By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — Prior to the start of free agency, Mike Tannenbaum hinted at his Jets taking an altogether different approach to the open market this time around.
So far, they’ve been true to their word and it hasn’t been a disappointment, regardless of what the uninformed will try to tell you.
To the fan that doesn’t bother to pay attention to salary cap ramifications it appears as if this general manager has been asleep at the switch, but really it only appears that way.
The truth is, it’s way too early to grade what the Jets have done, or haven’t done, as the case may be. If you had delusions of grandeur that the Jets would sign Mario Williams, among others, you need to pay attention to finances. It’s the less-ballyhooed moves that will improve this team, not the splashy transactions that more often than not do little more than to raise expectations while take away from an overall approach to shoring up team-wide deficiencies.
The Jets suffered some disappointments in free agency’s first week, especially over the weekend when they lost out on their primary safety target, but to this point they’ve pulled off several subtle-yet-necessary moves to put them on the road to recovery following their disappointing 8-8 season in 2011.
The Jets appeared to be $13 million to $15 million under the cap when free agency started. That, in itself, was quite an accomplishment considering they were right around the then-projected 2012 figure of $120.6 million not a few weeks ago, and that was with the $8 million they ended up below the cap last season carried over.
Tannenbaum restructured left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson’s contract, freeing up around $7.5 million, and later hammered out a much-publicized, yet too snap-judged extension with quarterback Mark Sanchez, a move that seemed like sheer lunacy to just about everyone, mostly because they didn’t take the requisite couple of minutes needed to actually analyze the details.
Yes, Sanchez got what amounted to a $40.5 million three-year extension added on to his remaining two years, which already pays him around $27 million, but the increase in guaranteed money over the five years was escalated from $17.75 million to $20.5 million, an extremely modest upgrade considering the length of the term.
The cap space the move freed up amounted to an additional $6.5 million for 2012. Please understand, Sanchez now has financial peace of mind well beyond what he already had, but it’s basically all based on performance. If he doesn’t perform up to the standards the Jets have set for him over the next season or two they can jettison him with a minimal hit to their finances.
So, basically, it’s once again on Sanchez to prove his worth. The extension was a vote of confidence, but not some over-the-top apology to the quarterback for inquiring about Peyton Manning’s services. Tannenbaum told reporters the night the extension was announced he had been working on the deal with Sanchez for weeks, which, if you believe him, means the Jets were never seriously in any race for Manning. They were just doing what amounted to due diligence with the four-time MVP, something any team with at least a few dollars would have been ostracized for not doing.
Now, since the start of free agency the Jets have quietly retained key pieces from the Rex Ryan era, a time period that has mostly been positive, regardless of the step back the team took in 2011. They should be applauded for locking up nose tackle Sione Pouha for $15 million over the next three years, with $9.5 million guaranteed, a contract that could be viewed as a bargain considering the fact that Pouha was largely considered the best at his position available in free agency. Though giving three years to a player who is 33 seems like a risk, just remember that Pouha’s body hasn’t been subjected to as much wear and tear because he didn’t enter the league until he was 28.
The Jets also brought back unheralded linebacker Bryan Thomas, who was lost for the 2011 season early due to injury, situational pass rusher Aaron Maybin and reliable kicker Nick Folk on one-year deals, moves that will add stability to what were shaky units last season.
As for new faces, the Jets have been criticized for not truly addressing wide receiver. They signed Chaz Schilens away from the Raiders for one year at the bargain basement price of $765,000 to presumably fight for the No. 2 slot, but who he will battle for the job still remains to be seen, for the Jets have just Santonio Holmes and slot receiver Jeremy Kerley cemented for 2012.
There has been talk of the Jets perhaps revisiting old friends Braylon Edwards and Jerricho Cotchery, but neither at this point appears to be the type of significant upgrade to weaponize Sanchez and, more importantly, stretch the field. The Jets also appear to be interested in speedster Donnie Avery, who, while not a true home run threat, could, along with Schilens, possibly alleviate some of the Jets’ downfield woes. Schilens’ main wart has been the injury bug for he only played in 20 of the previous 32 regular season games, but at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds and with all the athleticism one could ask for, if he can stay healthy, could be a big-time steal, especially since he cost just $200,000 against the cap.
The Jets also addressed their backup quarterback situation, signing former Lions signal-caller Drew Stanton to a one-year, $1.25 million contract. Stanton has tools, has seen some action and is an upgrade over Mark Brunell in his sleep. While he won’t push Sanchez in camp he should provide a suitable replacement should something happen to the face of the franchise.
Is any of this sexy? No. Could they all be low-risk, high-reward moves? Yes. Consider the fact that the Jets figure to employ a run-heavy offensive philosophy under new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano anyway, it makes more sense to go with young, athletic players at skill positions than it does to sign a single high-priced target.
Another area of extreme need appears to be right tackle, but at this point the Jets seem to be sticking with their public mantra that much-maligned Wayne Hunter will go into a camp battle with super project Vladimir Ducasse. This has Jets Nation ready to gnaw on trees because neither instill any belief among the faithful. However, with all the holes the Jets have, this idea that they were going to go out and break the bank on a tackle was extremely far fetched. It is still possible the Jets add more depth to their line, but in the form of a known name seems extremely unlikely.
While it appears Tannenbaum is positioning the Jets for a major run at an outside linebacker in the first round of the draft, he may alter that plan should the Jets not solidify safety in free agency, which has been their goal since the offseason started. They took a big step toward achieving that Monday when they came to an agreement with former Redskin LaRon Landry on a one-year, $4 million deal. The Jets will soon have Landry, Eric Smith and Tracy Wilson under contract, with Jim Leonhard’s return still possible, but getting a strong safety is a must. A.J. Atogwe has been mentioned as a possibility and if the Jets can land him or someone similar they’d be a handful when you consider they already have cover corners Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie, with improving Kyle Wilson waiting in the wings.
The Jets initially tried to sign free safety Reggie Nelson, but he spurned their offer and chose to stay with the Bengals. Nelson, a consistent player who was coming off his best season, stayed overnight after visiting the Jets on Friday, but clearly used the Jets and reportedly a mystery team to leverage the Bengals into anteing up, which they did, a move that was surprising considering Cincinnati had become notorious for letting its own players leave through free agency.
At the end of the day the Jets will remain a work in progress and you have to look at the value of their moves within the framework of their philosophies on both sides of the ball. The big signing likely will not happen, but there’s still plenty of time for them to add necessary reinforcements heading into a draft that will feature them having anywhere from 10 to 12 selections thanks to compensatory picks.
I still fully expect the Jets in training camp to be better on paper than they were at the end of the 2011 season. It would just be ignorant to say they’ve homered or whiffed just a week into free agency. Tannenbaum has a track record of laying in the weeds and then striking, especially when it comes to trades.
You’d be foolish to think he’s not setting everyone up for yet another such move or two.
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