By Ernie Palladino
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Mike Maccagnan has this headache right now.

The Jets’ general manager absolutely needs Ryan Fitzpatrick back in the fold, but he doesn’t have the salary cap space to fling money out of his Florham Park office like the Giants’ Jerry Reese did in East Rutherford.

Instead, Maccagnan has lived this offseason in what writers and observers quaintly call “Salary Cap Hell,” which usually translates to a lack of available funds to improve one’s team. The approximately $719,000 NFLPA records indicate the Jets have left makes them the league’s poorest player in free agency.

Maccagnan knew that going in, of course. But now, the Fitzpatrick situation is about to reach a critical stage. And believe it or not, the future of franchised defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson could figure big in its remedy.

It’ll be a tough medicine to swallow, to be sure. Regardless of how management might want to downplay Wilkerson’s relative worth to the defensive front compared to second-year stud Leonard Williams and veteran Sheldon Richardson, Wilkerson still stands as one of the league’s top pass rushers. It’s the main reason they tendered him the $15.7 million franchise contract in the first place.

But now, with quarterback options drying up and Maccagnan struggling to find middle ground between his budget and Fitzpatrick’s moonshot demands, he could use a little wiggle room.

Let’s say $10 million-$12 million worth. That would go a long way to getting Fitzpatrick back for the April 18 start of the offseason program, and would open more options than grabbing a first- or second-round quarterback in the draft.

Trading Wilkerson would solve the Fitzpatrick problem nicely. The problem is, he’s worth a first-round pick. That means the guy on the other end not only has to take the big, immediate cap hit before he negotiates a cap-friendlier, long-term deal with Wilkerson — something with about $40 million of guaranteed money — but must also give up a big part of his franchise’s future.

Tough sell.

The Jets could, of course, simply remove the franchise tag and let Wilkerson walk. But nobody gives up a chip like that. Maccagnan must get some value for him.

And, no, Tampa Bay backup Mike Glennon isn’t the value we’re talking about here. Though there were rumors of a possible Wilkerson-for-Glennon trade, the Jets probably wouldn’t do that unless they were prepared to extend Jameis Winston’s backup and keep him off the 2017 market.

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Glennon didn’t throw a pass last season, and last started regularly in 2013, which officially makes him a highly-qualified reserve. Since Fitzpatrick represents as close to a sure thing for the Jets’ offense given Geno Smith’s history and Bryce Petty’s youth, moving Wilkerson for a draft pick is the optimal option.

If that’s the route Maccagnan chooses, he may have to show a little flexibility in asking price. Teams may give up a second-round pick in an expensive sign-and-trade. But probably not a No. 1 in addition to the pile of dough it will cost them in an inflationary year. Think about how modest the $51 million in guarantees the Texans gave the best defensive player in the game, J.J. Watt, last signing period looks compared to the guaranteed $52 million Reese shelled out for a statistically-lesser defensive end in Olivier Vernon.

Maccagnan will also have to hand out some paycuts, with left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson standing out as a prime target. But for the fastest way to get Fitzpatrick a contract reflective of his achievements of 2015, the Jets, unfortunately, may have to part with one of their top defensive players.

What they get in return will determine when and if that happens. However Maccagnan chooses to play this hand, he had better do it quickly.

The prospect of Smith and Petty topping the depth chart is too hard to contemplate.

He needs Fitzpatrick signed, sealed, and delivered.


Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino


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