By Ernie Palladino
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When it all comes down to it, some players just have to be paid.
Figuring out how to do it is the general manager’s job. And Mike Maccagnan’s task won’t be so easy this offseason.
He has two pending free agents that absolutely, positively need to remain part of the Jets’ roster if he wants to have a chance at winning in 2016. One is defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, whose contract questions have become a long-running theme.
Running back Chris Ivory is the other. For some reason, he hasn’t been the subject of much talk. But the possibility of losing him following his first Pro Bowl season — he was named to the roster this week in place of injured Buffalo rusher LeSean McCoy — is probably real enough to create some consternation in the executive suite.
Ivory, you see, is just as important to the offense as Wilkerson is to the pass rush. And as urgent as it is to keep the defensive end away from the open market, given his status as the free agent class’ only double-digit sacker, it’s just as important to leave no doubt that Ivory will remain part of the offense.
It’s not just the Pro Bowl nod or the 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns he accounted for, or the fact that his punishing style left a slew of sore and dazed linebackers and defensive backs in his wake. It’s because of his overall effect on the offense.
He made it go this year. He missed Game 3 against the Raiders, and the Jets got blown out because they couldn’t run the ball. He carried just six times against the Bills in the finale, and the Jets lost that one along with a postseason berth. He carried eight times against Houston, and the Jets lost that one, too.
For all Ryan Fitzpatrick and Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker did for the offense this season, the unit without Ivory in the backfield becomes extremely ordinary. Throwing gets tougher. Scoring gets tougher.
Were this last season, Maccagnan would have had little trouble signing the two of them, as well as other free agents like Fitzpatrick, running back Bilal Powell, and defensive tackle Damon Harrison. He had plenty of salary cap space, kind of like what the Giants have to play with now.
But this time, he’s at about $10.6 million, give or take. Maccagnan will have to do the dance of the cash-strapped; cutting here, restructuring there, saying a fond farewell to some extremely desirable players he just can’t keep around.
Powell could well be one of them, and that will be a shame. He is coming off a wonderful season as Ivory’s backup, with 651 combined yards and three touchdowns. But he’s still not a starter, and he’s no replacement for Ivory.
Maccagnan also will have to look for outside help, since 10-6 is no different than 4-12 in that respect. Holes appear on every team, and some require veteran help.
Wilkerson could get the franchise tag, meaning the Jets would have to take about $16 million of cap space right off the top. Ivory, who also caught a career-high 30 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown, will command big bucks. And Maccagnan will have to go to contracted players like Darrelle Revis ($17 million), D’Brickashaw Ferguson ($14.1 million), Nick Mangold ($5.6 million) and Antonio Cromartie ($8 million) to either accept outright paycuts or turn some of their base salary into prorated bonus money.
Others, like Dee Milliner, Jeremy Kerley, and Jeff Cumberland, might have to go all together.
However he does it, Maccagnan must figure out a way to keep both Ivory and Wilkerson. They are the engines of the offense and defense.
The radio, air conditioner, and power seats, he can worry about those later.
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