By Steve Lichtenstein
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If Ryan Fitzpatrick was really worth eight figures, he’d be on the Denver Broncos right now.
Yet the 33-year-old quarterback, coming off a record-setting season for the Jets in 2015, remains unsigned even as the free agent pool has pretty much dried up.
Having worked for two decades in the hedge fund industry, I am a big believer in free markets. And this market is saying that Jets general manager Mike Maccagnan has been wise to not immediately cave in to Fitzpatrick’s demands.
A year after engaging in a wild spending spree to stock talent on a then talent-less football team, Maccagnan is now finding out how the other 99 percent live.
It’s not easy to go from excess to budget consciousness, but, unfortunately, the Jets are now salary cap strapped, with only about $3.3 million in available space heading into Thursday’s draft, according to overthcap.com.
That’s after an offseason that saw the Jets part ways with key contributors in running back Chris Ivory, nose tackle Damon Harrison, cornerback Antonio Cromartie, and tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson, who announced his retirement earlier this month after it was reported that the Jets were looking into restructuring his contract to reduce his take-home pay.
You see, the choice before Maccagnan is not between paying Fitzpatrick or augmenting owner Woody Johnson’s net worth, as some have suggested. It’s whether Maccagnan wants to be forced into making further substantial cuts to other positions in order for Fitzpatrick to be paid at the levels he has seen others reach this spring.
However, there are reasons that, for instance, Brock Osweiler received a four-year, $72 million deal with $37 million guaranteed from the Texans despite an eight-start resume, while Fitzpatrick has had few suitors.
Houston bought on spec, making a long-term investment in a 25-year-old signal-caller who they believe possesses the tools to improve and succeed as they continue to build around him.
Fitzpatrick isn’t in that asset class, which also includes Washington’s Kirk Cousins and, because Philadelphia’s organization is clinically insane, Sam Bradford.
Fitzpatrick isn’t Mr. Right, the guy you want to settle down with for a long future. And I would argue that he may not even be Mr. Right Now.
For all of his good work from last season — the 3,905 passing yards and a franchise-record 31 touchdowns — it still wasn’t good enough to get the Jets into the postseason. In the biggest game of the year, Fitzpatrick went 16-for-37 with three interceptions in a 22-17 loss in Buffalo.
Fitzpatrick’s limitations are well known around the league. According to a report in USA Today, Fitzpatrick was last in the league in completion percentage (20 percent) on throws that traveled more than 20 yards downfield last season.
No wonder John Elway hasn’t rounded him up for the Broncos, who currently list former Gang Green whipping boy Mark Sanchez atop their depth chart.
I get that many of you are in fear of what the alternatives (Geno Smith, Bryce Petty, Brian Hoyer, or Unknown Rookie) will bring, but you need to get over it. The Jets are in line for a step back with or without Fitzpatrick.
As much as Fitzpatrick deserved credit for his leadership and moxie last year, especially in come-from-behind victories over the Giants, Cowboys and Patriots late in the season, let’s not underestimate the impact of his environment.
Fitzpatrick was playing in a familiar and conducive system run by offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, with quality wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker (who combined to catch 26 touchdown passes), a top-10 rushing attack, and an offensive line that allowed the second-fewest sacks (22) in the NFL.
All of the outside forces that coalesced to boost the Jets as they accumulated 10 wins last season — the easy schedule, the relative good health on a relatively old team, the 30 takeaways — could very well become negative factors in 2016.
For those who still question the risk Maccagnan is taking that he will lose his starting quarterback, I offer the following response: How would it be prudent to sacrifice Muhammad Wilkerson, the 26-year-old Pro Bowl defensive end who would surely have to be traded in a desperate draft-night fleecing, just so Maccagnan could create the cap room necessary to fit Fitzpatrick’s price?
The Jets still boast a slew of veterans who make it seem like they are in win-now mode, but it’s not win-at-all-costs-and-damn-the future mode, like the Billy King-era Brooklyn Nets.
The only path toward the sustaining of a winning culture is through the development of young players. Unless a Peyton Manning drops in your lap, which rarely happens, one of them has to be a quarterback.
Paxton Lynch, the University of Memphis quarterback who is the only other projected first-rounder at the position on Thursday after the assumed top two selections, Jared Goff and Carson Wentz, may or may not be the answer. The consensus is that he’s far from a sure thing, especially for a team looking for an immediate starter. But I trust that Maccagnan and his scouts will perform their due diligence before doing something foolish like using Wilkerson to move up in the draft to take Lynch.
It would be even more foolish if Maccagnan used a failure to land a quarterback in this draft to cave in to Fitzpatrick.
At $3.25 million, Fitzpatrick proved to be a terrific value play for Maccagnan last year. Various media reports have alleged that the Jets have offered Fitzpatrick $7 million for 2016, which is significantly (possibly $10 million) lower than the ask.
Maccagnan should stick to his valuation chart. The market does not take kindly to those who attempt to set it.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1