest of the team.
What? Do you think Manning will come in and be satisfied throwing to Jeremy Kerley and Turner when he’s not targeting Santonio Holmes 250 times a season and pretending Dustin Keller is actually more than he really is? With Manning must come weapons to again make him great, big-time pass-catching monsters to play alongside Holmes. The Jets simply don’t have the money. I repeat, they are, as currently constituted, sitting on a street corner looking for a handout.
The Jets hired Tony Sparano for a reason. He runs the football, a lot. He is inheriting an offensive line that, despite its many shortcomings in 2011, is basically the same group that paved the way to the AFC Championship game the year before. Let Tannenbaum sign one more guy, preferably someone Sparano is familiar with like the Dolphins’ Vernon Carey, to battle it out with embattled Wayne Hunter at right tackle. The loser of that competition could then join healed Rob Turner, should he be re-signed, giving the Jets a rotation of seven linemen that, with the proper coaching and motivation, could be once again among the best units in the game.
As for the skill positions, assuming Sanchez is the quarterback, the Jets really cannot afford to entrust such an important aspect of what they need to fix to neophytes. Many people like to argue that today’s college wide receiver is ready made for the NFL. He can jump right in and contribute right away. This might be true for most teams, but the Jets are hampered by a crisis of confidence at quarterback, one that can only be alleviated by coaching and teammates who have been there and done that.
There’s been talk that the Jets could select a wide receiver at No. 16 should their perceived first choices, linebackers Courtney Upshaw of Alabama and Melvin Ingram of South Carolina, be off the board, with Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd and Baylor’s Kendall Wright as the most mentioned possibilities. However, I’d still prefer they stick to defense in the first round come hell or high water and if they want a receiver they should target sleepers like Ty Hilton from Florida International or Gerrell Robinson from Arizona State later in the draft.
If the Jets have the money, I think it wise to pursue free agents of the Pierre Garcon, Robert Meachem and Laurent Robinson ilk. All three are extremely talented, good citizens and, most importantly, would come far less expensive than others. Other names to consider, but that I would not necessarily advocate, include old friend Braylon Edwards and Giants Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham.
When it comes to running back, the Jets are set with Shonn Greene, who is coming off his best season, with a career-high 253 carries and 1,054 yards, and a decent 4.2-yard per carry average. However, he could use some help beyond Joe McKnight, who may or may not be counted on depending on what Sparano envisions. A possible 1A back wish list could include names like Cedric Benson, Mike Tolbert and Ryan Grant, though even they could be too cost prohibitive. That could mean a secondary list of guys like Tim Hightower, Jason Snelling and Brandon Jacobs might be more realistic, though I really hope they stay far, far away from Jacobs for obvious reasons even most Giants fans would admit.
If the Jets either strikeout or choose to go slow in free agency at running back they could be posed with a dilemma in the first round of the draft. If they lose out on Upshaw and Ingram at outside linebacker and fight off the temptation to pick a receiver they could get the opportunity to choose between stud Alabama running back Trent Richardson or go for the third best outside backer on the board. The odds are Richardson, considered the best running back prospect since the Vikings drafted Adrian Peterson, will be long gone, but if he’s not, things could get very interesting.
In the event they get the defensive player they want in Round 1, the Jets could perhaps trade up in a later round to get Boise State’s Doug Martin, a player built like the Ravens’ Ray Rice, who can turn and burn and be a difference-maker as both a runner and receiver immediately. Martin may end up being the steal of the draft for someone down the road.
The Jets also do not need a high-priced tight end, which is what they have in Keller, but his $3.15 million cap hit would be too much to absorb. In a better world, I think the Jets would be far better off with a guy like Anthony Fasano, should he become available, or Joel Dreessen, guys who have sure hands and a nose for the end zone, or Scott Chandler, a free agent that knows the AFC East after playing this past season with the Bills and does a little bit of everything well.
So while I still stand by my earlier assertion that the Jets need to target defense early and often this offseason, if they can get creative with their finances there are players to be had that can help Sanchez along his path to improvement and continue to keep this team’s running game as the force that it has been since Ryan took over now three-plus years ago.
Jets fans just need to think more cautiously and responsibly this time around and Tannenbaum needs to prove he’s a far better talent evaluator than he’s shown of late.
And for the love of God, please stop wishing for No. 18. It could happen, sure, but this isn’t fantasy. It’s reality.
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