By Jason Keidel
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They had to.

The Jets, who have been sitting on a stack of cash and cap space for reasons we can’t fathom, have finally burped a few bucks on a bona fide baller.

Chris Johnson, running back and perennial 1.000-yard rusher, has signed with Gang Green for two years and up to $9 million. And it’s safe to say that Jets fans needed this as much as the team did.

The Jets’ miserly mores this offseason were starting to startle the public. It takes eons to clear over $30 million in cap space, which the Jets had entering this free-agency period, yet all they had to show for their splurge was Eric Decker, whom many consider a No. 2 receiver with a No. 1 checking account.

Decker caught 44 passes the year before Peyton Manning arrived, then morphed into a monster with No. 18 spinning the ball and his spastic “Omaha” audible baffling defenses. Does anyone see Decker fetching 80 balls with Geno Smith throwing them?

But now, with Johnson’s superhero skill set, the Jets finally have a real breakaway threat in the backfield. And in play-action passes the Jets can actually throw the ball downfield, once they get another wideout through the draft. Sidney Rice, who visited the Jets (before re-signing with Seattle), has had a nice career, but no one is busting down the door to sign the Seahawk who caught a paltry 15 catches in 2013.

You hope the Jets have finally twisted the faucet, letting the cash flow for a supporting cast. Whether Smith or Michael Vick wins the starting QB job, they will need more pyrotechnic skill players flanking them.

Rex Ryan is long regarded as a defensive guru, an obdurate, old-school coach who still adheres to the coda that defenses win championships. Seattle aside, we’re finding more and more teams winning through the air. The most prolific passers are still the most prolific winners. Peyton Manning. Tom Brady. Aaron Rodgers. Drew Brees.

Which is why Vick gives the Jets the best chance to win this year. With a dearth of decent talent at the skill positions, Vick’s improvisational magic will move the chains. When the pocket collapses and routes are in tatters, Vick still has a variety of gears, electric legs and a howitzer for a left arm.

The flip side of Vick’s athletic charm is injury. He is faster than everyone, but also smaller and has become increasingly brittle. The Jets would sign right now for 12 healthy, hearty games from the formerly bionic QB. But the Jets indeed need what’s left of Vick’s pyrotechnic talent.

And no matter who squats under center, the Jets need to sprinkle more speed onto their offense. Despite his dazzling highlight reel, Johnson is clearly on the back-nine of his career. And even with their suddenly souped-up running game, the Jets need a potent, short passing game. Johnson averaged over eight yards per catch, fifth-best among NFL backs last year. A good tight end would do wonders. With their conga line of draft picks, the Jets can pour young talent into every hole they have on offense.

Next month’s draft is a referendum on John Idzik’s ability to pick personnel and power over his head coach. Many in the media saw Mike Tannenbaum as little more than Ryan’s corporate appendage, a puppet or yes man for the haughty head coach. But the GM must veto Ryan’s impulse to reload an already loaded defense. Losing Darrelle Revis to Tampa and then New England clearly hurt, as did cutting their second-best CB, Antonio Cromartie.

But the Jets have enough studs on the defensive line and at linebacker to compensate for a sagging secondary, not to mention Ryan’s renowned gift for designing all those confounding blitz packages.

So Idzik must muzzle Ryan for a few rounds at Radio City next month, and pluck some potent collegians in a draft that’s widely regarded as rather fertile with pass catchers. Don’t even look at defense during day one of the draft. Idzik’s job could already be riding on it. We know Ryan is riding on this season, despite any cosmetic refinements to his dubious contract. Ryan needs to summon the mojo and magic that made him so hard to beat, and impossible to ignore.

Jets fans have every right to expect a spike in performance and rise up the standings. Mediocrity isn’t the mantra anymore.

Follow Jason on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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