By Steve Lichtenstein
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New York sports fans always say they are up for a rebuild.
Popular refrains include “Blow it up!” and “Tank!”
Rarely, though, do these same folks allow for the time to get it done right.
After the Jets kicked a litany of high-priced veterans to the curb these last few weeks, the most recent being wide receiver Brandon Marshall on Friday, the team’s fans better be on board with general manager Mike Maccagnan’s new master plan.
For if you think that the Jets’ approximately $33 million in salary cap room will allow Maccagnan to replace all the Jets’ holes, you’re hallucinating.
For example, Marshall was slated to earn $7.5 million in 2017. What top-line receiver is both free and willing to come here to make less than that?
I’m still wondering what’s taking the Jets so long to dump underperforming safety Marcus Gilchrist, and reports are leaking that No. 2 receiver Eric Decker could also be chopped. That’s another $11.125 million in net savings, if Maccagnan is willing to accept the accompanying $4.25 million in dead money charges against the 2017 cap.
Assuming those prospective cuts are made, that would mean the Jets would have jettisoned possible starters at quarterback, No. 1 wide receiver, No. 2 wide receiver, tight end, left tackle, right tackle, center, kicker, inside linebacker, No. 1 cornerback and free safety.
Sorry, but the Jets shouldn’t even try to purchase that much talent in free agency to make up for all that they lost.
If that sounds familiar, it is, because Maccagnan risks becoming John Idzik 2.0.
Maccagnan’s predecessor, Idzik, better known around these parts as “Mr. Incompetent,” had the same idea — purge the payroll to create cap flexibility while bringing in an infusion of young talent to develop a new core.
Of course, as famously encapsulated by a 2014 Mike Francesa rant, Idzik had no background in personnel matters. Of the 19 players Idzik selected in the 2013 and 2014 drafts, just five are currently under contract in New York. (Quarterback Geno Smith is a free agent). Only defensive end Sheldon Richardson has made a Pro Bowl, and he, too, could be on the outs given his off-the-field indiscretions and expiring contract after the 2017 season. For comparison purposes, seven of 14 Giants draft choices in that period, including All-Pro Odell Beckham Jr., are still with the team.
Fortunately, Maccagnan graduated into this gig after spending two decades in Washington’s and Houston’s scouting departments. Finding value in drafts and unearthing gems in the undrafted free agent market is supposedly his bread and butter. That’s how sustainable winners are built.
While it’s too early to completely grade, Maccagnan’s first two go-rounds were a mixed bag. He scored with defensive lineman Leonard Williams with 2015’s sixth overall pick, but his second-rounders have contributed bupkis. Wide receiver Devin Smith hasn’t been healthy in his two seasons, and even if you believe unrefined quarterback Christian Hackenberg has potential, he was chosen at least a round too early.
After a 5-11 season, the Jets will again have the sixth overall selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. They also own their second-rounder and have two picks in the third round. It’s no hyperbole to state that those two days at the end of April will have a monstrous impact on this team.
The Jets can’t afford to whiff on that first-rounder. Equally important is bucking tradition to choose someone in the second round who can actually play. I wrote a post a year ago on Gang Green’s futility in this round — since 1990, the only serviceable players they selected were David Harris, Randy Thomas, LaMont Jordan and Matt O’Dwyer.
Even if the draft is an unbridled success, the Jets will still be looking at a rough 2017. Young players take time to develop and, of course, there is no one available in the short term who will be able to provide the quality quarterbacking the franchise has lacked since Vinny Testaverde tore his Achilles on Opening Day 1999.
That’s OK. Many experts are projecting that the 2018 college quarterback class is significantly stronger than this year’s, so securing one of them should be a top priority. You can call it tanking, but I will channel George Costanza and say, “It’s not tanking if you really believe you’re playing your best players” even if they’re not ready to perform at a high level on the NFL stage.
What this also means is that fans shouldn’t lose their minds if the Jets don’t spend big when the free agency signing period begins next week. Maccagnan tried that approach when he first took over two years ago, and it didn’t take.
It rarely does.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1