Post-Lockout, Team Faces Slew Of Decisions That Will Require A Wizard

By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/

NEW YORK (WFAN) — There’s a rumor going around, one you may have heard. Apparently the NFL lockout is very close to being ancient history.

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Some five months ago I promised myself that despite the Jets being the one subject I think I know more about than any other in the sports world I would not write about them until the nonsense of billionaires battling millionaires over pieces of revenue pie and a variety of other things were well back in the rear-view mirror. So I went on to discuss other things, like hockey and baseball and my favorite color.

But it turns out, green is still what makes my world go ’round and despite not wanting to see potential problems, objects in any car mirror are, indeed, much larger than they appear. And now that the lockout could be over by the end of this week, again, provided this is actually the real deal and we’re just talking about some I’s being dotted and T’s crossed, I think it’s safe to delve back into the deep end of the pool with the Jets, but to be mindful of the seriousness of the task soon to be at hand.

And trust me when I say the waters go down many fathoms and are treacherous.

I’ve seen tweets that have been attributed to people close to the Jets that have suggested this team will be far better off than most when free agency starts, but as in life everything is relative. To the Jets’ fans the team has close to a zillion decisions to make, including many that will be painful if the idea is to put a product on the field that’s potentially better than the one that made it to the AFC Championship game in each of the two previous seasons.

General Manager Mike Tannenbaum has to figure out a way to keep serious talent around quarterback Mark Sanchez and make it so the secondary is more than just the Darrelle Revis show. Considering what free agency could do to this team once the clock strikes midnight on whatever day unrestricted players are actually permitted to walk the Earth in quest of the ideal deal, I kind of feel like Tannenbaum and Rex Ryan could have first used a refresher course at wizard school to pull it all off.

The situation is that serious and that filled with potential problems.

It has been reported the salary cap, the first new one since 2009 following last year’s uncapped season, will be at around $120 million. It is believed that the Jets, even with more than a dozen free agents of their own to worry about, are already on the hook for something like $101 million in 2011. I’m still waiting for official confirmation, but it’s also been said any player that has at least four years of service in the NFL that is currently operating under an expired contract will be an unrestricted free agent once that madness starts at that date and time to be determined, but reported widely to be midnight Sunday.

That means the Jets have no leverage with players like Santonio Holmes and Antonio Cromartie, among others, other than the team’s past positive dealings with each and the fact that the Jets are widely viewed as one of, if not the most attractive of destinations in the entire league.

But despite that, free agency is a scary notion. Allegiance goes out the window. For some players it marks a final chance to get paid handsomely. For others it’s an opportunity to let the market explain in no uncertain terms that any player may be worth more than he really is.

We already know how good of an executive Tannenbaum is. He’s managed over the last few seasons to bring in big pieces at minimal cost. He’s figured out a way to keep his best players while not alienating anyone in the process. But this time he’s really going to have to find a way to top himself. How will he keep his wide receiver unit intact or, if need be, find ample replacements so that Sanchez’s development doesn’t miss a beat? How will he keep his other shutdown corner in green and white when it’s largely believed Cromartie will get more lucrative offers elsewhere?

And as for Ryan, we hear all the time how players rave about him, would sell their first born child to play for him. We’re going to learn a lot about the true currency Ryan has when push comes to shove, and especially when the Jets try to land someone they cannot match a top bid for.

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If the reported terms of the new CBA are true the Jets’ top two receivers, Holmes and Braylon Edwards, will be unrestricted, as will multifaceted Brad Smith. If the Jets were to lose all three they’d be left in the interim with Jerricho Cotchery and little else. Obviously, this won’t happen because even in the event some or all three of them leave, Tannenbaum will find suitable replacements. The problem with that, though, is that Sanchez has developed quite the rapport with Holmes and Edwards.

I have written before how keeping the “big 3” together is vital to Sanchez’s long-term success. Removing either of them will retard Sanchez’s progress. I understand that with new faces an assumed full training camp can alleviate that fear, but if the getting-to-know you period stretches into the season it can alter outcomes of games. And as we’ve seen in the NFL countless times the difference between one win and one loss can be massive in the grand scheme of things.

It’s my belief Tannenbaum will make his best pitch to keep both Holmes and Edwards. I know neither of them personally, but if I were a betting man I would wager that Holmes would be more inclined to test his worth (mostly because he has more), while Edwards would be the good company man. Either way, at least one of them must be re-signed. In the event one or both are not, the Jets should explore any and all options, including reviled Randy Moss, soon-to-be-over-the-hill Chad Johnson and Plaxico Burress or perhaps trading for the likes of a Steve Smith of the Panthers.

As for Brad Smith, he has endeared himself to the Jets faithful by being a superlative special teams player and adept “Slash”-type from the line of scrimmage, but if he’s hell-bent on being paid like a second wide receiver the Jets would be smart to say thank you for your service and move on. At the end of the day, Smith is a gadget player and not even good enough as a receiver to be on the field in four-receiver sets. He is replaceable, as was Leon Washington before him, Chad Morton before him and Leon Johnson back when the Earth cooled.

As for the secondary, I can take or leave Cromartie. For all of his upside as this supposed playmaker he still gives you a heart attack every time the ball is snapped. You already know only the bravest of the brave throw at Revis and perhaps expecting Cromartie to defend 10-12 passes a game is asking too much, but as this team is currently constituted that’s exactly what he must do. You have no choice but to live with his mistakes, but Cromartie needs to remember one thing when other teams come calling: the Jets bent over backwards to make sure his transition to New York was smooth. They fronted him $500,000 so that he could take care of his family. If he then turns around and plays hardball with the Jets they’d be right to not even thank him for his service before moving on.

I’ve taken a lot of heat on Twitter for desiring the services of one Nnamdi Asomugha. I have written in the past on how this guy would change the entire dynamic of the Jets’ defense. Now that they seem to have a no-name but by all accounts extremely talented group of pass rushers the idea of easing them into their roles is more important than ever. We also know how much Ryan loves defensive backs. They are the cornerstone of everything he tries to employ on defense. These are two of the main reasons why I think Tannenbaum should do everything in his power to court Asomugha.

I understand what he’s asking for. I understand the potential problems paying him would cause with Revis, as in him deciding to hold out again at some point. But this is also why I brought up Ryan’s true currency before. If Tannenbaum simply can’t make it work financially, Ryan has to take his high approval rating out for a spin and see what it can do, appeal to the 30-year-old Asomugha’s sensibilities while convincing him that if he wants a ring, the Jets are only team he should consider.

If Cromartie walks and Asomugha chooses to get paid, Tannenbaum will need to turn to his trusty wand, but where he’ll find that other guy to play with Revis, short of hoping and praying second-year Kyle Wilson is truly ready, is anyone’s guess.

To the Jets fans, I have to ask a favor. You must take your love of certain players out of this complicated equation. As I see it there are really only three irreplaceable players on this roster — Sanchez, Revis and Nick Mangold. Now you may worship a certain player for what he’s done in the past; you may like him personally because you may have met him; you may see untapped potential for years to come; or you may just be enamored with his take-no-prisoners attitude, but the bottom line is besides the quarterback, corner and center there are no untouchables on this team. If Tannenbaum feels the need to cut someone or ask a veteran to take a pay cut to make this thing work, to make the Jets better, you have no choice but to accept it.

We all know how close the Jets are to ending the championship dry spell. I may be beating a dead horse here, but at the end of the day this team takes its cues from its front office. Allow Tannenbaum and Ryan to do what they do. Question it if you must, but be mindful they know the score.

And to Mr. T and Rex, I’ve stuck my neck out for you guys on numerous occasions. Don’t make me look like a Mudblood.

Read more columns by Jeff Capellini.

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